Wednesday, June 01, 2011

Piracy: Why Hollywood is Losing the Battle.

Piracy is an epidemic that is slowly changing the shape of various industries around the world. In recent years piracy has become a major problem in the film industry with no clear fix in sight. Unlike the music industry, which has been significantly weakened by consumers who view illegal downloading as an acceptable evil, the film industry is still staying a float in the mist of piracy.

This is not to say that the film industry has not been taking a hit financially. Some reports claim that the film industry is loosing over 20 billion dollars a year as a result of piracy. The effects of piracy have even crippled the once powerful Blockbuster video rental chain. Formerly the powerhouse in the home video rental market, Blockbuster is now holding nation wide closing sales at each of their stores locations. Films that once cost $25 dollars to purchase new, $15 to purchase previously viewed, and $5.99 to rent for a few nights, are now being sold for $6.99 to $14.99 with an additional 30 percent off of already marked down sale prices.

The closing of Blockbuster video coupled with the summer movie season has brought piracy back into the forefront of public attention. A few weeks ago a local television news station conducted their semi-annual “expose” on the local Asian-Canadian centric malls that openly sell bootleg DVDs. Although these particular establishments sell the bootlegs all year around, the news only ever seems to bring it to light at the beginning of the summer movie season and again just before the holiday movie season.

While the news report was trying to preach the damage that piracy inflicts, their overall approach, similar to Hollywood’s current one, was sorely misguided. The report used the recently released Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides as an example of how easy it was to buy a bootleg copy of the film, plus two other films, for a mere $10. The reporter pointed out how this was costing the studio millions in lost revenue. Yet the reporter also stated that On Stranger Tides had an opening weekend of 90 million dollars in North America and over 200 million dollars worldwide in the same three day span.

This is a perfect example of why Hollywood is losing the battle against piracy. You cannot get people to rally behind a cause if the cause itself does not seem worth fighting for. It is tough to shed a tear for an industry that has reported record breaking numbers each week this summer season since the release of Fast Five. Instead of focusing on the big blockbuster movies that will do well regardless (e.g. Pirates, Thor, The Hangover: Part 2, etc.), the studios should really be promoting the section of the industry that suffers the most…independent cinema.

It is hard enough for independent films to get funding, let alone find theatres willing to show the film, without piracy taking away profits. This is where the anti-piracy marketing should really be focused. Instead of replaying the same footage of a key grip talking about how piracy hinders his livelihood, why not shoot simple adds with high profile actors and directors talking about their start in smaller films. If you use recognizable faces (e.g. Johnny Depp, Julianne Moore, Philip Seymour Hoffman etc.) to highlight the problem, chances are people are going to listen far more than some unknown industry worker lamenting for two minutes.

In an age where the line between ownership and entitlement is becoming increasingly blurred, it is time for Hollywood to change its battle strategy. This does not mean making more 3D movies, but actually working to gain both the consumer’s understanding and trust. Instead of trying to make them feel sorry for a project that is breaking box-office records despite the existence of piracy, they should be focusing their energy on promoting the smaller works that are consistently being stifled. Only when Hollywood shifts its focus will they start to make a dent in the war against illegal downloading and bootlegging.


  1. Wuhuw, great post! If I buy Blockbuster films, I mostly buy them second hand or on sale, because I'll rather spend the big money on smaller productions... I don't know if this really has anything to do with this, but, well, it's just what I try to "help" the independent films...

  2. Maybe I'm just an innocent soul (N.B. - I'm not), but I had no real idea of the extent of movie piracy until a few months ago, when my housemate - a very decent, morally-upright individual - brought home a memory stick or somesuch that contained The King's Speech, then still new on theatrical release.

    I really couldn't believe that these things were so easily available, but I suppose I've had my head in the sand about it. It does seem wrong to me though; I can't buy the pro-piracy arguments. I worked in marketing for a while and if I learnt nothing else about 'the consumer', it's that ultimately they want everything, for free, immediately.

    It's that mentality - the sense of entitlement - that has the potential to send the creative industries to the wall. OK, there's too much dough been made by too few people on the 'legitimate' side as well, which doesn't help. But there's a moral argument here: piracy is theft, and theft is wrong. QED.

    For my money, it's this moral argument that needs to be persuasively communicated. Right now, most piracy end-users just don't think of what they do as 'wrong', in the same way as, say, shoplifting. I don't want to sound shrill, and I'm a small-'l' liberal kind of person, but this kind of mass-lawbreaking just isn't sustainable in the long run.

