Independent film is in jeopardy, but Congress can help

a photo of popcorn and movie tickets

To be a film producer is to be, at some level, a risk-taker. It’s simply the nature of the business, where films are both creative endeavors and multimillion-dollar investments – where risk is part and parcel of reward.

Deciding to finance and produce a film requires significant experience, hopefully some good instincts, and an iron stomach. When calculated risks pay off, it’s one of the greatest feeling in the world. Last year, my producing partners and I produced “Crazy Rich Asians,” the first studio film to feature an Asian cast since 1993’s “The Joy Luck Club.” There was literally no precedent for a movie like this, and though we obviously believed in it, we had no idea how it would perform at the box office.

“Crazy Rich Asians” would go on to be successful at the box office – but the best part was not the earnings, or the critical acclaim, or the awards, though those were all wonderful developments. It was what every producer strives for – the simple assurance that we were successful enough to keep the lights on, to guarantee another go-around and another chance to, once again, provide hundreds, if not thousands, of jobs on the next productions.

For all the aforementioned risk involved, the film and television industry is an often overlooked engine of the United States economy – providing 2.1 million jobs and $139 billion in wages for hardworking Americans every year. It takes a village to make a movie – literally.

I’ve been producing films for over 25 years – and participating in this ecosystem remains a thrilling endeavor. But, times have changed. We always accepted that risk was part of the game, but now, with the advent of digital piracy, we’re playing against a stacked deck.

Because our country’s lax internet laws have failed to hold companies like Google and Facebook accountable, piracy – and particularly, streaming piracy – is rampant online. YouTube is rife with illegally uploaded videos, and the site has failed to give creatives the necessary tools to deal with the scale of the problem. Facebook has a sizeable issue with movie piracy through its “Groups” feature, and the company can’t (or won’t) do anything about it.

It’s difficult to comprehend how easy it has become to steal the works I have dedicated my professional life to making. Even the most fearless producers turn pale when we see reports like this one from Digital TV Research, which predicts that, by 2022, online piracy will cost the U.S. film and television industry $52 billion annually.

I’m incredibly worried about new filmmakers – artists scrambling to finance passion projects on razor-thin budgets. These new creatives understand that risk is part of independent filmmaking, but piracy makes the risk almost insurmountable. Piracy is an existential threat to the next generation of cinematic voices in America.

Think I’m being dramatic? Think again. In 2002, “In the Bedroom,” a film I produced, made over $43 million at the global box office, with a budget of only $2.5 million. Even now, those numbers would be impressive. For an example of the harm modern piracy could do to a film like “In the Bedroom,” one needs look no further than the acclaimed 2017 indie drama “Lady Bird.” Like “In the Bedroom,” it was made on a small budget and then went on to theatrical success – grossing $71 million – on the strength of its storytelling and cast. “Lady Bird” sold around 10 million tickets worldwide, at an average price of $7 per ticket. During its theatrical run, it was also illegally downloaded more than 16 million times – meaning that the piracy number was over 50 percent higher than legal ticket sales.

Now, anti-copyright naysayers will contend that most of the 16 million people who pirated “Lady Bird” would not have paid to see it. But, what if even just 5 percent of those views had been legal, at an average cost of $7 per ticket? The movie would have made $5.6 million in additional revenue! – a sum that is life or death to an independent filmmaking team.

This pervasive problem is the primary reason I went to Capitol Hill in November. Partnering with CreativeFuture, an organization advocating for the rights of creatives, I met with lawmakers to discuss how creative professionals’ livelihoods are under attack.

In the film and television industry, we make entertainment that inspires, challenges, delights, and often times affects profound change on individuals and society. We are proud stewards of the world’s most vital and influential art form, but right now, our most vulnerable creators are in jeopardy. Congress must do something to stop rampant digital piracy, because losing our independent cinematic works is a risk that even Hollywood’s most daring thrill-seekers have no interest in facing.

A prominent industry executive since his start with legendary director Sidney Lumet, John Penotti has produced over 45 films independently, including the Golden Globe®-nominated “Crazy Rich Asians,” the Korean phenomenon “The Wailing,” and Netflix’s Hindi-language series “Delhi Crime.” Penotti’s other films include “Hell or High Water” and “In the Bedroom,” amongst others.


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