To my knowledge, the concept of Bootlegging and its affect on African-American cinema has not been explored in any substantive detail. In general, we all know that bootlegging severely diminishes the box-office of African-American films and it should be discouraged, but the bootlegging of African-American films continues vigorously today on the street corners, in hair & nail salons, barbershops, flea markets, factory parking lots and Chinese take-out lobbies of every city with a large African-American population. Bootlegging is an open secret, but it is not so much a radical tactic to “stick it to the man” as it is an informal (and illegal) business practice that fits neatly into the concept that African-Americans call,” Hustling,” or doing what you have to do to survive financially in a country where the chips are stacked against you. Indeed, our reticence in examining bootlegging may stem from our own culpability; that is the fact that many of us African-Americans have purchased at least one bootleg VHS, DVD or CD in our lifetimes and if by chance or conviction we haven’t, then we know of someone near or dear to us that has purchased and continues to purchase bootlegs. Under these circumstances of extended culpability we are perhaps less strident in our condemnation of the practice than we ought to be. Yet, I intend to reveal in this essay that bootlegging is just one aspect of a continuing plot against African-American cinema that because of our powerless status within the industry is quite possibly beyond our immediate control.(1)
For our purposes, the term bootlegging is an umbrella term that covers all manner of movie piracy from illegal downloading, recording, duplication, and the street sales and retail sales of filmed entertainment, the profits from which are not returned to the copyright owners of the content. As it concerns filmed entertainment, there are two different models of bootlegging:
1) External Bootlegging which originates from within the industry but outside of the Black community.
2) Internal Bootlegging which originates from inside the Black community but outside of the industry.
There are also three different modes of Bootlegging:
1) Pre-theatrical release
2) Simultaneous release
3) Post-Theatrical release
It cannot go without saying that the most dangerous model and mode of bootlegging that reveals a plot against African-American films is external bootlegging of a pre-theatrically released film. We can readily identify this type of bootlegged film because this illegal product has tell-tale traits: clear image quality and superior audio accompaniment. These bootlegs have “clear” images and superior audio quality that has not been recorded by smuggling a video camera into the theatre. These bootlegs also have either a time-code bar with numbers running at the top or bottom of the screen throughout the film or the image is interrupted periodically by a “For Promotional Use Only,” inter-title. Although today’s sophisticated movie pirates know how to remove such trace evidence, the main giveaway of External Bootlegging is still the image clarity and audio quality of the bootleg itself. Prevalent throughout the ‘90’s in both VHS and DVD formats, these bootlegs are made from what are called,” Screener Copies” or promotional copies of a film before its theatrical release that are distributed to industry insiders, film critics, academy members, and television producers to create a pre-release “buzz” about an upcoming film.
The Screener Copy is placed into the hands of “connected” individuals with the implied faith that they will not use these copies to bootleg a film before, during or after its theatrical release. With today’s technologically advanced forms of movie piracy, the screener copies from foreign countries (where certain films are released weeks before their domestic release) are digitized and have their English language soundtracks restored for illegal file sharing through various and shifting internet portholes before and during their domestic release dates. An essential point I would like to suggest here is that the “screener copy” should be the most guarded property of any Movie studio, second only to an actual 35mm original negative of a film. Since External Bootlegging is dependent upon the initial circulation and the subsequent “loss, theft or misplacement” of the screener copy itself and the illegal street sales generated by a bootlegged screener copy can impact the domestic box office gross of a film in tens of millions of dollars, a screener copy is not so frivolous a detail in regards to the commercial success or failure of a film.
External bootlegging that is aided and abetted by industry insiders supports pre-theatrical release bootleg sales that detrimentally affect the domestic box office of specific films. For example, we know that one of the most beloved classics of recent African-American cinema, Theodore Witcher’s LOVE JONES (1997) only made 12 million dollars at the box office in its theatrical release, even though it was seen and praised by thousands of people, because it was heavily bootlegged from lost, stolen, or misplaced screener copies that allowed street hustlers in nearly every major African-American city to “hit a lick” or make a nice amount of pocket money as it were, on “clear” VHS bootlegs with superior audio before and during the film’s release.(2) This loss in box office revenue, despite the quality and classic status of LOVE JONES, has negatively affected the decision to ever make a sequel to the film.(3) Later Bryan Barber’s IDLEWILD (2006) would coincidentally make nearly the same amount of money at the box office as it was externally bootlegged before its theatrical release. We would do well here to remember also that in 2007 there were,” bootleg DVD copies of Ridley Scott’s film, AMERICAN GANGSTER circulating for $5 to $10 a piece in African-American communities all across the nation almost 10 days before the film’s theatrical release date of 11-02-07.”(Slave Cinema, 139) These pre-theatrical release bootleg DVD sales hacked into the initial 43 million dollar domestic box office gross of the film, but the damage was offset by other factors which I shall discuss later.
