What Do Directors Think When People Make a Torrent for Their Movie?

This question originally appeared on Quora.

2012-02-22-mainthumb3550423200lXG3yklDivaPRmOzvoevyuCVqDDWqVZ7.jpeg Heather Ferreira, film director, 90s H'wood combat vet

As someone directing a feature right now, but who has been forced at certain times to consider downloading music otherwise made distinctly unavailable by the startlingly small cabal of corporations who now own all media in the US, and who dislikes monopolies, I agree with Quora respondent Mr. Lipkowitz. But my feelings are not mixed.

Things are getting better, but I've never been rich. I understood for years what it feels like not to have enough cash in pocket to purchase a listen or a view. I also know what it feels like to contact media companies, beg them to make now-forgotten artist or soundtrack XYZ available for purchase so I and others could spend our money on it, and then be met with either bemused surprise "that we even owned that property" or a stonewalling, bewildering "f--k off." The MPAA and RIAA tell audiences large media companies invite purchases of the movies and songs both organizations claim they are "protecting", and that finding whatever audiences want to buy is easy for the audience. That's not true in all cases.

For instance, I chased a certain 1980s science-fiction movie soundtrack the right way for more than a decade, tracking down and phoning all who had rights to the recording, and begged them all to sell a copy to me. I offered hundreds of dollars for the recording. It originally retailed on vinyl for less than $15.99.

After being ignored for years, talked to rudely by record label and motion picture score licensing executives and their assistants, told "I didn't know we owned that recording..." and directed in circles leading absolutely nowhere, at the end I found a dedicated aficionado who blogs about rare movie soundtracks because they are the passion of his life, and who can tell you every Prokofiev composition John Williams has, er, homaged, because movie music is his life's passion, whose blog serves as a public resource to inform audiences of great movie soundtracks the large corporations are not making them aware of, and to make them available to those who want to learn about and love them -- and the gentleman sent me a copy of my desired soundtrack, which he had, free.

Is what I did wrong? Or is what he did?

After fruitless years of searching and begging the rights owners "the right way"?

Here's how it affects me, directing: If my next film fails to be mediocre enough to satisfy the taste of those delicate little former intern studio execs who sip lattes, name their babies "Brooklyn" and "Max," and take spinning classes at Crunch, and because it is violent it is not made available to mass audiences; and if those audiences however loved it at the tiny festival that ran it; and then can't find a DVD of it because I was too stupid or lazy to make it available -- and then, in frustration at me and the studios they find and download a torrent of it, and love it all over again, does that make those audiences "criminals"?

Come now, folks; come on.

We're all familiar with recent attempts by former Senator Chris Dodd, lobbyists for his Motion Picture Association of America and for the Recording Industry Association of America, and certain not at all well-meaning congressmen, to enact and get passed two terrible ideas, SOPA and PIPA. We've been told these two bills are harmless to the internet, and that their lamblike only intent is to stop piracy, because the movie and music industries are desperately losing blood, and only the MPAA and RIAA exist to heroically save them.

Here's my problem with that.

I am directing a movie. I've written a B movie that got made by an actual studio.
(Cue pimp voice.) "Chris Dodd, where my money at?"

The MPAA has six major studios, such as Warner, Disney and others, listed as "members" of it. But a little research reveals the MPAA started as the MPPDA, or the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America. MGM and two other studios formed the group in 1922. They chose a former Presbyterian minister, Will Hays, as their chairman. Unlike Chris Dodd, who's no prize, Hays was a Republican: in fact for three years he was Republican National Committee chairman. This guy became the head of the MPAA with their blessing. (Indie producers at the time disliked him and the MPAA, and sued them, calling them a "trust" -- which now, like then, they still are.) Hays enacted what we call the Hays Code, which drafted draconian rules censoring what movie directors like me, and some of you out there reading this, could show or say in a movie.

One of the rules the MPAA gave us was we could never show homosexuality in a picture. They called it "the sex perversion." (Google and Wikipedia this for extra credit.)

Another thing our friends the MPAA told us we could not depict were interracial relationships. Their term for this was "miscegenation."

(Visit www.mpaa.org/about/history for a great belly laugh at how frantically today's MPAA tries to spin this era in their history.)

