‘Keith Lemon: The Film’ or ‘The Imposter’: Which one would you pay to watch?

Kieran Turner-Dave
keith lemon getty 300x225 Keith Lemon: The Film or The Imposter: Which one would you pay to watch?


Anyone who regularly shells out the money to buy or rent DVDs will be aware of the advert that appears before the film warning you that piracy is a crime akin to stealing a car or a handbag. These adverts are not only hilariously over-embellished to the point of parody, but are also clearly hitting the wrong target. They’re directed at the ‘honest’ audience members who have paid money to watch a film at home.

However, not all of the UK’s movie-watching audience pay for every film they watch, and instead opt to download films using filesharing programs. They are therefore free to enjoy discovering movies that they missed out on when they were shown in the cinema – or that are old, rare, independent or cult – in high quality, in their own homes and without the hassle of having to sit through adverts, trailers or DVD menus. Although the movie industry may wish to think of those responsible for the 1.25 billion+ monthly downloads from filesharing programs as criminals, I believe that responsible and ethical filesharing among real film fans will help to salvage, rather than destroy, the movie industry.

Last week a study by The American Assembly, a Columbia University-affiliated public policy forum, found that US and German filesharers spend around 30% more on legitimate online music purchases than users who do not ‘pirate’ music via the internet. Whilst these findings may seem counter-intuitive to those who see music and film ‘pirates’ as evil, scrounging, good-for-nothings who are ruining the film industry for ‘real fans’ – it seems the rationale behind these results is incredibly clear.

Any dedicated movie fan would find it hard to resist using filesharing programs to enjoy as many, and as wide a variety, of previously released films as possible. Each free film they watch increases their knowledge, interest and adoration of artists working within the medium, and this leads them to spend more of their hard-earned money when new films are released at the cinema, or when their favourite films come out on DVD/Blu-Ray.

If these filesharing film fans had to pay for every movie they watched, they might have only seen a handful of highly publicised mainstream blockbusters, and perhaps the odd TV movie or rented DVD. Yet the knowledge and interest gained from being able to watch a wider variety of films, as well as the money saved from not paying for films they did not enjoy; will increase the likelihood of them patronising an arthouse cinema, a private cult screening, or an independent film festival. Not to mention greatly increasing their engagement with foreign cinema, and films released before they were born.

Although paying for every film they watched would have spared them being branded a ‘pirate’, they would obviously be considerably worse off in terms of their enjoyment of cinema – and would therefore have given less money to filmmakers and distributors as a result. In fact, they would probably end up being one of the many people who on 24th August 2012 turned down the opportunity to see Bart Layton’s brilliant debut indie documentary The Imposter (my favourite film of the year, so far) in favour of watching Keith Lemon: The Film.

This terrifying prospect exemplifies the most important, yet overlooked, result of filesharing amongst movie fans – it creates a more informed audience, with higher expectations and a greater respect for cinema. When someone is able to watch a hugely diverse amount of films, irrespective of the year or country in which they were produced, they are considerably more likely to discover a wealth of exciting and thought-provoking pieces than if they were only limited to watching what was showing in the multiplex that week. Immediately, the audience is able to more readily distinguish between filmmakers, writers and actors whose work they have previously enjoyed.

Filesharing therefore brings greater democracy and competition to the film industry. If audiences are able to heighten their knowledge and expectations of films, and only fund the movies that they enjoy, the best filmmakers will receive greater royalties and movie studios will have to up their game. The money spent on remakes will undoubtedly fall, as audiences will have easy access to the original productions; so studios will have to employ directors, writers and actors with originality and ingenuity, who can draw audiences into cinemas with fresh and exciting new movies.

Furthermore, filesharing can increase opportunities for burgeoning talent to rise through the industry. If a filmmaker has the talent to make an interesting film, but doesn’t have the money to compete with the publicity and distribution deals of the big movie studios, they can always fall back on filesharers discovering the movie online and sharing it around a considerably larger group than the DVD-purchasing audience. In turn, this can open up opportunities for them if a copy of their movie falls into the right hands, and guarantees a larger audience awaiting their next effort.

