Indie Film Ink Pirated, Filmmakers Pleased

When I attended the Future of Music Conference this year I heard a lot of talk about all of the opportunities that exist today for indie musicians to create and distribute their products via digital media on the web. Later, at the Flyway Film Festival I heard former Tribeca CEO Brian Newman speak on similar topics in relation to indie filmmakers. The central theme to all of it is that indie artists can be successful without a major label contract or major studio distribution.

In the end though talk is cheap and what looks good on paper doesn’t always translate easily into the real world. I wanted to test the waters firsthand so I created a video podcast featuring live performances by indie musicians. The show runs roughly a half hour and I have been shooting a new episode every week for the past three weeks. In that time I have arranged distribution of the show via all the major video sites on the web. It is also available on TV via iTunes and Roku as well as on mobile devices and game systems.

So far the show has answered all my questions. It is indeed possible to create content of reasonable quality and achieve worldwide distribution using commonly available digital means. In addition it is possible, using these same resources, to cross the divide between computers and other systems such as cell phones, PDA’s, game systems and even TV via Roku and TiVo or AppleTV/X-Box/PS3. It is also possible to do it on a shoestring budget. The experiment, called The Indie Music Show has, to date, cost me around 2.5k.

This week, when I saw Jamin and Kiowa Winans of Double Edge Films sending out excited messages on Twitter to the effect that their movie Ink had been ripped and uploaded to Pirate Bay I was intrigued. I guess I was just sort of programmed by negative publicity to see sites like Pirate Bay as a bad thing. On the other hand, once I thought about it, I could certainly see the exposure potential of putting a project in front of the 140 million users of bittorrent sites worldwide. So I put my show up on Pirate Bay to see what would happen. In two days views of the show on its home page tripled.

It is more tricky for a movie though, since a movie is much more of a one shot deal than a weekly TV show. Most people will see a film once, maybe twice if they really like it and maybe buy the DVD if they really, really like it whereas a TV show needs to attract and hold repeat viewers. From that perspective the major studios and probably most indie filmmakers see a pirated film as lost revenue and so bittorrent remains pretty much unexplored territory in relation to positive outcomes.

Kiowa and Jamin on the other hand seem to be approaching the issue from a different perspective. I wanted to get their views on what is happening with their film and spoke to Jamin about it.

Filmmaker: Why are you guys having such a positive reaction to your film being pirated?

Winans: The last eight months have been a brutal struggle for Ink. We premiered the film at Santa Barbara Int’l Film Festival, signed with the agency UTA, and opened in Denver for a very successful eight-week run. However, indie film distribution in general has imploded. All the indie branches of the big studios have shut down and no one is buying films. So we took Ink out one theater at a time for the last several months ourselves trying to gain some momentum. The little money we made on each screen we used to push to the next screen. Theater after theater we had amazing crowds, reactions, and new fans, yet every decent distributor wouldn’t touch the film. We knew we had an audience, but no way to get the film out wider to them. We were getting hundreds of emails, Facebook, and Twitter notes from people wanting to see Ink all over the world, but all we could tell them was “we’re trying”.

We finally decided to walk away from theatrical and make the film available on DVD, Blu-ray, and download as soon as possible. We figured the only way Ink was going to find it’s way was to hand it over to the fans and hope they would run with it. Our hope was that Ink would slowly travel by word-of-mouth over the next year and ideally find it’s way.

We knew Ink would likely get bit torrented eventually and accepted that it was unavoidable. However we never imagined it would happen immediately, blow up overnight, and spread all over the world. We were shocked by what was happening and spent the next several hours thinking there was some sort of mistake. But as it turns out, our one-year strategy of word-of-mouth was instead moving instantaneously. I’ve never seen a Hollywood campaign so effective and so instant as this has been.

Sure we could be upset that the film is getting downloaded for free, but that would make us jackasses wouldn’t it? Ink was a $250,000 film with previously unknown actors. Hollywood distributors made it more than clear they saw no future for it. It was too bizarre, a mixed genre, unknown actors, low-budget. They wanted nothing to do with it. To pretend that we’re really upset about the torrent would be acting as if we had all kinds of other options. No, we’re thrilled Ink is exploding so much faster than we ever hoped.

FilmmakerWhat is the actual number of downloads that Ink has seen since being made available on the bittorrent channels?

Winans: It’s hard for us to equate, but last I heard from the experts Ink‘s been downloaded over a half million times in about five days.

