When You Cannot Stream or Buy – Ethical Issues Within Queer Cinema

15 min read

graphic art highlighting ethical issues in queer cinema. A woman holding her hands up, puzzled with question marks above her head. Her right hand has logos for "Logo", Dekkoo" & "Netflix"; her left hand has logos for "YouTube", with "PirateBay" & the FBI Piracy Logo pierced by pirate emblem. All on pink background.

While supporting queer writers, actors, artists, etc are fundamental to continue creating new queer content – what happens when you cannot actually FIND a queer film? Older films, and most foreign queer films, don’t often have the same distribution as mainstream studio releases. Independent films, TV Movies, or even films by smaller studios that aren’t released in cinemas are often left out scrambling on their own to reach an audience. So, if you want to watch it, where do you go when Netflix or Amazon Prime doesn’t have it? The answer gets a bit tricky and brings up a couple ethical quandaries. Let’s dive in!

The Back & Forth History of Home Cinema & Piracy

For decades, the pattern of a cinephile was rather consistent. A new film was first released at the theater, where people would pack themselves in to watch. A few months later, the film would be released on DVD (or even VHS for those of us who are older!) so that anyone can purchase it for home viewing. Video rentals even existed for those who couldn’t afford to buy their favourite film. Except the options were still extremely limited to major studios or by local demand. And most often, Queer films were left out in favour of titles that would appeal to a wider audience (i.e. “family” friendly or blockbuster hits).

But then the digital age struck. For anyone with a massive VHS collection, switching over to DVD was expensive and made worse by the soon after release of BluRay. Adding to the quagmire was the expanding accessibility of home computers and the internet. Not even a decade later, portable devices were on the market as well. But you can’t play a DVD on your iPad! As a result, films went digital – and for consumers, we suffered. Now you have to not only decide which films to spend your money on, but you also have to pick between DVD, BluRay, or Digital. (And if you bundled them together, you were dropping a good chunk of change!) And if you couldn’t find what you wanted, then you had to resort to other sources. Thus, the age of piracy was born. 

Why spend your hard earned money when you could simply download the digital file for free? Yes, it is illegal in most countries, always has been and always will be. But the internet at the turn of the millennium actually set up prime conditions for piracy and illegal downloading to take off – and boy did it! Most teenagers and college-age kids who grew up at the time dabbled into the world of torrents, searching for anything from music, to videos, to games and more. But as quick as it started, the FBI and major studios began their anti-piracy crackdown campaigns. Before long, international efforts shut down most of the major torrent sites such as Pirate Bay, KickAss Torrents, and others. It looked like piracy would be relegated to the darker parts of the web. 

Inadvertently, the conditions that enabled piracy to take off were reduced by the studios themselves. Enter the cinematic world today, also known as the streaming age, with DVD/BluRay sales declining in lieu of digital content. Netflix started the trend and has since dominated, but many other sites have since cropped up. Most are niche specific. Disney+ caters to all of Disney’s massive oeuvre. CBS Access (now Paramount+) splintered off with the Star Trek franchise. Meanwhile other streaming sites popped up that cater to Queer & LGBTQ cinema such as LesFlicks, Logo, Dekkoo and more. Queer Queue Podcast has compiled a list of some of their favourites!

On the surface, this sounds like an ideal world. More and more films & TV shows are accessible across the various platforms. Unfortunately, things went a little TOO far as everything splintered off. It was one thing to pay a monthly subscription to Netflix. But now, if you want to keep watching movies and shows as they seperate off onto their own platforms, you have to pay for yet another subscription! Then COVID19 hit and a year of lockdowns across the world exacerbated the problem. Cinemas were shut down, studios were left scrambling as their new film releases had to switch to a Video On Demand (VOD) format. Take Disney’s release of “Mulan” – not only did you have to pay for the Disney+ subscription, but you had to pay even EXTRA to watch it before the movie was released on the site three months later! 

This is the current world of cinema right now. Frankly, it’s a mess! Studios are losing money as they are forced to wait for cinemas to re-open. People are still suck at home, binge-watching their favorite movies and series. The abundance of streaming sites have become the modern equivalent to cable packages (hated because you have to buy a huge bundle just to get the ONE channel you really want)

And to top it all off – your favourite Queer or LGBTQ film STILL cannot be found online! 

So what are your options?

NOTE: Pirating films, music, and TV shows IS illegal in nearly every country around the world. And rightly so! It costs a lot to create new content and everyone deserves to be paid for their art. Queer Film Reviews condones the illegal streaming & downloading of copyrighted content. 

