Sunday, 28 April 2013

The Eyes Have It - A Look into Torrenting, Distribution and Box Office

I read a fantastic article this morning from The Wrap which outlined how Cinedigm, a Los Angeles based distribution and digital content company, were setting up a partnership deal with BitTorrent for their upcoming film Arthur Newman. Now, it's not exactly what you think with the partnership, the film isn't just an indie affair and it's not the whole movie. It's a quaint little drama starring Academy Award Winner, Colin Firth (The King's Speech) and Golden Globe Winner Emily Blunt (Looper) and written by the woman who crafted the Brad Pitt vehicle, Seven Years in Tibet.
Hat sales and Pitt Box Office receipts were at an all-time high in 1997

The film's first seven minutes will be uploaded to BitTorrent exclusively and will be shared with hundreds of millions of users and it's an interesting move to say the very least. There has already been outcries from the film industry with an anonymous film executive telling The Wrap, that it's a "deal with the devil," that "It's great for BitTorrent..disingenuous of Cinedigm" and that "BitTorrent is in it for themselves, they're not in it for the health of the industry." Sure, if you were heavily invested in the film industry and had to look at BitTorrent in a destructive and subjective manner. Also if you are severely worried about the implications a technological divide being reached and how people view your fairly archaic way of doing things, then sure.

The thing is though, that BitTorrent have been trying to break clean for themselves, getting away from their breaking bad of helping people torrent Breaking Bad. They've helped with distribution of podcasts and cultural history work such as the Internet Archive. Films such as LionShare, docos like The Yes Men Save the World and music from well-known indie record companies such as Sub Pop (The Postal Service, Flight of the Conchords, The Shins), game companies like  Blizzard (World of Warcraft,  StarCraft), Facebook even uses it to move files to and from their goddamn servers.
Yeah, we just torrented like a hundred and fifty million people, it was awesome.
Of course, The Pirate Bay has gone down a similar route with becoming The Promo Bay every couple of weeks with stuff such as the work of author Brazilian Paulo Coelho, games like McPixel and Anodyne and music from artists such as George Barnett, a 19-year-old kid from London who just wanted to sing a few songs and throw them online to just get himself out there.

Mr. Barnett received 85,000 views on one of his songs on YouTube, 4000 people liked his Facebook fan page (currently at 7000+), his album downloaded a few thousand times and still being seeded to this day. This is incredible for an independent artist who at most, probably had to pay for his own instrument and recording equipment. Distribution is easy now and garnering a fanbase and finding an audience can be just a click away with the right amount of eyes on a page.

Maybe he can afford a haircut now...hippy.
The best thing about the Promo Bay is that anyone can apply for it. In fact, on it's first week, over 5000 people applied to be apart of it, showing that people know the effect and size the TPB has. The Pirate Bay is visited by hundreds of millions of people a day and usually the ship on the front page is the first thing they see, switching that out for an independent artist is more than the least they could do.

Even game devs such as the creators of Hotline Miami, Dennaton Games, have seen the difficulty in fighting against piracy and realise the work that goes into cracking their game and keeping it updated. Other game devs such as CD Projekt and Notch from Mojang have seen the high points and issues that arise with piracy. CD Projekt famously undertook an intense witch hunt which ultimately lead them to find that with an increase in piracy, also lead an increase in sales with each time there was a promotion. This lead them to end their witch hunt shortly after. These are, of course, isolated incidents and it's not always a pretty story but some of it can also do with self-promotion, quality, fanbase, transparency and dealing with backlashes.
The problem is the main enemy is holding the other end of the telescope right in front of him.

With that backlash, Hollywood, the MPAA and the film industry is not the best dealing with these sorts of issues and often it ends up backfiring, so is this a good move for Cinedigm or simply another way to create buzz around a film?

Firstly, things need to be put into bit of a film industry context with something like Arthur Newman. It's a relatively unknown film with a good cast, which I'm sure only the biggest fan of Blunt and Firth would know about and agree with. It doesn't have the best reviews, nor the best storyline as it is outlined on IMDB as, "A story of a man who fakes his own death and assumes a new identity in order to escape his life, who then moves in with a woman who is also trying to leave her past behind."
It's also about the struggle of a man who must choose between his love of a woman, golf and primary colours.