Filmmaker: I remember hearing you talk about making Ink at the Flyway Film Festival and you were saying that you raised the $250,000 budget for the film in part by mortgaging your house. So you obviously have a huge personal stake in the financial success of the film. On the one hand every download on Pirate Bay can be viewed as lost revenue which could be used to offset the cost of producing the film. On the other hand such a large number of downloads can be seen as a form of advertising that exposes the film to a much wider audience. I realize that it is much too soon to calculate the actual impact from having the film made available via pirate channels but what are the best and worst case scenarios from your viewpoint?

Winans: Kiowa and I don’t see it as lost revenue, but fans gained. In fact, our revenue on the film has quadrupled in the last few days as a result of the exposure. It’s still a fraction of what we need to be making to make it work, but it’s a big step in the right direction. People are coming back to our website and buying disks, the soundtrack, posters, shirts, and making small donations. If that continues we’ll be in good shape. However most downloaders are not spending money and it’s certainly a possibility that they never will if that’s the case, we could be hurting.

Here’s the irony. We got completely screwed by the people distributing our first feature film, 11:59. We didn’t get paid at all from one distributor, and barely from another. In the last five days, we’ve made more money from donations from “pirates” than we’ve ever made from a distributor. You tell me who the crooks are. Everyone is concerned piracy is going to destroy the indie film world, but I can say unequivocally that the distribution world is already destroyed because it’s primarily made up of scam artists and thieves. If someone’s going to rip off our film, I’d rather it be our fans than some sleaze bag feeding on struggling indie artists.

Filmmaker: I have been thinking about why major label bands or big studio films have the success they do. I mean, as often as not, products by the majors are no better than products by unknown artists in many respects and yet the majors totally control the traditional market. The obvious answer is the star power of the people in the film and the enormous amount of money that is spent on marketing. This seems to be why, even with two products of essentially equal quality (one indie, one major studio) side by side on the same “shelf” whether in a store or on the web, the studio film is always the one which makes money.

This is true even if consumers have not yet seen either film.

I wanted a term that would express this advantage in simple terms. I came up with “implied value” as a distillation of all of the ingredients that make an unseen film attractive enough to consumers so that they will invest their money in a movie ticket or DVD. Word of mouth from consumer peers is an important example of how a media project can gain this type of value and one which indie artists can best capitalize on since it doesn’t necessarily require a huge advertising budget to achieve.

From this perspective do you think that having Ink pirated and exposed to the huge audience represented by bittorrent users will increase the Implied Value of your film with the world audience? What is the biggest benefit you see — increasing general awareness of the film or sparking a larger base of word of mouth recommendations? I know from reading your tweets this week that this exposure has already caused Ink to rise to the level of a top 20 movie on the IMDb (Independent Movie Database) chart, which is certainly encouraging but do you see this translating into actual income via theater placement/attendance or DVD sales?

Winans: I don’t think word-of-mouth has ever been as powerful as it is right now. Social networks and online communities have changed everything. From the beginning our principal has always been to establish fans and care for them. We’re far more interested in creating a family-like fan base than we are in making general films that the studios can distribute. Rising the ranks on IMDB is cool because it’s quantifiable in some way and it’s nice to see Ink and the actors getting exposure, but we’re much more interested in the individual notes that we get from fans telling us how much they love the film. These people are all we really care about because they’ll likely be with us for a very long time. When all the hype dies down, they’re still going to be our fans. And if we have our fans we don’t need anyone else. I think your Implied Value theory is exactly right. Yes, I do think the recent explosion of the film has created new value for Ink. Paranormal Activity‘s implied value obviously sky rocketed even though it was made for $11k. In the end value really is perception. Each of us want to see the thing the rest of the world is seeing.

As far as translation into sales, the growing implicit value is certainly helping. Because Ink is blowing up a lot of people see it as a bigger film, more of a brand, and thus they’re more willing to pay for it.

All this said, it’s a scary time. We look at the file sharing of Ink as a great thing, however it works for us because we’re a small film. The fact is, most people downloading it are not supporting it financially in any way. From everything I can tell this is not a sustainable model for bigger films. By bigger, I mean anything above $1 million which isn’t much. If fans aren’t paying for the films, who is? Hopefully it will all work out, but the concern is that the illegal downloading will destroy movies simply because producers have no way to fund them anymore. The only other tested and working alternative that I’m aware of is advertising and product placement and an enormous amount of it. So in the near future our film could be entitled Ink: Brought to you by McDonalds.