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Monday, 9 March 2015

Is it fair that illegal downloading is wholly to blame for filmmakers not making a return?

Piracy. The bane of many an indie horror company. It never ceases to amaze me how fast something will end up on torrent sites, or even on Youtube. One could argue that this sort of exposure brings these underground films into the homes of many more fans than a normal DVD/Blu-Ray release would. But at what price? If the filmmakers aren't making a return, how are they going to continue making films?

In this piece, I will be looking in detail at both sides of the argument, from the filmmakers and from someone who knows an awful lot more about the subject than I.

When I suggested this post on Facebook and asked filmmakers to get in touch with me to share their experiences (for a second time, as Facebook decided to do away with my original post) it became obvious just how passionate filmmakers are about this subject.

Jessica Cameron wrote "When the OTHER side is illegal and immoral how much focus does it need?
I think "giving the other side focus" is part of the problem and in no way a solution. If I get mugged, the mugger gets caught, they get their chance to say their side in front of
a judge. Here's the thing - if you are a film maker who believes having your film avail for free is helpful, great - post your movie for the world to see on a public site. THAT is another point entirely. Stealing is wrong. Period". 

From this post alone, I could see where the lines were drawn, and both sides were as far away from each other as they could possibly be. On the one hand, many filmmakers detest torrents and piracy (and with great reason). Not only are people stealing work these filmmakers have put their heart and soul into, they are exploiting everybody who worked on that movie as well as taking any money the filmmaker might have made and practically throwing it into the wind. There is no doubt that piracy hurts filmmakers in every respect. There is no doubt that it is wrong. But I could not talk about one side without looking at things beyond piracy that might be to blame for the loss of money these filmmakers are experiencing.

An open letter written by filmmaker Lee Vervoort (Horror Movies Ca, 2014) which you can see by clicking here, makes a very interesting argument and touches on some home truths also. While Lee is angry that his film 'Gun Town' is being shared on websites that let people view movies for free, he understands why it is done. He even outlines an idea to work around piracy and use the internet to share his movie whilst also giving fans a chance to donate for watching. Just think, with the reach of the internet, and people being charged $2 per viewing of a movie, what the return could be.

While filmmakers seem content to bemoan piracy, I do not see many trying to act in ways which would combat it. Understandably, it would take time and energy, and more importantly money, but it would put money back into the filmmakers product, and fans would be able to support the filmmakers work. It works in respect for campaigns on Indiegogo and such, whereby fans donate to filmmakers for perks and rewards. I have no doubt that if someone is a fan of a filmmaker, they would donate a little money to see a filmmakers piece of work.  

In talking to David Austin (former writer for Deep Red magazine, Cult Cuts, Ultra violent and The Wall Street Journal) he bought up some very good points, of which I will  share later on. His statement he sent to me outlines what he feels is the reason why physical media is failing.

He wrote "Independent filmmakers and distribution companies are going to point the finger at torrents and bootlegging as the death of their industry because they make an easy target. It's far more palatable to take aim upon anonymous movie fans running uTorrent than it is large corporate entities refusing to carry their films. Cinemageddon makes a far easier target than Rkyo Distribution".

He makes a very good point. Of course taking on anonymous individuals who share things online is going to be much easier than taking on a large company, but is it really these individuals who illegally share the work of these filmmakers that are responsible for the apparent downfall of physical media?  

David Austin goes on to say "The internet and trading is definitely hurting all facets of the entertainment marketplace, but it's a bit more than that. Tower Records shutting down was the true beginning of the end. When Tower was the industry leader, every store followed suit. Best Buy, Media Play, Hastings, Borders Books and Music, Barnes and Nobel etc.Tower shut down, and everyone expected Best Buy to pick up the slack. They didn't. All of a sudden, Synapse and Media Blasters and Shock O Rama discs were nowhere to be found at Best Buy. When the brick and mortars shut down, those casual shoppers who picked something up on a whim were pretty much eliminated from the prospective customer base. The people who download are those who never would have bought the movie anyway. So in a real sense, the good that downloading has is increasing market awareness. If titles were actually available in stores, people would buy them".

Again, David brings up some very good points. Does the lack of stores to sell the physical media in affect the availability of a persons movie? Does the waiting time between ordering from a seller/filmmaker themselves or from an online store mean people are more concerned with having the product here and now?

David also mentioned how "the distribution opportunities for independent features are rapidly dwindling, and that major damage was done by the New York Post when they published a hit piece on the fact that Johnny Legend's XXX film 'Teenage Cruisers' was being distributed through WMG/Ryko Distribution. As a result of this, every niche distributor wound up having their contracts with companies like Ryko and Sony/RED anulled. Companies such as Synapse and Blue Underground no longer had access to the storefront marketplace that those companies facilitated.
It was a real house of cards effect for the smaller companies. It pretty much put labels like NoShame and Casa Negra and even Media Blasters out of commission permanently. Everyone was forced to scale back considerably". (You can read more on the situation above by clicking HERE.)

