Dear piracy apologists: Downloading unreleased films is not cool

Commentary: Even in the age of Spotify and Netflix, the movie-going experience remains largely intact. Not because of greed, but because filmmaking has no good alternative.

Nick Statt Former Staff Reporter / News
Nick Statt was a staff reporter for CNET News covering Microsoft, gaming, and technology you sometimes wear. He previously wrote for ReadWrite, was a news associate at the social-news app Flipboard, and his work has appeared in Popular Science and Newsweek. When not complaining about Bay Area bagel quality, he can be found spending a questionable amount of time contemplating his relationship with video games.
Nick Statt
7 min read

Actors Jason Statham and Harrison Ford attend "The Expendables 3" photocall during the 67th Annual Cannes Film Festival on May 18, 2014 in Cannes, France. Getty Images

Two weekends ago, I attempted to see Richard Linklater's "Boyhood" and failed miserably. Not only did I arrive at the only theater in San Francisco that was playing the indie film at around 2 p.m. on a Sunday, but I did so with the naive notion that it wouldn't be sold out. It was -- every showing until 9 p.m. was full.

So I left. In fact, I still haven't seen it. "Boyhood" now has wider distribution so it will be easier to grab a ticket when I make the time to catch the 164-minute movie, a portrait of growing up filmed over 12 years with the same cast.

Despite my frustration at not being able to see "Boyhood" when I wanted to, I never once considered torrenting it. Not because it was an indie film, because I admire Linklater, or because it may actually be hard to find a high-quality leak. But because it is simply not cool to decide that just because I can -- just because some form of media exists out there in the world -- that I deserve to have it, now and for free. (In the case of "Boyhood," to see it before its wide release with minimal effort.)

"The Expendables 3" and the era of entitlement

Even as Spotify and Netflix have undermined the value of digital media in an effort to get us to actually pay for access to music and TV instead of stealing it, film piracy struggles against a system that is designed on exclusivity. Torrenters rejoice over early leaks, wielding the argument that film piracy hurts no one because the majority of pirates wouldn't see the film anyway and a digital copy of a movie is fundamentally less valuable than a ticket to see it in person, on a bigger screen and sitting in a comfy chair.

That debate is raging yet again. Though this time it's over a big-budget action film: Sylvester Stallone's "The Expendables 3," a leak of which has been downloaded hundreds of thousands of times since it surfaced this past weekend, three weeks before its release. While there is no golden rule on film piracy right's and wrong's, the argument that it's an inevitability for the industry -- alongside the ludicrous idea that it will actually make a meaningful portion of torrenters pay to see it in theaters -- doesn't make downloading an unreleased film any less wrong.

"The Expendables 3" leaked three weeks prior to its release. It has since been downloaded more than 200,000 times. Lionsgate

This isn't about greedy Hollywood putting the brakes on innovation, pricing out the average Joe and refusing to serve us what we want, when we want it. Nor is it really about the value of a film in the long run and how best to pay people for their art in a world continuously moving toward subscription services. That's a similar yet separate argument more in line with a discussion about when and to what extent the industry's DNA will need to change to address that shift.

Rather, this is about who owns something and the rights of that entity, whether it's an indie filmmaker or a large studio, to distribute it as they see fit. We, the audience, don't own films. We didn't pay to have them made, did not invest our time or energy into creating them, and don't get to dictate the terms of where and when and for how much they're available unless we telegraph that transactionally. In other words, don't buy the movie ticket if you don't agree with the parameters.

Studio films, as well as indies with measured releases like "Boyhood," rely on the current system to make back costs and turn a profit. Film releases are designed to maximize that until it's prohibitive, whereupon availability widens. Downloading that product early out of pure convenience is not just illegal, but it's also doing nothing to help usher the film industry's business model toward a more economically sound and digitally-focused future.

Being unable to see the film because it isn't yet in theaters is not the same as running into an artificially constructed blockade. That's why torrenting "The Expendables 3" before its release date is not equivalent to downloading "Game of Thrones" because you can't afford HBO, or because the network's content deals make viewing new episodes unnecessarily difficult. (Looking at you, Australia.)

The case for piracy as preview

The counterarguments, those of piracy apologists, are usually ripped from the world of music, video games, and television. That is oddly despite the fact that the purveyors of all three of those media formats have put nearly everything they can afford to on subscription services or have combated piracy through digital rights management-enforcing applications, like Valve has with its game marketplace Steam.

