By Ruth Vitale

When you fight for the creative communities for a living, you certainly encounter a lot of noise about who these communities are and what they represent.

Allow me to explain.

Big Tech has thrived on a business model that has systematically devalued creative content and those who make it. As part of that business model, they have brainwashed millions of people to accept easily disproven myths about the creatives industries as gospel.

These include the insidious theory that piracy is actually good for business. And the toxic notion that copyright is a hindrance to free speech rather than an engine of it. And the silly notion that creative companies are essentially anti-technology luddites – which is refuted by the fact that the creative industries have not only consistently been on the cutting edge of technology, but have inarguably set the standard for digital models that expand audience access to creative works while protecting the rights of creatives…. not to mention the incredibly inventive stories we tell, which have been credited with inspiring many of the ideas that the technology industry rode to unfathomable heights.

But perhaps the most frustrating misconception about the creative industries is one that provides fodder for all the others. It is the idea that the film and television industries primarily consist of massive media conglomerates whose earnings do not benefit ordinary workers and small businesses.

This premise is especially damaging because it excuses the bad behavior encouraged by the other misconceptions I have listed. After all, it is difficult to be too concerned about important issues like piracy or copyright if you are persuaded to believe that Hollywood is only a collection of mega-corporations.

And that’s a fucking shame, because this premise is patently untrue – and easily disproven.

First, the majority of the output from the U.S. motion picture industry (which, by the way, employs more than 2.6 million Americans) does not consist of blockbusters that dominate the news cycle – even though each of those productions employs hundreds of people. In fact, most U.S. films are independent productions with relatively small budgets.

In 2019, according to recent data from the Independent Film & Television Alliance (IFTA), the U.S. film sector produced 501 projects that could be classified as independent feature films. Of this total, 225 of the films cost less than $10 million to make, and 374 (or, about 75%) of the films cost less than $25 million to make. These were not comic book movies or big-budget animated films, or other tentpoles that rake in hundreds of millions of dollars around the globe. They were independently financed, small- and mid-budget movies – and, contrary to popular belief, they were made by small businesses.

That’s right, 87% of the businesses making film and television of all types – whether it be independent, studio-generated, or otherwise – are small businesses that employ fewer than 10 people. And that includes all those indie films from 2019 – which, IFTA’s study found, resulted in 35,570 full time jobs directly related to the activity of producing and another 107,255 full time jobs for the various venders that service the film industry. With the ripple effect, the aggregate revenues earned by businesses from all that independent film production totaled nearly $23 billion. And the taxes on earnings made by people employed by indie film production injected more than $3 billion into state and federal coffers.

I probably don’t need to tell you that taxes pay for everything from roads to schools to social welfare programs. These statistics from IFTA remind us that the film and television business doesn’t just employ people and support small business and inject jobs and revenue into local communities, but it also pays taxes that help support those communities’ vital public services. When those earnings drop, for any reason, those public services get hurt.

In 2020, film and television earnings dropped for a reason we need not remind you of. IFTA’s data charts the shocking effects COVID-19 had on the industry. As COVID raged and film sets everywhere were shuttered and scrapped, U.S. independent production companies only shot 239 feature films in 2020 – less than half of the previous year’s total. Not surprisingly, this slashed production jobs, reducing direct full-time employment from more than 35,000 jobs to 16,969 and reducing full-time jobs for the various venders that service the film industry from more than 107,000 to 51,165.

Meanwhile, total business revenue from indie film production dropped to only $10.89 billion in economic output. And those state and federal taxes sourced from employee wages? They fell by half – from more than $3 billion to a meager $1.48 billion.

Of course, the coronavirus was a singular event that we pray will not be repeated. As life returns to some semblance of the new normal in 2021, this year already looks notably better for indie film production (and really, all of film and television production) than the last.

But here is what IFTA’s number don’t tell you – the entertainment industry prior to COVID had already been suffering for many years from the severe financial damage caused by piracy.

Piracy has been decimating creative communities since the dawn of the internet, but it reached cataclysmic proportions in the era of streaming. Streaming piracy now accounts for 80% of all piracy, and according to the U.S. Chamber, costs the U.S. economy at least $29.2 billion and 230,000 jobs every year.

Streaming piracy only got worse during the pandemic, at a time when the workers whose livelihoods depend in large part on revenues lost to piracy were at their most vulnerable.

According to MUSO, a UK-based analytics firm that tracks the global piracy ecosystem, there was a 31% increase in U.S. visits to digital piracy sites from February to March 2020 (during which shelter-in-place orders were taking effect across the country). During April, with much of the country in isolation and film and television production on lock-down, MUSO found a 43% increase in piracy visits as compared to February. 60% of that piracy was through streaming. 

To give a sense of the scale: During the month of February 2020, before COVID-19 became widespread in the U.S., there were 104,994,375 visits to pirate sites. In March, as the country came to a standstill, that number spiked to 137,375,539. And, as the shelter-at-home orders remained in place in April, the number ticked up further to 149,709,350.

Of course, some of this increase stemmed from the fact that people were at home and, in many cases, unemployed. But I have my doubts that piracy will diminish just because the world is opening up again. We are more tied to our screens than ever before, and our appetite for film and television content is insatiable. Even if streaming piracy experiences a slight dip back to pre-pandemic levels, I believe this staggering problem will only continue to worsen.

That is why we desperately need our biggest internet platforms to do more to combat the problem. But part of getting the platforms to step up is to change the narrative, to stop the brainwashing, and to get everyone to understand what and who the creative industries are.

They are makeup artists, production assistants, set designers, and boom operators.

They are electricians, carpenters, drivers, and caterers.

They are accountants, secretaries, human resources professionals, and office managers.

They are, simply put, us. And if we are persuaded to believe otherwise – when we pirate because we don’t think it harms “real” people – we all get hurt.