Guest post by Gregory Bayne
On Saturday, October 2nd, PERSON OF INTEREST screened at the 2010 Open Video Conference as part of the Shared Film Festival. This event was sponsored by BitTorrent, and curated by our partners at VODO (http://vodo.net). The screening was well attended for an obscure film playing on a Saturday night in the heart of Manhattan, drawing in just over 60 filmgoers to a mid sized auditorium at the Fashion Institute of Technology. In many respects, the screening went off like any other. A short intro, the film, then the Q&A, which was moderated by the very adept and prepared, Brian Newman, distribution consultant and former CEO of the Tribeca Film Institute. We were quite happy with how the entire event went off, but it was what was happening beyond the screening, out there on the interwebs, that kept my collaborator, J. Reuben Appelman, and I brimming with excitement. As the film played for the 60+ attendees generous enough to lend us a couple of hours that evening, PERSON OF INTEREST was being released worldwide as a free to share P2P download via VODO to a potential audience of hundreds of thousands, if not millions.
I originally heard of VODO in late 2009, and was very intrigued by this idea of using P2P (peer-to-peer) file sharing networks as a means to distribute, and gain potentially massive exposure for, independent film. After I witnessed Jamie King's (one of the ring leaders of VODO) presentation at the 2010 Slamdance Film Festival, I was convinced it was the way to go for PERSON OF INTEREST.
PERSON OF INTEREST is a film that J. Reuben and I have been at work on for some time. It's the very definition of a small independent film with no budget to speak of, no recognizable cast, and completed only by sheer and unfaltering will. Beyond that, it's a gritty film, with an underground aesthetic, that seemed to fit the idea of VODO. As well, I think J. and I realized in this ever-changing world of film and media distribution, where even those 'in the know' are struggling, that PERSON OF INTEREST was a film likely doomed to obscurity unless we did something unique, if not flat out drastic with it. So I tracked down Jamie, and got him a copy of the film.
While Jamie, Jan, and Nisse (of VODO) passed around the film, J. and I got busy. We launched a tour of the film (http://filmmakermagazine.com/news/2010/08/person-of-interest-off-the-grid/), set up a store at http://personofinterestmovie.com, and began pushing the film out however we could. We screened in Annapolis, MD, and Los Angeles, sent inquiries to theaters, film centers, and universities across the country, and even ended up hustling Person of Interest on Venice Beach for a few hours. We did what we had to, building momentum.
It was mid-August when I heard from Jamie that not only did they dig the film, but they wanted to release it in conjunction with the launch of their new website (details at http://blog.vodo.net).
At this point many of you, like J. initially, are probably asking, "Ok, but what exactly does VODO do?"
Here's the short of it. VODO prepares and releases your film, for free, across the broad and growing universe of Peer to Peer file sharing sites. Through their relationships with these sites, and by the fact that they are releasing 'legal torrents' to download, they manage to get a number of these networks to 'feature' the VODO release on their front page. Some for a few days, some for a week or longer. They have done this to great success with films like THE YES MEN FIX THE WORLD, which is on its way to being downloaded nearly 700,000 in just a few months.
Even with some evidence that this approach can work to build audience for independent work, many aren't convinced and some have asked if our decision to ‘give’ PERSON OF INTEREST away in this manner is prudent, as many in the corporate film, and increasingly in the independent film industry, are decrying internet piracy as the primary basis of lost revenue. We simply don’t see it that way. We see it as a completely new opportunity to distribute work, and create new audience relationships worldwide that, prior to now, would not have been possible. A week ago, a few thousand people knew about our movie, but a month from now, we're looking at hundreds of thousands of global viewers. We prescribe to VODO’s philosophy, summed up in their recent blog post:
“One of our core beliefs at VODO is that “peer to peer” ultimately means that everyone is a distributor. To us, this is a really big and important change: it means we no longer have to rely on big media, big business, big anything to have our ideas seen and heard. We think a lot of interesting social changes will spin out of this single fact. And that’s why we’re working on VODO. Business people call it ‘disruption’. We prefer to think of it as transformation.”
The film released at 7pm EST on Saturday, October 2nd. Within the first 4 days of release the film had 20,000 downloads, 6,500 in the first 24 hours alone. As of this writing, 6am EST on Monday, October 18th, the film has now been downloaded over 41,000 times and shared and promoted by people and networks we have never met. And it's still growing, steadily, everyday.
In a recent conversation with Jamie at VODO he noted that while most releases have been driven primarily by the addition of new file sharing sites promoting the work, the PERSON OF INTEREST release has been in large part powered and sustained by individuals sharing the film, and the link to download it, via social networks. This is very important as it implies that there is more going on with this release than anonymus masses downloading a film for free. People are downloading it, talking about it, and passing it along to their peers…. actively participating in the distribution of our film.
Of course, most of the industry ilk will ask, “yeah, but how is it ‘monetized’?” Fair enough question, in regard to an art form that, even at the lowest levels, costs something to produce. Do we have the answer? Not particularly, but we do believe that it lies in creating a relationship with those that would choose to download, view, and share our work.
Within those nearly 700,000 downloads of the Yes Men film, there were appreciative viewers that donated nearly $30,000 to date to the filmmaking duo. Another project PIONEER ONE has also garnered that level of success. Sure when you do the numbers, you’re looking at a very small percentage of return. But, it’s important to take into account that those contributions are coming in from individuals worldwide who are generally just showing their appreciation for the work, and hope to see more. Beyond the potential for direct donation from viewers, it seems to us that downloads that climb into the hundreds of thousands, if not millions, will soon represent a currency that makers can trade on when it comes time to develop and fund their next project.
With the launch of PERSON OF INTEREST on VODO, we have also announced the production of our next film. We’re testing the waters of the P2P relationship to both (in part) fund, and raise awareness for this next endeavor. It may all be a gamble, but we have a hunch that many people, much like J. and I, do in fact like to financially support those projects and people that we are fond of and respect. This is, at the end of the day, still a ‘relationship’ business; it’s just that we are choosing upfront investment in a relationship with our audience, as opposed to an industry.
We’ve learned a lot in these two short weeks of release, and from where we’re standing it appears that the future of (independent) cinema will a) not be coming to a theater near you, and b) rests less in figuring out how to ‘monetize’ your ‘content’, than simply making it valuable.
Stay tuned. And, by all means, go download PERSON OF INTEREST.... it’s FREE! http://vodo.net/L0u8
Gregory Bayne is a filmmaker working and living in Idaho. He is currently in post-production on his second film, Jens Pulver | DRIVEN, a feature documentary about the legendary mixed martial arts fighter.