This is where we get into the ethically questionable territory. But first, let’s step back just a tad. While the biggest quandary occurs when you cannot find your favorite queer film, there’s a few other cases that lead us into the world uncertain:

  • What if the film you want exists to buy/rent/stream online – but you cannot afford the price tag?
  • What if it’s no longer online, (i.e. Netflix removed it from their database)?
  • What if it’s still online – but was splintered off onto a different subscription service (that costs extra)?
  • What if you can find a DVD to purchase, but the price is ridiculous (such if the only copy is a used copy)?
  • What if you find a copy of the film on YouTube for free?
  • What if the only place you can find the film to stream, rent, or even buy is Amazon (currently an ethical dilemma on it’s on)?

First off, if the film or series can be bought, rented, or accessed via a streaming site such as Netflix – then PAY FOR IT!

It honestly is that simple. Whether it’s a major studio film or an independent short, there are a plethora of people involved behind the final product you watch. There are the writer(s), director, actors, camera operators, editors, musicians, and more. They all deserve to earn a fair wage for their work, don’t they? Therefore, the first option should always be to pay to watch the film or series. If it’s on Netflix or Amazon Prime, then pay for the subscription. If it’s a VOD online, then pay to either buy the film – or at the very least pay the lesser fee to rent it. After all, if you were to watch the film at the cinema, then you’d be paying for a movie ticket anyways. Just because the format has switched to an online, digital format doesn’t change the fact that you SHOULD pay to watch the film.

Now that that key point is addressed, let’s dive deeper into the ethical grey areas. But please note that beyond this point, I have no concrete answers. I will lay out the conundrums alongside the pros & cons, but it’s on you to make the actual decision.

Conundrum 1: What if you honestly cannot afford the price?

I will freely admit that the current cinematic world is a mess; everyone wants their share of your wallet. But most folks only have so much money to spare. To put a real world spin on this conundrum, let’s first look at Disney’s “Mulan”. COVID19 forced Disney to release the blockbuster on their own Disney+ platform, which requires a $7 USD monthly subscription to access. But on top of that, Disney charged an EXTRA $30 USD in order to watch the film!

I personally do not have Disney+. But I know plenty of friends who refused to pay additional money in order to watch “Mulan”, especially after it was announced that the film would be part of the normal subscription offering after a few months (equivalent to a DVD release post theatrical release). Many simply waited a few months, which hurt the film’s initial success. Some went so far as to boycott “Mulan” because it felt like Disney was trying to extort money from viewers (There were other reasons to boycott the film as well).

Or, they just downloaded “Mulan” illegally. In fact, compared to “The Lion King’s” theatrical release in 2019, “Mulan” had about twice as many downloads! (Source) Was this legal? Nope. Is it ethical? Nope. But plenty of folks were forced to choose to spend nearly $40 just to watch one film – during lockdowns when a majority of the nation were also struggling just to pay their bills because of the pandemic. I will not say that they were right to download the film, but we can point out the flawed situation that inadvertently supported piracy.

Conundrum 2: The film or series was moved to a different streaming site

Let’s look at a similar, but slightly different case where cost is still a major deterrent. This time we’ll examine “Star Trek”, specifically “Star Trek: Discovery”. CBS premiered the series on their new streaming platform, CBS All Access (now rebranded as Paramount+). Prior to them splintering it off, most of the “Star Trek” series called Netflix home. So, the problem now arose because fans, who were already paying for Netflix, now had to pay additional for CBS All Access. Plenty had no problems and paid for both. But there were a good handful of folks who started complaining. They refused to pay for two streaming services, so instead, they turned to downloading the latest episode after it aired online. (And because “Star Trek: Discovery” was released in serial format, you couldn’t just buy one month and binge the series – least not until after the entire season premiered!)

What makes this specific situation a bit more puzzling, and frustrating, is that it’s a problem specific only to the US. I can fully attest that down here in New Zealand – I can still access ALL of the “Star Trek” franchise on Netflix! While the reasoning behind this is a bit beyond this post, it essentially breaks down in that all films & series have to negotiate separate contracts for international audiences. But since that was probably a mind-blowing revelation for most of you, do you feel ripped off even more? I know if I were back home, I would be pissed and seriously reconsider alternate options to avoid paying money towards CBS All Access/Paramount+. 

