The movie Lyle is being streamed online for free

This week I’ve come across two pieces written by indie filmmakers that discuss distribution options in the age online piracy.  While it’s good to see the issue being addressed, the dichotomy between the two reveals that differences remain developing distribution models in an age where revenue streams are undermined by online profiteers.

The first piece published on filmmakermagazine.com by Stewart Thorndike and Alex Scharfman, “Why We Are Giving Our Feature Away for Free at LYLEmovie.com,” presents the filmmakers’ plan to give the movie away for “free” in order to engender good will and drive donations for their next project in a planned horror trilogy:

We wanted to stick with the idea that got us to Lyle: the desire to control our film’s destiny and not wait for permission.

It is in that spirit that we’re giving Lyle away for free at LYLEmovie.com. Sure, we could send the film out on the festival circuit and hope for a more traditional distribution offer, but that would take months or even years.

While the goal to “control the destiny” of one’s film is a laudable one, it’s also not one that will work for every indie film.

In this case, the filmmakers see giving their film away as smart marketing explaining, “By giving Lyle away, we’re inviting that audience to come find us and help us make more movies for them.” It’s a laudable plan and I wish them well in their efforts.  After all, how one distributes one’s film should be a matter of personal choice.  However, in explaining their approach they seem to view the digital world through slightly rose colored glasses:

The music industry, whose models seem to be a few years ahead of film, has already seen artists like Radiohead make their work available in exchange for whatever a fan wants to give. In the comedy world, Louis CK had enormous success when offering a pay-what-you-want (with a $5 minimum) deal on his standup special in 2011. In our case, we’re inviting Lyle’s viewers to donate what they want to our next film, Putney. Through this model, we hope to disrupt the traditional financing and distribution paradigms by tying the distribution of one project to the financing of another, democratizing both to create an audience and a brand on which we will build with Putney.

To point to the pay-what-you-like (one-time) distribution efforts used by Radiohead and Louis CK as a workable model for distributing small indie films, while sincere, seems a tad simplistic. After all, even Radiohead referred to the stunt as a “one off.”

Many music fans had hoped that the band’s now famous pay-what-you-want promotion was an attempt by the group to discover a new way to sell music. Now it appears Radiohead at best was after publicity.

While giving their film away for free to finance a second low-budget film might be the right choice for them,  it certainly won’t “disrupt the traditional financing and distribution paradigms.”  Those paradigms have already been radically disrupted by online piracy and, despite good intentions, not every feature film can be made via crowd-funded  micro-budgets.

The latter point is one that filmmaker Zak Forsman raises in “I Made a Movie Worth Stealing: My Experience with Piracy,”  posted this week on filmschoolrejects.com.  Forsman recounted his experience with online piracy following the release of his feature, Down and Dangerous:

The movie has been uploaded in its entirety to YouTube about a dozen times now. Most recently, I issued a takedown for a Vietnamese-subtitled version.

As I filed that first copyright violation and takedown request, I wondered, “Is this going to be part of making movies now? Chasing down pirated copies and jumping through hoops to get them removed?”

Forsman notes there may be a difference between micro-budget productions and indie films with bigger budgets:

…if I were releasing the movie myself, directly to fans, I’d be happy to see people steal it and share it. Truly. Working in microbudgets affords me the opportunity to be a bit of a gambler when it comes to raising a movie’s profile. But in this case, I had a responsibility to protect the movie’s potential sales on behalf of our distributors.

Forsman also attempts to quantify the actual toll piracy took on his film’s revenue making a conservative estimate that if 10% of 10,000 illegal downloads were converted into legit sales it would add an additional $7,000 to their gross.  As he points out, it’s not an insignificant figure for a film that cost $38,000.  Having experienced the reality of online piracy firsthand, he also outlines steps filmmakers can take to prepare.

In contrast, the Lyle filmmakers have made the choice to attempt to sidestep piracy entirely by giving the film away. As writer/director Thorndike noted in an interview with tribecafilm.com” Instead of paying to see the movie, you pay, if you liked the movie, to see the next movie get made.” It will be interesting to see how this approach plays out, but given the fact that online pirates don’t give a darn where they steal films from, the movie will most likely still be pirated.   Within days the (free) streamed film will be stolen from the filmmaker’s own website and pirated elsewhere, reducing visitors to their own Kickstarter campaign.  Meanwhile, per usual, online pirates will be generating income off the stolen movie via their own sites.

Given the low amount of funding sought ($35,000), in this instance the piracy is unlikely to prevent a successful fundraising campaign, but moving forward, will these filmmakers want to limit themselves to only produce micro-budget films?  At some point those who work on these films will want to make a living doing so.  Does this approach really sustain a robust indie filmmaking culture? Is this really the “paradigm” filmmakers want for their future?

In any case it’s good to see indie filmmakers acknowledge online piracy’s impact on distribution and engage in discussions about ways to dull the damage.  Here’s hoping we can learn from their experiences and see more films from them in the future.