Perhaps filesharers are demonised by studios because they are seen as people who are watching films, whilst contributing nothing to the industry. Yet my understanding of filesharers, and the findings of The American Assembly, seem to run contrary to this perception. Maybe the studios like to brand filesharers as ‘pirates’ because their very existence means that studios are in danger of having to actually create something fresh and original, or else face walking the plank. It may be because the filesharers love of films, and hunger for new ideas, are turning audiences onto independent cinema in record-breaking numbers.

Whatever the reason is, as long as filesharers continue to pay for their favourite films at the cinema and on DVD/Blu-Ray, they are not thieves or criminals. Instead, they are members of a new kind of cinema: the cinema where you pay on the way out. A community where the most original, entertaining and inspirational filmmakers are discussed and rewarded, and a place in which absolutely nobody would pay to see Keith Lemon: The Film.

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  • Kaj

    Excellent article, especially the part about the anti-piracy warnings and unskippable ads on DVDs. These absolutely infuriate me! When I’ve legitimately bought a movie, I don’t want to be forced to sit through a lecture on how evil piracy is, then have to watch adverts for half a dozen movies that I probably don’t care about before I can actually watch the movie I bought. It’s farcical. To play off of the piracy warning itself… “When you sell a car, would you lecture the driver about the evils of car theft? When you sell a handbag, would you lecture the customer about the evils of shoplifting? No? Then why do you lecture about the evils of movie piracy when you sell a movie?!” Patronising, misplaced, and comically redundant.

    Also, I feel you’ve missed one key point in why piracy isn’t quite as bad for the industry as the industry claims – the number of people who use “pirating” as a means of seeing whether a movie’s worth buying. How many DVD/Blu-Rays are bought legitimately because someone downloaded an illegal copy and liked it enough to want the full package with all the extras? How many of those purchases would otherwise not have happened? I know quite a few folks who will download movies instead of renting them or going to the cinema, just to see if they’re worth buying (especially understandable when you consider how expensive rental and the cinema are compared to buying and owning the DVD). If they don’t buy it, then that’s not a lost sale because they wouldn’t have bought it anyway. But if they do buy it, then the industry actually gains a sale because of piracy. Problem is that the detractors of file-sharing treat every illegal download as a lost sale, which simply isn’t the case.

  • Clive Frayne

    File sharing does change the relationship between the consumer and the producer, in favour of the consumer, in that anyone wanting to decide whether to buy a film or not now has the opportunity to try before they buy. So, in many respects I agree with this article, in that freely available access to films before having to commit to purchase does mean that people may take risks on material they wouldn’t have bothered with before, thus giving filmmakers the opportunity to create an audience and fan base for themselves.

    However, I think at the moment it’s too early to call whether this is a good thing for the industry or not. I wonder whether it raises the bar too high for filmmakers, because now they have don’t have to make a film which people would be willing to take a chance on, because they like the idea, the cast, the poster or the reviews… now they have to make a film so good people will still want to own it after having seen it for free. That, I suspect is a very tall order indeed. And, I suspect, one that most industries would find unacceptable.

    Where file sharing is hurting the industry most is in the independent film sector, where it’s is already hard enough to give investors compelling evidence that their investment into a film will create a return. The fear that the product will be distributed illegally for free consumption before investors have made a return on their investment, means that investors are more likely to put money into the tried and tested, as opposed to projects with an perceived risks.

    The overall result of this is that more money goes into the big budget blockbusters, where returns are still strong.

    Before file sharing was possible, pre-digital production, a UK independent feature film required a budget of about £1M. These days, an average UK independent film is being shot for between £300K-£750K. Some of these changes are due to the changes digital production has brought to the industry, but to be honest a more important factor on the squeezing budgets has been fear of investors and producers on the kind of returns they can make. Those fears have largely been driven by the effects of file sharing on that part of the industry.

