The question of theft came up for me again recently when my longtime friend and collaborator John Tilley pointed me to a pirated version of my first feature film, ALL THE RAGE, online. Of course, the truth is, pirating is a form of stealing. The person who uploads an entire feature film onto YouTube without permission is theoretically depriving my distributor (and by extension, the filmmaker) from any potential revenue that may or may not have come from those viewers actually buying a DVD or ordering up the title on Netflix.
So, full of righteous indignation, I dutifully followed the link to the YouTube page. I wasn't sure what visiting the link would tell me but I clicked on it anyway.
And then I saw the number of views.
Shortly after the film's release in the U.S., it was picked up for Canadian distribution by a company called Mongrel Media. And for World Sales by another company called Media Luna. Now I don't know much about either of these companies so I did think twice about naming them here. On the other hand I do know one thing about each company that makes me feel justified in naming them. Both companies signed an agreement committing to share a percentage of sales (DVD & television) with us and both spent several years claiming that, sadly, no sales had been made.
Unfortunately, at the same time I was happily receiving emails from friends in Spain, Germany, Canada and France congratulating me on the film's triumphant success! One email from Paris described a two-page spread in the gay press and the entire storefront of a favorite video store full of ALL THE RAGE DVDs.
After a few months of trying to get an answer from these crooks I'd somehow gone to bed with, I came to another way of looking at this. Maybe I should just look at the free distribution of the title as a kind of loss leader.
There have been other injustices to endure as well. Once, an Italian film festival claimed to have never received the print of our film (one 35mm print of a film was worth roughly $3,500 at that time) and so did not return it to us at the end of the festival although I know (from spies on the ground) that the film actually was screened at the festival.
Another time a guy "paid" for a private screening to celebrate his 50th Birthday in a movie theatre in San Francisco. We shipped the print, his check bounced, he screened the film and promptly disconnected his phone.
It was somehow easier for me to get philosophical about the film festival stealing a print or the film distribution company claiming to have made no sales. But that guy and his birthday party scam. That one really got under my skin. And I think partly it was because he had sold us this very personal (and touching) story -- how turning 50 as a gay man meant so much to him, how it would be so meaningful for him to screen this particular film at this time in his life, blah, blah, blah. So in a sense, because there was a more elaborate personal story attached to the scam, it hurt more when he turned out to be a con artist.
But after several months of soul-searching, I just had to let this one go, too. And I think therein lies the crux of what's interesting to me about all this. When we pour our hearts and souls into our art, we want it to be appreciated. When it is stolen, it is appreciated, but in a way that's hard to accept.
Ultimately, I am convinced that having lost revenue over the years to robbers is preferable to having never found an audience at all.
To me, making something that no one ever sees at all would be far more painful (and psychicly damaging in the long run) than any theft, no matter what the dollar amount.