Pop-Up Piracy: Indie Filmmaker Speaks Out

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Ellen Seidler isn't in the indie game for the money. But when the filmmaker and her directing partner, Megan Siler, put up $250,000 of their own cash to make "And Then Came Lola," they expected to at least be able to break even, paying off the debts they incurred during production. Their hopes were dashed when they discovered how extensively "Lola" was being pirated on the Web, damaging the financial prospects of the movie's DVD and video-on-demand release. Seidler became infuriated, though, when she noticed corporate ads for companies like Google and Netflix popping up all over the illegal sites that carried her film. Back Stage talks to Seidler, who is fighting back on her blog and speaking out against corporate-sponsored Web piracy.

Back Stage: How much time do you spend in your day now trying to get your film taken off these sites?

Ellen Seidler: Probably a good two to three hours per day, easily. We've had close to 2,000 versions of our film online, with over 10,000 download links now that we've been able to find, and I'm sure there are many more. We've found Arabic websites, Russian, Turkish, Chinese. We found a website selling our DVD with Spanish subtitles; we haven't released it with Spanish subtitles.

Back Stage: When did you first notice the film online illegally?

Seidler: I first became aware that "Lola" was online in late April. Within a day of the German DVD release, apparently it got ripped and put up online. And in terms of the advertising, initially I was really focused on where the film was and how many of them were there and who to contact to get it taken down. But it took off, and I was just sitting there looking, and it was like, "Oh my God, look at all these ads!"

Back Stage: Have you gotten a response from any of these companies?

Seidler: I've tried to contact a number of the companies that I've found Web ads for. Only two were really successful. One was the San Francisco Ballet. They're a small arts agency, and they were incredibly upset when they found out about it. So they made arrangements with their ad company to prevent that from happening in the future and disabled that particular website. Another was Network Solutions. But those ads are still up there. A corporate VP at Netflix sent me an email, not really taking responsibility for it. It was particularly galling to see our film streaming in its entirety next to the Netflix ad when they carry our film. I haven't been able to get hold of anyone at Google, and I would love to.

Back Stage: Do you have an estimate of how much money these companies might be making off your film, or how much you might be losing?

Seidler: It may be a great deal of money; it may not. For me at this point it's more of the principle. People that support piracy always throw back at you, "Well, the people who pirate your film wouldn't buy it anyway." And not every one of them would, but some would. I have to believe it is having a financial impact on us.

Back Stage: Do you think something like online piracy might adversely affect films more than it might affect, say, music?

Seidler: It's a matter of degree. Films like ours don't have a theatrical release. All our income from this film is going to come from DVD or VOD sales. When that revenue stream is impacted, financially the filmmaker is really damaged. Big blockbusters, like "Avatar," they have an opportunity to pay off their investment in the theatrical setting. So I really think it hurts indie filmmakers a lot. I think content creators across the board are going to stop making content. I don't know if I ever want to make another film again. I know a lot of music people who have been hurt by piracy, but I think they've sort of learned to live with it.

Back Stage: What do you ultimately hope to accomplish with this?

Seidler: I'd like to see the various agencies work together to come up with a solution that's not just about one aspect of piracy but a multilevel approach. Making these companies responsible for where their ad dollars go is a good first step. The MPAA and other major organizations who are supposedly working very hard to combat piracy would be better served to really promote the idea that piracy is not just damaging executives at the offices at Disney but it's really damaging all of the people who make their livelihood day in and day out doing catering or makeup or set design. All of those jobs are going away gradually.