What the Avengers Mean for Piracy

Avengers LogoWhen you look at the numbers, the Avengers had a great weekend at the box office, raking in over $200 million and shattering earlier records (before being adjusted for inflation). To be certain, there are many people at both Marvel and Disney who are very happy right now.

However, some have taken the success of The Avengers to mean something that it doesn’t, making claims that it’s a sign piracy is not killing the industry or, in some cases, even hurting it. (Note: Found this relevant meme on Reddit after posting.)

There’s a lot of problems with that logic but the biggest is that it is a classic case of cherry picking, looking at one movie, over one weekend in one format and extrapolating the outcome to the entire industry.

The truth is much more complex but understanding the nuances may help frame the piracy debate in a more productive light.

Flawed Logic and Super Heroes

Saying that “The Avengers did well, therefore piracy is not an issue,” is akin to saying “It’s cold today, therefore there’s no global warming.” It’s looking at a small, narrow sample and trying to extrapolate results that are far too big.

However, even if you look at the broader numbers, it’s clear that box office results have done very well for themselves despite the increase in piracy. Even when adjusted for inflation, the box office has held up nicely, largely because movie theaters provide an experience that can’t be reproduced at home with an illegal copy of a movie.

Unfortunately though, the home market paints a very different picture. Though less is known about DVD sales since there are fewer figures, reports are that they began to collapse in 2009/2010. However, piracy alone is not to blame for this as many customers also switched to video on demand services (myself included).

In truth, the movie industry has long been better-insulated from piracy than other types of content, in particular music, due to larger file sizes and an experience that can’t be easily replicated. Music, books, images, etc. are obviously in a different position.

That being said, the affects of piracy aren’t felt uniformly throughout the industry either. As I discussed before, with copyright and piracy, every content creator and every work is different.

A major motion picture isn’t likely to be as impacted by piracy as a smaller one struggling for theater distribution and depending on DVD sales to earn a profit. This is what is reported by Ellen Seidler, the director (and financier) of And Then Came Lola.

In short, the impact of piracy on an industry is complex and not easily studied. If we picture an industry as a grassy field, it’s entirely possible that piracy will let the grass grow in one section (maybe even help it grow) while killing it elsewhere.

Changing the Conversation

This, of course, is the problem with trying to discuss piracy in the context of an industry. While we have to think about it along those lines for the purpose of legislation, such impacts are almost impossible to measure and draw any practical conclusions from.

In short, the impact piracy has on an industry is very nuanced and complex. The truth of its impact lies between “It’s Killing the industry” and “It’s not hurting anything” but one of the reasons that perspectives on it change so much is because one person may be seeing their work devastated by it and another may be thriving in spite or because of it.

This is why it’s important to think about piracy more on an individual level. An individual person, company, creation, etc. Though the impact is still difficult to study, it’s easier than looking at an industry as a whole and it creates an opening to take action one direction or another that can produce immediate change.

So, in addition to focusing on the three types of copyright conversations, maybe it’s also time we dialed the focus in a little and looked more on the smaller picture, rather than only trying to see the 10,000 ft. view.

Bottom Line

When you look at that small picture, it’s clear that The Avengers was not drastically impacted by piracy, at least not in its opening weekend. Maybe it could have made more without piracy, but it’s clear that it made much more money than many movies with far less illegal sharing.

However, to extrapolate that result to every movie made and being made is a deeply flawed logic. The issues are much more complex than that and, while piracy clearly isn’t a problem for every film, it is a problem for many.

Of course, some of the challenge of thinking about piracy on an individual level is that so much of the communication comes from industry organizations like the RIAA and MPAA. They frame their side of the discussion from the industry perspective because that’s the one they have.

As a result, we need more artists and creators to speak up. Whether it’s Patrick Vega talking about the impact music piracy has had on him or Neil Gaiman talking about how book piracy helped him reach new countries, we need these individual voices more than we need the industry ones.

Only then can we see just how complex the relationship between piracy and sales is and start to react accordingly.

