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What piracy? Box office innovators rake in billions

Paul Chai (SMH) | Aug. 17, 2010
Film piracy may be on the rise but smart innovations are delivering billions in ticket sales to a thriving film industry

SYDNEY, 17 AUGUST 2010 - Due to people using file-sharing software such as BitTorrent, millions of movies are changing hands illegally every day. In fact, Christopher Nolan's new thriller Inception had a mind-blowing 30,000 files downloaded on a single day last week. Other new-release films that top the pirates' shopping lists are Toy Story 3 and the latest instalment of the Twilight series, Eclipse.

Those uploading movies are called "seeders", the downloaders are called "leechers" and that is exactly what they're doing, leeching off the entertainment industry. In the last broad-ranging study, in 2005, L.E.K. Consulting found that Australians illegally downloaded 11 million movies a year, at an estimated cost of $233 million to the industry. Just last month, a study funded by Village Roadshow found 89.9 per cent of BitTorrent files were illegal.

As I watch the 30,000 copies of Inception downloading to who-knows-where, it is easy to believe the dire warnings about the state of the film industry.

But the predicted death of cinema is nothing new. It has been touted many times as new technologies challenge the film industry but, like George A. Romero's shambling zombies, cinema just will not die.

To the contrary, last year was the biggest ever at the Australian box office, with a record haul of $1.09billion, a figure that flies in the face of the rampant piracy. It represented a 15 per cent rise, year on year, and followed a 5 per cent rise in 2008.

So far this year the annual box office is up a healthy 19 per cent according to the Motion Picture Distributors Association of Australia (MPDAA), and tickets sales do not look like slowing.

MPDAA chairman and managing director of Universal Pictures, Mike Baard, is keen not to underplay the seriousness of piracy but points out that one of the things driving the boom in cinema is that technology advances work both ways.

Advances in digital cinema and special effects mean films can tell far more visually challenging stories than previous generations.

"Lord of the Rings was the finest example of a classic property that could not have been made to the extent that it was if it had been done 20years before," Baard says.

"And Inception, which is a pretty labyrinthine story, that story could not have been told 10 years ago."

But digital is not just for pyrotechnics; Baard adds that it has improved the movie-going experience in more subtle ways.

"It used to be that if you went in the fourth or fifth week of a movie, the image was degraded because it was a 35-millimetre print," he says. "We are starting to see, in this fifth week, pristine images because of digital."


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