Why Filmmakers Must Stop SOPA

By Rob Mills

Update: For more about SOPA please visit these links:

Uk Guardian: Sopa and Pipa would create a consumption-only internet

William Gibson Calls SOPA 'Draconian'

Techdirt: Why All Filmmakers Should Speak Out Against SOPA

Clay Shirky: Why SOPA is a bad idea

For the past three months a couple of dangerous bills have been making their way through meetings on Capital Hill. The Protect Intellectual Property Act (PIPA) and Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) have become famous for their dangerously reckless approach to combating online piracy. Worse yet, this legislation will do almost nothing to actually stop piracy but could cripple or crush online distribution.

According to the MPAA and other supporters of this legislation, SOPA and PIPA target “rogue” web sites and foreign entities, but the liability created in these bills is huge for U.S. companies. YouTube, Dynamo, MUBI — almost any online film distributor could be strangled by this legislation. If SOPA/PIPA were to pass, any online service even suspected of hosting any amount of copyrighted content can be effectively shut down within a week.

Make no mistake. I hate piracy. I hate that deserving artists don’t get paid for their work. I hate that studios and distributors are forced to hopelessly accept and account for theft. I hate that sales of pirated goods — from DVDs to handbags — fund some of the largest criminal networks in the world, and support cottage industries of money laundering and human exploitation.

But the proposed SOPA legislation does far more than attempt to curtail piracy. SOPA and PIPA are completely reckless, sponsored by people with no clear understanding of online commerce, online media or the current generation of media businesses. As a result, these bills are like shotgun blasts aimed at a distant fly. While the scattershot hits everything around the target, that fly will continue to be a nuisance.

Worse yet, the most dangerous impact of this legislation is the ability for major studios to crush competitors. Rather than just creating a mechanism to control copyrighted content or penalize the hosts of illegal content, SOPA gives studios the ability to shut down entire sites and systems hosting any amount of copyrighted content on suspicion alone.

Ironically, for all of the big business and quasi-conservative support behind this legislation, it is a prime example of over-regulation aimed at limiting the free market. Executives at the major studios understand that SOPA/PIPA stifles their competition in the name of defending copyright.

As usual, studio support for legislation like this is largely a consequence of corporate fear and laziness. The television and film studios have spent much of the last decade cautiously sitting on the sidelines while the investors and innovators behind YouTube, Blip, MUBI, Livestream, Dynamo and hundreds of others took on disproportionate risk to build a sustainable online media market. Now that the markets are proven and the risk is manageable, the studios are backing legislation that would change the rules of commerce and cripple their competition.

An open, competitive market has always been the lifeblood of independent film and has always been terrifying to the studios. For 100 years studio executives have consistently been too scared about losing some of their dominance to explore new markets in innovative ways. With every new distribution option that independent filmmakers have launched, studio heads have pushed for legislation to either strangle or control it. And as much as I hate piracy, I also hate to see studio executives consistently hiring lobbyists to try and fix their problems after failing to innovate.

To support these efforts the MPAA, RIAA and major studios have all behaved like scared children for so many decades that it is no longer possible to take their Chicken Little cries seriously. We were told that the VHS was going to destroy the industry, but after they were forced by the market to embrace private rentals that market grew to become the largest and most reliable source of revenue. We heard the same story about audio tapes, DVDs, radio, cable television, pay-per-view — every technology that created a new way to reach the audience.

Piracy is a serious problem that requires serious solutions, but combatting technical innovation with aggressive legal attacks has never done anything but cripple the market. The best way to combat piracy is to make it easy and safe for people to pay for what they want. Piracy will always be a risk, but studies consistently show that a majority of people who pirate film and TV programs illegally will happily pay for them when those titles are available online and easy to pay for.

Independent filmmakers understand better than anyone that successful distribution means giving the audience what they want, whenever, wherever and however they want it. As an example of the real value of online distribution, at Dynamo we see video rentals succeed at price points 2-5x higher than Redbox DVD rentals. Yet this legislation could kill the online market before the studios even begin to take advantage of it.

Perhaps the worst of all this is that many supporters of this legislation likely have no idea just how dangerous this attack on online distribution is to their own future. Fearful studio executives are holding onto SOPA/PIPA like a hand grenade glued to their own fingers, but it’s the independent filmmakers who will suffer most when it blows up.

Find out more and contact your representatives here: www.tumblr.com/protect-the-net

Guest Post: Rob Mills "Online Distribution: 10 Lessons from Dynamo Player"

It used to be that indie filmmakers generally made their films for an audience/market of 6-10; those days their audience was the buyers at the film festivals. Those days made life simple: filmmakers had two responsibilities -- make your damn movie and then surrender. The idea then was that distributors would distribute the work we made. Several years ago folks started to realize that this model covered less than 1% of the films made in America (forget about the rest of the world). Solutions have been developing for the other 99%, both in terms of how to connect and engage with an audience/community, and how to actually earn revenue in the process. One of the most promising of the bunch is the Dynamo Player, and today we have the co-creator of the platform, Rob Millis, to guest post on how to make it work for you and your work.

