Tehran is a good place to shop If you’re in the market for pirated movies. For 60 or 80 cents, you can buy 12 Years a Slave, Gravity, Iron Man 3, or the latest episodes of the fourth season of Game of Thrones. A ticket to a movie theater costs close to $4, but for that you can buy five new American or European films and watch them at home—with Persian subtitles.
Movie piracy in Iran is not new. It began immediately following the Islamic Revolution in 1979, and since then, the methods of replication and distribution have kept pace with technological changes. Betamax and VHS tapes were replaced by CDs and DVDs, and today you can buy pirated movies on memory sticks.
The pirates owe their success to the policies of the Islamic Republic. Before the revolution, Iranians could watch dubbed versions of new releases on the big screen, at the same time or not long after European or American audiences saw them. But soon after the Islamic Republic was established, the government introduced a string of anti-Western policies, which included boycotting Western movies and censoring films.
For a short while, the government allowed licensed video clubs to distribute censored Iranian and foreign movies, a freedom that provided a lucrative business for video club owners. Watching videotapes was, in these early days, the domain of the well-to-do, but later became the main form of entertainment for the poor and the middle classes.
But it did not last long. To fight “Western cultural invasion” and “banality”, the government banned the import of videotape players and closed down video clubs. And not long after, the piracy business began in Iran.
State-run television cut down the number of entertainment programs broadcast and many movie theaters closed. The movie houses that stayed open lost their appeal because they could not satisfy the public’s demands and show the movies people wanted to see.
Two years after the revolution, video players, which were smuggled into the country, became common household items. As a result, pirated and uncensored foreign films became popular, in spite of the fact that owning video players and watching foreign movies was illegal and punishable by heavy fines or even a series of lashes. Distributors hid Betamax or VHS tapes under their clothes to escape the prying eyes of Revolutionary Committees or Revolutionary Guards.
Finally, after 10 years, the ban on video players was lifted. In 1992, the High Cultural Council of the Islamic Republic created the Visual Media Institute “to confront cultural invasion,” a face-saving way of accepting the ubiquity of video players and, authorities hoped, controlling what people watched. The institute bought international movies and distributed censored versions on videotape, and later on CDs and DVDs, dubbed in Persian. Until 2000, when other organizations entered the market, this institute had a monopoly on video sales.
The Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance wanted to do away with movie piracy so it could control content, but the censorship was sometimes so harsh that it made it difficult to understand a film’s plot or the relationships between characters. Of course, sometimes the reverse happened and a clumsy censor missed scenes that amused the audiences enormously.
The bans did nothing to curb people’s thirst for uncensored foreign movies, and video piracy flourished again. Unfortunately, the pirated movies lacked subtitles and many people could not understand them.
Thanks to a cleric, Mohammad Ali Zam, subtitles became more common during the relatively relaxed cultural atmosphere of the Mohammad Khatami presidency. From 1997 to 2001, Zam led the Artistic Bureau of the Islamic (Cultural) Development Organization, an institution run by the office of the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei. The bureau offered script-writing workshops that screened, dubbed or subtitled movies every week. Participants watched a less-censored version of what the general public was allowed to view, which led to complaints from officials and movie-goers alike. When the theater burned down, many believed that pro-government hardliners were behind the fire.
Zam lost his theater, but the custom of subtitling movies found its way from government-approved venues into pirated films. The internet made it easier for the public to get their hands on uncensored and subtitled movies, which can now be downloaded from websites.
A lot has changed since the 1980s. Today, you can find cheap and subtitled blockbuster movies on every street corner in Iran. And what’s on offer is current: often, the films are still being shown at theaters in the United States or Europe.
When films were still recorded on to videotapes, movie piracy in Iran was a very profitable business. It remains profitable now, even when 20 or 30 films can be saved on a memory stick. Iran is not party to international copyright treaties, and as a result, representatives from Iran’s business community are not welcome at trade shows around the world. For Iranian people, meanwhile, it’s extremely affordable and easy to access the huge variety of films produced around the world today.
In Part Two of Movie Piracy in Iran: How Iran’s pirates make a profit on Hollywood blockbusters. Published next week on IranWire