David Pierce of The Verge made the argument that "The Expendables 3" is actually aided by the leak in a piece titled, "I torrented 'The Expendables 3' and I'm still going to see it in theaters."

"Really, 'The Expendables 3' isn't a film. It's a show," he writes. "And that's not something you'd want to watch on a 13.3-inch MacBook Air or even a 47-inch TV. You go see it live." That's a forward-looking populist notion, for sure, resting on the suggestion that films should be designed to entice us to pay the ticket price. However, it ignores the fact that there is zero evidence to suggest someone comfortable enough to torrent an unreleased film would then pay money to re-watch it -- or that that idea could ever translate outside action films.

I certainly agree that the only films that seemingly over-perform these days -- "The Avengers" and Marvel Studios' movies, "Godzilla," "Pacific Rim," "Transformers," to name a few -- are all about spectacle. That's not just because explosions and crappy scripts are easy filmmaking, but because it makes an IMAX, 3D ticket that costs $19 worth the money.

Optimus Prime riding a robot dinosaur is a good way to get you to see a movie in IMAX 3D. Screenshot by Nick Statt/CNET

The problem with the idea that that should set the bar is that films are not now, nor will they be for the foreseeable future, universally comparable to music concerts. Live shows are primarily how artists make money these days as piracy and Spotify have sucked the value out of albums and songs as a product. Filmmakers will never have the luxury of easily reformatting their art's replay value so as to be able to charge a significant multiplier of the ticket or album cost.

Instead, most studios meticulously plan release dates, trailer reveals, and launch all sorts of expensive, occasionally outrageous marketing campaigns, all for the box office payoff. Movies succeed or fail based on that performance, while the word "flop" is just as important as it ever was. Ticket prices have been kept reasonably in check -- average prices have gone up $2.13, from $6.03 to $8.13, over the last 10 years -- in exchange for overcharging on popcorn and add-ons. That's all to get people to leave their homes and sit in a large room with strangers to see a movie before it's legally permissible to do so outside the theater.

Why is there no Spotify or Netflix for new releases?

The most plausible argument for why the film industry has remained static with regards to releases is that piracy doesn't noticeable harm a big-budget film's performance. It may even just be equatable to the amount of money that might have been spent on creating the extra buzz through marketing. Even "The Expendables 3," which has been downloaded north of 200,000 times, is only losing out on a maximum of roughly $1.6 million if every single one of those people planned on seeing the film in theaters -- which is not the case we can assume.

That's a paltry amount compared with the $312 million box office haul of "The Expendables 2." As Pierce points out, these films are designed to be watched on the big screen, and if anything, there are some people who won't forgo the opportunity to pay to do so just because they watched it at home on their laptop two weeks prior.

Yet that argument ignores the fact that leaks don't hurt "The Expendables 3" and "Transformers 4" as much as they hurt the industry as a whole, specifically the ability for untested ideas in the hands of directors and actors that aren't Sylvester Stallone or Michael Bay to try something interesting and unique. We often complain about "sequelitis" and the onslaught of low-quality, brainless action movies and series reboots, yet don't ever seem to take responsibility for the fact that our collective unwillingness to pay for things that don't have formulaic payout is what drives creative decision making.

In the current model, everything from "Boyhood" and "12 Years A Slave" to "Zero Dark Thirty" and "Gravity" are more harmed by systemic piracy because it devalues films as an art form. Risks are not rewarded when the only movie with a concrete return on its investment is a $200 million narrative train wreck about robot cars or a tongue-and-cheek ensemble action flick featuring Rocky, the former governor of California, and Han Solo.


Of course, there are a lot of question marks about the role of film in the age of digital media, when the supply of a piece of media online is limitless and the cost of copying it is pretty much zero.

Maybe in the future, filmmakers really will bypass the current model and movie-going will become more like a concert or sporting match, with new releases arriving on your streaming set-top box on opening day. Using crowdfunding and other financing tactics, a truly online-first industry may rest on self-releasing, either for free immediately on the Internet or on a direct-to-consumer model, Louis C.K.-style. Studios, theatrical releases, and expensive marketing campaigns might be reserved for the blockbuster franchises and the most expensive projects, less the norm than the remnants of the old guard.

But until that happens, wait for the movie to hit theaters and pay for the ticket if you want to see it. If you don't want to pay for that, then wait until Netflix or your on-demand service of choice or HBO Go or whatever it is that exists to stop us from blatantly stealing something picks it up. That's the price we pay-- not the one we have to, but the one we should.