The Picture is Yours The threat of piracy to independents

In the debate over the illegal file sharing of films online, independent filmmakers have largely been forgotten. While the antipiracy efforts of the top studios, such as Disney, Paramount, and Warner Bros., and their trade group, the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), have attracted plenty of attention, the impacts of illegal file sharing on indie studios are much more dramatic. About a dozen production companies have filed lawsuits against tens of thousands of individuals they accuse of illegally distributing their movies over the Web. The best known among these studios is Voltage Pictures, producers of "The Hurt Locker"  who took out subpoenas against Internet service providers demanding that they turn over the names of customers who the studio says illegally shared their film.

However, small production companies who are taking up the antipiracy fight argue that they don't have a choice. For them, illegal file sharing doesn't mean one less Rolls Royce. Illegal file sharing is driving some of them out of the business. "For films like ours, on the very low budget side, we don't really have any sort of theatrical release opportunities," said Ellen Seidler, a former journalist turned indie filmmaker. "So any income we're going to get for our film is dependent on DVD, video on demand or pay per view sales. Piracy really, if you're talking percentages, bites into any potential profit. In our case, we're just trying to pay off our debt."

At the same time, other independent film producers are battling illegal file sharing by publicly lashing out at companies, such as Google, that they say profit from the ads posted to sites that traffic in pirated films. The problem doesn’t just apply to the independent sector. For example, “Expendables 3” may not have won over critics but producer Avi Lerner is convinced that is not why the movie starring Sylvester Stallone and a dozen other stars underperformed at the box office — and he is still angry about what happened. Lerner, the CEO of Nu Image, believes rampant piracy drained the theatrical audience because Expendables 3 was available online for illegal downloading three weeks before it hit theaters. It was downloaded about 10 million times before its August release. Lerner believes not nearly enough is being done to address the problem and it is only going to get worse, with dire consequences for those who make movies, especially independent filmmakers who don’t have deep pockets.

“The whole film business is going to be the same as the music business,” warns Lerner. “Within five years, we’re not going to have a business.” The impact has already begun. He blames much of the decline in online sales on piracy; as well as lower salaries for stars; tighter movie production budgets; and fewer movies being made. “If you don’t get money from your movie in Russia or Spain or Italy, where there is no business because there is no money being made [in theaters or home video], there won’t be as many movies made," he says.