6 Responses to What the Avengers Mean for Piracy

  1. Britt Reid says:

    “Maybe it could have made more without piracy, but it’s clear that it made much more money than many movies with far less illegal sharing.”
     
    Not likely, since most showings were sold out.
    The only way it could’ve made more money is if theatres ignored the fire codes and let more than their legal capacity into the auditoriums.
    Piracy had nothing to do with it.

    • plagiarismtoday says:

      As an economics professor will tell you, supply is only half of the equation. Less piracy could have motivated more theater owners to open more screens (there are other movies out) and they also may have been able to charge more money for the seats they got. Both of these scenarios are unlikely for various reasons, but it shows that selling out theaters does not equal maximizing profits.
       
      If you went back to an industry-wide argument, which is the opposite of what this is about, you could argue that a stronger, more piracy-free industry would have more theater owners and more screens. However, as I said, that’s the opposite of what this article is about.
       
      As I said above, I don’t think that the move was hurt by piracy drastically, but a show being sold out indicates a problem on the supply side and, with movie theaters, the people who make the film don’t control the supply.

      • Britt Reid says:

         @plagiarismtoday “Less piracy could have motivated more theater owners to open more screens (there are other movies out) and they also may have been able to charge more money for the seats they got.”
        Theatres are contractually-obligated to carry films on a given number of screens for a certain period.
        So they couldn’t just “stick AVENGERS on a few more screens” without paying penalties for violating contracts for other films.
        This time of year is especially-tight with an astounding number of films coming out one-after-another, each with a given “roll-out” and contractually-locked number of screens.
        And, you failed to mention that the film was out in foreign markets before opening in the US…foreign markets that have a heavy “pirate” presence, yet the flick did record-breaking business there as well!
        How do you explain that?

    • Adam Senour says:

      The problem with the statement is that you’re evaluating it in the context of this particular weekend.  A better evaluation would occur say a couple of weeks down the road.  Are people seeing it a second time?  A third time?  Or for the first time that didn’t get to on opening night? 
       
      There’s a fairly obvious case that could be made that the movie could make more in the subsequent weeks as the sellout theaters in the first weekend increase the likelihood of device recording piracy.
       
      NOTE:  I don’t have any great love for the movie industry.  I’m just pointing out that your statement would only really apply if the movie continues to sell out, which it almost certainly won’t.

  2. MOHIT SONI says:

    Saying that “The Avengers did well, therefore piracy is not an issue,” is akin to saying “It’s cold today, therefore there’s no global warming.” It’s looking at a small, narrow sample and trying to extrapolate results that are far too big.
     
    Dear Jonathan, I am sorry but I am afraid that Avengers being successful in spite of piracy is not a small sample, but yet another confirmation as Britt Reid points out. I would request you to please look at the other side of the story also. (e.g. techdirt, torrentfreak etc.) Yea piracy is an issue, but a TSA like anti-consumer behavior (DRM, checking bags, penalizing people who record on mobile phones) is not the solution.
     
    Let us look at the facts, is spite of growing piracy tools, the movie industry thrived in recession when most people’s suffered major problems. Even though more and more people are sharing, games/music are removing DRM, artists and gaming are growing stronger in fact doing better.
     
    In conclusion, Avengers is not a small sample, but a conclusion. Piracy does not have a major affect the industry period. Claiming piracy affects business is like saying  “It’s cold today, therefore there’s no global warming.”

  3. asirota says:

    Some parents with kids will take them to see Avengers in the theater. I would argue this was the majority of the audience, and comic book fans of course. These audiences spend money like they are millionaires, even though they are not.
     
    Others will “preview” it at home. Will Avengers clear $1B in screen/at home sales or even $500M? I seriously doubt it. It could have 10 years ago most likely, but not now. I don’t think there will be ever another movie that can sustain a long term screen viewership like say ET did, in the age of 50Mbps connections and beautiful home theater systems for less than $1000.
     
    And that’s the problem — for studios to keep making movies like they do they must have the huge blockbuster wins, I don’t see those coming any time soon unless there is some sort of device (not 3D) that eliminates the ability to pirate. That has to be a content driven device (interactive movies? I dunno).

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