Cue this ethical dilemma – do you cave to all the studios creating their own streaming sites at additional cost? Or, can you at least understand why more and more people are looking at pirated downloads again?

Conundrum 3: Your film WAS online, but no longer available – except for an expensive, used DVD on Amazon

This situation is probably the most common. Netflix updates their database quite frequently, which means they remove films about as often as they add new ones. The latest drama involves “The Office”, which will be removed later this year – people are already panicking. The first inclination would be to see if anyone else has it. Amazon Prime has the entire series! But wait, while Season 1 is included with Prime subscription, the other eight seasons cost if you want to watch them – charing you extra per season! (Remember, that’s in addition to already paying for your Prime membership!)

Well, that price is extremely high… what about just buying the entire series on DVD? In fact, Amazon has it in a couple different packages, new & used, from around $50-100 USD. Considering that covers all nine seasons – that’s actually a great price! But there are still some who would find that price too expensive, so they’ll most likely resort to looking for it on torrenting sites (There’s also the ethical issue of Amazon, but I’ll get to that at the end).

And let’s not forget another important fact – in order to buy a film or series on DVD, you need to have a DVD player to actually watch it! I will be hard pressed to give up my DVD collection (my CD collection too!), but in the digital age today, DVD players are not common. Apple removed their internal CD/DVD drive years ago; other laptops followed suit. Tablets and mobile phones have never had the drive. Buying the entire collection of “The Office” might not even be a valid answer if you can’t actually watch a DVD! Thus, an extra tick towards the return of piracy and illegal downloads – you will have a digital file that can be shared via cloud to ALL of your devices. And you didn’t pay a thing! 

Is this legal? Nope. Is it ethical? Nope. But that isn’t stopping the increase of torrents & downloads!

Conundrum 4: Your film isn’t even online to buy – except for an old used DVD on eBay. Maybe…

While this is very similar to the situation above, there’s an important difference to note: your film was never released online! While this typically plagues older and foreign queer films, it’s actually quite a common problem. If the film you want was made before 2000, unless it was a blockbuster hit, chances are you won’t find it online. There is a caveat to this one: streaming networks are constantly adding more and more films to their catalogues. And oddly enough, with studios creating their own streaming platforms, this actually increases the chances that they might eventually add your film.

But that doesn’t help you tonight, does it. And let’s be frank – we’re talking about queer films, which are very often left off the networks because of content alone. There’s another important facet within queer cinema that needs to be addressed – many early queer films were actually TV Movies. They’re even less likely to be added to online streaming sites or even VOD sites simply because of obscurity! 

One of my favorite queer films actually falls into this category. “Just A Question Of Love (Juste Une Question d’Amour)” is a 2000 French made-for-TV film that is simply incredible. Netflix doesn’t have it, Amazon Prime doesn’t have it, gay-niche streaming sites don’t have it. In fact, the only place to legally find a copy is on Amazon. The cheapest options are over $35 USD for a used copy – a NEW DVD is $220 USD! Yeah, even though it’s one of my top five favorite films, I refuse to pay that much for the film. 

An Additional Ethical Dilemma: YouTube

Continuing my own personal conundrum with “Just A Question Of Love (Juste Une Question d’Amour)”, the film CAN be found on YouTube. At least one user has the entire film uploaded (with hardcoded English subtitles), while a few others have it posted in segments. But none of them are official accounts for the film! 

Yes, there are many queer films posted by fans on YouTube. Some are legit. In fact, a lot of queer short film directors publish their films on YouTube & Vimeo for free in order to allow people to actually watch them (Not all short films are accepted to the many film festivals around the world). But most feature films on YouTube are actually uploaded, pirated copies. They may be online for years; they may be only online for weeks. YouTube is cracking down on copyright infringement and major studios will not hesitate to file a complaint in order to have their film taken down. 

The question is whether or not we should watch a film posted on YouTube or Vimeo. Remember our first key rule – we want to support queer filmmakers, actors, and artists. Is watching an uploaded, pirated copy supporting them? Nope. Therefore is it ethical to watch the film on YouTube? No – but that doesn’t stop people from watching. Nor does it stop them from downloading the film onto their device direct from YouTube (even though YouTube doesn’t actually permit such a thing).