On the other side of the coin, filmmakers feel very passionate about their films being stolen, and it is understandable why, and it is understandable why they feel torrents and bootlegging is such an important issue. How anyone can take something that someone has put so much time and effort into beggars belief, and I cannot imagine how much it destroys ones spirit to have this happen to them. It again becomes apparent that bootleggers and torrents are not only to blame for this. 

Joe Castro and Steven Escobar wrote and told me that they have had many issues with Youtube and have to manually remove videos every time it happens. They say that even though Youtube has a programme that can block people from uploading their content, they have been denied this because they are independent filmmakers and not studios who have hundreds of movies. They have nine movies, and Youtube thinks that they do not have the rights to their own movies and to protect them online.

They go on to explain that "Another issue we had in the past was from distributors, one of them being Breaking Glass Pictures, aka Vicious Circle Films.  They distributed THE SUMMER OF MASSACRE until I found out they had sold to Australia without our consent as per our contract with them. We pulled the film from them and made them pay us for that and took them to court".

As we can see from this, not only are the illegal uploaders to blame, but distribution companies which manage to deny the filmmakers money from their overseas sales. Again though, if it wasn't for these distribution companies, would these filmmakers work see the light of day? Do they have to take the chance of losing money just to have a chance to have their movies circulated? Is this not as bad, if not worse than torrenting and bootlegging films?

Brad Sykes, filmmaker for fifteen plus years sent me his comments on torrents and piracy, which I shall share in full.

"In the fifteen plus years I've been making movies, I've watched internet piracy become more and more of a threat to indie filmmakers and distributors making their money back, let alone profiting from their work. Of course illegal dowloads and torrent sites have always been around as long as the internet itself, but back when I started directing, the market was supported by video stores and sell-through, and foreign sales were still strong as well. A small title like 'Camp Blood' not only did well on VHS and DVD in the US, it had multiple DVD releases in the UK, France, Germany etc. The sequel, 'Camp Blood 2' was greenlit literally on the basis of strong foreign presales, before we even had a script.

Nowadays, filmmakers have to rely on online sales, where it's hard to stand out without marketing/advertising dollars and online/VOD rentals , which everyone - including the studios, are still trying figure out how to properly monetise. The foreign market has dried up, partially because of increased piracy overseas. There just isn't enough money to be made for some territories to justify making a DVD/BluRay, when the film is already available on dozens or hundreds of torrent sites. There's a whole new generation of viewers who grew up believing that everything - movies, music etc - should be free for the taking. It's just about impossible to combat these sites, most of whom are overseas and exempt from copyright laws. 

Our new movie, 'Hi-8' was released last December on DVD in the US, and almost immediately afterward started appearing not only on the usual torrent sites, but on Youtube aswell. The same thing happened with our last movie 'Plaguers' which hit the net soon after its legitimate Russian DVD  release. 'Hi-8' pops up from a different uploader just about every day, so we are constantly contacting Youtube, asking them to remove our film from their site. We have been successful at this, but it is time consuming and irritating to say the least, with lots of hoops to jump through to prove you are the rights holder. We find it ironic that they put so many challenges to the filmmakers, yet do nothing to stand in the way of their users uploading illegal content. 

If filmmakers want increased exposure for their work, I think a happy medium would be offering their film for a specific time period on a controlled channel, such as Vimeo, and spreading the word about it. But none of us are ever going to recoup our investment or turn a profit which we could then turn into a future film, if these torrent sites remain unregulated and the viewers continue to use them".  

In conclusion, we can see that filmmakers feel strongly about their works being 'stolen' by people who upload their films to torrents and who bootleg their work, and with great reason. This could scupper a filmmakers chances of making another feature, desroying all future chances of them ever doing something they love again. We can also see, from both Lee Vervoort's open letter and from the statement made by Brad Sykes, that if these channels were controlled, and filmmakers had the choice to upload their work, that they would be great tools to spread the word about the filmmakers work. David Austin makes it clear that torrent users and bootleggers should not be blamed entirely for the money lost, and that some responsibility has to be aimed at the decline of stores and the fact that large distribution companies no longer had access to storefront displays because of the furore uncovered by the New York Times.

These statements and pieces of evidence show that while the internet is a fantastic tool for filmmakers, there are always people out there who are willing to take things for free. I want to finish off this article by stating my views once more so there is no argument on which side of the fence I sit on (even though this article was written in a strictly objective viewpoint). I am against all piracy. No ones work, no ones art should be taken without the artists permission, or without paying for it when it is for sale. I personally cannot condone something which hurts filmmakers, and may very well take away some very strong new hopes in the movie industry simply because there are people out there who feel entitled to see things for free.

Darkest regards......Dani.


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