The movie industry excels in selling dreams. But since the dawn of the digital revolution, there is one narrative they've consistently and conspicuously failed to sell: that piracy is theft and consumers who indulge ought to feel guilty about it. Recent research by Ipsos suggests that almost 30% of the UK population is active in some form of piracy, either through streaming content online or buying counterfeit DVDs. Such theft costs the UK audiovisual industries about £500m a year.
Hypothetically, two movies come out on the same day: The Wolf of Wall Street and the new Transformers. You are allowed to see one in an IMAX theater and you will illegally download the other one online. Most people would choose Transformers over The Wolf of Wall Street due to the fact that there are robot dinosaurs and everyone else is going to see it in theaters. Those robot dinosaurs will look a lot cooler in a theater rather than on a laptop. Many people then realized how lacking the movie really was after walking out of their local theater’s showing of Transformers: Age of Extinction. Meanwhile, many of the same people went on to watch The Wolf of Wall Street online to realize that it was actually a really good movie. Most people don’t realize that this is at all a problem, and at first glance it’s not. However, after more in-depth research, the problem soon becomes apparent. Transformers: Age of Extinction only gained an 18% rating on Rotten Tomatoes (Transformers, Rotten Tomatoes), one of the most critical and most trusted film-review sites online. The Wolf of Wall Street, however, gained a 77% rating on the same site (Wolf of Wall Street, Rotten Tomatoes). It was also nominated for five different Academy Awards. The Wolf of Wall Street is clearly the better film. Yet, besides the fact that Transformers was clearly not a great film, it somehow managed to be named the highest grossing film worldwide of 2014 and earned over one billion dollars in the Box Office (2014 Worldwide Grosses). The Wolf of Wall Street went on to be the most pirated film of 2014 with over 30 million illegal downloads (Spangler, 1) and didn’t even gross $117 million, giving the producers and the studio under $17 million after the production cost, which is not a much of a profit at all for such a high-budget film.
Piracy has become more of a problem in the past decade than it ever has before, specifically movie piracy. In fact, a study from Columbia University came out recently that said at least 45% of US citizens pirate movies actively, but that number bumps up to 70% if you include the younger demographics as well (Mick, 2). This act of pirating is growing more and more common every year and most people do it mindlessly, not realizing what it costs. Everyone has seen the text at the beginning of movies saying “Piracy is not a victimless crime,” and this is completely true. Piracy is extremely harmful to the movie industry and its effects are larger than anyone could imagine.
But Where Do These Pirated Movies Come From?
There are many different ways that people pirate movies. One of the most classic ways people pirate is by “leaking” them. This involves a person going into a movie theater with a camera or a phone and recording the movie as it plays. It is usually a poor quality, but many people still download these recordings anyways instead of going to see it in a theater. This usually occurs when it is only in theater since that is the only version most people are able to see. Sometimes these leaks occur before the movie is even premiered, often because it is filmed during a special premier before the opening night. This is referred to as a pre-release, and they tend to result in a 19% decrease in how much the movie makes at the Box Office (Hart, 2). Many people defend pre-releases because it gives a movie more publicity so more people would want to see it, but the facts state otherwise. Leaking a movie that’s in the theaters always tends to decrease how much the movie makes regardless of when it is released and sometimes even leads to the movie not even making as much as there was put into it.
One of the other common ways for a movie to be pirated is for it to be digitally hacked. This one has become more common lately as technology improves. One of the most extreme and recent examples was the Sony hacking. Though some people will claim that Sony faked the hacking, evidence shows that they were legitimately hacked. During this hacking, many of Sony’s movies were released illegally online, such as Annie and Fury (Note: Annie had not even been released yet). A hacking involves someone digitally cracking into the studio or company’s computer system and taking the movie from their files. This logically would actually decrease a movie’s Box Office revenue by even more than someone’s recording of the movie would because it’s a better quality.
There are more ways to watch a pirated movie other than just downloading it online. In fact, some people tend to start their own pirating businesses. It’s very inexpensive and easy for a person to start one of these businesses. More recently, people only need to buy a bunch of blank DVD’s, the same amount of DVD cases and a computer that can burn a DVD. From there, they must find a source to get the pirated movies from. Sometimes they will personally film them in a theater, or find a hacked or leaked version online and download it. After that, all they need to do is download the stolen films onto their blank DVD’s and sell them to anyone who is willing to purchase it. Within a short amount of time, this person has made a great deal of money that should have gone to the movie studios.
