The Hurt Locker was one of those rare war movies that transcends the action and violence, and managed to portray the soldiers as humans whom we could all empathise with.
It has an audience score of 84% on Rotten Tomatoes, and a critics score of 98%. The movie received almost universal acclaim, winning six Academy Awards, including best picture. This put it in the league of Mad Max: Fury Road, and The Godfather Part 2.
It was also the lowest grossing best picture winner in history, pulling in just under $50 million worldwide. While everyone was talking about it in 2009, it was only the 116th highest grossing movie of the year.
The problem was that by the time of the Academy Awards a high quality pirate copy of the movie had been online for over a year — months before it even appeared in the cinemas. Its Oscar nominations and wins led to a spike in pirate downloads, jumping to over 10 million in the days following the win.
Admittedly, some argue that piracy helps market movies, actually boosting revenue (See the Custos Whitepaper for an explanation of the argument). Research done at Carnegie Mellon University shows that this does not outweigh the negative effect of piracy — a pre-release leads on average to a 19.1% decrease in revenue.
The pre-release leak of Hurt Locker is not an exception. Movies nominated for awards are more likely to end up being leaked than others. Between 2003 and 2017, on average 93% of Oscar nominated films were available online as high quality pirate copies.
While not all of these leaks were screener (advance copies of movies sent to competition judges or the press) leaks, typically about half are. For the 2017 Oscar season, 34 of the 37 nominated movies were leaked, of which 10 are expected to be screener leaks. This compares to only 10% of non-nominated movies being leaked prior to release. If you are an indie studio and you don’t make a great movie, no one is going to watch it. If you do make a great movie, everyone is going to watch it, but they won’t necessarily pay you.
A big reason for this is that screeners are still distributed as physical copies on DVDs or Blu-Ray disks*. These movies are mailed or couriered to thousands of judges. This means there’s a long chain of custody that the film companies do not have control over. What is more, after the movie is watched, the copy can be lost or stolen.
Smaller, more nimble organisations have started moving to digital distribution platforms for their screeners, such as Screener Copy**. With Screener Copy, a film distributor or creator uploads their movie, creates a list of emails of the intended recipients, after which links are delivered to their inboxes. The viewers can then stream the movie on any device, or even download the movie to watch later. Unlike with physical copies, the person who sent the movie can actually view who has opened the link and who watched the film. Each copy that is sent out is protected by Custos’s proprietary technology. It uses forensic watermarking with active Bitcoin payloads to incentivise the viewer to protect their copy. If a copy is leaked, within seconds the Custos blockchain technology platform informs the owner about the incident and the identity of the leaker, and suggests mitigating steps to limit your exposure.
It is a tragedy that the best movies being produced are being hit the hardest by piracy. The people pushing boundaries and taking the risks are not being rewarded. If we want these amazing artworks to continue being created, we need to fight back. According to Nicolas Chartier, the producer of Hurt Locker and Dallas Buyers Club,
“Everybody is making fewer movies because the movies are making less and less money. And one of the big things is the fact that people think movies are for free.”
*For the millennials, DVDs and Blu-Rays were physical discs that stored a single movie. It was like a flash drive that could only be used once. People used it before the age of the internet, and there were actually stores where you could rent a single disk for an evening. Ask your parents about it, they might still have some.
**For $40 worth of free Screener Copy credits, click here.