By Ruth Vitale
Dear Werner Herzog,
You are one of the most influential filmmakers of this generation and an artist of uncompromising vision. In all my years of running indie film studios, you were, and still are, a true icon for all of us. But a couple of your comments during a recent panel appearance at Switzerland’s Visions du Réel International Film Festival are troubling.
Why did you refer to film piracy as “the most successful form of distribution worldwide?”
“I don’t like it because I would like to earn some money with my films,” you told the attendees. “But if someone… steals my films through the internet or whatever, fine, you have my blessing.”
Well, I don’t like piracy either, so I would never give my blessing for anyone to steal the films of hardworking creatives. Ever.
Remember when you were shooting Fitzcarraldo, deep in the rain forests of South America, and you insisted that your crew lug an entire steamship up the side of a hill to get the shot you wanted? That remarkable story is now part of your legend! There are days when I feel like one of those poor guys, hauling that boat. Because my goal in life, and CreativeFuture’s goal, is to protect works of art like yours from piracy so that the expenses of production and distribution can be covered and the creatives who work on films can make a living. Creatives can only do that by protecting their works from piracy. Piracy is an overwhelming, exhausting pandemic that poses an existential threat to all creatives. It is even more exhausting to try to reduce it – never mind stop it.
This brings me to my question – which I ask with all due respect because you, perhaps more than any other filmmaker, have earned your success the hard way. I assume you recall what it was like to struggle your way to success. In Switzerland, you spoke in front of an audience largely comprised of fellow filmmakers, all of whom are far less established than you. Many of these people face huge challenges in breaking even on their projects, let alone making enough money to produce their next film.
Here’s a recent, high-profile example – Moonlight, the indie breakout that won the 2017 Best Picture Oscar® grossed more than $65 million worldwide theatrically. At $7.00 average global ticket price – that translates to approximately 9 million tickets sold.
That’s a good amount for a small indie film, even though it was still the lowest-grossing Best Picture winner in Oscar® history. What few people know about Moonlight was that there were roughly 60 million online piracy transactions during the theatrical run – more than 650% higher than those paid ticket sales. If even 5% of those pirated transactions had been paid theatrical sales at $7.00, the film would have earned an additional $21 million. Or, if 5% had been just paid rental streams, at $3.99 per stream, the film would have earned an additional $12 million.
Yes, Moonlight did quite well in comparison to its $1.5 million budget, but most indie films don’t win a Best Picture Oscar®. As we all know, smaller independent films are fortunate to make any money at all. And when piracy cuts into those films’ earnings, as it is expected to do to the tune of $52 billion by 2022, the financial risk is too great to bear.
That’s an incredible shame, because independent films often challenge us and broaden our horizons – with unconventional narratives and provocative subject matter. Without independent films and documentaries, we will lose vital threads of our cultural fabric. Without them, we could be deprived of the next Werner Herzog!
In all fairness, you made your piracy comment in response to a fellow panelist who confessed to stealing your films in Ukraine because they are “not available there online.” “If you don’t get [films] through Netflix or state-sponsored television in your country, then you go and access it as a pirate,” you told her. On one level, I understand your sentiment. The global marketplace is not flawless. But when you uphold piracy as a legitimate solution to this problem, you condone the theft of your fellow artists’ works even in regions where those works are widely available. Why not instead use your clout to speak up for more accessible distribution models that don’t prop up a vast network of organized criminals? Additionally, if you happen to own the rights to your films, you can offer them for free wherever and whenever you’d like.
Werner, you are a hero to so many of us in the creative community – and your words have a lasting impact. However, you sent a seriously mixed message in Switzerland. Before you blithely endorse piracy, please think about how much influence you have over viewers… and how your words will be misconstrued… and how legitimizing piracy, when there are other alternatives (including voluntary distribution for free) available, harms the very financial foundation of filmmaking.
Please stand with us to fight for what’s right!
Cover photo: magicinfoto / Shutterstock.com / CreativeFuture