“I moved to America for one reason, and that was freedom of speech and freedom of expression, and if someone thinks they’re going to take that away from me, they’re insane!”
Adi Shankar, Bootleg Universe producer
When we think about ripped-off movies, we’re usually thinking of either poor quality bootlegs (If you can remember VHS, you can probably remember, “that’s your tracking, mate, tracking’s touchy”) or movies that steal conceptually and/or aesthetically from other movies (or “properties”). Nowadays, the former has been largely supplanted by the illicit download, increasingly indistinguishable in every way from the “real” thing (though “cam” recordings captured in cinema theatres can still give you something approaching that classic murky a/v experience). The latter, meanwhile, is as rife as ever, originality as bankrupt conceptually in Hollywood as it is essentially meaningless (“There never was but one western,” quipped Los Angeles Times columnist Harry Carr in 1930, “Told endlessly.”)
While we chuckle at anti-piracy campaigns, from the ones fronted by Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jackie Chan (Jackie: “Help us stop piracy.” Arnie: “Let’s terminate it!”) to the ones that make false equivalencies in order to shame us into compliance (“You wouldn’t steal a handbag…”), we also shudder at the draconian, highly-publicised punishments meted out to some confirmed transgressors-cum-scapegoats. We also might understand that once the dust thrown up by previous scare campaigns (for example, the one that trumpeted “home taping is killing music”) has settled, they can be seen for what they truly were – the desperate throes of dying industries unable to adapt to changing times. “Piracy, history tells us,” writes Peter Decherney, “is often just a name for media practices we have yet to figure out how to regulate.”
The Harry Carr quote I used earlier also comes via Decherney’s excellent book, Hollywood’s Copyright Wars: From Edison To The Internet. In it, Decherney paints a very unfamiliar picture of the American film industry, before anyone had figured out how copyright should apply to the new motion pictures, or even if it should. It was a more innocent time, when “filmmakers made exact copies of each other’s films and sold them as their own; they remade competitor’s films shot for shot; and Thomas Edison and his Trust built an industry on the unauthorised adaptation of books, plays, and newspaper cartoons. Early filmmakers, in other words, copied from each other and from other media without permission.” Competing adaptations meant, in the early days of motion pictures, a kind of democratic, crowd-sourced designation of authenticity. The audience would vote with their feet for the best version of something, which the relenting opposition would often resort to bootlegging for their own profit.
It’s easy to misconstrue “copyright” as an inherent, moral right. In fact, until recently, the so-called ‘moral rights’ of creators were almost antithetical to the American and therefore Hollywood way of thinking. In fact, the American conception of copyright still technically holds that creators’ rights to profit their properties should be held in balance against the greater good of the culture. Theoretically speaking, the intention is that you benefit from your creation for a fair period before it’s given over to the world at large to benefit from.
Decherney goes on to depict how an industry – a whole culture, really – came to prefer binding, often-Faustian contracts and strategic cash settlements over moral correctitude and, above all, government interference into the way they could best make a buck. The best-known example of that practice is, of course, Disney’s, with their history of repurposing traditional stories (Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella, etc) or literary properties (Mary Poppins, The Jungle Book) – and let’s not even get into Kimba the White Lion – while ruthlessly “protecting” their own original properties. Decherney sums it up: “Throughout its history, Hollywood has been placed in the often-contradictory position of trying to protect filmmakers’ rights to use copyrighted material as freely as possible while, at the same time, limiting others’ use of the works created by Hollywood.”
And so to now, or 2012 anyway, when Adi Shankar, who made his name as executive producer of the likes of The Grey (dir. Joe Carnahan, 2011), Killing Them Softly (dir. Andrew Dominik, 2012) and Dredd (dir. Pete Travis, 2012) began amusing himself by producing a series of copyright-flaunting live-action shorts. The Punisher: Dirty Laundry (dir. Phil Joanou, 2012), Venom: Truth In Journalism (dir. Joe Lynch, 2013) and Power/Rangers (dir. Joseph Kahn, 2015) all belong in a long tradition of fan films driven by and delivering various degrees of wish-fulfillment, self-promotion and fun.
Originally released without their identifying prefixes, Dirty Laundry and Truth In Journalism distinguished themselves from those countless legions of fan films by virtue of enlisting established Hollywood talent behind and in front of the camera. Casting Thomas Jane, who took the title role in 2004’s The Punisher, in Dirty Laundry was a particular stroke of genius, while the latter’s generic title performed double duty in protecting the surprise reveal – of the Punisher’s trademark skull logo among the titular clothes – and presumably the producer from probable law suits.
Whether or not the high profile his films have gained is a provocation to copyright holders, fans love them. Shankar, meanwhile, insists his status as a bona fide producer is irrelevant. “There were all these news stories going around,” he told New Media Rockstars, “and after I would do one of these things it would be like, ‘Oh, Adi Shankar makes a pitch to Marvel for another Punisher movie,’ and I’m like: ‘Fuck you, this is not a pitch! I just needed to make it.’” Like most modern iterations of the fan film, all of Shankar’s films, retrospectively tied together under the banner of what he calls his Bootleg Universe, have been released straight to the internet, free of charge. “I think you either need to adapt to the digital world or you’re going to perish in the next five years,” Shankar told NMR, adding, “I’m doing a horrible job of adapting to the new age. I’m sitting here making fan films for free. It will be a 23-year-old kid who figures it out and actually, like, rebuilds this town.”
What differentiates Shankar’s films from the official product is a matter of steadily evaporating context. From a long enough distance – whether that’s geographical, temporal or philosophical – it becomes impossible to tell the difference, or understand why it’s even important to. In the pages of Physical Impossibility #3, you’ll find all manner of similar copywrongs, from the undisputed classic of world cinema which by rights should have vanished into ashes to the irrepressible Django and his parade of shades and doppelgangers. In between you’ll find curios of copyright contempt from across time and space of which, happily, there are many more besides.
This article is excerpted from Physical Impossibility #3: Copywrongs, launching 21/05/2015 at The Old Hairdressers, with Matchbox Cineclub’s screening of Turkish Star Wars. Grab a copy at the launch or shortly thereafter at selected retailers or online, here.