by Don Groves — December 10, 2020
2020 has indeed been a year like no other. With cinema attendance reaching terrific levels in January and February, drama expenditure looking to reach unparalleled highs and piracy trends plateauing, the year was off to a great start.
When Creative Content Australia (CCA) launched a 30-second anti-piracy spot – “Piracy. You’re Exposed” – in cinemas and on free-to-air networks and pay channels in February – no one could have foreseen how much business and everyday life would be disrupted a few weeks later by the global Coronavirus pandemic.
While Australian cinemas were forced to shutter, the lockdown resulted in a surge in in-home viewing, a boon for Netflix, Stan and other streaming services. Digital sales and rentals boomed, tracking 29% ahead of 2019, with Jumanji: The Next Level, Joker, Frozen 2, The Gentleman and Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker as the top sellers.
In March, as millions of people around the world were forced into lockdown, there was an unprecedented spike in global piracy as copyright protection technology company MUSO reported: “It has never been easier to view content illegally and people have never been more relaxed about doing so.”
Six major releases from four Hollywood studios were pirated across social media platforms, with a total of 6.2 million illicit views and losses of $US100million in just 23 days, according to video tracking specialist Videocites.
Physical disc sales for films and TV shows were buoyant too. “Consumers were looking for feel good movies they could share as a family in lockdown,” said Australian Home Entertainment Distributors Association (AHEDA) chairman Jim Batchelor. “There was a huge demand for recent releases like Ford vs Ferrari and 1917 as well as catalogue titles which were able to satisfy those needs where SVOD services couldn’t.”
With Australia and New Zealand containing the virus more effectively than other developed countries, Creative Content Australia chairman Graham Burke sees plenty of positives for the Australian screen industry and consumers.
The biggest win in the war against piracy this year, he said, was Google Australia’s move to banish hundreds of websites involved in the illegal downloading of movies and TV programs.
Although the tech giant had agreed to voluntarily pull down more than 800 piracy sites, many quickly re-appeared on Google by creating proxy or mirror sites. In a country-first, Google is blocking those sites as soon as they appear.
“We shut the front door by site-blocking but the pirates were going through the back door with mirror or proxy sites,” Burke told Content Café. “Google is taking them down rapidly and that has made a major difference. We worked with Google and Communications and Arts Minister Paul Fletcher’s Department to arrive at a voluntary solution in the interests of Australians. With pirates, it’s like fighting a plague of locusts. But we’re winning and it makes a difference.
“During the lockdown many people, especially in Melbourne, reached out to pirate sites but often discovered they got the equivalent of Covid-19 in the form of nasty viruses. The pirates’ business model is scamming people to entrap and steal from them.”
Google’s action followed a ruling in June by the Federal Court ordering Australian Internet Service Providers (ISPs) to block access to an additional 86 piracy sites. The court also required ISPs to take reasonable steps to block access to new sites, including torrent directories, unofficial streaming sites and proxy unblockers.
In March, an illegal piracy business selling IPTV set-top boxes and subscriptions closed its operations following an investigation by the Alliance for Creativity and Entertainment (ACE). Priced at $A335, the streaming devices offered a 12-month subscription to multiple pirated services, providing illegal access to more than 4,000 live TV channels and more than 1,000 on-demand movies and television series. ACE has to–date shut down 31 piracy operations involved in the distribution and sale of pre-loaded piracy devices, apps, and IPTV subscriptions.
Among other anti-piracy victories, in April Taiwan’s Criminal Investigation Bureau closed down the country’s most heavily trafficked piracy site, 8maple.ru, which sourced shows from the US, Europe, mainland China, Taiwan and elsewhere. The site generated revenue from click-throughs on advertisements.
A combined operation by the German and Spanish football leagues, Spanish media technology company NAGRA and Nordic Content Protection succeeded in closing an illegal IPTV streaming network based in Spain that served more than two million paying subscribers worldwide.
In September, the BBC reported the volume of new material shared on pirate websites fell sharply after three alleged members of a US-based group called Sparks were charged with copyright-infringement conspiracy. Sparks is a “release group” that is alleged to upload films, music and other digital material before their official release.
The Australian government has announced copyright reforms designed to better support the needs of consumers to access content in an increasingly digital environment. The measures include a scheme to allow the use of material if the copyright owner cannot be found; simplifying and updating copyright exceptions for education and cultural institutions and streamlining of the statutory licensing scheme
The Hollywood studios and broader entertainment industry can look forward to the incoming US administration headed by President-elect Joe Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris, both of whom have close ties to the entertainment industry.
According to Deadline’s Ted Johnson Biden has a history of working on entertainment-related issues like piracy and trade that are atop the agenda of Hollywood studios. Charles Rivkin, the chairman of the Motion Picture Association, is a veteran of the Obama administration who knows Biden well.
In addition to investing millions of dollars in Australian productions via commissions, co-productions and acquisitions, Netflix showed it is a good corporate citizen by donating $1 million to support the local film and TV industry during the shutdown.
Netflix, Amazon Prime, Disney+ and other global streaming services would be required to spend millions of dollars on Australian content under major reforms to media laws proposed last month by the federal government. The minimum percentage would be determined through the consultation process for the green paper and by the streamers’ reports to the Australian Communications & Media Authority detailing their current levels of investments in local content.
After cinemas re-opened in Victoria, ticket sales are recovering nationally, although the 2020 box office through November 25 was down 68% on the same period last year. The total was $335 million, a pale shadow of 2019’s $1.09 billion.
Australian films are in demand with Jeremy Sims’ amiable comedy-drama Rams proving audiences are ever-ready to embrace entertaining Aussie films. The Roadshow release starring Michael Caton and Sam Neill has grossed $3.9 million after its sixth weekend.
Roadshow is launching Robert Connolly’s The Dry on Boxing Day; a crime thriller adapted from the Jane Harper novel, starring Eric Bana. That will be followed on January 21 by Penguin Bloom, Glendyn Ivin’s drama starring Naomi Watts, Andrew Lincoln and Jacki Weaver.
Burke is super confident about the future of cinema despite titles such as Disney’s Soul and Mulan and Oz titles Relic and I Am Woman going straight to streaming.
“Based on my circle of friends and relatives, they are dying to go to the movies,” he said. “Once we get a flow of product, starting with Wonder Woman 1984 on December 24, I think the crowds will be coming again. Next year, I’m confident we will have a vaccine. I am very optimistic for 2021 and beyond.”
AHEDA’s Batchelor said: “The line-up for 2021 does look incredibly strong with every studio delivering commercial titles, so we have much to be optimistic about. We expect studios will continue to offer some content direct to digital and we are forecasting catalogue and TV to continue to perform well. We anticipate local films will also benefit.”
Hugh Stephens, a Canadian-based academic, industry commentator and former Time Warner executive, cited a recent study by Brookings which estimated the pandemic cost 2.7 million jobs and $US150 billion in lost goods and services for creative industries in the US.
However, Stephens saw an upside from the crisis, observing: “I think Covid-19 has shown us just how important culture, creative industries and institutions are to our daily lives, not just in economic terms but to our ability to exist as sentient beings. Think of the enjoyment and release that music provides, the escape of a good novel or film, the appreciation of the ingenuity of creators in the visual and plastic arts—in short, the importance of culture to spiritual recovery. For those fortunate enough to live in a digital world, there has been an opening of new possibilities for access to content.”
Don Groves reports on the Australian and APAC screen industries for C21 Media after working for Variety for 24 years.