Why Women Should Also Lead the Anti-Piracy Effort

In past articles I’ve suggested that anti-piracy should be a form of activism practiced by anyone who stands up for women’s rights. And perhaps now that empowerment of women is the social tidal wave of the season, this proposal will get some traction. There is the ugly truth that some pirate sites serve as verticals for broader organized crime activity, including human trafficking; and there’s also the problem that pirate-site deployment of malware like RATs fosters harassment and exploitation of women and girls. So, it seems logical to me that if one’s environmental consciousness would avoid adding one more plastic bottle to the ocean, then one’s feminist consciousness would likewise avoid enriching pirate sites, which may support these forms of exploitation.

But there’s another point I’d make, and one that may be more obvious than the links between piracy and exploitation. It occurred to me the other day when I read in Variety that Rachel Morrison is the first woman Director of Photography to be nominated for an Academy Award for her work on the indie film Mudbound. Coincidentally, this was just a few hours after I read an editorial by that film’s producer Cassian Elewes titled How Google is Killing the Independent Movie Industry. Elwes focuses on the renegotiation of NAFTA and how the safe harbor provisions in the 1998 DMCA have had the unintended consequence of expanding piracy, which most acutely harms independent filmmakers.

The feminist groundswell generally referred to as the #MeToo movement not only began in the epicenter of the motion picture industry with revelations about Harvey Weinstein, but the industry as a whole was long overdue for correcting its “boys club” problem separate from issues of harassment and assault. In the days before sound was added to motion pictures, women were among the most innovative artists of the budding industry—as writers, directors, editors, cinematographers, studio heads, and even operators of big 35mm, hand-cranked cameras. Sound made production more expensive, leading to more substantial capital investment, which transformed movie-making into a “real job” that men wanted. Thus, the substantial contributions of Alice Guy Blaché and her contemporaries to the new language of cinema are little known by anyone other than students of film history.

Now that the male/female pendulum is finally swinging back toward a more balanced position, one of the best choices fans can make to keep that momentum, to support a craftsperson like Rachel Morrison—and the 1,000 young women who want to follow in her footsteps—is to stop pirating movies. As many have tried to explain, that whole “screw the fat-cat movie moguls” narrative people still cite to justify piracy is a complete myth. The so-called “fat cats” will be fine much longer than the independents, where the margins are lower and the effect of piracy can easily make or break the financial success of a film and prospective investment in the next one. Elwes writes …

“…just during its theatrical run, Dallas Buyers Club suffered roughly 22 million piracy transactions – more than three times the number of legitimate transactions. If just 5 percent of those pirated transactions had been paid tickets, downloads, or rentals, the film would have earned at least an additional $4.4 million (at a low rental fee of $3.99). That kind of money is life or death for an independent film and the filmmakers who sacrificed everything to get their vision onscreen.”

I’ll add that anyone who justifies piracy based on their idea that filmmakers are just those tux-and-gown folks swarmed by paparazzi on the red carpet, should spend a week with a cinematographer and her crew of camera assistants. It’ll be a string of 15-hour days, mostly on your feet, moving very quickly, communicating in a technological patois you won’t understand, and all in the service of key creative decisions worked out weeks or months earlier between the director and the production designer.

It’s fairly common when a film is nominated for a Cinematography Oscar that fans will say, “Yeah, that film is beautiful.” But beauty isn’t necessarily the DP’s objective; it’s actually something much more difficult and subtle than that. It’s making a thousand technical and creative choices, sometimes on the fly, that serve the story in ways the viewer doesn’t consciously observe. Great cinematography is hard, both mentally and physically; and anyone who thinks digital has made the process easier or cheaper only believes this because he doesn’t know how the job actually gets done.

Likewise, anyone who thinks that “pirating the studios into oblivion” is somehow helpful to independents and careers like Morrison’s, don’t know what they’re talking about. The worlds of studio and indie are codependent in numerous ways I won’t repeat here; but just a glance at Morrison’s IMDB page reveals a fairly typical narrative—over 30 credits in the Camera or Electric Department (i.e. learning her craft) beginning in 1999; then cinematographer credits on 43 independent films, TV shows, and documentaries; then her first big, Hollywood movie, Black Panther, releasing this year. But her future career will continue to include many independent films because most films made are indies while the “evil” studios function primarily as distributors.

So, anyone who’s glad to finally see a woman nominated for a Cinematography Oscar—because it really is a long time coming—and would like to see more women in that line-up in the future, can best support this trend by supporting the films themselves with tickets, streaming rentals, paid downloads, etc. Or you can keep supporting some anonymous guys running pirate sites and are at this moment criminally exploiting Morrison’s work on Mudbound for their own profit. See the problem?


Photo:  Photoplay magazine (1916). Camera operator, or “crank,” Margery Ordway.  See more information at Library of Congress.

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