This article was originally published at Film School Rejects.
The other day I saw a discussion on Facebook about whether or not filmmakers should watermark the screeners they send to film festivals. Filmmakers generally seemed to be for it. Festival personnel seemed generally opposed, some citing it as a red flag for the filmmaker’s naiveté – like the people who ask you to sign an NDA before reading their screenplay. In the past, I never felt that obscuring the picture with some text was going to stop the sort of person who was set on pirating my movie, so I didn’t bother with it. Besides, I might argue I had yet to make a movie someone would want to pirate.
However, with my latest feature, Down and Dangerous, we had a genre picture with muscle. Its potential to garner eyeballs was greater than anything we’d produced before. So if it were to appear on torrent sites, I wanted to at least know where it came from. Following the studio’s method of placing those “little dots” on film prints, I added a bit of unique text to a single frame of the movie for every screener we sent out. This was imperceptible to the viewer, but if you knew which frame to look at, you could plainly see the initials for the festival or distributor hiding in the shadows.
By the time we made a deal in September of 2013 for a domestic VOD release, we were already seeing foreign sales to several international distributors through our sales agent. We provided a unique slate of deliverables for each with a unique watermark for who it was going to. In late November, the Scandinavian VOD version began showing up on torrent tracking sites. In late December, an actor from the movie sent me a photo of blu-rays he found in Hong Kong where only VOD rights had been sold.
A bootlegged spanish-language DVD emerged with the title “El Contrabandista” that featured images of Tom Sizemore on the cover. Tom Sizemore is not in my movie. With a looming US/Canada release date still two months away, we decided to keep a lid on all of it.
I briefly considered using the piracy to drum up more awareness for the movie, but ultimately decided that it would kill the unbridled enthusiasm our domestic distributor was showing our release. Tweets and user reviews were showing up on IMDb and our Facebook page from people who could only have seen a pirated version. I was torn between retweeting positive reactions and revealing that it was out there. In January, a copy of the Turkish-dubbed broadcast was uploaded to YouTube. This version had cut 15 minutes out of the movie to remove nudity, drug use and… a shot of a box of tampons. The movie has been uploaded in its entirety to YouTube about a dozen times now. Most recently, I issued a takedown for this Vietnamese-subtitled version.
As I filed that first copyright violation and takedown request, I wondered, “Is this going to be part of making movies now? Chasing down pirated copies and jumping through hoops to get them removed?” Because here’s the thing, if I was releasing the movie myself, directly to fans, I’d be happy to see people steal it and share it. Truly. Working in microbudgets affords me the opportunity to be a bit of a gambler when it comes to raising a movie’s profile. But in this case, I had a responsibility to protect the movie’s potential sales on behalf of our distributors.
Six weeks after Down and Dangerous was released domestically on iTunes and VOD, our distributor estimated that it had sold 10,000 streams and downloads, topping out at number 13 on the iTunes Thrillers Chart. Not too shabby. By that time, torrents of the movie had been downloaded at least as many times. Now it would be ridiculous to count all 10,000 downloaded torrents as lost revenue. But if say 10% of those could have been converted to legit sales, that’s another $7,000 we could have grossed. Not a massive amount of money, but to an outfit that crowdfunded a $38,000 budget to make the sucker, it’s significant.
And that’s primarily why I wanted to share my experience with piracy. I’ve seen a fair amount of people dismiss it as something that doesn’t affect indies in a meaningful way. One of the things that drives me a little nuts are critics who point out problems without offering solutions. So it kills me that I haven’t come away from this experience with a real solution. All I can offer are these insights and steps I’ll take in the future:
First, I’ll continue to have an unobtrusive system to track where each screener and master was sent. I couldn’t imagine how frustrating it would be to find a YouTube upload and not know where it was sourced from. One day, that information could be critical to pinpointing a direct link to a festival or distributor.
Second, if you suspect your movie has been pirated, verify that you aren’t just seeing faked “bait” listings. Oftentimes, a filmmaker will misinterpret these search results for the genuine article. There are many sites that pull movie titles from IMDb and use that info to make it appear they have that movie listed in their torrent tracker. While in reality they don’t, and are using the titles as bait to get visitors to pay for membership access to their site. My movie started appearing online in this fashion while we were still shooting it.
Third, make your domestic deal before you seek out international sales. Our sales agent warned us that there were certain territories he would deliver to last because once they got their hands on it, it stood a good chance of being bootlegged and pirated. If you can, delay this by making domestic a priority. We didn’t and I found myself asking people who had found torrents of it, to remove the links they had posted on Facebook with a well-intentioned, “uh-oh, did you see this?” It’s a barrel of laughs to ramp up excitement for the iTunes and cable/satellite VOD release dates knowing, at any moment, all your fans and followers could learn about and grab the torrent before the official release.
And last, take your hits on the chin but don’t let it distract you from the things you can control. Don’t worry that there aren’t obvious answers. Until we have solutions, be happy that there is at least demand for this flick you’ve made and get on with the business of supporting your platform release so that you can continue making more cool shit people want to see… and steal. That’s my 2¢.
I don’t suppose we could turn the comments into a mini think tank, could we? If you have your own experience, or any ideas for how to combat or use piracy to our advantage, please share in the comments below.