External Bootlegging prior to the theatrical release of an African-American film reveals two important points: 1) That various industry insiders (whether White or Black) didn’t think enough of their screener copies of African-American films to guard and protect them from theft, loss or misplacement, as they do White films; 2) Disgruntled mid-level and mid-career industry employees (White or Black) may have found that using screener copies to supply the Bootleg market with “high quality” source material from which to make their duplications was a great source of untaxable supplemental income that could materialistically make up for the psychological wounds of having their scripts, ideas and concepts rejected while the dreams of the lesser talented were “green lit” and produced in front of them. Again it is the quality of the bootleg (its image and audio clarity) and the trace evidence of time-codes or “For Promotional Use Only” inter-titles that signifies the “inside job” of External Bootlegging along with the fact that these “clear” bootlegs exist prior to the theatrical release of a film. In short, External Bootlegging is but a symbol of the destructive power and financial control that can be exerted upon niche markets by those who are deeply invested in the dominant market within the film industry.
Turning our attention to Internal Bootlegging, where a camera is positioned in the theater during the domestic release of a film, we are struck by the poor image quality (the full theatrical image is sometimes cut off at the edges of the frame), the movie starts during the opening credits and ends abruptly just at the closing credits, the poor audio quality (including audience laughter, noises and commentary). As recently as a few weeks ago, I witnessed bootleggers using their cell phones to capture the latest GODZILLA (2014) on the Friday afternoon of its release. Now the increased image and sound clarity of cell phones has been immediately co-opted by bootleggers to make their acquisition of the theatrical image more convenient.
What we can be sure of is that Internal Bootlegging of this type usually occurs during the theatrical release of the film, therefore the bootlegging is simultaneous with the release of the film, and continues well after the post-theatrical release in what used to be the three month gap between a film’s theatrical release and its Home Video release. If External Bootlegging reveals a certain kind of bribed “nonchalance” of industry insiders as it concerns the protection of screener copies, Internal Bootlegging reveals a similar bribed “nonchalance” of underpaid theatre employees, projectionists and security personnel as it concerns the ability to smuggle a video camera (with tripod or mono-pod) into a theatre and record an entire film from start to finish. Moreover, some forms of Internal Bootlegging are done within an empty theatre (with the audio captured from a source outlet) which suggests collusion among the bootlegger and the projectionist and/or other theatre employees. God forbid that the projectionist should actually be the bootlegger! The underpaid/overworked theatre employee can easily be bribed or enticed into bootlegging as a means of gaining untaxed supplemental income for themselves at the expense of what appears to be a gigantic money grubbing corporate complex.
The street hustler who sells bootlegs usually has a catalog listing of previously bootlegged films (now in post-theatrical release) selling for multiples of 3 for $5.00 or 5 for $10.00 and a “hot” premium catalog listing of pre-theatrical and simultaneous theatrically released bootleg films from which the prospective buyer can choose at 2 for $10.00. Intriguingly, the price point for multiple films (mixed pre and post theatrical bootlegs) is extremely flexible and customer friendly since the pirated DVDs have such a low production margin. It is interesting how close the informal nature and price points for bootlegging is similar to street level drug dealing where informal business transactions and twofer’s manipulate and solidify the relationship between the consumer and the dealer: a marriage of convenience that is consummated in the exchange value of mutual needs. An unasked question concerning Internal Bootlegging is: given the poor image and audio quality of most of these types of bootlegs, why do so many people continue to buy them? Buying a bootleg is a risk versus reward endeavor where “clear” externally made bootlegs are mixed in with “poor quality” internally made bootlegs and thus the consumer who gets pre-theatrical release bootlegs has a greater certainty of getting a “clear” copy of a film that is not even out in the theatres yet. The consumer who buys a poor quality internally made bootleg is just trying to bring themselves up to speed in the on-going social conversation between the have’s and the have not’s.
This ability to see a highly anticipated film, before it is released to the general public makes the buying and selling of bootlegs a status seeking enterprise for both the buyer and the seller. The seller cultivates an “insider” connection with Hollywood that allows him or her access to films that the general public is not allowed to see yet. The buyer places him or herself ahead of the social conversation and opinion about a particular film and has the temporary power to allow others to borrow, trade or buy their bootleg to bring them up to their speed. Hence, we can see here how bootlegging, the buying and selling of illegally pirated movies no matter what the quality, is a consequence of the divisions of class and is but one of the symbols of status African-Americans use to mask or deceive their actual class standing from others and even from themselves.
