Piracy sucks. It sucks when it’s Somalian pirates commandeering a cargo vessel and holding it hostage for millions in ransom money and it sucks when it’s some a–hole sitting at a computer commandeering someone’s intellectual property and "sharing" it with other a–holes whose capacity to view "sharing" as theft has been diminished to the point of utter disregard for others and a monumentally warped sense of entitlement.
Accepting either of these scenarios as a legitimate cost of doing business is wrong and self-defeating. The only difference between the two is that one scenario tends to put the pirates at great risk (at least now that on board firearms and security details have entered the equation) while the other enables the pirates to operate in the shadows, relatively safe from detection. Like rats and other vermin.
There, I said it. They are vermin. And somewhere deep down they know it, regardless of their harebrained rationalizations and bulls— excuses. Plus, digital pirates, unlike Somalian pirates, are not only thieves, they’re hypocrites and cowards as well. They don’t walk down a street where vendors have their wares displayed out in the open – almost as if daring you to take something and walk away without paying – and actually grab stuff without paying for it. No, they walk on by or they make a purchase. Unfortunately, there are plenty of wrong-minded apologists to provide cover for these miscreants and too few willing to take them on or even to call a criminal a criminal.
But there are ways to counter piracy that don’t compromise ones political correctness or fear of peer pressure.
The most powerful way is to embrace the basic lessons learned by watching the implosion of the music industry. Earlier this year, iTunes overtook Wal-Mart as the country’s number one music retailer. How? By making it simple, convenient and cost-effective to purchase music. Simplicity, convenience and cost-effectiveness are vital tactics, but "purchase" is the operative word. There are very effective ways to use free as a tactic, but free should not be a strategy, at least not in the independent film world. It’s certainly possible to make an ad-supported model work, but as most recently demonstrated by the very wealthy yet not-so-savvy minds behind Hulu – or YouTube for that matter – attacking it from the publisher’s/advertiser’s perspective rather than the end-user’s experience is a fool’s errand. They can’t seem to get out of their own way. In any case, ad-supported will always be a bad strategy for long-form entertainment. Especially for first-run independent films where you don’t want the flow interrupted every few minutes by ads. (It’ll be somewhat less annoying once micro-targeted video advertising is employed but that’s going to take a determined effort and above-average creativity. Even though another ultra hip digital ad agency is spawned nearly every hour, those qualities continue to be in short supply.)
Transactional is not only the best way to begin facing down the vermin, it’s also simply the right thing to do. Artists should be paid for their work and the most certain and direct way for that to happen is by charging for it. I disagree with those (Ted Hope for instance) who suggest that the ticket price for an independently produced film vs. a Hollywood blockbuster should be lower in theaters, but I do believe that a great deal of money can be earned by following the iTunes model of simple, convenient and cost-effective. With most or all of the middle men eliminated, online pricing can be extremely affordable yet still fair to filmmakers. And the vast majority of consumers will happily take a chance on a newly-released independent film for $2 or $3.
We proved that on a small scale with Gigantic Digital. Granted, it took more effort than simply posting the file. We worked very hard to convince the media that the internet was, indeed, the new theatrical for independent films and our inaugural title, Must Read After My Death, was certain to garner excellent reviews. Nearly every major publication across the country reviewed the film even though it only opened virtually in every market but NY and LA, and each review noted the Gigantic Digital URL and ticket price which was $2.99 for a 3-day, unlimited ticket. The result was that several thousand folks from around the country purchased tickets and viewed the film online and not a single one asked for their money back. As I said, small scale, but a powerful demonstration of what two people in an office can accomplish.
Unfortunately, we didn’t have the next dozen films lined up to follow Must Read. If we had, I’m certain that we’d have built a community by now of tens of thousands of film lovers and cemented our relationships with the media to a point where little would be left to distinguish a film released traditionally from one released exclusively online.
Was Must Read pirated? No doubt. But it hardly mattered since, by premiering the film online, we were providing just about the same level of immediate gratification as stealing it would have. In a sense, we beat the pirates – the vermin – at their own game. At that point, anyone who was so determined to see the film for free that they sought it out for download, became an unpaid promotional voice. The lesson is don’t hold back the digital release. Rather, use it as the central delivery mechanism and promotional platform. Such an approach not only defeats the vermin, but it extends the reach and value of your first-run window and adds value to each successive level of distribution from DVD to VOD to iTunes to Netflix to Amazon to Somali pirate ship. And going out via all delivery platforms at once is probably the best strategy of all.
Gigantic Digital has unfortunately gone fallow, but others are sure to pick up where GD left off. For now, stop enabling the vermin. Call a thief a thief and when the opportunity arises, premiere your film online either as the exclusive delivery platform or along with as many others as you can manage.
Light your own digital fire!