Film piracy a blight on movie industry

Home-grown film-maker Kelvin Tong has lost up to 80% in DVD sales since 2008

For home-grown film-maker Kelvin Tong, the effects of film piracy are simple: It's going to work every day without a pay cheque at the end of the month.

The director, known for horror films such as The Maid, also owns production company Boku Films.

He said he has seen declines of up to 35 per cent in annual box-office takings and up to 80 per cent in DVD sales since 2008. He attributed part of the decline to the concurrent growth in popularity of illegal download sites.

"Part of me as a film director rejoices whenever someone watches my movies - be it legitimately or criminally," he said.

"However, I know that in the long run, rampant piracy will kill off all but the richest or most passionate film-makers, as no one can labour indefinitely with zero or very low returns."

His concerns were echoed by director Jack Neo, the man behind box-office favourites I Not Stupid and Ah Boys To Men. While he declined to give figures, he said illegal downloading had affected his DVD sales.

"Most importantly, we take precautions so that the film isn't leaked before the official release period," he said, noting that several of his movies can be found on YouTube and Chinese websites.

It is hard to put a number on the damage that piracy has caused, but the effect is real, said cinema operators here.

A Golden Village spokesman said the cinema operator has seen a gradual fall in box-office earnings over the years.

For example, in the romance drama genre, Winter's Tale earned $112,486 last February, compared to $557,420 for Dear John, which ran in February 2010.

The Intellectual Property Office of Singapore said online piracy is a global issue, with 327 million unique Internet users explicitly downloading content illegally during January 2013, with 30 per cent of these offenders in the Asia-Pacific region.

Singapore is one of the worst offenders in the region, with its high broadband penetration rate. There are about 300,000 cases of illegal downloading here every month, according to data in 2012 - the worst among 15 countries in the region.

A survey last year found over half of the adult population here has pirated movie, television or music content.

The survey of 900 Singaporeans aged 16 to 64, conducted by Sycamore Research and Marketing, also found that piracy is primarily a youth issue.

Seven out of 10 Singaporeans aged 16 to 24 download illegally out of habit - and an overwhelming 80 per cent believe it is a social norm.

"The problem is particularly pronounced in Singapore because we have access to a high-speed broadband Internet network. Downloading and streaming is much easier, compared to buying DVDs," said Mr Zaqy Mohamad, chairman of the Government Parliamentary Committee for Communications and Information and MP for Chua Chu Kang GRC.

"It is a challenge to enforce change, but if we don't value the effort that the industry puts in, it becomes hard to sustain producing quality content."

To mitigate losses, Golden Village encourages distributors to time the release of their films together with the US, to avoid leaks on the Internet.

If piracy is left unchecked, there will be an impact on everyone along the food chain - the creators, producers, creative individuals who worked behind the scenes, movie distributors and exhibitors, said the cinema chain.

Some studios, such as Voltage Pictures, can afford to go after those who download illegally, but local studios do not have the financial power to do so, said Mr Tong.

"We will either have to band together, or get behind a big studio's efforts to go after pirates."

miranday@sph.com.sg

isaacneo@sph.com.sg