There's a school of thought that widespread piracy can be to the filmmaker's benefit but that seems driven by a defeatist attitude that says the pirates/downloaders are always going to be one step ahead with the technology and their ability to skirt the law, so why bother fighting it?
I'll admit [brother] Cameron and I were both shocked and flattered to learn that tens of thousands of people illegally downloaded our film 100 Bloody Acres.
But if we're serious about the sustainability of independent filmmaking in a very tough environment, we need to deal with the issue that a large portion of a film's potential audience believe it's fine not to pay for your film. The "try before you buy" claim of some who download seems disingenuous… while no doubt some people might go off and "do the right thing" when the opportunity arises (and questions of timing and accessibility are key considerations in looking at solutions), why would they when there is so much more product waiting to be consumed?
The ultimate impact to the people who have downloaded an indie film (in our case 35,000+ people) is that they are inadvertently compromising opportunities for the filmmakers to make another film. Downloaders may have enjoyed the film, shared it with their networks, and might even be looking forward to the next one, but in denying the film significant revenue, they may in fact be helping to create an even greater risk-averse approach amongst investors. This in turn could limit the volume, and perhaps more importantly, the diversity of independent and genre fare available to audiences.
Future investors may look at the box office results of an independent film and wonder if certain filmmakers and genres are really worth investing in. Grand ideas in circulation like "wow, they were downloaded so many times that they must be popular and people must like their film" hold little water in the world of those who decide what gets supported.
This is a cultural, generational issue, exacerbated by, and tangled up with, problems in the way that the industry handles its product. As an industry, we've been slow to respond, but it's not too late; we have to tackle these issues, for the survival of the independent scene in particular. Films like ours that rely on building word of mouth are the ones whose potential margins are the easiest to erode.
Just because the activity has been apparently normalised, doesn't mean it's right. Maybe we can engage with that "lost" audience, find out how it likes to consume film and how we can bring them back into the paying fold. Clearly a cinema release is not the be all and end all now. That will mean filmmakers, distributors, exhibitors and audiences trying to understand each others' needs and habits, and all making some compromises.
There's been a bit of talk lately about theatrical windows and how limited release films with little advertising spend, such as the one we made, might benefit from substantially closing that gap, and we agree that the current system is totally outmoded for a film like ours. We know there are people out in the suburbs or in regional areas who have downloaded the film because there was no other way of seeing it, although their inner city cousins may have had access to a single screen (assuming they knew it was playing).
The current situation in Australia is a relic from a pre-YouTube, pre-bit torrent past, where there were more screens devoted to alternative product, and the pirating of VHS and DVDs may have existed, but was a pretty labour intensive and more easily investigated crime! What used to be arthouse or alternative cinemas are playing the same Hollywood product you see in the shopping centre multiplexes, and that's a reasonable business decision.
But it means we've given people another excuse to illegally download films like ours because they're harder than ever to see the "old school" way. Filmmakers working with lower budgets and P&A spends are screwed if they get caught up in the dated model we have now. So we need to either fix that release model so that it offers scope for ALL films to find their audience and make everyone a buck, or to join with fellow filmmakers and other lateral thinkers to create a new model.
Co-Director/Writer, 100 Bloody Acres