    Phew. Sorry about that.

  3. The movie industry is going down the way the music industry did. Watch as they are running around like a chicken with its head cut off with the whole VOD (future fiasco), 3D and earlier DVD release. They have no idea what to do.

  4. @Lime(tte) – The thing that always annoyed me about Blockbuster is that their second hand films were often as pricy as the new releases. It is weird now seeing all the independent and foreign films, which were once sold at ridiculous prices, now on sale for next to nothing.

    @Multiplex Slut – Movie piracy has actually been around for a long time but it has only hit Hollywood hard in recent years thanks to the internet. I recall, when I was younger, going to Chinatown and purchasing bootleg copies of Asian films, such as John Woo’s Hard Boiled, a year or two before they were even released in North American theatres. Heck, I remember raving to friends about Jet Li’s Hero long before it hit theatres up here.

    You are right though, in the end it is all theft. If people can get it for free they will not turn around and pay for it. The problem is that music industry has inadvertently changed the way people view piracy. When Napster first came out there was a clear message that stealing is wrong, yet tons of other torrent sites slowly started to pop up. Once Apple created iTunes, many people, in a distorted way, took it as justification for their downloading actions.

    I think when it comes to movies you have several schools of thought. There are those who will not watch pirated materials at all, those who will watch pirated material but will still go to the theatre regularly, and those who only watch bootlegged material. I think the last group is the one that movie studios are really concerned about.

    @Castor – You think the movie industry would have learned a lesson or two from their musical counterparts. They are constantly trying to find new / inventive ways to get people to go to the theatres instead of pirating, yet they refuse to look at why people are pirating in the first place. Yes people like free stuff, but there are bigger issues at play that they just refuse to examine.

  5. Never pirated a film before. I have too much respect for the movies.

    I did however receive I pirated copy of "Black Swan" last year - it wouldn't come to my theater. Loved it anyways.

    Nice post.

  6. @Duke – This raises another dilemma in the piracy debate. What are people, who live in areas where they do not have access to theatres or the latest movies, to do when they want to enjoy the same entertainment as everyone else?

  7. It's not too big of a deal for me because I have press screenings that I can attend. But I understand what you're saying.

    Still ...

    Patience is a virtue my friend :D

  8. @Duke – Patience is indeed a virtue. Unfortunately, in this internet age, patience is something that not many people seem to have anymore. Sad but true.

  9. "local oriental malls"

    Dude, Asian-American is the preferred nomenclature. :D

    Ok, first off, a couple disclaimers: a) I have almost no first-hand knowledge of the piracy business, and b) I'm sure that, to an extent, it's pervasive, hurting everyone to a degree.

    That said, are independent films really getting hurt here? I'm sure we could draw lines that say lost revenue on blockbusters might lead to a lack of interest/funding in smaller films down the line, but what I mean is, are indies really getting pirated?

    As I say above, I suppose that to a degree (I'd wager a slight one), yes. But I don't need data to tell me that 95% of the top selling pirated movies are the blockbusters. Would pirates even go to the trouble of making copies of Win Win or Henry's Crime? Where's the market?

  10. I agree with Multiplex - it's theft, pure and simple, and people have chilled their consciences to that fact.

    Other than reminding people that it's wrong [some DVDs include such a commercial before the feature], the big movie guys as well as the indies can appeal to the consumer person to person.

    In the music industry, I've seen scores of people enjoy a new band and exclaim with pride that they like the band so much they bought a legitimate copy of their songs.

    I've heard indies like Tyler Perry plead with audiences [quite effectively] not to pirate his movies.

    Making the pleading personal, making the audience feel as though it's their product too and they have to protect it, in addition to reminding them of their criminal activity, should lessen the piracy.

  11. True, so true about independent cinema.

    There's also a huge void though. A lot of the internet downloads of indie films are done by film fans, who otherwise wouldn't be able to get their hands on the movie.

    Let's say an indie film gets some sort of attention around the web, but doesn't get a distribution deal - or gets distribution but only in limited cities in America. How can film lover in... let's say Malaysia, be able to watch the film?

    In theory, you'd have to wait for the film to make it to DVD, if it ever makes it to DVD - and when it does, you'll have to pay $15USD + shipping to Malaysia to watch... and maybe consider it was worth it. That's a huge risk.

