Oscars nominees see online piracy surge

By Leo Kelion
Technology desk editor

image copyrightGetty Images
image captionIndependent film Birdman has been nominated for a total of nine awards at the Oscars

American Sniper would win best picture and Birdman's Alejandro Inarritu best director if the Oscars were determined by online piracy rates, a study says.

It suggests being nominated in one of the four major categories has a particularly profound effect on illegal downloads of indie and art house films.

The authors suggest that producers of such movies become more flexible about how and when their titles are released.

But one industry expert said that was easier said than done.

image copyrightKiller Films
image captionMany of the nominated films are publicising their nominations

The report was carried out by Irdeto, a Netherlands-based company that sells piracy controls to the pay-TV sector.

It used "crawler" software to monitor downloads via Bittorrent peer-to-peer file-sharing services around the world and says its figures represent the minimum number of illegal downloads.

As part of the study, the company compared the amount of piracy in the week before nominations with the week after.

Selma, Wild, American Sniper, Still Alice and Birdman saw some of the biggest swings in popularity, and each accounted for more than 100,000 downloads.

By contrast, two other films that had been tipped for the awards but failed to secure nominations in the major categories did not experience similar demand: Mr Turner has been downloaded 9,086 times since 15 January, and Inherent Vice has been downloaded 53,008 times, according to the study.

For comparison's sake, the study also provided download figures for three big-budget mainstream films over the same post-nomination period:

  • Interstellar - 1.4 million downloads
  • The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies - 1.3 million downloads
  • John Wick - 1.3 million downloads

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Irdeto suggests the Oscar nominations and resulting media coverage drove many users to search for the films on illegal sites, and it noted the DVDs used to let Academy Awards voters watch and judge the movies sometimes became the source of the pirated files.

image copyrightBold Films
image captionWhiplash is one of the indie films vying for the best picture award

The company acknowledged that not every download represented a lost sale, but it suggested the activity was particularly damaging to films that would not be classed a conventional "blockbusters".

"The Oscars are traditionally a time for independent and less mainstream movies to generate significant revenues," said Rory O'Connor, the company's vice-president of services.

"In the past, such high quality movies could be funded through the Oscars mechanism by reaching a broader public - [distributors] might not have had such a big budget to publicise the films first time round, but they could then piggyback the Oscars media campaign.

"But that mechanism is breaking down because of piracy."

He added that a solution would be for "windows" - used to stagger a film's initial cinema release and its later screenings in other countries and sale on other formats - to be "collapsed".

So, if a film was nominated, it could be offered for rent or sale around the world shortly after, to provide an alternative to piracy.

"People are willing to pay premium pricing for good quality and early availability [on their home TV], so I think there is an opportunity to compensate for the revenue that may be lost from a cinematic release," Mr O'Connor said.

image copyrightGetty Images
image captionThe Grand Budapest Hotel has still seen high levels of piracy despite being available to rent or buy in many countries

'Caught in a bind'

However, an adviser to the Independent Film and Television Alliance said its members had less latitude to act than the major studios, which control their own films' releases.

Bertrand Moullier said smaller movies often relied on funding from local distributors who bought the release rights before filming started.

These distributors might be unwilling to suddenly change their plans, he said, because of concerns the films would then clash with others coming out locally at the same time.

image copyrightGetty Images
image captionThe Academy Awards winners will be announced on 22 February

"We are caught in a bit of a bind because [the idea of] beating piracy by releasing a movie everywhere in a saturation-release pattern to beat the peer-to-peer sharers is logically right," said Mr Moullier.

"Unfortunately, it also goes against the grain of how independent films must be assembled and put together.

"But [relying on local distributors] is also a very effective way of making sure a film gets the right adapted marketing strategy in each of the cultures where it's shown."

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