The truth about piracy and indie film

To be sure: Balls Out is a very, very funny film. Its plot is an age-old one: A ragtag sports team faces off against their super-serious, villainous counterparts. In the vein of Hot Rod or Wet Hot American Summer, it’s a pretty sure bet that whenever your brain is expecting something typical to happen, Balls Out is about to do something extremely surreal (and hilarious).

But when the Daily Dot caught up with Balls Out producers David Ward and Andrew Lee, it wasn’t to talk about how good it is or its unexpected twists and turns; instead, we talked about how piracy is crippling it.

They hit the jackpot with a cast filled with Saturday Night Live performers whose collective star power is currently shooting upward, and by getting picked up by MGM/Orion, but those factors make it easy to forget something important: This is an indie film. It was distributed by a major studio, but its funding was an altogether grassroots matter.

Pirates tend to think that exposure is, no matter what, always a good thing, but Ward and Lee aren’t finding that to be the case for Balls Out. That argument may have virtue in the music world, as more exposure equals more ticket sales for concerts, which is where those artists make most of their money. For films, however—and especially for indie films—the media itself is the concert, each VOD copy a ticket.

When we talk about piracy, we tend to look at how it affects studios and major artists, but the effects on the little people—the indie content makers—tend to get left out of the discussion. And the fact is: Pirating hurts them, and it hurts them a lot.

As Ward explained to the Daily Dot, “It’s a message that happens every now and again, and it’s a message that I guess is our turn to tell.” He even posted an open letter about the matter to his blog.

We chatted with Ward and Lee over the phone to discuss Balls Out—and the distinct possibility that this particular film will earn a dedicated cult following but also make it extremely difficult for them to make another one.

Could you give a little rundown on what’s happening with the film?

Ward: I think that a lot of people—because we have a lot of SNL cast members, and we got picked up by a studio that everyone’s heard of—they just thought that this was a big Hollywood movie, and it’s kinda like they don’t feel as guilty about pirating it, and downloading it without paying, and it’s, like, ‘Well, this is a movie that was done for a very, very low budget in Austin, Texas.’ We were lucky enough that those people came on board, but we’re still a very indie movie. It turned out well enough that a studio picked it up, but there’s still a lot of family friends, and parents, and people who believed in us that invested that, you know… We need to make money back, so that we get a chance to make another one of these movies in the future.

Do you think that having a major studio pick you up may have actually hurt you in the end, because people then assumed that you had funding from these guys from the start?

Ward: I don’t think it hurt us, because obviously, for us… a major studio picked us up, and it helped promoted it. It’s a more well-known movie because of that, now, and the more well-known your film is, the more people are going to want to see it, and then more people are going to download it when it’s easily available—especially full, HD quality copies. But I don’t think it was a negative, per se.

Lee: People seeing it as a studio film might make them feel better about downloading it, but I don’t think there’s a direct correlation between them distributing our film and other films that they’ve released, too.

Is the film moving into more theaters over time?

Lee: We were given a 10-city, 10-market release. They were giving us a week in theaters, to help satisfy premium placement on VOD, but they also released, that same day, on VOD. So you’ll find us both in theaters right now, and on the major VOD platforms.

Ward: [The film is on] every VOD platform, and that’s mainly what they’re pushing, because they’re not really doing a big theatrical push…. That’s why the VOD thing’s so important, because that is where the plan is to make all the money. But VOD also means that one person gets to buy it on iTunes, and they now have a full, HD-quality copy of the movie that they can now upload to a torrent site, and then everybody else can get it.

So the theatrical release is essentially an advertisement for the VOD release?

Lee: I think the theatrical release is more of a tool to—and a requirement from the VOD platform—to be able to get certain kinds of premium placement on their platform. So, because we’re in theaters, we get a big icon on iTunes that says ‘In Theaters Now! And on VOD!’, which has a ginormous photo that scrolls across the top. If you weren’t in theaters, at all, you wouldn’t get that kind of placement. A lot of distributors—who do a lot of digital distribution—they may add on a limited theatrical component, just to satisfy that requirement.

Regardless of it’s an indie film or a tentpole film, does that hurt things to have those banners? Because that’s, for a lot of people, going to tell them “Oh, there’s a good quality version of this out there to download!” It’s almost like a flashing sign saying “You can pirate a good copy of this!”

Ward: If you want to pirate stuff, you can find most anything that you want. And it’s also “How good is the quality of it? How easy to find is this?” There’s the argument that’s “Well, we pirate things because of how easy it is; it’s hard for me to get that HBO show,” which is why HBO added [HBO Now], because people were like, “I can’t get HBO, so it’s the only way I can watch it!” So, it’s eliminating that excuse.

