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Is Piracy a Danger to Independent Film? Part 1: The Search - In Which I Can't Find Much of Anything

Shadow and Act By Charles Judson | Shadow and Act August 6, 2014 at 12:54PM

My searching is not to disprove that independent films are being pirated. I'm searching to test the assumption that piracy is hurting business.
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Piracy

Last month, Tim League and Ruth Vitale, founder of and CEO of Alamo Drafthouse Cinema and the Executive Director of CreativeFuture respectively, released an op-ed they jointly penned. In this post that appeared on Indiewire, they argued strongly that piracy is a danger to indie film.

It's a post that's very impassioned. It's also lite on articulating a definitive link between piracy and independent film.

No one can debate that piracy is inherently good or benign. While there are still no definitive studies that have demonstrated the impact illegal downloading has on box office numbers, what happened to Expendables 3 rightfully put the fear into any studio, distributor and exhibitor. The initial number of 100,000 downloads in the first 24 hours has ticked up to 250,000 and tracking firm Exicipio reports 2 million downloads of the film and growing.

Expendables 2 opened to $28 million domestic and Expendables opened to $34 million. The average price of a ticket according to Box Office Mojo is $8.15. Assuming those 2 million downloads had been planning to attend the movie and will now skip the film in theaters, that's a healthy $16.3 million that Lionsgate may lose. Watching 50 to 60 percent of your opening weekend evaporate thanks to a single leak of a DVD should give us all pause. 

Yet, the film has yet to open. Where the third installment of the franchise lands, we won't know till Monday, August 18. Conjecture at this point would be conjecture. If the film opens north of Expendables, expect many posts arguing that piracy didn't hurt and maybe even helped, if it does worse than 2, then the piracy hurts posts will come, if it lands in the middle, the wild all over the place posts will likely outnumber the previous two combined. 

Back to independent film. League and Vitale's piece stressed two major points: "The fact is: pirate sites don't discriminate based on a movie's budget. As long as they can generate revenue from advertising and credit card payments—while giving away your stolen content for free—pirate site operators have little reason to care if a film starts with an investment of $10,000 or $200 million. Whether you're employed by a major studio or a do-it-yourself creator, if you're involved in the making of TV or film, it's safe to assume that piracy takes a big cut out of your business."

The first, is that independent film is not immune to piracy and we can "assume that piracy" is hurting the financial viability of indie film: "We know piracy won't go away altogether, and we won't always agree on the best way to go about disrupting it. But we can agree on a vision for a digital future that better serves audiences and artists alike, and that future depends on reducing piracy."

The second, reducing piracy will "better serve audiences and artists."

Let's start with something easy to test that first claim, we'll do that by using Kickass Torrents to search for films that screened at Sundance this year. We'll use the films from the U.S. Documentary (16), U.S. Dramatic (16), and Premiere (19) sections. With 51 films listed and this being six months after their initial screenings, it should give us a strong picture.

U.S. DOCUMENTARY

Alive Inside: A Story of Music and Memory

All the Beautiful Things

Captivated: The Trials of Pamela Smart

The Case Against 8

Cesar's Last Fast

Dinosaur 13

E-Team

Fed Up

The Internet's Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz

Ivory Tower

Marmato

No No: A Dockumentary

The Overnighters

Private Violence

Rich Hill

Watchers of the Sky

U.S. DRAMATIC

Camp X-Ray

Cold in July

Dear White People

Fishing Without Nets

God's Pocket

Happy Christmas

Hellion

Infinitely Polar Bear

Jamie Marks Is Dead

Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter

Life After Beth

Low Down

The Skeleton Twins

The Sleepwalker

Song One

Whiplash

PREMIERES NON-COMPETITION

Boyhood

Calvary

Frank

Hits

I Origins

Laggies

Little Accidents

Love Is Strange

A Most Wanted Man

Nick Offerman: American Ham

The One I Love

The Raid 2: Berandal

Rudderless

They Came Together

The Trip to Italy

The Voices

White Bird in a Blizzard

Wish I Was Here

Young Ones

The MPAA has asked Google to delist the Kickass Torrents in the past. Last year, a ruling in London required "Sky, BT, Everything Everywhere, TalkTalk, O2 and Virgin Media to block access to [three sites] which were found to have significant traffic in the UK," of which Kickass was one of the named sites. If can find the films, I should be able to there. 

This is search only. No downloads. In cases it was difficult to use the title, I also used each film's IMDB id number to ensure I was searching for the right film.

Of the 51 films I found torrents for 9 films. As of six months after Sundance, 20 percent of the films are available. The Internet's Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz, Cold in July, Happy Christmas, Hellion, Life After Beth, Calvary, The Raid 2: Berandal, They Came Together and The Trip to Italy are the films I could find.

A few aren't surprises. Raid 2, Life After Beth and They Came Together seem obvious candidates. 

What's curious is that I couldn't find Dear White People, Richard Linklater's Boyhood, Nick Offerman: American Ham or even Wish I Was Here, aka the film by one of the internet's favorite whipping boys thanks to his crowdfunding campaign.

Half-a-year is a long time in internet time. Remember, Expendables 3 had at least a 100,000 downloads in the first 24 hours. The 2 million download number isn't in dispute. I should easily find films from independent films's most high profile event, right?

Here are a few more notable takeaways:

  • Trip to Italy only has one torrent listed
  • a TV version, if the file name is correct, and it was uploaded sometime in July
  • 5 months after Sundance and after it played four film festivals
  • Life After Beth just hit the torrents 5 days ago
  • the torrent with the most seeds of 600 has been downloaded 2,682 times
  • The Raid 2's first 8 torrents are camera rips
  • the first one having been downloaded 939 times
  • the 339 seeded one being downloaded 34,044 times,
  • there's a Blu-Ray rip that has been downloaded 6,258 times since it showed up a month ago
  • the USA release date for the film was March, which is about 2 months before the first camera rip


My searching is not to disprove that independent films are being pirated. I'm searching to test the assumption that piracy is hurting business. It may very well be. How much is the vital question we should ask. If League and Vitale want independent filmmakers to take the fight against piracy seriously and to be proactive, we have ask if that will lead to any tangible benefits for filmmakers themselves. Having someone pick your pockets to the point you are losing money isn't a good. It's a path that will make funding that next feature, and making a living while developing that feature, impossible.

So far though, it doesn't appear that pirates have much interest in indie films. Not to the extent they do mainstream releases. 

Shouldn't it be a concern that every minute a filmmaker spends policing piracy, is a minute they aren't promoting their film to the audience that will pay for their film? If piracy is a threat, why is so hard to find films that have been screening and available in various forms since January?

My next task will be to compare the numbers of indie films from the last few years to discover how widely they are shared compared to mainstream films and TV shows.

If indie filmmakers are going to be recruited to join a battle against illegal downloads, if doing this "better serves audiences and artists," we better be damn sure it's time well spent.

This article is related to: Things That Make You Go Hmm...


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