The Upside of Digital Piracy: Or How I Learned to Quit Worrying and Love the Free Feedback

If producers can look past their lost hypothetical revenue, then they can use sites like Pirate Bay to harness thousands of people commenting on their film

The US Dept. of Justice and the US Immigration & Customs Enforcement are continuing their aggressive crackdown on copyright-infringing websites. 

Operation: In Our Sites” (as the joint effort is known) not only targets software, music, film and television offenders, but also online purveyors of counterfeit designer merchandise — all of whom are getting their domain names seized. 

So far over 100 domain names have been seized, which doesn’t mean much because their IP address remains intact, so they just continue operations under a new name. 

For example, the domain “Re1ease.net” was seized in a recent crackdown and was back up in a week as “Scrrls.net." Same site, it just needed a new name. It would be like the government seizing Countrywide’s name and trademark, but allowing them to stay in business and continue ripping people off.

On a similar front, Voltage Pictures (the prominent foreign sales company and Oscar-winning producer of "The Hurt Locker") has taken a much more direct approach to tackling piracy: Voltage has filed a direct lawsuit against a handful of named illegal downloaders of “Hurt Locker,” as well as up to 5,000 yet-to-be-identified illegal downloaders. 

Kudos to Voltage for tackling the problem head-on. Unfortunately, it’s going to take until 2013 to get the names of the “yet-to-be-identified” from their respective internet service providers. 

I just checked The Pirate Bay (the world’s most popular public torrent site), and at present there are 85 copies of "Hurt Locker" available for download, with over a thousand active downloads in progress. 

To be clear, that’s just a snapshot of one site at one moment in time. Pirate Bay doesn’t display the number of downloads-to-date, but another site does. 

Presently, Demonoid displays an estimated 260,000 downloads to date (and that’s coming from the sixth most popular torrent site.)  Now extrapolate that to the top 10 torrent sites!  At $1 per download, that’s over $2.6m. At $5 per download, that’s over $13 million!

Back in 2006, when “Who Killed the Electric Car?” was about to be released in theaters, I was apoplectic when I saw that 20,000 people had already downloaded the entire film on YouTube

At $8 per ticket, that was $160k in lost box office. Comparatively, that’s a drop in the bucket, next to "Hurt Locker," but it wasn’t a total loss: there was value to be found.

Taking a page from Sun-tzu ("Know your enemy and know yourself and you will always be victorious"), I have been actively following torrent sites ever since. 

I’ve sampled every movie offering available: theater cameras, R5, 1080, 720, DVDs, Blue Rays, Academy screeners and more are all readily available. 

If you can’t wait for VOD and don’t mind VFX that aren’t quite finished, then an Eastern European R5 version is your best bet. 

If you can’t wait for the R5 and don’t mind the sound of an audience, then a camera recording of a Russian theater screen (with audio from the assisted listening port) is your best option. If you absolutely have to see it first (and you don’t need VFX and don’t mind timecode on the bottom of your screen) then the telecine rip is your ticket. 

There’s something for everybody.

On most torrent sites, each download also has it’s own public forum. These are useful for giving thanks, as well as conveying technical concerns, to the uploader. 

Users can also let potential downloaders know if the file is corrupt or fake, as well as the quality of audio and video (A6/V7, on a scale of 1-10). 

But there’s something else in torrent sites that the press overlooks: word-of-mouth. After viewing the film, numerous active users return to the forum to critique and discuss the film.

There’s a trove of research gold to be monitored and mined from these sites. Any experienced filmmaker whose worth their salt understands the value of test screenings — studios spend millions on them. 

Most premium indie filmmakers will budget for them, but most low-budget indie filmmakers can’t afford them. 

If producers can look past their lost hypothetical revenue, then they can harness the benefit of thousands of people commenting on the technical and dramatic aspects of your film.  It may not be as scientific as a focus group, or as articulate as a film critic, but it’s certainly on par with what you overhear from audiences as they’re leaving the theater.

Obviously, most filmmakers don’t want years of work and thousands (or millions) of dollars to be judged on a pre-release copy of their film — it’s not the best foot forward. 

By the same token, most downloaders have no desire to watch something ripped from a telecine bay; it’s distracting and hard to watch. 

So the people who do like to watch “unfinished” films are not only the minority, but are accustomed to viewing films in this state; their commentary not only reflects this, but also resides within the forum for that particular copy of the film, which provides context. 

Producers, filmmakers and studio executives are capable of providing constructive feedback from unfinished films.

Harry Knowles and Ain’t It Cool News used to “illegally” critique audience test screenings and quickly became the bane of the studio establishment. 

The studios eventually gave up trying to quash him and instead harnessed him by making him a studio executive and guest film critic. The Borg prevail by assimilating their enemies, not killing them.

If the torrent sites were to streamline the data collection on their sites (by providing dropdown menus and radio buttons for the technical quality of the films, as well as for overall user feedback), that information would quickly become way too valuable for studios to pass up. 

The money the studios could pay and the intel the torrent sites could provide would compel them to become bedfellows. 

Legitimizing ill-gotten gains is a natural step in the evolution of any criminal enterprise. 

Should the studios be a catalysts for change, or an obstacle to change?  As a matter of principal, I don’t like to sling “should statements” without offering possible solutions, so by reallocating the time, money and energy they’re spending on lawsuits, they can begin assimilating by:

* Providing the cash/resources for implementing the data-collection.

* Allocating the video content and managing how it is viewed/distributed (a “clean-needle” program).

* Paying the sites for the marketing data/research they provide.

* Providing purchase discounts to “beta testers” and tastemakers.

Just to be clear, I’m not condoning the illegal actions of the sites, nor am I heralding the quality of discourse contained in their forums. 

I am, however, advocating that there are significant silver linings to be found, namely: pre-release testing, and word-of-mouth marketing. 

Studios can’t openly admit it, but they are already cognizant of these benefits and their marketing executives actively monitor these sites.

It’s not ideal, but it does have value.