Lee: One of the biggest arguments for piracy is just accessibility. People on the other side of the world, or people even here who don’t have access to the content… they want the content. Some people might even consider buying it, but they just don’t have access to it, whether it’s because they’re not in the right country, or they don’t want to subscribe to all of HBO, and they just want one show. I think, in general, that’s a big argument that the pirates like to hold up. But even if you hold up that flag, it still kinda screws us indie filmmakers. Royally.

Ward: I would say it’s good, because a lot of people are saying, at the end of the day, as filmmakers, that’s what we want—we just want people to see our movie, and that’s the dream with it—but then there’s also the financial side of it, too. This stuff costs money to do. We’re not a big studio, and we’re not getting the movie funded by product placement. Like, you’re not seeing a Pepsi Cola logo on the Jumbotron…. People actually have to pay for this in order for us to make our money back.

So you guys are risking your own dollar from the start, rather than having Subway pay for it in the beginning.

Ward: Look, I get it, people are going to pirate stuff, and I’m not gonna act like I’ve never done it, when I was in college, but they just need to know that, with these small movies… If you like the movie, and you’re quoting it with your friends, there’s value to that, you know? Those people provided some value, and you should consider going and buying it afterward. I can understand torrenting if you assume it’s going to be really bad—“I’m gonna torrent it and watch it for 20 minutes”—but then, if you keep watching it, and you really like it, then you should give those guys a rental or buy it… They spent a ton of time to provide that entertainment for you, and the least you can do, if you were entertained, is to help ’em out.

Lee: It’s also not just about monetary recoupment, either. I think that’s a big aspect, but it’s also the fact that [we need to be] able to prove our worth to these studios and the people who believe in us… The only way to prove that is through numbers. And when it goes and gets pirated, it’s not showing the studios, in good faith, that we made something good, and that people want to pay for it. And when that doesn’t manifest itself in the right way, it basically hamstrings our careers.

Ward: And the only number they’re going to care about is dollars. They don’t care if 7 million people downloaded it, but it led to only $10,000. It’s a business.

Louis C.K. and Thom Yorke are big trend leaders in saying “Hey, I’m putting this out there, and I’m putting my faith in you,” but they’re also kinda just famous enough, and have enough of a dedicated fanbase… 

Lee: Yeah, I mean, people like those guys have loyal followers who have followed their work and respect all the time and effort they’ve put into it, and they’ve built that following over years and years and years. And so, they’ve earned those loyal fans, and those loyal fans will give back. Those of us who are just starting out in our careers, we’re nowhere close to that. When we make our very first project, and it gets pirated like this, it’s more of a killer than anything, because don’t have that fan base to really support us in that way.

Balls Out is on the front page of several streaming sites. But the number of seeders has dropped from 4,500 (a tenth of the Game of Thrones finale) to 3,000 seeders over the past three days. Do you think it’s one of those things where any new movie released is going to have a ton of piracy out of the gate, but then it’ll drop off relatively quickly, but the good word of mouth will remain?

Ward: Yeah, that’s definitely what we hope. And we know that a large majority of the people pirating are probably people that weren’t ever going to pay for it anyway; that’s just facts. And, again, we don’t expect it to stop—we’re not asking it to stop—we just feel that, with indie films, people should just be aware.

Andrew produced [DMT: The Spirit Molecule], and that got pirated like crazy, and it’s actually caused problems for the director being able to make another movie.

Lee: Yeah, that movie, ah man… such a disaster. It was so highly anticipated by everyone, because we had worked six years on it. By the time we released it, we had about 200,000 Facebook fans, all waiting to get their hands on it. And when we released it, it just got pirated so fast… Even, like, two years ago, I sat down and looked at a YouTube pirated copy that had 4 million views… If even a fraction of those people were able to contribute to purchasing the film, even in the lowest price range, my director and I would be in a completely different place, career-wise. I promise you that.

If people actually paid, there would be a lot more content about psychedelic topics, and psychedelic culture in general. And these distributors, and other people, would have hired Mitch [Schultz] to do all these things. So the audience stole that content from themselves, you know?

Ward: People can speak with their wallets about what they want. Right now, the stuff that makes a bunch of money is… it’s sequels, and it’s franchises of existing things. At the end of the day, the [studios] are going to put their money into the thing that’s going to get them money back, and that’s what people are paying for right now. … People complain about that all the time, you know, “Hollywood’s always putting out franchises, or remakes, or reboots, or sequels,” and it’s, like, “Well, if you don’t want those, you gotta speak with your wallet.” If you want to see different types of stories, and those weirder things, they need to make money. Otherwise, you’re not going to see those at all.

You can currently download the film on iTunes and most other major VOD platforms.

Screengrab via Orion Pictures/YouTube

Joey Keeton

Joey Keeton

Joey Keeton is an entertainment writer who reviewed streaming movies, comedies, and TV series for the Daily Dot. He's also written about podcasts, bizarre web culture, and politics.