Yet the “800 pound gorilla” that has not been discussed in this essay until now is the fact that just as many –in fact more- White films are externally and internally bootlegged than African-American films and thus the notion that there is some kind of plot against African-American cinema should be dismissed as sheer conspiratorial thinking. Before throwing the baby out with the bathwater we should consider the fact that nearly all White American films recoup the damages from illegal movie piracy in the domestic market with the profits they make in overseas markets. Because of the fact that African-American films are segregated and cut off from overseas markets under the ruse that African-American films have no international market appeal, bootlegging affects African-American cinema in a qualitatively different manner than White American films. According to Ray Subers of boxofficemojo.com,” A week ahead of its U.S. debut, Marvel’s THE AVENGERS opened in 39 foreign territories and scored a truly heroic 185.1 million...”(4) Even though there were External bootlegs of the film circulating in cities around the nation prior to the domestic theatrical release of the film, THE AVENGERS has already effectively neutralized the damaging effects of bootlegging by getting into foreign markets before the domestic release. Discriminated from the opportunity to make profits in foreign markets, bootlegging detrimentally affects African-American cinema by allowing the White controlled American Entertainment Complex to use defective box office numbers that are unadjusted for bootlegging losses and the lie that African-American films don’t sell well overseas to exercise a Slave Master’s control over the development, production, distribution and exhibition of the African-American image. Returning to the film, AMERICAN GANGSTER which co-starred Russell Crowe, that film despite the rampant External Bootlegging domestically was released to the foreign market and eventually made 130 million in total (foreign and domestic combined) box office.
The plot against African-American cinema is not so much a plot by the powers that be to silence all African-American filmmakers and destroy their works but instead the goal is to tame the form and content of African-American cinema to pacify its audiences with comedies and neutralize the ability of African-American filmmakers to fully and simultaneously control the means of production, distribution and exhibition of films made for us and by us. We look at bootlegging here as one recent aspect of this on-going plot against African-American cinema that does more than just reduce the box-office profits of the films, it is a plot that also curtails the stylistic expressiveness of our working and potential filmmakers and their ability to explore different narrative styles, genres and subject matter that goes beyond narrow racially defined profit driven formulas and expectations.(5) The reduction of box-office profits makes the studios and investors less courageous in developing, financing and acquiring African-American films that go beyond the tried and true genre of comedy; it does not stop the production of different films, as PRECIOUS (2009) and PARIAH (2011) demonstrate, it just makes it exceeding difficult and discouraging to continuously make the effort whereas as White filmmakers can have their idiosyncratic films supported by the foreign box office, even in the face of domestic bootlegging.
Although we cannot definitively point the finger at who was behind it all, the declining box-office totals for many African-American films during the mid-to-late nineties was a direct result of bootlegging and we can be certain that specific African-American films that have been Externally Bootlegged before their theatrical release is evidence of “insider” tampering with product that reveals the “bad faith” of those who were supposed to be guarding the content instead of aiding and abetting its theft and piracy. Internal Bootlegging reveals that the declining box office totals for African-American films may not have been a consequence of the quality, subject matter, form and genre of the films, but instead a consequence of “bootlegs” becoming a status symbol within the African-American community and White controlled Hollywood’s ineffectual response with regard to how bootlegging was reducing the domestic box office of African-American films which is the sole box office that African-American films are allowed to be sold. What we have to always remember is that at the end of the day it is not just about money, it is about power and control over our ability to represent ourselves in the cinema.
(1)Although there are a number of wealthy African-American filmmakers and media moguls, wealth in and of itself is not power; wealth is only one aspect that can be gained or lost by the consequences of power. African-Americans lack the power to distribute films theatrically on an equal number of screens domestic and foreign as White American films produced by the American Entertainment Complex.
(2) All foreign and domestic box office gross numbers are taken from www.boxoffice.mojo.com
(3) See the Shadow & Act article “Nia Long on “Love Jones” Sequel “We’ve Been Talking About it” (Do You Want to See It) by Tambey, March 19, 2010. http://blogs.indiewire.com/shadowandact/nia-long-on-love-jones-sequel-weve-been-talking-about-it-do-...
(4) From the article,”Around the World Round-up: “The Avengers” assemble 185.1 million overseas debut”, by Ray Subers. www.boxofficemojo.com, April 29th 2012.
(5) Starting with a single White investor’s lack of faith that led to the demise of Black owned The Lincoln Motion Picture company in 1921, to the F.B.I.’s attempts to block the production of Jules Dassin’s film UPTIGHT in 1968 and later the deliberate F.B.I. involvement in the suppression of Ivan Dixon’s THE SPOOK WHO SAT BY THE DOOR (1973) the very existence of African-American films has always been “troubling” to the White controlled entertainment industry and the United States government. The post-Civil Rights scrutiny of African-American films is centered on the ability to control the content and form of the films through a profit driven rationale that discriminates against African-American filmmakers by not allowing their films access to foreign markets and not zealously attempting to curtail External Bootlegging of Screener Copies of African-American films. See: Redefining Black Film by Mark A. Reid, pages 13-19 and Forgeries of Memory and Meaning by Cedric J. Robinson, pages 225-271.
Andre Seewood is the author of SLAVE CINEMA: The Crisis of the African-American in Film. Pick up a copy of the book via Amazon.com HERE.