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A scene from "Inception," the illegal download champ.
A scene from "Inception," the illegal download champ.

Liam Lacey: Behind the Screens

Piracy - the downside of the Oscar bounce Add to ...

Everyone knows about the so-called "Oscar bounce," the box office or DVD windfall, that sometimes happens to a film that earns Academy Award nominations. But there's another side to all that awards-season attention, which might be called the Oscar Ooze.

With all those movies suddenly in demand, illegal downloads jump dramatically as well. According to Variety, in the week after nominations were announced on Jan. 25, illegal daily downloads of True Grit increased worldwide by 34 per cent, The Fighter by 23 per cent and Black Swan by 6 per cent. The research comes from an anti-piracy firm, Peer Media Technologies, that works for the Hollywood studios to monitor peer-to-peer network traffic.

Previous Behind the Screens columns by Liam Lacey

How big is movie piracy? The Motion Picture Association of America, a lobby group that represents the major studios, claims its members lose $25-billion a year to illegal copiers, compared to worldwide business that hit a record $31.8-billion in 2010. But the legitimacy of the MPAA's piracy figures have been questioned in the past, and their meaning is open to interpretation. Not everyone who steals a movie would have paid for it in other circumstances. But DVD sales have slid, from a peak of $20.2-billion a year in 2006 to $14-billion last year, and illegal downloading would seem to be a probable culprit.

The illegal download champion of the Oscar-nominated films is Inception, which has had 17 million downloads since its theatrical release on July 16, 2010. It's followed by The Social Network with 5.6 million downloads since its Oct. 1 release. Both those films were on home video before the Oscar nominations were announced, and in both cases Italy was the worst culprit for piracy. The King's Speech, which is not available on legal DVD, has been downloaded 1.2 million times; in its case, Britain is the worst offender.

Though it might seem an oddly specialized subject, analyzing illegal Oscar downloads even has its own expert. Andy Baio, author of the blog Waxy.org, has collected stats regarding the piracy of Oscar contenders going back to 2003. He also assesses them by source, including pre-release cuts leaked in the production process, films from people using camcorders in theatres, pay-for-view sources (such as in hotel rooms), rental DVDs or, of particular interest in the Oscar season, screeners sent out to academy or guild members or critics' groups for prize consideration.

According to Baio's research this year, 38 per cent of the nominated films were leaked online from such screeners. When you include movies that were also available on retail DVDs, 68 per cent of nominated films were illegally available online by the time of the Oscar nominations. The Rabbit Hole was actually leaked online eight days before its theatrical release.

While the MPAA decries pirating, and goes after the sources of illegal copies, some producers have gone further. Last year, the producers of the winning picture, The Hurt Locker, hired a law firm, Dunlap, Grubb & Weaver (also known as The U.S. Copyright Group), which has issued subpoenas to Internet providers to get the names of thousands of individuals who illegally downloaded the film online. The lawsuit, which is still spreading across the United States, demands a settlement of between $1,500 to $2,900, or the defendants could face much larger fines in court. The approach could prove lucrative: The Hurt Locker earned only $17-million domestically at the box office, but with its Oscar success, earned another $32-million in 1.8 million DVD sales. Producers estimated that there were seven million illegal downloads.

Another anti-piracy approach, used this year by Fox films with the 93,000 voting members of the Screen Actors Guild, was to allow them to download three of its nominated films - 127 Hours, Black Swan and Conviction - on iTunes, for a brief 24-hour window. But as hackers have pointed out, the approach has an obvious flaw. It's not all that difficult to set up a camcorder in front of your computer screen.

OPENING NEXT WEEK

And Everything Is Going Fine Steven Soderbergh created this posthumous documentary on Spalding Gray, the writer and monologist behind Swimming to Cambodia Monster in a Box and Grey's Anatomy, mostly using existing footage of Gray talking about himself. (Bell Lightbox in Toronto.)

Battle: Los Angeles Director Jonathan Liebesman says he took inspiration from Black Hawk Down for this film about a group of Marines in mankind's last stand against an alien invasion. With Aaron Eckhart and Michelle Rodriguez.

Red Riding Hood Catherine Hardwicke, who directed the first Twilight film, offers this grown-up retelling of the fairy tale, with Amanda Seyfried as a young woman torn between two men, while a werewolf attacks her community.

Mars Needs Moms In this animated film, a young boy learns to value his mother after aliens arrive on earth and take her away. With Seth Green and Joan Cusack.

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Sweet Karma Former Canadian Playboy Playmate Shera Bechard stars in this film about a mute Russian girl who enters Toronto's illegal sex trade to avenge the death of her sister.

 

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