Piracy and the Future of the Film Industryby jamesburbidge
I recently came across this tweet from Duncan Jones, the director of the little film that could, ‘Moon’:
“Dear BitTorrenters... so pleased Moon is popular with u; 40,000 active seeds cant be wrong! One thing. Will you please buy the DVD as well?”
Film piracy is no longer a hot topic; it has been around long enough to cool down a little. That has not, however, prevented it from continuing to cause a lot of problems for the film industry. Dodgy DVDs and increasingly, illegal downloads, cost the film industry massive amounts of revenue every year. A report in 2005 for the Motion Picture Association (all the big studios) estimated that the studios lost $6.1 billion a year and that the industry as a whole (theatres, cable tv etc included) lost $18.2 billion. At the time it was estimated that of that $18.2 billion, $7.1 was due to internet piracy. There are few people, I feel, who would disagree with the suggestion that that figure has risen. This loss of revenue will obviously cause serious financial problems for the studios and is certainly contributing to their current downfall.
The movie industry is not without clout however and it is responding to this threat with both with hard legal measures and also by raising awareness of the consequences of piracy. Recently the founders of the hugely popular illegal download website Pirate Bay were found guilty of copyright infringement and are looking forward to a year in gaol. In Australia the film industry has accused one of the country’s largest internet service providers of encouraging pirates, its largest users, to upgrade their packages and turning a blind eye to their download content. On the other, friendlier, side of the equation, the Trust for Internet Piracy Awareness in the UK has changed its campaign from the aggressive and accusatory ‘Piracy is Theft’ adverts to a kindlier thank you note for supporting the British film industry by not turning to illegal downloading.
Piracy, in particular, internet piracy can be assumed to be growing. Even if it is not, it is a significantly large enough problem at the moment for something to need to be done about it. Piracy needs to stop, or at least be controlled to prevent it from completely undermining the film industry (something that some people may be all for but that the studios (i.e. those with the money and power to effect change) most emphatically do not). The question is, why has internet film piracy become so popular?
Obviously the prospect of getting a product for free is plenty enough enticement for some. Others see it as the beginning of the end of capitalist materialism and a shining new future for the arts. These reasons do not account, I think, for the huge numbers of otherwise ‘respectable’ people who engage in this practice. The anonymity of sitting behind a computer and large number of other people doing it are certainly factors that encourage piracy. More significantly I think is the increase in technology that has allowed it to become so simple. Obviously hugely increased internet speeds facilitate film piracy but so too does the freely available and easy to use peer2peer software such as BitTorrent. Behind all this, I feel is an increasing disengagement with the cinema as more entertainment is to be found in front of the computer (YouTube games, networking sites etc). Fewer people need to leave their computer to be entertained or to do the shopping or pay bills, why should they leave their computer to see a new film? Disgruntlement with Hollywood; poor films and the ever-increasing cost of seeing them, both at the cinema (up to £15, when it was £5 in my youth) and on DVD (and the yet more expensive BluRay) may also encourage people to illegally download films. Dominic Wells argues that people are using downloaded films as a test of brand value; i.e. that people will go to the cinema to see another film by same director or will a DVD of a film they have downloaded. This is certainly a much more economically efficient way for the consumer to find the film they want to own or pay to experience in the cinema. A look at the summer’s hit films show that it was not the star driven heavily marketed films that did well and created a buzz, it was smaller films such as ‘The Hangover’ and ‘District 9’. Some studies on the music industry (which has also been massively affected by online piracy) argue that pirated tracks encourage people to buy the song legally. However, some will see this as mere wishful thinking, arguing that people will never go back to paying when they don’t need to.
One final major factor that encourages piracy everywhere except in America is the delayed release dates that the rest of the world experience both in cinemas and for DVDs. Films are often available online before they are released in America but once they show in a cinema they are definitely online. A lot of internet buzz surrounding a film released in the US that will not reach Britain for another two months will encourage people to download it and be able to take part in that discussion. Most experts, such as Julien McArdle, who directed a documentary on the issue of piracy, agree that this is one of the most significant changes that could happen. McArdle made his film on a budget of about C$700 and is distributing it for free on the internet . Slyck.com has done an excellent interview with him.
With so many reasons to pirate films (the first and foremost of which will always be that it is free) it is no wonder that so many people are doing it. The internet is become such a powerful tool and platform and because it is open and free everyone the pirating community has been able to steal a lead on the film industry. The studios and distribution companies are, however, developing new models to allow them entry into this marketplace. So far companies like Apple have lead the way, selling downloadable films through their existing iTunes store. Other companies are providing similar services and being embraced by the studios; Universal Pictures UK chairman Eddie Cunningham when UK website Wippit started offering permanent downloads in 2006 said "I think what you're seeing here is the beginning of a revolution in terms of how we can distribute digitally and I would expect you'll see a lot more news of this type over the next few months.” The internet has also been embraced as a distribution tool by the independent filmmaking community. Downloading a film is cheap and simple and obviates the need for DVD burning and postage. It allows easy access to a global audience makes marketing and interaction with audiences a very fluid networked affair that can be very effective for the independent film.
There is general agreement however, that not enough has yet been done for the model of legitimate film downloading. Many different people have as many different ideas about it’s future. The basic split between them is whether you try and provide movies for free or not. Some promote the Spotify model of where you can stream but not download songs for free and accept adverts every five songs or so. Quite how this would translate into films is not yet known – it works for short films on sites such as Raindance.tv where the advert is played before the film but one advert might not generate enough revenue for a feature and no-one wants their film interrupted. Dominic Wells argues that internet streamed but legally bought films will revolutionise the industry. The hypothetical case study he gives is that of the Bollywood gem trying to find an audience in the states. There are very few places he argues, where the audience population (primarily Indian) is dense enough for it to make financial sense for a cinema to show the film. Spread out across the country, however, are enough audience members to generate a significant profit. By being able to search a database of online films and find this Bollywood gem and then download it to their house for a small fee, this niche audience finds the film it is looking for and the film finds it US audience. This sort of model will rely on superior technology and online infrastruture to that which we have at the moment however. Sky and other cable service providers are beginning to develop the household hub computer/T.V. complete with internet, standard television channels and demandable programming, but it is not quite yet a reality. Once this is in place and download speeds have increased yet further, DVDs will become outmoded and everyone will simply download what they want to watch. Simultaneous release, both internationally and between cinema and home-viewing (i.e. DVD or legal download) is a necessity for this to start happening and, according to Matt Mason, author of ‘The Pirates Dilemma’ says that can’t happen “until DVDs/Blu Ray are well and truly dead and buried” He goes on to say that “we’ll see the studios using file sharing sites more to promote films, and content deals between the studios and torrent sites are already happening.”
This model, for my money, is the most likely to prevail. What will be interesting to see is how content is managed on the internet. Which content providers (such as iTunes) gain ascendancy and how will they select films to make available to their subscribers? Studio films will of course have no problem being found but independent films will probably remain somewhat slightly more hidden. I imagine that there will be content providers dedicated to smaller and independent films and internet word of mouth will be used to promote them. Theatrical release will be less common for independent films but people will still be willing to go and pay for the cinematic experience of the bigger, more effects driven studio productions. Film will become a much more home-based experience. Piracy will fade away because it will become simpler and easier, as well as less guilt inducing, to watch the latest releases through the legitimate system.