Russian Filmmaker Sees Piracy as Path to Obscurity

With few exceptions, a short film has almost no market value today.  Certainly, a short can be the occasional prelude to work that might have market value—either as a calling card for the filmmaker or as a “proof-of-concept” draft for a would-be feature.  But in general, most of the best short films are in a category of their own—conceived and executed as purely artistic expressions with small audiences and limited avenues for revenue-based distribution.

So, when a short film is nominated for an Academy Award, it’s a really big deal.  Particularly at a time when the Academy is justifiably being criticized for a lack of diversity among feature-film nominees, the shorts, documentaries, and foreign films are at least three Oscar categories in which recognition is better immunized against the PR machine that influences the bigger movies.  Almost more importantly, the festival circuit matters a lot. It’s where a short can be seen on a big screen by audiences who truly love cinema, including fellow filmmakers with whom the film’s creator wants to network.  All of this activity ultimately produces more great works through various collaborations and exchanges of ideas.

As reported this week, Russian filmmaker Konstantin Bronzit is literally begging fellow Russians not to pirate his Oscar-nominated short We Can’t Live Without Cosmos, after a festival screener was stolen, digitized and uploaded onto Russian social media.   Of course, Bronzit’s plea isn’t about financial loss, but rather that his film can be disqualified from various festivals around the world.  This is because many of the major festivals have fairly strict entry requirements, limiting the types of exhibition a film is allowed to have before being shown at their venues. And on this matter Bronzit’s choice of words as they appear in the Hollywood Reporter are revealing:

Bronzit called on Russian users to stop illegitimate distribution of We Can’t Live Without Cosmos. “Without festival play, the film will just go into obscurity,” the director said. “Save my film and my work of four years.”

Obscurity.  I’ve heard that word somewhere before. It’s that market purgatory from which piracy supposedly rescues all manner of creative works.  We’ve heard the cliché repeated many of times, even by some creators:  “My problem isn’t piracy, it’s obscurity.”  Yet, here is a filmmaker who offers one very concrete example as to why piracy can damn his film to obscurity, even if lots of people see it online. Counter-intuitive?  Not if you understand the filmmaker’s needs or can at least respect them. Clearly, the standard rationalization for piracy—the rich movie studio trope—doesn’t apply to Bronzit, and since the filmmaker himself is saying he doesn’t want piracy’s “promotional help,” maybe that particular justification for “sharing” his film doesn’t hold water either.

Meanwhile, Adam Leipzig reports for Cultural Weekly, that a new study on the estimated cost of piracy to independent film reveals measurable, economic harm.  Because these smaller films can expect relatively narrow margins–a factor I have cited repeatedly on this blog–the conservative estimates used in the study reflect tangible losses of what Leipzig calls “life and death money for an indie filmmaker.”

Of course, what Konstantin Bronzit’s story throws into sharp relief—and this a basic concept piracy apologists simply cannot seem to grasp—is that what the media pirate and its users do in every single case, regardless of money, is rob the author of his right to choose.  And, if the sanctimonious, faux-progressive, sharing-economy piracy proponents can produce a rationalization for doing that, maybe it’s time they just admit they don’t give a damn about the works or their creators.

© 2016, David Newhoff. All rights reserved.

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