    In real terms, what this means is that in the UK independent film sector today, in order to build a decent career you have to create a film so good that people will want to buy it after already seeing it for free, on a third of the budget you had twelve years ago. That, I suspect, tips the balance away from the advantages of increased audience.

  • Kieran Turner-Dave

    I shared your concerns about independent cinema when researching this article, Clive, but I found an interesting exception amongst the filesharing community for independent (and foreign) cinema.

    In order to download a film of decent quality using a filesharing program, there must have been several users who uploaded a DVDRip of the movie. This means that a) Filesharing has little effect on the box-office and b) Several people have to like the film enough to both purchase it on DVD, and go through the effort of uploading it.

    Due to the lower publicity and distribution budgets for independent films, they will always take less than blockbusters – but filesharing can raise the profile of a good independent film and encourage more people to buy it on DVD (more than just those who’d missed it at the cinema). Moreover, there are notably less people uploading independent and subtitled films, as opposed to blockbusters, purely because less people are watching them.

    I therefore don’t see filesharing affecting independent films in the same way. Plus the statistics show that independent cinema is currently thriving, especially in the UK, which may be due to the raised expectations and more cineliterate audience filesharing has created.

    Could it also be possible that the dip in budgets in the last 12 years is to do with the evolution of Film PR. The Blair Witch Project became the highest grossing film of all time (in ratio to budget) because it exploited the internet and social media to promote a movie way before it’s time. Now this practice is common place. Who needs ads on buses and phoneboxes if you can target the promotion of your film through Facebook or Twitter? Surely this must account for the drop in budgets, as well as the improvements in digital technology that you mentioned?

  • Clive Frayne

    I’m afraid I’ve got to disagree with your take on why British cinema is thriving at the moment.

    The British film sector is producing so much content at the moment because of two things: tax breaks and the ever evolving landscape of cheaper production.

    If you look at recent UK film history, and examine the period immediately after the last set of tax breaks for film investors were removed, you’ll see that the industry flat-lined, over night. Productions that were green-lit and set to shoot were cancelled… and, this remained pretty much that way until the new tax incentives came into play. Tax breaks tip the balance for investors, so that investing makes sense even if the film is chasing smaller returns.

    I’m not arguing against what you’re saying per-se, in that I genuinely believe in exploring the opportunites of digital culture. So, for instance, Nina Pauley’s animated feature Sita Sings the Blues is genuinely interesting experiment in what happens when you set aside from the regular sales and distribution culture and let people donate a price. It’s also passes the “would I pay for this” test.

    Where I see the “try before you buy” culture working in a positive manner, is where it has instilled in some filmmakers an understanding that their product has to be exceptional these days. It’s no longer good enough to go into production merely because you have a good log line, one name actor to go on the DVD cover and a DSLR.

    Of course, there are other forces at play. Cheaper digital production means that there really isn’t a lowest possible budget anymore. Which means more low-to-no budget productions all chasing the holy grail of a Blair Witch style rags to riches success. The only problem being, the lower your budget the smarter a film-maker you have to be.

    There are a lot of forces acting on the industry at the moment, file-sharing is only one of them… however, what is real are the effects the fear of file sharing on box office is having on investors, even if those fears are misplaced.

    Personally, I’m not sure they are misplaced. However, rather than blaming file-sharers for the loss of revenue, perhaps the lesson here is to spend more time and money on script development and the overall marketing plan for new independent movies. In lots of respects I agree with your take that file-sharing could become a positive asset for filmmakers looking to build and audience. But in order for them to cash in on that opportunity, we all have to make better movies, movies that people will actually want to own.

    Thanks for writing the article and thanks for your thought provoking response.

  • stonedwolf

    I would rather fry my own balls in butter than watch ANYTHING with Keith Lemon in.

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