INTERNET PIRACY IS GOOD FOR FILMS

FOR "MAN FROM EARTH", AT ANY RATE | December 13th 2007

occhiovivo/Flickr

Evgeny Morozov tells how a buzz among file-sharers turned a small indie film into an American cult hit, and wonders if there is a model here for leveraging internet piracy as a marketing and even a financing strategy ...

Special to MORE INTELLIGENT LIFE

Can internet piracy result in more and better movies? "Of course, not!" is probably our stock reaction. By illegally downloading and sharing films, pirates steal the revenue that would otherwise reward and encourage film-makers--or so we are told by lawyers, economists, and lobbyists for Hollywood studios.

But we may have plenty to learn yet about the possible impact of file-sharing and other online distribution methods on the quantity and quality of films we watch. The story of Jerome Bixby's "The Man from Earth", a small-budget science fiction movie released on DVD in November, shows how piracy can help salvage, not sink, high-quality cinema.

Shot on digital video with a budget of less than $200,000, the film features a bookish debate among academics who get together for a farewell party for John Oldman, a college professor, who, for no obvious reason, wants to quit his tenure-track job and hit the road. As the party unfolds, Oldman makes a surprising emotional confessession: he is 14,000 years old, doesn't really age, and has 10 doctorates--making him both the oldest and the smartest man on Earth.

What follows is an intense intellectual drilling by his colleagues--professors of anthropology, biology, archeology, psychology, and Christian literature--who try hard to spot inconsistencies in Oldman's account of the world, based on what they know from their own disciplines.

Their passionate debate is heavy on both science and humanities and makes "The Man from Earth" a very appealing movie to smart--yes, nerdy--audiences. Even if you don't learn anything new (which is unlikely), there is a good chance you will be asking yourself a lot of questions afterwards. It's nerdy enough to get the sci-fi geeks to watch it, while its interdisciplinarity makes it accessible to general public as well.

But what is truly unique about the film is not just the controversial story of John Oldman. It's the fact that the film producers have embraced internet piracy and thanked illegal downloaders for helping to spread the buzz about the movie.

In early November Releaselog, a popular blog that regularly posts links to movies, music, and software (most of which is copyrighted), ran a review (with accompanying download links) of "The Man from Earth". The review generated a flood of comments. The movie obviously struck a chord with the geeky and anti-establishment community at Releaselog and prompted many (illegal) downloads.

Most crews would have wanted to sue every downloader. Eric Wilkinson, the producer of "The Man from Earth" turned out to be much more new-media-savvy. He thanked the Releaselog community for piracy and said they were helping sales.

According to Wilkinson, in two weeks that passed after Releaselog wrote about the movie, it rose from the 11,235th to the 5th most popular movie among visitors to IMDB, a popular online movie database featuring user-generated reviews and rankings (the movie was the #1 independent film and #1 science fiction film on IMDB). Most of the traffic to the film's web-site came from Releaselog. The pirates were definitely to thank for the publicity that ensued.

This was enough to make the file-sharing community fall in love with Wilkinson and the film (later on, the director of the movie also wrote a big thank-you note on Releaselog), propelling it even further up the IMDB charts and securing shelf-life in WalMart. That was just the right time for Wilkinson to provide directions on how to send him money via PayPal for copies shared online; sure thing, many people did.

For marketing, this is a sea change, akin to Radiohead's giveaway album. Instead of courting movie critics and studio bosses, directors and producers can reach out directly to the blogging public, stirring up attention there as best they can. To prove his authenticity, Wilkinson went as far as to post a picture of himself next to his monitor with the blog screen open: some commenters first took him for a PayPal-abusing scammer.

Why did the crew behind "The Man from Earth" decide to pursue this route? Because the traditional distribution model for small-budget indie movies seems broken. Even if such movies do secure funding to release a DVD in their country of origin, they rarely if ever break out internationally.

If you are in Norway or UK it may be impossible to find a movie like "The Man from Earth" in your local DVD store for the next few years--even if you are willing to pay a premium. (As Wilkinson pointed out, at the time of his blog comment, all international rights to "The Man from Earth" were still available, meaning that the chance of seeing it legally outside the US was still minuscule). All those whose movie tastes are to the far-right end of the long tail have little alternative to piracy or abstinence.

The emergence of online payments makes a different model possible. If only a limited few can ever go and out buy a DVD of a movie they have shared online, anyone can now contribute money. What would be the pricing point? It could be the Radiohead route: pay what you think it's worth. It could be "match the rental or a cinema ticket" model: pay what you would normally pay for renting it a DVD store or watching it in a cinema theater.

In stark contrast to the traditional restrictive model of film distribution, the new model seeks as many ways of content distribution as possible: peer-to-peer file-sharing is the tip of the iceberg. More advanced users would know about Usenet, various online file storage services like Rapidshare, and plain solutions such as FTP servers. If this sounds a bit too geeky, you are probably are still a few years (and a few laws) away from downloading the entire Woody Allen collection (available at more than a few file-sharing sites at the time of writing).

This explains why producers like Wilkinson place such a premimum value on online buzz: it can push a movie to the top of user-generated charts and listings, giving producers a chance to tap online fans for cash.

In this "networked moviesphere", the movie experience never really ends, even after the movie is over. You can (some would say "should") go vote for the movie on sites like IMDB, post a review on Amazon, wire a donation via PayPal, add the director to your list of virtual friends on MySpaces and Facebooks of this world, post to Digg, and blog it to death on LiveJournal. And that's not to mention editing Wikipedia pages. When combined, all these activities create a publicity machine that marginalises mainstream critics.

In the case of "The Man from Earth", 2,000 people who downloaded it encouraged 20,000 more to go and check it out in cinemas and WalMarts by giving it a top IMDB rating. By losing money on 2,000 viewers, the film made money on 20,000 more.

Some in the movie business are already asking the obvious question: should big studios offer screener-like copies to the file-sharing community, to preview and blog about film before it goes into distribution? My answer: there are screener copies of all major Hollywood movies available on the Internet anyway, so the studios may as well do that proactively.

"When I make my next picture, I just may upload the movie on the net myself!", said Wilkinson in another blog comment. However, as of now, despite the producer and the director's support, any downloads of "The Man from Earth" are still illegal: it still bears that "All Rights Reserved" mark. (There is always an option of releasing it under Creative Commons, Larry Lessig's child that is celebrating its fifth anniversary this month, but CC still hasn't enjoyed the universal adoption it deserves, particularly among film studios.)

All legal issues aside, it must become a question soon, even for established producers, whether they can capture buzz-momentum to "crowd-fund" their next movie. Why bother with a traditional model if your fans can contribute money and just wait for the next release?

Some experiments with this model are already under way. "A Swarm of Angels", which describes itself as "open source film-making venture that aims to create a £1 million movie with the help of 50,000 participants around the globe", promises its "swarm of subscribers" input into the entire movie-making process in exchange for a subscription of £25.

This seems like a promising model, as long as the fans don't have absolute control over what comes out: there have been quite a few terrible examples of fan-directed movies that are completely impossible to watch. "Snakes On a Plane", which took a Wiki-like approach to the plot, is one failed and overhyped blockbuster. There could be many more. Sometimes, it pays to be a dictator--at least, artistically.

As for the big studios, expect them to hold out the longest against a more decentralised and buzz-focused approach to movie distribution. Their model is in danger, in all sorts of ways. A comment on a blog thread about "The Man from Earth" puts it best: "Only bad movies have to fear piracy". And, given how many bad movies studios continue to produce, they have plenty to fear.