An Additional Ethical Dilemma: Amazon

If you don’t know why we need to include Amazon in this discourse on ethics, then you must have spent the past year of lockdowns in the middle of nowhere (Or live outside the US). Essentially Jeff Bezos, the founder and CEO of Amazon racked up profits during the pandemic & lockdowns to the tune of $65 billion. As if that isn’t bad enough, Amazon factory employees were forced to work in unsafe conditions and without adequate protection from Covid19. Amazon is also doing everything in their power to squash unionization efforts of those same workers that they have used and abused. To sum it up – spending money at Amazon only goes to support all of these atrocities. 

The issue consumers now face is whether or not to continue supporting Amazon and Jeff Bezos’ bank account. The fact that they are one of the world’s largest retailers makes it problematic. When people want to buy something, the majority of the time they will end up on Amazon due to availability, low prices, or the free shipping offered by Amazon Prime. When it comes to film specifically, not only does Amazon sell DVD’s for a TON of films (including many obscure or foreign titles), but Amazon Prime is still one of the largest VOD services out there. 

While the issue with Amazon is a bit different than other ethical issues, it’s one that many cannot ignore. As such, more and more folks are being steered back towards illegal torrents and downloads in order to avoid giving Amazon their money.

Piracy: It’s illegal – but are there actually PROS to torrents?

Again, the illegal sharing and downloading of copyrighted material is illegal. The penalties are steep if caught, not to mention it’s ethically wrong. So why is piracy on the rise again?

Confession time: I have downloaded films, shorts, & series!

I grew up at the prime era of Limewire, KickAss Torrents, and many other torrent sites; they were my teenage & collegiate years. A large portion of my massive queer film, short, & series collections were accumulated this way over a couple of decades. I cannot change the past, and I have to admit – it’s difficult to steer away from torrents. But I do my best to move forward in ethical ways to continue supporting queer filmmakers and artists. In fact, a major reason behind starting Queer Film Reviews was to sift through my collection of queer films to let people know whether it’s worth spending money on the hard-to-find films. Unfortunately, I often cannot link to the films I review because they are difficult to find!

Thus, if it isn’t clear yet (and if we set aside the legality aspect for the moment), a major pro for torrenting is the availability of films that cannot be found elsewhere. In fact, a study from 2018 revealed that “pirates” actually tend to be the biggest buyer of legal content! According to the results summarised in this Vice article (source), 83% of those questioned noted that while they resorted to illegal downloads, they first tried to find the material via appropriate sources first. Of that same polled group, 86% who admitted to downloads still subscribe to streaming services such as Netflix! 

Another gem from the same study identified the top three reasons why users pirated content:

  1. wasn’t legally available (34 percent)
  2. too cumbersome or difficult to access (34 percent)
  3. wasn’t affordable (35 percent)

As you can see, folks who download torrents aren’t exactly how the FBI & other agencies paint them; they aren’t horrible criminals. More interesting, the results from this 2018 study are not singular. This 2011 study by French government anti-piracy agency HADOPI revealed similar conclusions. Additionally, a 2017 study from Launchleap discovered that millennials would prefer to access the content they admit to watching via illegal live streams if it were legally available. (source). Tapping into the music industry, the original torrent wave at the turn of the millenium actually bolstered actual CD and album sales! Meanwhile, a handful of major films have even benefited from pirated copies. The key, according to a 2020 study from the University of Georgia, is that the film is circulated AFTER the initial release. The study, as explained in this TheTicketingBusiness article (source), showed a 3% INCREASE in revenue, compared to an 11% decline if a film is pirated before theatrical release.

The trouble is that many of the torrent sites of old have been shut down. The next generation does everything on mobile devices – which inherently restrict any kind of torrent downloads. Major film studios continue to go after the torrent creators/suppliers – and they will also go after common folks who download the torrents. Until we return to a balance between accessibility and affordability, pirating films and other copyrighted material won’t disappear. We all know that it’s illegal according to the law; and that will not change.

Final Thoughts

To highlight the ethical concerns while trying to find your favourite queer film or series, I’ve created this handy flowchart:

Flowchart for ethical decisions within queer cinema

In short: if you can buy/rent/or subscribe to a streaming service – then spend the money & support filmmakers & actors/actresses, especially queer artists!

But we equally have to acknowledge that there are some situations where it seems like the only solution is to download the torrent. Some examples include films that cannot be found online, films that were removed from streaming sites, and exorbitantly priced DVDs. 

In the end, the decision is yours to make. Pirating and downloading torrents will always be illegal, and rightfully so. If you chose to go that route, then you must accept the consequences. THAT is the true ethical dilemma in Queer Cinema.