Pretty ho-hum for a drama film and nothing we've seen before, but in terms of distribution, the internet is perfect for enjoying stuff we've seen before. Have you seen how many goddamn cat videos there are on the internet of just them rolling around or leaping off stuff? What about our love of .gif's? What about YTMND? The internet was born for repetition because the internet was born for repetition. It's why memes are so popular, it's how we share content; it's how culture works in it's most technologically evolved form. But I digress, I could be completely wrong about Arthur Newman and maybe the seven minutes could prove so.

Cinedigm aren't just throwing their hats into the digital ring for no good reason other than to make a quick buck, they've had experience working with online media, content creators and film distribution before. The incredibly thorough Ridley Scott/Kevin McDonald documentary made from YouTube content creators, Life in A Day, the cute French chocaholic RomCom Romantics Anonymous, as well as John Carpenter's recent horror flick, The Ward and a doco about Tom Petty and streaming a Foo Fighters concert; all had distribution through Cinedigm and have been fairly successful with finding their audience as well as getting financial returns on their distribution methods. They've even recently signed a contract with drive-in movie theatres to a digital screening program. These guys are pretty awesome in my book and I have contacted Cinedigm asking a few questions about their future and hope to post their reply in the coming days. 

I'm sure after their office deals with all the hate mail addressed from Hollywood, California
The important thing, from my point of view, was to get a relatively unknown film with a great cast out there and I think Cinedigm have done well to promote the film. With that, having the first seven minutes will give people an idea what the film is about and whether or not they will find it out and watch it on Netflix, download it on iTunes or to continue their pirating ways. Like all advertising and promotion, it can be a bit of a turkey shoot and you can only do what you can do and hope people will be drawn to it.

Secondly, let's take a look at a few cinematic case studies in terms of traditional distribution and promotion. Box Office is fairly important when it comes to the film industry. How much money you make and how much you can return to your investors is incredibly crucial with how you get your next movie made, how the people who worked on that film get hired and whether or not you'll be seeking your parents help to fund your next project.

So say you make a film and it costs a few million dollars and only released it in a few theatres and hoped for the best on VOD. Sure, your film gets seen by a few people. That's all well in good. You've paid your actors and crew anyway, but where does that leave you as a writer/director/producer at the end of the day? What happens when your film only makes so much?

Say you're at the bottom of this list. On Box Office Mojo, a site that keeps a detailed record on the box office records of almost every film that's ever been released in a cinema, has a list where you can see the highest grossing films, but little did you know, you can reach the bottom of that list. At the bottom of that list is the film Zyzzyx Road, a film starring Katherine Hiegel and Tom Sizemore, that grossed only $30 and cost two million to make. Only thirty freaking dollars. Not thirty million or three million or even thirty thousand, like the cult classic Boondock Saints, only the cost of two or three movie tickets in 2013.
I did not Photoshop this. This is real.

So let's guess that maybe six people saw the film, like this article reported and that no one asked for a refund, technically only half a dozen people saw the film. However, before the internet that number probably would have never changed  and the film forgotten in the annals of history. In fact, doing a quick search on The Pirate Bay shows, that more than double that screening are already watching the film and include their own international subtitles, so the people in Sweden can watch the film for whatever reason.

Or even think of the 2012 lowest grossing film, a The Ring ripoff over a decade late, called Playback. A film directed by the guy who played Jim Morrison in Wayne's World 2, starring Christian Slater and a few actors in their early twenties and features a killer video that begins to take teenagers out one by one. It cost seven and a half million dollars to make. It only grossed $264 and I doubt anyone I know has seen it, but maybe they have. Let's say that with the $264 that at least 20 to 30 people have seen the film. Again with a Pirate search, at least a hundred more people have seen the film and expanded it's reach for better or worse.

This man is now a director. 

