The fight against movie piracy is a fight FOR diversity

It’s no secret that Hollywood has a long way to go when it comes to diversity and a new report released today by the Media, Diversity, & Social Change Initiative at USC’s Annenberg_diversity_hollywoodAnnenberg School shows just how far.  Echoing findings of a similar study issued last winter by UCLA’s Bunche Center, today’s report finds that women, minorities and LGBT characters are not only rare–but often insignificant in Hollywood films.  The findings include:

  • Of the 4,610 speaking or named characters on screen, only 19 were coded as LGBT across the 100 top films of 2014.
  •  Only 30.2% of the 30,835 speaking characters evaluated were female across the 700 top‐grossing films from 2007 to 2014. This calculates to a gender ratio of 2.3 to 1. Only 11% of 700 films had gender‐balanced casts or featured girls/women in roughly half (45‐54.9%) of the speaking roles.
  • Only 17 of the 100 top films of 2014 featured a lead or co lead actor from an underrepresented racial and/or ethnic group. An additional 3 films depicted an ensemble cast with 50% or more of the group comprised of actors from underrepresented racial/ethnic backgrounds.
  • In 2014, no female actors over 45 years of age performed a lead or co lead role. Only three of the female actors in lead or co lead roles were from underrepresented racial/ethnic backgrounds.  No female leads or co leads were Lesbian or Bisexual characters.

The report is a must-read, but how does it have anything to do with the topic “movie piracy” or the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF)?  Well, given that Hollywood is clearly doing a pretty lousy job telling the diverse stories of our society at large, where can audiences watch films that reflect our lives?  Look no further than the narratives created by a diverse cornucopia of independent filmmakers.

pirate sites featuring LGBT films

Pirate sites around the globe feature stolen LGBT movies

Unlike those in Hollywood, indie filmmakers are not well-funded and often have to cobble together lean production budgets using a variety of sources from credit cards to crowd-funding. Without the deep pockets of the studios, these filmmakers often go deep into the red to create their not-so-mainstream films.

So, when it comes to assessing piracy’s damage, indie filmmakers, like their counterparts in music, are often the most vulnerable. As I noted in a 2013 blog post about the negative impact piracy has on LGBT cinema:

 Unlike studio-backed films, these titles usually don’t get a theatrical release and so are totally dependent on back-end revenue (VOD, DVD, TV) to recoup production costs and pay off debts.   Parasitic pirates, who themselves profit from piracy, erode this much-needed revenue stream.

EFF-tech-defenderThis brings me to the EFF and a recent blog post by Mitch Stoltz, a Senior Staff Attorney there. In response to recent efforts by the movie industry to shut down a group of piracy-for-profit websites based offshore, Stoltz sounded the alarm by dusting off the well-worn SOPA canard and cries of “censorship” and “abuse.”  His love of the word “abuse” was so strong, in fact, variations of the term appear 9 times in his piece.

Isn’t it time for those at the EFF and others who yell “SOPA” each time the movie industry takes legal action against online pirates to shut the hell up?  What is abusive is the way online piracy (for profit) is allowed to flourish, made sacrosanct by tech apologists.

Why can’t we differentiate between websites engaged in theft for profit and legit ones?  Are we (and the courts) really that stupid?  When it comes to other illegal activity online we manage to differentiate between the good guys and the bad…drugs, child porn, etc.

Piracy is not free speech, it’s theft.

Asking that pirate sites be shut down for criminal activity (movie piracy) is no different.   Despite the hyperbole, it’s also not an attack on “free speech.”  In fact, ridding the web of pirates actually strengthens “free speech” by helping make sure that oft-marginalized subjects and stories brought to the screen by indie filmmakers are not muted.

Why can’t the EFF find value in protecting the diversity of free speech found in film?

EFF bluster is nothing new.  It’s a tired old playbook that I’ve addressed in earlier posts:

…the EFF routinely muddies the waters and conflate valid concerns over online privacy and free speech rights with copyright holders’ efforts to protect their work from infringement.  Protecting rights within all three realms is important and doing so effectively, despite EFF rhetoric to the contrary, need not be a mutually exclusive process. The EFF approach to protecting “rights” in the digital age has always has been disingenuous.  Gin up hysteria in order to push an anti-copyright agenda–an agenda, covertly built on the interests of the tech industry and NOT the community at large.

So, back to the issue at hand…lack of diversity in film.  I would argue that the fight against online piracy is also a fight FOR filmmakers who create diverse films.  It’s also a fight for the jobs of all those involved in making them.

There’s no question Hollywood needs to do a (much) better job when it comes to including women, minorities and LGBT in roles on camera and off, but in its perhaps own inadvertent way–by taking aim at online pirates–the industry is helping make sure that audiences worldwide will continue have access to independently produced films, rich with a myriad of characters and stories.

While Stoltz and his tech-influenced ilk continue to demonize Hollywood’s efforts against piracy, I will continue to applaud them for taking action. They are fighting the good fight against piracy for all filmmakers.  Meanwhile I will continue to advocate for a Hollywood that better reflects the world around us.  The two are not mutually exclusive.