Greg Carter spent the last three years scraping together $250,000 to write, direct and produce "A Gangland Love Story," a gritty, urban retelling of "Romeo and Juliet."
Since its DVD release in July, audiences have embraced it: More than 60,000 viewers have watched the movie on the Internet, giving the independent filmmaker a coveted public following.
Unfortunately, winning an audience has come at a steep price. The viewers of Carter's film watched if from pirate movie sites and never paid for it. Carter figures the unauthorized viewing has cost him as much as $100,000 in lost revenue, dashing hope that he'll ever see a profit.
"It feels like someone is walking into your house and stealing your furniture," said Carter, 38. "The big studios can absorb it, but guys like me, we're not millionaires. We're fighting like crazy for every dollar, every nickel, every penny just to survive in this marketplace."
The Hollywood studios have for years warned that piracy harms their business, especially when copies of big summer movies leak out on the Internet and undercut ticket sales. But the alarms haven't elicited much sympathy among the public.
Carter's case illustrates how movie piracy is undermining the small fry of Hollywood: the independent filmmakers, who have also been squeezed by tightening credit and fewer outlets for their work as the studios have retrenched from making specialty films.
The spread of high-speed Internet services and streaming software has made it easy for consumers to watch movies and TV shows without paying the people who create them. Filmmakers like Carter, who typically can't afford the battery of lawyers to go after purveyors of unauthorized content, have been hit especially hard.
Most independent filmmakers don't rely on ticket sales to recoup their investment because the majority of their films never make it into theaters. Instead, independent films rely on DVD sales when their movies head directly into the home video market. But consumers have substantially cut back on their purchases of DVDs as legitimate online viewing options become readily available.
Some filmmakers and distributors are fighting back, hiring lawyers to file copyright infringement cases against websites that offer free movies, as well as against individuals suspected of illegally downloading from file-sharing services.
The most high-profile case involves "The Hurt Locker," which won six Oscars but earned only $16.4million at the box office in the U.S. and Canada, an unusually low gross for a best-picture winner. Some blamed the effects of online piracy — the movie was available on the Web months before its arrival in theaters. Voltage Pictures, the film's producer, obtained IP addresses for 5,000 people it claims shared the film illegally. Voltage is now suing them, following a similarly controversial tactic used by the Recording Industry Assn. of America several years ago in an effort to fight the piracy of music.
"More people downloaded the movie for free than actually paid for it," said Thomas Dunlap, who has filed copyright infringement lawsuits on behalf of more than a dozen indie filmmakers and distributors, including Voltage and Maverick Entertainment Group, the company that distributed Carter's movie.
Some relief has come from the federal government. This summer, federal authorities seized domain names of nine websites — such as TVShack.net and ThePirateCity.org — that offered downloads of pirated movies and drew 6.7 million visitors a month. But, underscoring how difficult it is to crack down on Internet piracy, a Dutch website that the government shut down popped up just days later under a slightly different name.
Some filmmakers have taken matters into their own hands. Ellen Seidler, who teaches journalism at UC Berkeley, used her retirement savings and took out a second mortgage on her home to co-produce and co-direct her first film, "And Then Came Lola," a lesbian romantic comedy that has played on the film festival circuit.
Since its DVD release in May, Seidler has discovered at least 2,000 different copies of the movie, some with subtitles in Chinese, Russian, Arabic and Turkish, and more than 25,000 illegal download links and streams to her film on various websites.
Seidler often spends several hours each day firing off e-mails and "take down" notices to websites that have free links to her film, often alongside advertising from legitimate companies such as Sony Corp., RadioShack Corp. and Netflix Inc. The links disappear only to reappear on another site. "It's like playing whack-a-mole," she said. "Sitting here watching our work getting taken away — it's just disheartening. We're independent artists and we're the ones who can least afford it."
Carter is hardly the image of a pampered Hollywood filmmaker. Although he's been a producer for 15 years, the Houston native lives in a one-bedroom apartment in Koreatown and says he earns $60,000 to $100,000 a year.
His latest movie, which stars A.J. Lamas, Gary Sturgis and Reagan Gomez, tells the story of forbidden love between Julia, the little sister of a feared African American crime lord, and Romano, the nephew of a leader in a rival Latino gang.
The film was shot over three weeks in Houston's 5th Ward, where Carter grew up. "I wanted to bring Shakespeare to black and Latino folks in the 'hood," he said.
To save money, Carter skipped a casting director and reached out to actors by contacting them on their Facebook or MySpace pages. They worked for less than their union rate under the Screen Actors Guild contract designed for "ultra low budget" movies. Carter filmed many scenes in houses offered free by relatives of the 30-member cast and crew.
"A Gangland Love Story" was released on DVD and on video-on-demand in late July and got write-ups in the Houston Chronicle and Voice of America.
Almost immediately, Carter learned through his distributor that "Gangland" was appearing on websites offering free links to his movie, which sells for $17.99 on Amazon.com. His producing partner found bootleg copies at a swap meet in Brooklyn.
Maverick sent notices to websites and managed to shut many of them down, but the piracy continued. Recently, Carter found full downloads of his movie available free from half a dozen sites in Australia, the Netherlands, Britain, Germany, Italy and France. He estimates he's lost 30% of potential revenues from the online piracy.
Carter has counted at least 60 websites that offer free links to his movie. "It's wrecking us," he said.