    Places like iTunes or Netflix, saldly, don't offer their services outside the US or Canada... not even Mexico (I think), let alone another continent. Films distribution rights are still divided by region even if we're talking about digital.

    In the end, people who want to watch the film where it's not easily available will still turn to quick searches for easily downloads and torrents, which - sure, they're "free" - but I think there's no hassle with them because they have no regions or any restrictions.

  12. @Dylan – Technically Asian-Canadian would be the politically correct term. In my defense, the mall that was featured in the news story is actually called “Oriental Centre”. Usually that mall, “Pacific Mall” and “Chinatown Mall” are the front in center in the piracy stories in this region. Though, truth be told, all cultures are guilty of the bootlegging practices.

    In regards to indies, yes they are getting pirated as well. They obviously are not the main draw at these establishments but people will still give an independent film a shot if it is on sale for $2 or bundled (i.e. 7 films for $20) with blockbuster titles. Plus, as you mentioned, the big studios are less likely to fund smaller projects if they are losing money off of their big ticket titles.

    @Java Bean Rush – I agree that they really need to make the audience feel that the product is theirs to protect as well. Over the years the studios have manage to make some audiences feel like nothing more than cash dispensers (i.e. charging extra for lackluster 3D films, releasing new “special editions” of the same DVD over and over, etc.) Audiences really need to be reminded how beautiful the theatre going experience is and the crucial role they play in it.

    @Amy – The movie industry is always talking about what film made overseas, and how it will recoup its losses from overseas sales etc. Yet this only applies to the big titles. Studios have little interest in putting any effort into marketing independent films in North America, and zero interest in trying to sell it overseas. I have no idea who is responsible for pirating the indie films originally, but I am leaning towards agreeing with you about it being the film fans who are uploading this particular works. Normal bootleggers usually aim for pirating the big money film.

    As for the distribution of films digital, many claim it is the future but no one seems to know how to define it legally in each region. In Canada, Netflix launched several months ago but they clearly have not worked out all the distribution rights yet. The list of film on Nexflix can only be described as “random.” While there are a lot of great titles, there are also some very odd ones as well. Not to mention that many of the films you would expect to see (e.g. Die Hard, Jurassic Park, etc.) are simply not there.

  13. Courtney - please tell me you know why I said that line about Asian-American...I wasn't just being PC.

  14. @Dylan – I fully know why you said the line and, although I probably was not clear in my tongue-in-cheek response, I actually agree with you. Normally I am more mindful in my choice of words.

  15. I have been buying the discounted Blockbuster films for years, and always wondered what would happen if they sold out. Now that my employer DISH network has purchased the failing Blockbuster, I am glad to say that their library of over 100,000 movies, TV shows and games are available to DISH Customers. Unlike NetFlix, DISH is offering games. And DISH's new On-Demand library features ten times the content of Comcast or DirecTV!!! Check out the link to see how you can get 3 FREE Months Blockbuster by switching providers!!

  16. Multiplex has the right idea.

    I would like to survey a large of group of people by asking them if they would ever steal something if they knew they would get away with it. For those that answer "no", I would then ask how many movies and songs they have illegally downloaded.

    I bet over half of the surveyed will admit to breaking their own moral code without realizing it. Right there is why internet piracy exists. There's a mindset where if a computer screen is involved, traditional rules of theft don't apply.

    If our society continues to be allowed to think those actions are acceptable, it will mean more businesses folding, more jobs lost and maybe even the end of studio-funded movies.

    Hollywood has to get its act together in so many departments. They need higher values on creativity, a more consumer-friendly cinema experience, and for the love of decency a more persuasive anti-piracy campaign.

  17. @erikr – While services like Dish and Netflix offer a convenient way to watch films at home. They still do not replace the theatre going experience.

    @Ian – Technology has shifted the way morality is viewed in today’s society. Everything from downloading music to using invading people’s privacy via Facebook is seen as acceptable by a lot of people.

    You bring about a good point about the need for a more consumer-friendly experience. Theatres really need to stop gouging their customers at every corner.

  18. Netflix and Redbox have far more to do with the death of Blockbuster than piracy. When you can rent a new movie for only a buck (Redbox), or not even have to get off your butt to get a movie (Netflix), then driving to a Blockbuster to get the movie, paying $5 to rent it, then having to drive back again the next day to return it just can't compete.

  19. @Chip – Streaming movies has revolutionized the industry in North America. Studios are still struggling with how to adapt to this new era. It has already killed many of the video store chains up here.


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