Thus what I see when I examine the MPAA is not a friendly guardian of feature film directors' rights, even at the studio level. Instead, I see a very large lobby that began as a Christian right-wing organization instituted to keep minorities off motion picture screens, promote racism and homophobia, and restrict creative freedom in America. That's how the MPAA began.

Now they are curiously interested in the internet.

This is the moment we would instruct the score composer beside us in the editing room to cue an ominous minor key double whole-note on the contrabasses and cellos.

The Motion Picture Association of America has never written me a paycheck for anything. They're not backing my picture. These are not nice guys. They are not in this business to help filmmakers at all.

They're censors waiting to pounce my film and yours with an NC-17 rating for violence or for showing two consenting adults laughing while enjoying sex (rape, however, is okay), while curiously no one censors the news media for showing my toddler second cousin Josh Powell's house burning down on daytime television with two toddlers just like her inside it, or informing me over breakfast that some Canadian guy sliced off a fellow Greyhound bus passenger's head and began to eat him while other passengers screamed, or showing eight-year-olds Paris Hilton's latest upskirt with very little pixelated out.

Isn't that pauseworthy? If there's no censors for the news, why for dramatic movies and television?

Anyway, I owe the MPAA nothing. They're not my or any other feature director's friends. They are a censoring organization not entirely dissimilar from The Parents Music Resource Center.

Cut, back to one.

Many musicians and singer-songwriters I know here in New York, and knew in Los Angeles, who never received a paycheck from the RIAA, feel the same. Where are the class action lawsuit award paychecks for these musicians from RIAA v. Jammie Thomas-Rasset? If either the MPAA or RIAA made actual financial support efforts towards filmmakers and musicians, e.g. the MPAA earmarking 10-30% of all anti-piracy legal victory awards towards funding independent filmmakers and their projects, or the RIAA making regular and substantial donations from their anti-piracy legal victories to musician-support foundations such as the JFA, or pointing portions of those awards towards funding music education in schools, then I might understand their philosophy. But the fact stands the MPAA and RIAA benefit nobody except their overhead and their attorneys.

There is profit in crusading. That's why there are so many charities. Do you really think Komen gave a real damn about saving women? As someone who has given to charities -- and I am sure you have too -- haven't you at times wondered why we still haven't found that cure, or gotten those children fed, after all this time and exhaustive money, really?

It might be because if these things ever did get truly done, the money to their charities would switch off. Think about it.

Crusading against others "fur die Kinder" has always been profitable. The MPAA and RIAA are using the same gimmick to line their pockets. "It's for the artists!" they claim. That's a very interesting claim.

Not one member of my industry I know has ever received dime one from them. They use us as hostages to strengthen their lobbies, as human shields to promote their fundraising campaigns (aka court cases), and alienate the audience against us with hysterical, hyperbolic legal jihads designed to make them and their professional paid lobbyists richer, but directors, musicians, songwriters, audiences, and American culture all the poorer.

And then they censor us.

What the MAFIAA fails to realize is p2p is not a black and white issue of "piracy is wrong; all of it; and if you didn't pay us, you're a criminal."

Lots of good people have been trying to pay to see lots of good films and hear lots of good music. But when those who moved aggressively to buy "ownership" of film and music are making aggressive efforts clearly designed to suppress public awareness of and access to quality entertainment and instead push, promote and force audiences to the mostly substandard media of this present era, and making few or no efforts to meet audience demand for the "good stuff," what is an audience to do?

If you want audiences to like your product, so make good, original new product, make it affordable in this economy, and turn the volume down on those movie trailers. Seems simple enough to me.

Mr. Lipkowitz is further correct when he says, "On the neutral side, unless the director has equity participation in the film, piracy does not directly impact their paycheck. Their fee is contractual." That's absolutely spot-on.

Piracy does not affect me at all, which is why, for example, Penelope Spheeris' stumble head-first into a hornet's-nest of online infamy and ridicule by openly criticizing something that does not affect her filmmaking future continues to confuse me and make me feel sorry for her. Spheeris apparently wanted notoriety, and believe me, she got it. I disagree with her and am fine with people downloading my films. People have downloaded mpegs of television material I've directed. They later came back and bought DVDs of it because they prefer DVD quality and that "hands to the touch" feeling of actual ownership. Most people do, and the MPAA pretends this isn't true and they don't understand this. If they like it well enough, they'll contact me for the real thing.

