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With their deep pockets, global reach and army of lobbyists, the Hollywood studios have always led the fight against movie piracy. But now the independents are gathering their forces to play a bigger role in the battle.

After holding a first meeting in Cannes between key sales agents and Euro distributors, the Independent Film & TV Alliance is planning a larger confab at the American Film Market to share local intelligence, and explore options for collective action.

The org’s aims are to give indies a louder voice in the political debate over copyright protection and to strengthen efforts to combat online piracy by pooling their knowledge about what’s working, and what isn’t, in different territories around the world.

Because of their smaller size and different financing model, indies are arguably more vulnerable to the damage from piracy than the majors. Whereas piracy hurts a studio’s bottom line, it can prevent indie pics from being made at all.

Yet the fragmented nature of the indie business makes it hard for any individual company to respond effectively to the threat, or to have a significant say in public policy.

“The piracy story is almost always told by the big studios,” says IFTA president-CEO Jean Prewitt. “Independent distributors tend to be better connected with what’s going on in their local market, but are left out of the process of devising solutions. Governments tend to talk only to those who are vertically integrated with a lot of money, which distorts the debate.”

Prewitt says it’s important to make sure governments understand anti-piracy weapons that work for the studios don’t always help the independent sector — either because they can be too expensive, or because they aren’t effective for a business model based on territory-by-territory sales.

Few local distributors, for example, can afford to scan the Web for their films on a regular basis, or to identify and pursue pirate sites based in far-flung territories with ambiguous copyright regimes.

IFTA, whose membership comprises sales companies and producers, has been stepping up its lobbying efforts in the U.S. and Europe over the past year. But it’s keen to invite more input from the local distributors at the frontline of the battle, and to give them more support.

“We thought it’s a good idea to round up the big sales agents and producers, and a handful of major theatrical distributors, to see what the problem looks like on the ground and ask if there are things we should be doing together,” Prewitt says.

“Our independent distributors aren’t members of IFTA, but they are all fighting in their own countries with their own legislation, and they want a forum to share their problems,” says David Garrett, president of Summit Intl., which hosted the Cannes meeting on the company’s roof terrace.

While distributors can bring a local perspective, sales agents who supervise the international circulation of indie movies are better placed to see the big picture.

“We and others already spend a lot of time taking sites down,” Garrett says. “The aim is to galvanize our local independent distributors and help them understand where the problem is coming from, and what they can do about it.”

One tactic, says Prewitt, is to “cut off the money pipeline” to pirate websites. Rather than attempting to deploy the unwieldy complexities of copyright law against them, it can be more effective to target their legitimate advertisers, and the credit card companies that process their subscriptions.

For example, a Greek distributor discovered ads from one of his sponsors on a file-sharing site offering illegal copies of his own films. The advertiser had used Google to book ads onto relevant websites with high traffic — and the search engine’s automated system didn’t distinguish between legitimate and pirate sites. Google was persuaded to pull the ads.

Indies also have an important role to play in the PR battle the Hollywood studios are losing. When the majors attack unauthorized file-sharing, they are too easily caricatured as greedy moguls trying to defend their indefensible profit margins from bloated blockbusters against the little guy.

But indies are also the little guy. When the survival of a company can rest on the success or failure of a single film, the damage wrought by piracy on their business is harder to deny. Their ability to finance movies is also compromised.

Prewitt gives the example of Spain, where piracy has gone largely unchecked by a quiescent government. “Spain used to be worth 10% of your budget,” she says. “Now most Spanish distributors can’t give an advance, or at best 3%, because piracy has destroyed any value to the home entertainment market. That means you might not get your film made.

“In the U.S., 70% of films are independent, and so are 70% of jobs,” she adds. “When you are able to talk seriously about films not getting made, you able to illustrate more clearly than the studios how the damage is done to the economy.”

IFTA has invited the Office of the White House IP Enforcement Coordinator to the AFM gathering to shed light on recent antipiracy moves in the U.S. It’s drawing up a practical guide to copyright protection around the world, and is planning a survey of upcoming regulatory and legislative developments in key territories.

“It can be difficult for licensors to understand why something can be subject to legal action in one territory but not in another,” says IFTA general counsel Susan Cleary.

Camcording in theaters, for example, is a felony in some countries, but not in others. Powers to force websites to take down unauthorized material also vary.

“The legislative process is incredibly murky,” Prewitt says. “There are a lot of political pronouncements of bills being introduced, but then you don’t hear anything else.” She hopes foreign distributors will feed back information about how their local legislation is actually working in practice.

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