Hundreds of filmmakers now use Dynamo Player to offer online rentals on their own sites, Facebook pages and across the web, but of course some films are selling much better than others. After a year of working closely with filmmakers, I want to share some distribution lessons that should help you reach your audience and sell your film directly. This is it, live and in action:

We began developing Dynamo Player after years of doing DIY distribution for our own work. We wanted to upload HD videos of any size, set our own price, publish them on any web site, and make it easy for viewers to pay with systems like PayPal and Amazon. Frustrated that nothing of the kind existed, we began designing Dynamo Player, which now includes almost every feature on our initial wish list, including:

  • unlimited file size and video length
  • no setup fees or other up-front costs
  • unlimited bonus content, so you can include all the video extras on your DVDs, or bundle multiple films for sale together
  • set your own price and access period (99¢ - $11.99; 6 hours to 30 days)
  • geoblocking by DVD region, continent or country
  • adjustable streaming quality, including 720p HD
  • immediate and transparent accounting, with payouts upon request
  • filmmakers keep 70% of every purchase with no hidden fees
  • With these features we’ve tried to provide the simplest, easiest way for filmmakers to sell their films directly online. But sales still depend on engaging with your audience and making it easy for them to watch your film. With that in mind, here are the top 10 lessons we’ve learned that should help you get the best online sales possible:

    1. Make it easy and obvious. People come to your site because they want to watch your film, so help them do that. Dynamo offers viewers instant gratification with easy payment, and the best way to take advantage of that is to present the film well. Make it big and beautiful, with a simple page layout and a high quality thumbnail image that fills the player screen. And however tempting it may be, save the poster, t-shirt and DVD sales for another page.

    2. Include a Preview. Dynamo lets you add a preview video to the player, so viewers can watch your trailer before paying. If you already have a preview on your film’s web site, you can simply replace it with the Dynamo Player to give viewers the same preview and add the option to immediately purchase the film itself. A good trailer will always lead to better sales, and there is no good reason not to take advantage of this feature.

    3. Sell it! In order to take advantage of online distribution, you need to take it just as seriously as you do any other distribution. Consider the thousands of hours and dollars spent promoting public screenings and DVD sales, often to keep just a small fraction of the purchase price. You keep 70% of every purchase with Dynamo, so it’s worth your while to drive viewers to your site and make it easy to pay for your film.

    4. Online Sales Require Online Buzz. Find your audience online and engage them! Facebook has great tools to spread the word (see the next item to build an app for your film), Twitter is a great way to engage directly with likely viewers and longtime fans, and Tumblr let’s your film spread rapidly with just a little bit of promotion. Participate in online discussions and join online groups, reach out to influencers and reviewers, and make it very easy for them to watch your film by simply going to your site.

    5. Build a Facebook App! A custom Facebook app lets you promote your film to all of your followers and fans, engage in active discussions with them and encourage social promotion. One of our filmmakers, Mike Busson set up the first movie rental on Facebook (yes, before Warner Brothers!), and he was kind enough to write a detailed guide so you can do it too: http://bit.ly/PPV_FB

    6. Publish Everywhere. Dynamo Player is great for selling your film on your own site, but it’s also great for selling your film elsewhere. Anytime you have an opportunity to write an article or blog post about the film, embed the player in that post. Whenever someone else writes a review, let them know they can include the film right on their site, even in the middle of a review. Potential viewers can immediately pay to watch while they are still excited about doing so, and this is great for reviewers, because it keeps readers on their web site. This article on Kevin Pollak is a perfect example: http://bit.ly/pollak_dynamo

    7. Relationships Beat Affiliates. Everyone gets excited about affiliate deals, and they may work fine for other goods, but they rarely get real results for film. The simple fact is that nobody is going to promote your film effectively unless they truly love it and would promote it anyway. Reaching out to your fans directly and asking them to spread the word is far more likely to engage dedicated evangelists. Your fans will typically appreciate your personal thanks more than any pittance they’ll receive from a few individual sales.

    8. Sales happen on weekends. Every Friday night our sales numbers get a bump that continues until Monday morning. To take advantage of this, reach out to your audience on evenings and weekends when they are deciding what to do that night. Sending emails to your audience at work during the week may result in traffic to your site, but it’s unlikely they’ll settle in with a tub of popcorn at their desk.

    9. Bonus Material. Dynamo lets you include all of the video extras you would normally put on a DVD. Outtakes, behind-the-scenes footage, director commentary and extra trailers all add to the value of your film. You may even want to offer the film on it’s own at one price, and then bundle it with extras at a higher price. And of course if you have several films you want to combine for a single price, this is the way to go.

    10. Pricing Is Key. The best sales results for feature films have been $1.99 to $4.99, with a major drop in sales above and below those prices. 99¢ is great for short films, but at 99¢ your masterpiece feature may appear to be nearly worthless. Meanwhile anything over $4.99 has a hard time competing with the sea of Hollywood blockbusters available for rent at much lower prices.

    When considering all of these points, it’s worth looking at some examples of great web pages that incorporate the video player. Each of the films below uses Dynamo a little bit differently, and may influence how you choose to promote your own film.

    The Ray Kurzweil documentary, “Transcendent Man”: http://transcendentman.com/watch-now/

    Oscar-contender “Gone Fishing” with bonus content: http://bit.ly/gonefishingPPV

    Documentary “Cowboys in Paradise” on Facebook: http://on.fb.me/CowboysFB

    I hope these examples and the 10 tips above help you reach your audience and increase sales. If you haven’t tried Dynamo Player, you can easily sign up at http://DynamoPlayer.com with no obligation or exclusive contracts, and we will be happy to help you in any way we can.

    -- Rob Millis

    Rob Millis is a co-creator of the online distribution platform Dynamo Player (http://DynamoPlayer.com). He is also a former documentary and web series producer, and longtime champion of independent media.