Man on a mission: Across Asia-Pacific, the MPA's Mike Ellis pursues pirates and politics
“Customs campaign focuses on illegal import of pirated DVDs into Taiwan.”
“Australian police conduct countrywide sweep against copyright theft.”
“Man arrested for uploading movie files in Japan.”
“Zero tolerance for illegal camcording bites in Hong Kong’s cinemas.”
These are some recent media messages from Singapore, Malaysia-headquartered Motion Picture Association International (www.mpa-i.org).
MPA International? What happened to the Motion Picture Association proper? “It’s no big intrigue,” the organization’s Mike Ellis laughs. “The MPA is indeed the international arm of the Motion Picture Association of America. The MPA-I was formed in Singapore, because we could not register the MPA there, as the name was already claimed. So we had to form a new company.” Thus, Ellis became president and managing director of the Asia-Pacific Region for both the Motion Picture Association (MPA) and Motion Picture Association International (MPA-I).
Since 1999, Ellis has been “charged with combating piracy in the digital age,” his job description states. He is “liaising with government bodies and law-enforcement agencies worldwide while overseeing thousands of investigations, raids and precedent-setting legal actions.” A litigation lawyer qualified in Hong Kong, England and Wales, Ellis also draws from a two-decade-long career in law enforcement, serving first in the British Police and then the Royal Hong Kong Police. At the latter, he spent six years with the Commercial Crime Bureau, ultimately rising to superintendent and becoming aide-de-camp to the last Governor of Hong Kong.
Looking at yet another headline about an “illegal DVD factory uncovered by Thai police,” Film Journal International wondered what type of mission Mike Ellis is actually on—as a lawyer, enforcer or diplomat? All of the above, he confirmed on his way to attend several government meetings when we caught up with him, calling in from a taxi dashing through Bangkok. (Great reception, by the way. Sadly, this author forgot to ask about his cell-phone provider.)
“The focus has shifted more towards being an ambassador rather than the enforcer,” Ellis adds, mentioning his “very experienced team of competent people who are handling the enforcement side. Obviously, I still supervise and manage that, but I do a lot more of the government liaison and outreach with local industry.”
For Ellis, the mission is also about creating awareness of “what the issues are, and trying to get all parties to speak in one common voice.” Those problems vary by country, he notes. “Among the top line issues, however, is the Internet problem of online infringement, which is major for all of us,” he asserts. “That includes getting Internet Service Providers to be more responsive to our problems and the camcording issue… The majority of the illegal files that initially get up on the Internet come from camcording in movie theatres. We are trying to have the exhibitors work with us hand-in-hand to address the problem and stop it taking place at their cinemas.”
Regarding the legal side of enforcement and indictment, Ellis details, “Hong Kong was the first government to put in place anti-camcording measures some ten years ago. We’ve got legislation now in Japan and tough legislation is winding its way through the parliamentary systems in Thailand and Malaysia. The government of the Philippines just passed legislation. In many places, like Australia and Singapore for instance, camcording is actually covered already under the basic copyright law.”
The decade-ago adoption in Hong Kong may explain how “we stopped camcording coming out of Malaysia and Hong Kong,” Ellis suggests. “Both countries were places, just a few years ago, where we had huge problems.” Another reason behind this “amazing success story,” he says, is “our ability to have good dialogue and conversation with the exhibitors. Those who have taken that situation really seriously and trained their staffs have been very, very successful at catching people camcording. We’ve not had any forensic links to either Malaysia or Hong Kong in the last two years. We are going to be driving that in other countries where we still have a problem. Thailand is at the top of our list now, but we are also looking at emerging countries such as China and India. The challenges are great. Often the films are not marked with the local industry and they are obviously very, very big countries for trying to deal with those problems.”
Access restrictions to such sizeable markets haven’t eased up either. In China, “we still have the exact same problem that not more than 20 revenue-sharing films for the whole of the international marketplace can get in. I am absolutely blunt about this with the Chinese officials I meet. Unless they address the market-access issue and make our products available, they will not be able to deal with the piracy problems. It’s just impossible. The consumers want our content, but they just can’t get it legally. So this is a very tense situation. You can’t deal with piracy unless the products are legally available to the consumer. But the government restricts us making them available.”
Does Ellis think continuing growth in cinema building will help achieve access? “In China we are looking at three screens a day being added,” he responds. “Clearly more cinemas are good for the overall revenue, as films are seen by more people. But they really need more films. When you build a multiplex, you have to show multiple films, not just one or two. But we’re just not able to supply what the consumers are demanding in China.”
Across the region, “with the exception of maybe Japan, the cinema numbers in other markets are pretty good and our product mix is pretty good,” Ellis elaborates. “In many places, the balance is around 50/50 between local and international product. In India, however, we potentially have only about seven percent, but there are no market restrictions. It’s more about what the consumers want to see.
“India presents us with many challenges,” Ellis notes, “especially on the taxation front at the exhibition level. It’s not really aimed at the foreign industry, it’s state protectionism. Taxes can be very, very high targeting films from neighboring states and we get caught, sort of, in the crosshairs… Piracy is obviously an issue as well, but the local industry is stepping up. Together we formed an organization called ACT, the ‘Association against Copyright Theft.’ The Indian industry is doing a terrific job of stepping up now and starting to protect their product.”
On the educational front, working with exhibitors, he believes, is key to “trying to figure out how we get the right message through to the moviegoing public. Namely, that taking product online for free once it has been uploaded illegally is wrong and it damages our business. We are working together with local industry to make sure they understand that their films are being camcorded as much as, if not more than ours and that their losses on a percentage basis are obviously far greater than ours.”
After all, “piracy is not just a Hollywood problem,” Ellis reminds us. “It is a global problem and our ability to outreach to the local industry is constantly on my mind. In every country I visit, I am meeting with the local industry, whether that be individual producers or guilds and associations. It’s all about working together and figuring out how to get the message out consistently—whether to the governments and politicians or to the public—about the problems that we all are facing and the need to address them together as a group.”
With all the successes achieved and progress being made, the fight still goes on. “It always feels that way,” Ellis responds when we liken his mission to that of a plumber or roofer. As soon as one hole has been fixed and leakage is contained, the next one opens. “It’s like the whack-a-mole-syndrome,” he sighs. “When you’ve had successes like we had, such as Hong Kong and Malaysia, it’s a big achievement. Looking at our 2009 figures compared to 2008 overall, the actual camcording forensic matches are down 23%. Yes, it does shift around, but we can make quantifiable differences. We’ve seen the period a camcord reaches the Internet stretching into a number of days, which again is a quantifiable achievement”—thanks to the hard work of Ellis and the MPA-I team. “But it doesn’t stop. Trying to get the toothpaste back into the tube is a never-ending task.”