Sure, you might say, they'll make back their money on DVD rental but when was the last time you visited your local rental place? It's almost all through VOD or streaming services like QuickFlix (in Autralia) or NetFlix (Almost everywhere else) but some of those distributors don't have a deal with NetFlix (or QuickFlix) and may have to turn to iTunes or Google Play for distribution, but I'll get to those gatekeepers later. But the reason films such as Boondock Saints became such cult classic and even warranted a sequel that grossed over ten million dollars, was due to word of mouth, an internet following and trust me, if something catches on, the internet tends to know about it in a heartbeat and spreads it like wildfire.

While I doubt Playback will find a crowd outside of bad horror movie lovers and Christian Slater fans, it still helps the careers of everyone involved with the film as it gets their work to a bigger and wider audience, stretching outside the two cinemas and a few screening rooms in Hollywood. Lucky for John Penney, the director of Zyzzyx Road, has made 3 feature films since his box office bomb and I wish him and Michael "Jim Morrison" Nickels with their future cinematic endeavours. 

Thirdly, traffic and content is king. In a digital age, you can unfortunately quantify anything to justify how things are going. Say for example if you run a fairly successful website with over ten thousand people visiting it daily, you know that consistent base will continue coming back till you make a joke about a beloved figure or mock an entire internet community or half the world population, then you're probably in the clear. 

We've seen people make thousands of dollars of just having an internet community and how profitable that's been financially, even making a few awful films. But online is the new word of mouth and it's just how you spin it to some degree. With more and more data being collected about certain audiences and demographics, you can target those films specifically, especially with NetFlix Recommends feature and even Facebook Ads.

Can you just buy QuickFlix and I can be happy?
Also I don't think anyone needs reminding that NetFlix are coming out with their own shows, such as LilyHammer and House of Cards, as well as the upcoming Arrested Development fourth season. They know how much they have to spend annually but also that people also need more new content. They have the subscription base, they have the money and therefore, have the power. The two billion they spend annually on just licensing content has paid off exponentially with their recent revenue earnings coming in at over three billion dollars. All I can say is more power to them.

Fourthly, the gate keepers understand why there needs to be a gate, but maybe not for long. Anyone can make a movie in this day and age but actually making from it is a different thing altogether. You are able to set up ad revenue through Google Ads and it's a great way to make a bit of money, but overall if you don't have an audience of millions and no copyright infringement (or claim their content in your description), it won't help you make money.

According to Australian Teachers of Media and The Boring Report, getting your film on iTunes is a lot more expensive than you think. If you want your film in High Definition, it's going to cost you about $5 a minute ($4 for standard definition) + the $300 for your submission fees. So say you have a film that's an average film length of 90 minutes, your film will cost a total $750. So with that, regardless of the thousands of dollars your film cost to make, with an average of $5-10 to buy the film (or $1-5 to rent) you would need to 75 or more people to buy your film or say 100 people just to rent it, just to make the distribution back. I sadly couldn't find any articles on how to get your film on Google Play but have contact them about the process.

Now if only they had their own technology, content rights and the money to offer exclusive content to it's users for a fair fee...
There is an audience for almost everything now. We don't need to keep homogenising culture any more. Niche's can be profitable when you find the right audience and it's how most cultural industries work now. The audience is in control and the tension that is being created is between old gatekeepers and new tech owners. Some of us know what we want and we already know how to get it. It matters about eyes on screens rather than bums in seats.

At the end of the day, it's about getting the word out there: to show your talent, get feedback, becoming better with your craft, finding your audience and hopefully make a buck. It's apart of the reason why certain directors and musicians get better over time, as opposed to worse. It's apart of why I have this blog. I can see where things worked, where things didn't, who read it and why and where I can improve and I love it. I hope one day it leads to viable employment, but till then I can do these fairly researched articles and enjoy my time. Also thanks for reading this, I can be contacted here and hope you have an awesome day.

On a final note, BitTorrent's President of Marketing Matt Mason is meeting with studios soon, to change their negative perceptions on torrenting and I honestly wish him and Cinedigm, the best of luck. After reading that most (read: 94%) are white men with a median age of 62, I feel they may not be so open but I do hope for the future of cinema, distribution and the movie-loving audience. Oh and like Mr. Mason and BitTorrent, I don't advocate piracy, but believe that torrenting is a great inexpensive, important and incredibly quick way of distribution. It's a matter of convenience and evolving technology rather than just getting things for free.

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