Pirates of Sundance

Forget Sony Classics. Try getting your film picked up by online movie pirates.

Sundance, in Park City, Utah

Film piracy, the conventional wisdom goes, is a threat to the film industry at all levels. That’s certainly the sense at the Sundance Film Festival, where both the festival and distributors invest heavily in anti-piracy measures, including undercover agents who attend screenings to capture illicit videotapers. But it turns out that they may be wasting their money. Sundance films, present and past, simply do not register in the online pirate world—unless they are one of the few that have already made it big (like Clerks or Little Miss Sunshine). This proves two things: When it comes to content piracy, obscurity, not security, is the best defense. It also demonstrates that movie pirates are fundamentally parasitic, not predatory.

My interest in this topic came from experiencing how difficult it is to get into even very bad Sundance films. For the public, tickets are scarce and assigned by lottery, and even a press pass is no guarantee. That’s why I decided to try using BitTorrent to re-create Sundance in my Park City, Utah, living room. No more cold, no more lines, and no more pesky Q&As with the director, so I reasoned.

But the experiment failed. Not a single 2008 Sundance film is on any major pirate site that I could find. That might be accounted for by anti-piracy measures, but here’s the kicker: There are also almost no 2007 films on leading pirate sites, and none of last year’s Sundance “hits.” The online pirate world and the Sundance world are, as far as I can tell, separate domains.

Why this result? The simplest explanation is that it takes a critical mass of interest—lots of people who want to see a film—before it will get decent pirate distribution. There are a number of reasons for this, but, crucially, every step of the piracy distribution system relies on knowing that the film exists at all. Moreover, to get effective, fast distribution on a peer-to-peer network, you need lots of reliable peers—enough people willing to share the burden of distributing the film online.

In the end, it’s a numbers game. How many people want to see the film? Of those, which will get access, break the protection, and put it online? How many will download it, and of those, how many will share the burden of allowing others to download it? These numbers determine whether a film is online at all and mark the difference between a BitTorrent download that takes one hour, and one that takes five days or doesn’t work at all.

My favorite film at Sundance 2008 was A Complete History of My Sexual Failures, a documentary about an English waster who interviews each of his old girlfriends to figure out why they dumped him. His project is mostly a failure and leads to various forms of humiliation, including a series of attempts to cure his malfunctioning penis.

My Sexual Failures might be as entertaining, if not quite as subtle, as Michael Clayton—but you’ve almost certainly heard of the latter and not the former. And that’s why you can find a pirated copy of Michael Clayton in about five minutes flat, but, unless my brief rave has some outsized effect, you probably won’t be able to ever find History.

What this suggests is that film pirates are not predators but parasites. They do not roam around looking for new and unknown films to eat, but rather prey on big films with name recognition. Some pirates also seem to take pride in landing the “big film,” and, by that measure, documentaries about the Pentagon’s classification policies (Secrecy) do not measure up. In a sense, this is more bad news for independent filmmakers. Forget about Sony Classics: It’s not all that easy to get distribution on the Pirate Bay.

The pattern I’ve described puts the lie to several pet theories. One is that piracy brings undiscovered or obscure films to arty audiences that are otherwise suppressed. Not so, at least on the evidence of Sundance piracy. As I’ve said, good independent films don’t move the needle on piracy sites. Of course, it’s different when filmmakers try not to beat pirates but join them. A filmmaker can voluntarily seed her film to try to achieve an underground reputation and spur good piracy distribution. Last year, a film named Four-Eyed Monstersgot somewhere this way—landing on YouTube and BitTorrent after failing to get traditional distribution. But a significant hurdle remains: The film needs to be watchable. Consider We Are the Strange, a highly experimental film from 2007 Sundance, whose trailer, let me assure you, is better than trying to sit through the whole thing.

On the other hand, the no-Sundance-on-BitTorrent scenario also suggests that online piracy, while a threat, may be a different kind of threat to the industry than is commonly supposed. Online video piracy may hurt industry revenue (particularly DVD revenue), but the effects will be felt by enormously successful films and TV shows that millions of people want to see. Pirates prey on Titanic and The Wire, not Secrecy and Reversion. And while this may be a stretch, I’d speculate that if piracy gets more mainstream, it may mean that film studios will make more bets on more smaller-budget films instead of relying on the one blockbuster that used to earn tens of millions but now becomes a target for millions of leeches.

Is Sundance really wasting its time trying to stop piracy? If it’s a film that already has a major distributor, or is likely to get one, it makes sense to try to slow down the inevitable pirating of the film. But for films at Sundance that have virtually no shot at distribution, if the filmmakers want the film to be seen, they might be slightly better off letting people tape and distribute the film as they like—maybe someone will watch it. Even so, that isn’t likely to happen. For that would mean accepting that your film isn’t going anywhere, and at Sundance that kind of pessimism is strictly verboten.

Finally, are there actually pirates at Sundance? I doubt it. Most people are too busy trying to get into parties to bother uploading stuff on BitTorrent. Upstanding citizens are the norm. About the closest thing I ran into resembling a pirate was a white-haired Dennis Hopper, back to play in one last motorcycle film.