A couple of weeks back, I wrote a blog about the launch of Arrested Development's season four. I was quite enthusiastic about the possibilities of firms like Netflix producing and distributing original content, and vaguely curious as to whether Netflix would get clobbered by people using their 30 day trial to binge on the episodes and then cancel without giving them any cash. As it turns out, there have been a bunch of reports that people downloaded the whole run of episodes illegally anyway, so I probably needn't have worried about the 30 day trial loophole.
Illegal downloading is a tricky thing to discuss because both sides of this discussion seem so entrenched in their thinking that nice, civilised discourse often gives way to people chucking insults, hyperbole, misleading figures and great big chunks of horsecrap at the other side.
'The other side'. Even that turn of phrase suggests a divide that can't be conquered. That this is an issue where you're either on one side of the fence or the other. No grey area or defections allowed.
I'm an independent filmmaker. I've tried a lot of different ways of giving stuff away free over the years. However, shooting movies isn't free, and at some point in the process you need to make sure that someone gives you some money, otherwise you don't get to make any more independent movies.
A few years back, we tried streaming a cool little fake documentary horror we'd shot called The Devil's Music via a third party who placed a couple of high-yield ads at the beginning of the film. It was a great big risk for us despite the fact that the company in question threw a load of weight behind it in terms of conventional advertising, (including full page ads in some high circulation film magazines). I think it's fair to say that the experiment wasn't fully successful, and that the business model still had some kinks. As a result, the upcoming re-release of that movie via Cine du Monde is likely to be going back to more conventional release methods involving people paying for things.
We also stuck a filmed version of my 2013 live show about horror filmmaking ('Werewolves, Cheerleaders & Chainsaws') up online for free. That one was a bit more straightforward: even though we do a different live show each year, we don't rely on them generating income in order to keep the company going. We thought that getting the show in front of as many sets of eyes as possible was probably a good idea.
However, if your business model relies on the profile-related benefits of giving something away you're going to need to keep plugging it. There's a reason those guys trying to give you a free paper as you walk through London are so persistent. It's a numbers game, and if you're giving it away for nothing then you need great big numbers of people to watch your product or you won't see any benefit whatsoever.
On the DVD purchase business model, I need a lot less people to buy a copy of a feature than I need to watch a freebie in order to make that business model make sense, (provided I've struck a decent deal with the distributors). Another advantage of this (which nobody seems to talk about much) is that the DVD purchase model is targeted. Odds are that the people who drop a tenner on the disc have at least searched some info on the title (even if whilst standing in the shop) and read a bit of background, therefore deciding whether the movie experience they're about to pay for is one that they are likely to enjoy.
One of the things I found most difficult about having my tiny little indie flicks end up on the torrents was that the nature of the distribution model required no investment, research or engagement from the people who ended up watching the flick. The result was that as soon as any of my films hit the torrents all of the average scores on sites like IMDb would absolutely plummet, regular as goddamn clockwork. Whereas the guys who'd gone and bought the movie had looked it up and thought "Okay, this is a tiny micro-budget flick with a lot of talking. It's a slow-burn with a creepy pay-off. That's my kind of movie, I think I'll buy it", a lot of the guys pulling it off the torrents were just seeing 'horror' and hitting download with no further engagement with the process. Sometimes there might be a lucky match-up, and someone might enjoy it, but far more often the end-user would be expecting a mainstream Hollywood product (or at least a gorefest) and end up clicking the 'one′ out of 10 on IMDb or wherever, sometimes with a comment about how they only watched the first two minutes because it looked 'so cheap'.
Arrested Development is, of course, a different prospect to a tiny-scale indie movie. The additional eyes on the product are likely to be fans, are likely to have seen the first three seasons and are thus likely to have expectations that are more closely aligned with the thing they're downloading. It might well hurt the profitability (and the likelihood of another series) but is unlikely to affect the IMDb score.
I wonder whether this whole discussion will look as quaint in 30 years time as the 'home taping is killing music' one does now.
Hey, I think I made it through the post without slinging any insults, hyperbole or misleading figures at either side.
[Stuff gets thrown in the comments section. Pat gets hit by a great big chunk of horsecrap. Fade to black]