Sunday, December 13, 2009

Who's on first?

Everyone likes to be able to claim to be the "first" to do something. Self Helpless is clearly not the first film to release a legal bittorrent; so what exactly are we the "first" to do?

I guess, technically, until someone else uses our model we are the "only" rather than the "first". Self Helpless is the only feature length comedy ever to employ a specialized promotional campaign surrounding a BitTorrent-only release. We are approaching our release in a way that has never been done. I want to be clear here, I am not hating on anyone else's release model. I am just trying to explain how ours is unique. I also encourage anyone who has an excess of time to hate on our model.

1) We are running a 7 day bittorrent-only release. Most movies that release a torrent try to have their movie on sale simultaneously. Their hope is that torrent downloads will drive DVD sales. We are going with a torrent-only run for a number of reasons. First, we feel that downloaders are the new taste makers. If your movie becomes popular within the torrent community this will translate to a wider audience. Hollywood films are often pre-screened for critics and important industry types. We are pre-screening Self Helpless for downloaders because they are our most important potential fans. Second, we want as many downloads as possible. Most films release on a pay to watch platform first so that the only way people can see the movie is by paying for it. We want as many people as possible to download Self Helpless, so that is the platform that people will have to access it on if they want to see the movie as soon as possible. Third, we have a point to prove. Lots of movies have dipped their toes in the torrent pool. They release torrents as a last ditch option, they use it to drive DVD sales, or as a publicity stunt. When you go with a torrent-only release, you are all in. If Self Helpless can become successful using a completely torrent based release, then this will demonstrate the validity of the torrent community as a major marketing force (if you aren't aware of this already then you have some catching up to do).

2) We are not asking anyone to donate anything. We do not feel comfortable begging people to give us money. We have made a movie that people are going to love. We believe that they will love it enough to want to buy a DVD or a t-shirt. And we will make sure that we create some sweet merch that will actually be worth buying. I didn't buy a Fade to Black on DVD because I thought I need to support Jay-Z financially, he is a fucking billionaire. I bought it because I love that movie and I want to be able to watch it on my TV, whenever I want, with all the special features.

3) The torrent release is our first choice. Even as we were writing the script, we discussed free playing an important role in the distribution of Self Helpless. We are downloaders, and we made this movie for downloaders. We skipped the whole cycle of "waste tons of money and energy on a film festival run, realize there are no more distribution deals out there, write lots of blog posts about how the industry is fucked up, resort to giving away the movie, cry often and heavily". Bittorrent is an amazing technology that allows us to get our movie seen by millions of people who just happen to be our exact target audience. As an entrepreneur, it would be nothing short of absurd not to consider a torrent release as an incredible opportunity. There is something completely different in the spirit of our release. This is not a last ditch effort. This is what we have always wanted to do with Self Helpless.

4) We are mounting a full on PR campaign to promote the release of our torrent. We are not just assuming that if we put the movie up on the ol' interwebs, it will suddenly grow wings and fly away. Studios spend money to create press and drive sales. We are spending money (and time) creating press to drive downloads. Studios spend money to stop downloaders. We are spending money (and time) trying to get as many people as possible to download Self Helpless.

5) We are not a documentary. Although there have certainly been other narrative features released on bittorrent, it is worth noting how differently they fair. From my limited experience, I can say that documentary filmmaking is extraordinarily tough. One advantage that you have if you have done your job well is cause-based support. If you do a film about climate change, or gang violence, or hunger you will get some support for your effort to expose a socially important issue. If you make a comedy about drugs, guns, mexicans, and milk-farts, you have to rely solely on the quality of your product. If Self Helpless doesn't make people laugh, they are not going to cut us any slack because they believe in our cause. This makes our model a heavy commitment. We are giving Self Helpless away and we are counting on the belief that people will love it.

We know that our torrent-only release model is a bit of a gamble. We are betting all our chips that Self Helpless is so original, and quirky, and over the top funny that we will be able to build a big enough fan base to cover our budget. Maybe it is risky, but there is nothing we would rather bet on than the quality of our movie.


ZenFilms said...

Ok, so I've not seen the film - I'm only going by what you've written here. I'm also going to assume that it's a "typical" great indie movie - not awesome or outstanding - but really, really good. As in many businesses being the first/top/best is many times better than second and what I'm saying is that if your movie is not AWESOME then it might just as well be in with all the other great indie films released each week. Forget about the bad ones.

My paragraph numbers refer to your numbers above.

1. I implore you to make your DVD and other goodies available for sale SIMULTANEOUS with the torrent release. Why? Several reasons:
(a) the release date is an event which makes the movie newsworthy. You only get one chance because tomorrow there'll be someone else wanting attention. You could say, well, we've got two newsworthy events... but for indies it doesn't work like that. Nobody cares enough to take two bites. Build the buzz to a climax and then unleash the beast.
(b) you can't assume that anyone will ever come back to your site if they discover the movie this way. Don't give up the chance to sell something.
(c) you're already generating publicity - you should be capturing email addresses! Start your mailing list asap.

As @shericand noted, once it's out there... there's no taking it back.

2. That's a really big assumption. I know you want to go for a balls-out glory pass but I suggest you start selling that merch right now. Use the merch to build the buzz. If the T's look cool then they have kudos beyond the movie. Having said that, don't expect to sell many t-shirts because from my experience and those I've spoken too.. few do.

3. You're assuming that your audience is all on BitTorrent... that might not be true. Think about streaming from YouTube or Vimeo or somewhere if you're big on free. But also make the DVD for sale.

4. Your PR spin seems to focus on the fact that the movie is free... but you could run into some problems:
(a) if your movie is full of fart gags and guns, the movie intelligencia are going to be snooty and unlikely to want to be associated with it. It's all very well being pioneering but it has to be "on message" to get the support of their cozy love-in
(b) read up on how to write a press release - it'll make the difference

5. Great!

Moving on to your BitTorrent FAQ, here's my thoughts on that:
x. Don't do the adverts! It will kill your credibility faster than anything. Those first 5 seconds are really important - don't turn everyone off with a 10 second ad.
If you do get sponsorship, build it into the movie as they do on 30 Rock. Or do what they did with Blood Car and have some dude talk directly to camera and MAKE IT FUNNY and ARRESTING. E.g. "Listen up tight-arses, because you downloaded this movie for free I'm having to sit naked in this can of beans with Taco Bell scrawled across my forehead" - I'm sure you can be funnier :)

y. I would advocate a donation button because I think you'll find you have people who want to support you but it's not their kind of movie. I could possibly be in this category... I like guns and Mexicans but not farts.

z. Screenings before release? Pre-orders? Kind of contradicts your earlier goals... just be mindful it doesn't mess up your direct to torrent concept.

ZenFilms said...

Oops - sorry, I see you are capturing email address :)
I guess this illustrates that although I read the blog, I assumed there was no movie website etc.

Hmm... interesting lesson there in attention and direction...