Lipkowitz continues, "On the negative side, piracy causes investors and distributors to reduce their revenue projections for future films. This will result in fewer films getting made and reduced budgets for those that do. Fewer films means fewer jobs for all creative and crew. Reduced budgets (among other things) can result in lower fees for key creative." I would amend his otherwise spot-on commentary so that the final sentence reads instead,

"Reduced budgets (among other things) can result in lower fees for key UNION creative."

For independent non-shop filmmakers and key crew, reduced budgets should not impact production quality or quality of life reflected in salaries. What reduced studio budgets adversely impact are studio features made that cost $150MM, the standard A-list movie budget today. One significant reason for these obscene prices is union pressure.

When a picture becomes shop (union), you should multiply your budget by at least three, because in the case of directors, which you asked about, a union director is DGA. All DGA pictures must be "maintenanced": this means only union crew members can work on it. This is when you begin seeing crew end credits such as "assistant standby," and your location fills with people who will not even be moving things or working, but instead standing joking and chewing gum and eating craft services while not actually doing anything, and your budget must pay them all union wages, health and pension. That's bad for the unions and bad for us. It's insulting to unions.

At its worst, the set then becomes an exclusive little "club" of 1 percenters who readily claim they are 99 percenters off set, with a knowing wink to each other, and erect 2-story rubber rats to terrorize films and companies who won't lie down for the beatdown as commanded.

Unions are ripping moviemakers and studios off: not as individuals, mind you, because true union men and women work hard at their craft; but there are many freeloaders who get union cards because of luck or connections, and won't do a damned thing on set, but get paid for it -- and owing to the power of numbers and the threat of what together those numbers can do -- called by one side terrorism and by the other solidarity -- you can't escape being maintenanced, and the moment your film is, its budget inflates to seven, eight or nine figures.

As the individual workers themselves, unions are just awesome and that is all. As collective organizations, they are as nuanced and corrupt as the studios they despise, and absolutely 100 percent as greedy, and possibly more.

Bear in mind also that most A-list celebrities are members of Screen Actors Guild. Their top actors are also members of the 1 percent and make more in 45 days than any teachers in America will make their entire lifetime, and more than the GNP of many small developed countries.

They make $25MM+ per picture because their union, the Screen Actors Guild, is well-financed and extremely corrupt, and what SAG wants, SAG gets. They have rigged the industry so you virtually cannot make an A-list picture without kissing the ring of the capodecina and depositing a third of your little laundromat's income to their Mafia. Lowered movie budgets automatically point a bright Maglite of purity upon this dark, swirling cesspool of corruption.

I welcome reduced budgets for motion pictures. Lower budgets increase the creativity on location. More camaraderie often develops. Stories get smarter; tighter; better. The fat gets trimmed and we're brought down to the lean, the true grit of the story. That's what filmmaking's for. If torrent piracy causes this by forcing budgets to come down and fewer films to be made, then so be it.

If in retrospect we find that piracy is what it took to do that, it was long overdue, the industry was bloated and ill and frankly needed it, and then maybe tough love was the answer and it was worth it to save the movie industry and force a return in it to ingenuity, hard work and creativity.

So this rather long answer, at least from this movie director, is that my response to those who download a torrent of my current film is meh, with an addendum of:

  • "Thanks. I hope you enjoyed it."
  • "Please make the effort to track down my studio and contact me. Give me notes on what you liked or didn't about the film, so I can do even better."
  • "If you really liked it, please consider buying the DVD of it in the future, when your finances permit that you can. I promise to include cool easter eggs and other goodies you couldn't download, and make it worth it."
  • "Then, because of your support, I can make more of it."

That's all, really. Any further commentary to them would be shrugworthy. They're a potential paying future audience member. The technology has changed. The playing field is different now. We need to adapt to it, not it to us. The above is my adaptation. Thanks for asking me this fascinating question!

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