What Kind of Effect Does it Have?
Most people would just say that pirating has a small effect on the industry and that the studios already have enough money. They believe watching a movie online isn’t going to hurt anyone. The Motion Picture Association of America looked into this belief and discovered that piracy costs around $20.5 billion annually in the United States alone (Plumer, 2). In fact, a study back in 2005 estimated that a 10% decrease in worldwide piracy, including both film and music, over the course of four years would add 1.5 million jobs, $64 billion in taxes and $400 billion in economic growth (Kai-Lung). That, however, was ten years ago and is outdated. Those numbers are likely to be much higher today due to inflation and an increase in popularity of the film industry. This means that the studios are making much smaller amounts of money than they should be making from their films due to piracy.
Quit Talking Numbers. How Does it Effect My Movie Experience?
The decrease in money from studios will often decrease the quality of other movies and even sequels, but more often it will decrease the quantity. A studio is much more likely to throw all of their money into the next big franchise sequel than give half of it to the franchise and the other half to a movie like Twelve Years a Slave simply because Twelve Years a Slave won’t sell as well in theaters as the franchise movie will. Movie studios and production companies don’t look at reviews and DVD sales nearly as much as they look at the Box Office Revenue, or how much it makes in the theater.
In many cases, piracy of a film will even damage the likeliness of a franchise sequel. For example, the Kick-Ass movies came to an end due to lack of funding from piracy. According to Chloë Grace Moretz who stars as “Hit-Girl” in the series, Kick-Ass 2 was one of the most pirated films of 2013 despite having an extremely low Box Office Revenue (Highfill). Because of this, the plans for the third movie in the series have been cancelled. Whether or not you like the Kick-Ass series, it is clear that piracy has become a serious problem and will only continue to damage the film industry.
What About New Movies That Aren't Franchises Yet?
It is not franchise movies that need to be worried about, though; it is the movies by the independent filmmakers. Due to the increase in film piracy, production companies and movie studios are now much less likely to loan money out to an independent filmmaker with an idea than they are to a team of writers and producers working on a Harry Potter spin-off. When people think of the term ‘independent filmmaker’, they think of a man in his 20’s with an Associates Degree in Theatre that wrote a screenplay in two weeks. Though these people are independent filmmakers, I refer to the higher kind of independent filmmakers that actually make Oscar nominated films, but take out enormous loans to do so. Now, due to piracy, no matter how many Oscars their movie is nominated for, many filmmakers are having to foreclose their houses or take out further loans from a bank to make up for the losses in the Box Office for their film due to piracy. It also means that the studios do not get their money back that they invested with and therefore stop funding films without promises of success like Birdman or The Theory of Everything, both of whom won Oscars this year.
Now Let's Think More Economically...
The loss of money affects more than just the filmmakers and studios, however. It helps the entire economy grow due to tax and job increase. Pirating less films will mean that the studios will get more money, which leads to more movies, which employs people like hairdressers, electricians, actors, costume designers and countless other occupations. This will add more jobs to the United States and will also add more tax money to help the country.
But Is It Really Stealing?
Many people argue that piracy is not illegal because they are not technically stealing anything. Though they are not physically taking away anything from anyone, they are stealing intellectual property. Just because you can’t hold a movie file in your hands does not mean that it is not someone’s property. Downloading a film online is the equivalent of stealing a movie from a movie store. It may not come in the same fancy case as a movie at the store, but it still carries the same contents. By pirating a film, you are stealing the money that should have been paid had you watched the movie legally. You do not have a right to watch whatever movies you want to watch without having to pay for them just as I do not have a right to walk into the local Dollar General and eat their candy bars without paying first. As much as people may argue it, film piracy is stealing. It is not your property, so it is not yours to take without paying for it first.
Going Back to my Original Example at the Beginning of All of This...
