A bootleg version of hit Japanese zombie movie 'One Cut of the Dead' showed up on Amazon Prime Video and insiders worry it has put a US release in jeopardy

Third Window Films‘One Cut of the Dead.’
  • Japanese zombie movie “One Cut of the Dead” has become a box-office hit in Japan but is still seeking US distribution.
  • A bootleg version of the movie was uploaded to Amazon Prime in the US and UK just before the new year by a US user with a Prime Video Direct account, the movie’s distributor told Business Insider.
  • Prime Video Direct is the company’s self-distribution arm that allows content to be uploaded for free and then made available on Amazon Prime.
  • Movie distribution sources told Business Insider that the movie now faces an uphill battle to get released in the US.

Japan’s “One Cut of the Dead” is the latest micro-budget indie film success story, but it’s faced a big setback in getting distribution in the US.

The darkly comedic horror movie, set around a zombie apocalypse, was made for just 3 million yen ($US27,800), features an unknown cast, and opens with a 37-minute single take. It has amazed audiences in its home country – where it has taken in over 3.2 billion yen ($US29 million) – and at film festivals around the globe.

But because a bootleg version suddenly appeared on Amazon for a few days before the new year, there’s serious concern that the movie might not get as good a release in the US as originally hoped for.

The drama started when Adam Torel, owner of UK-based distribution company Third Window Films, which is also the movie’s global sales agent, noticed tweets on December 30 saying that “One Cut of the Dead” was available on Amazon Prime in the US and the UK. But the movie had no US distribution yet and wasn’t being theatrically released in the UK until January 4. So it should not have been available on Amazon.

“I was in Japan, nine hours ahead of the UK, and right in the middle of the holiday season, meaning it was impossible to reach anyone,” Torel told Business Insider from Japan via email.

So while Torel was trying to get in contact with anyone who could get the movie off Amazon, he sent out a tweet alerting people to the bootleg release. By then, word was spreading fast on social media that one of the most talked-about genre movies of the year was finally available to stream.

“There were even news articles announcing its release on Prime. It spread like wildfire,” Torel said.

It took two days, but with the help of another company Third Window Films was using to release the movie in the UK, Arrow Films, Amazon finally took down the “One Cut of the Dead” bootleg.

But who had uploaded it in the first place? The movie had played all over the world at film festivals. Could someone at a festival have put it on Amazon? Or was it a mistake by a distributor who was releasing the movie in another region of the world and then entered the metadata incorrectly, causing it to be available worldwide? That last possibility occasionally happens to some movies, sources in the distribution world told Business Insider.

But it turned out to be Torel’s worst fear: Someone with a bootleg copy.

How a bootleg copy of a global hit found its way on Amazon

Torel couldn’t see the movie when it was on Amazon because of geo-blocking. Friends in the UK and US were sending him updates, and Torel came to the conclusion that the upload couldn’t have been an official version of the movie that played at festivals since it didn’t carry the Third Window Films logo. And the upload couldn’t have been an official version of the DVD, which is currently available in parts of Asia, since it was showing on Amazon with English subtitles.

Given the version being streamed was of poor quality and had English subtitles, Torel strongly suspected it was a bootleg copy. On Thursday, Torel told Business Insider that Amazon contacted him this week and informed him that the movie was uploaded by a user based in the US through Amazon’s Prime Video Direct service. Amazon did not respond to multiple requests for comment from Business Insider.

Prime Video Direct, which in the past went by the name Amazon Video Direct, is the company’s self-distribution arm. Its purpose is to allow filmmakers to upload their feature films, TV series, and short films free of charge for people to watch, buy, and rent on Prime.

“Amazon didn’t offer any apology or any other details, as I really want to know how many people downloaded and streamed it over the two countries,” Torel said. “Amazon would have made money on it, too. So I’d like to know how much.”

All of this has led to uncertainty about the chances “One Cut of the Dead” gets seen the right way in the US.

Will the movie get a US release?

Torel said talks have been ongoing for a US distribution deal, as well as offers to remake the movie in the US (there are also offers to remake it as a China production and in India, according to Torel). He’s not sure if the bootleg version has hurt any of the talks as he’s been focused on the UK release of the movie. But he’s certainly concerned.

“With this allowing people to not just see, but also download a film before its release, could it be that the value of the film could drop?” Torel said. “I don’t know how many people saw and downloaded the film, but considering how many subscribers of Amazon Prime are out there and this also happening at a time when many were off work and in front of the TV, it could have been seen by a huge amount of people.”

Sources Business Insider spoke to who work in the distribution world were split on the chances of “One Cut of the Dead” getting a US release. Some said the movie could rebound from the incident but that it might no longer be attractive to the major distributors. Others said they thought the movie wouldn’t get a deal.

“By digitally releasing a bootleg version of a film, Amazon has effectively killed any pending sales for that title,” a producer told Business Insider, noting that the movie is probably on many torrent sites now. “While we want to believe that consumers will wait until it becomes available legally, the truth is that most will not. It’s also common practice for distributors – especially in parts of the world where bootlegs run rampant – to check online for torrents before picking up a title. If they see it’s already out there for free, there’s nearly no incentive to distribute it in those territories.”

Read more: Independent filmmakers are irate after Amazon slashed royalties by 60% on its self-distribution platform

As Torel charges on to get “One Cut of the Dead” out to audiences legitimately, when asked how he’ll better protect the films he handles in the future, or for any advice he’d give to other filmmakers after going through this, he admits he doesn’t really have any answers.

“People know that they’re watching pirated films when they show up on YouTube, but don’t expect the same on Amazon as it’s a paid, subscription service,” he said. “In that respect, I don’t really know how to give advice to this not happening again or how to stop it.”

The “One Cut of the Dead” bootleg upload reveals how just as with other open platforms, unauthorised content can find its way onto Amazon’s Prime Video Direct. (Just imagine the uproar by Hollywood studios if one of its upcoming releases was suddenly available on Amazon Prime). But as the producer we spoke to pointed out, viewers have higher expectations for Amazon’s offerings because it is a paid service.

“YouTube has long been home to pirated films; it’s the Wild West compared to Amazon, where a certain level of quality control is expected by not just distributors, but viewers,” the producer said. “The fact that a bootleg version of a film was so easily uploaded and made available is something that all parties – from filmmakers to film consumers – should be deeply concerned about.”

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