With easy access comes easy hypocrisy.

I can’t help but be aware of a disturbing harmonic buzz in my head when I read two stories on the same day that point to a particular digital age dichotomy. Remember Sarah Jones? You might have helped her story go viral. Sarah was a camera assistant, who was killed when she was struck by a train during filming of the Gregg Allman biopic Midnight Rider. I read today that the producers of that now-cancelled project have surrendered themselves to Georgia State authorities to face charges of involuntary manslaughter stemming from the February 20 disaster. But also today, I read that the app Popcorn Time, which makes movie piracy easy for everyone with its Netflix-like interface, is being “improved” for the Android platform. The hypocrisy underlying the concurrence of these stories is typical of our times. The same technology that enables people to know about Sarah, to share her story, even to join the campaign pledging better on-set safety, also allows some of the very same individuals to flick a thumb and start pirating motion pictures that are made by tens of thousands of people just like Sarah.

Here’s a clue:  if you enjoy motion pictures and actually care at all about the well being of the individuals who do the heavy lifting to make those films happen, don’t pirate. It’s a no-brainer. In an effort to justify this behavior, you can quibble all you like about where you think (because you actually don’t know) the money goes; but in general, the money (a.k.a. the project investment) pays for worker wages, union support, insurances, location fees, and, yes, safety procedures and personnel. Unfortunately, accidents and negligence still happens; and it is always the responsibility of managers and fellow crew members to keep checks on our ingrained culture that wants to get the shot at almost any cost. Surely, firsthand accounts of the Midnight Rider production sound like the kind of amateurish crap that goes on all the time and thankfully only rarely results in serious injury or death. So, while I’d certainly stop short of saying piracy kills filmmakers, I will not hesitate to say that, in general, economic stability is better for maintaining worker safety in every industry. And we have yet to fully see the effects of piracy on this industry.

We have a bad habit of talking about piracy with regard to finished and popular filmed entertainment. Partly, this is because it suits piracy’s supporters to say things like “XYZ tentpole made a gazillion dollars, so piracy does no harm and probably even helps.” But for every Avengers and Game of Thrones out there, there are hundreds or thousands of small and medium budget pictures being made, many of which are the films most treasured by serious fans. 

Digital-age utopians love to extoll the virtues of independent, guerrilla filmmaking; and when they do, it’s a little like listening to middle-class white kids gripe about the struggle of some oppressed minority. It’s both true and utter bullshit at the same time, especially if the self-appointed proponent of indie filmmaking is also pro-piracy. The reality is none of these people has a clue about the very specific set of skills Sarah Jones had developed and was developing in her role as an AC. Those skills don’t come cheap, and neither should they. But among the indisputable ill effects of piracy is that it exerts economic pressure on the industry as a whole, and it will always be the small to midsize, indie producers who will present the earliest symptoms of the diseases caused by this pressure. These symptoms may include lower standard wages for skilled workers and/or shortcuts around various production practices that affect general working conditions, including safety. 

Yes, Sarah’s untimely and entirely avoidable death should be a wake-up call to production teams everywhere to remind themselves that no film is worth unreasonable risks to a crew member’s safety. But as this tragic story also draws attention to the many otherwise invisible hands behind the scenes, perhaps consumers ought to consider their responsibility to support a sustainable industry rather than casually line the pockets of poachers who do absolutely nothing.

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