The Wolf of Wall Street was 2014’s most pirated movie with over 30 million piracies worldwide. Let’s do the math to see how much money piracy actually robbed this movie of had these people gone to see it in a theater instead. In 2014, the average price of a movie ticket in the United States was $8.17 (Linshi, 1). When a person goes to see a movie in the theater, the money spent on the ticket goes to two different places. It is split between the movie studio and the movie theater, with more going to the theater the longer the movie has been out (Campea). For the purposes of now, let’s average that overall the theater and the studio would each get 50% of the ticket price. Now for the part with the actual math. If each illegal download of The Wolf of Wall Street, which more specifically evens out to around 30,035,000 downloads (Spangler, 1) equals one movie ticket that costs $8.17, and the movie studio only gets half of the amount from each movie ticket, that results in about $122,692,975 that was robbed from Paramount Pictures for just that one movie. That amount stolen was more than the movie actually made in the Box Office, and that is assuming that only one person watched each illegal download. Several of those downloads were most likely copied onto multiple different blank DVD’s and given out to others to watch illegally. That is even more money that was robbed from The Wolf of Wall Street. In the Box Office, the movie barely broke even out of how much they spent making the film. These numbers would have helped the studio, the filmmakers and the crew a lot more in order to make even more Oscar nominated movies. Unfortunately, these thirty million people seemed to overlook that.
Now the Real Question: How Do We Stop Piracy?
It all starts at home, just like it takes a spark to start a fire. Many people argue that “everyone is watching movies illegally online, so why is it different if I do it?” Well the same argument could again go for people that steal candy bars from a store. It may cost more than you like and others may do it, but it is not your property to steal. Like voting, if just one person takes a stand against piracy it will make a difference. Simply quit pirating movies or watching them online. There are many different excuses people use about watching movies online illegally, but it does not override the fact that it is illegal. Even streaming movies online is illegal if it is not authorized by the studio that made the film. If you aren’t willing to pay to watch the film, you aren’t allowed to watch it. This is the way the industry works.
What Can The Theaters Do?
A way for movie theaters to prevent piracy is to change their types of projectors. In the past, the government came up with a way to prevent the filming of a movie in the theaters. They did this by projecting an infrared spectrum over the projected film. This infrared image was not visible to the audience, but it would make the video on the camera someone brought into film the movie into a very low quality that would make the video almost unbearable to watch. Since then technology has improved to attempt to improve the quality of the filmed video regardless of the infrared. Though this has worked to an extent, film pirates have not yet fully recovered from the addition of the infrared. Only more research will be able to help improve the projectors so that this does not happen anymore.
What Happens if Someone gets Caught?!
When it all comes down to it, one of the major reasons you should avoid pirating movies is that its an enormous risk. Since it is illegal, there are certainly punishments for those that choose to break this law. These punishments are severe. For example, if a person is convicted of a misdemeanor in piracy, as in they only downloaded or uploaded a small amount of movies without the owner’s consent, the person would be punished with up to a year of prison time and would have a fine of up to $100,000, depending on the extent of the piracy. That, however, is just for a small offense. For someone that downloads or uploads movies illegally without the owner’s consent in large amounts will be charged with a felony. The punishment of this crime is up to 5 years of imprisonment and up to $250,000 in fines. The fine, though, can be more. In some cases, the fine is set as double what the person gained for pirating the films if they made money off of it, or it set as double the amount of money the person cost the studios he or she stole from (AlanS). In any of these cases, it is clear that movie piracy is not worth the risk.
Piracy is Clearly an Enormous Threat
Filmmakers are in danger of losing their jobs and the movie theaters are in danger of only showing films like Transformers sequels and Terminator reboots. Helping the film industry does not just entail not illegally watching a movie, it also entails going to see those movies in a theater to reverse the mistakes made by those who don’t realize the consequences. Some of the greatest films do not get the proper credibility in the theaters because people are too distracted by other films or because people would think it’s smarter to illegally watch it on their computer than paying to see it in a theater. As stated earlier, this has many more consequences than these people would think, such as taking away jobs, taking over $20.5 billion from the US film industry and decreasing both the quantity and quality of the very movies they are downloading. In addition, is it really worth spending five years of your life in prison just because you didn’t want to pay to watch a movie? It’s time to stop pirating and to stop making excuses for watching a movie illegally online. Film is a form of art. People use it to tell their stories.