File Sharing and Its Possible Use With Independant Film

Now that we’re a couple days out from the Ink/Piracy story, I’ve had some time to think about the implications and possible applications file sharing could have on an independant and its efforts to gain exposure.  The point of this piece is to start a discussion about Bit Torrent’s use in marketing.

First of all, here’s a brief recap of what’s been going on with Ink, confirmed with director Jamin Winans.  These are hard facts.  The Winans’ sales of their film have been rising noticably. is sold out and is currently quoting a 1-2 week wait before shipping the DVD.  Sales at the official Ink site have gone up.  Both Blockbuster and Netflix have doubled their orders to keep up with demand for rentals.  What is unclear with these instances is how much impact the file sharing phenomena has contributed to this.  Jamin thinks that all this would have eventually happened, but the piracy probably stepped up how quickly everything came about.

So all you need to do if you want to get your movie noticed is put your own bootleg online and wait the attention come rolling in, right?  Not so fast.  While I think that there is definitely an argument to be made for using file sharing (meaning a filmmaker purposely putting their film on various Bit Torrent sites and thus taking “piracy” out of the equation), certain circumstances have to happen before it becomes truly effective.  I guess this piece is more an examination of how Ink got where it is today and see where it could lead.

Ink is a film that had everything go right for it and create essentially a perfect storm of circumstances to allow it to succeed.  The thing that set all this off into motion is the film’s rabid fanbase.  This wasn’t created overnight.  It’s been close to a year of constant promotion that let a grass roots movement be created.  Jamin and Kiowa have worked tirelessly to get the word about their film.  This includes talking to anybody who will talk about the film (including us), getting screeners out to as many websites as would watch and review it and probably most importantly, they worked endlessly to get the film seen in as many places as possible.  I’m not saying that every indie filmmaker should go this way, but the Winans’ essentially turned their back on the traditional way of taking their film to festivals for a year and put that energy into getting the film seen by as many people as possible.

Since Ink is a great film, audiences took to it immediately and buzz started building online between various websites posting rave reviews and the rabid fans telling everyone who would listen about this hidden gem.  Ink had its audience, so the Winans’ took their film to Hollywood to see if they could get a good deal for Ink to get real theatrical distribution.  Either nobody would take a chance on the film or the deals they were offered were so bad business-wise that it would have been cheaper to give the movie away for free online.

So, we’ve got probably the two most important factors in creating this perfect storm:  and established, loyal fanbase and nobody to release their film.  There’s a product that people WANT to spend their ever-shrinking disposable income on, but no way to get it out to them.  Banking on the already established fanbase, the Winans’ decided to distribute Ink on DVD themselves (with a little help from Film Baby) and continue with a self-distribution model.  This would have been successful even without Bit Torrent coming along, but nobody expected this.

It’s fair to say that a certain percentage of any given fanbase are regular users of illegal file sharing.  Everybody knew that within 24 hours of the first Ink dvd’s being sent to customers, the film was going to be bootlegged.  Jamin told me that they even considered putting the film on YouTube at one point just to build word of mouth, but ultimately decided against it.  What happened will probably end up being analyzed for years to come.  The people who pirated the film not only posted the movie, but linked back to and told people to buy the movie if they liked it.  Suddenly, these same fans who have told everyone about Ink had a place to point doubters to so they could watch the film risk free.  Word of mouth spread like wildfire and next thing you know, the movie has been downloaded 400,000 times in less than a week.

I think that if the Winans’ knew what was going to happen, they would have posted the film themselves, but they didn’t know how much of an impact their fans could have.  Had they just put the film on various file sharing sites, I don’t doubt that it would have gained some exposure, but it wouldn’t have been on the same level as it has been with fan support.

One of the benefits of this piracy is that there has been more income from their “Donate” button than they’ve recieved in past distribution deals.  It’s not going to cover the budget, but it does show that it’s possible to generate some income on file sharing.

So should you, the independant filmmaker, put your film on file sharing sites?  I’m not even going to pretend to tell you one way or another.  I do think, however, that there are things to consider when thinking about going down this road.  If you have a strong fanbase and have websites pushing your film, it’s a possibility.  If you have that fanbase and still can’t get anyone to distribute your film, that strengthens the argument.  The real tough question, though, is can you handle the consequences of putting your film on file sharing sites?  More importantly, can you get your fans to post the Torrents with good documentation of how to find you?  If you are confident enough that people will not only find and like your film, but will financially support it, it might be worth a shot.  You very well could end up with lightning in a bottle like Ink, or you might have a bunch of people who watch your movie, but don’t do anything about it.  It’s up to you to determine if the financial risk is worth the potential exposure your film could get.

If you’re willing to kill yourself for a year promoting your film and then essentially give it away for free at the same time of releasing it to the public and trust that it’ll pay off, you’re crazy…but you’re my kind of crazy.  Right now, without other films trying what accidentally happened with Ink, nobody knows if Bit Torrent is a viable form of marketing.  If we’ve learned anything with this story, though, it’s that ANYTHING can happen.  The next film to try this properly will either be a raging success or go down in flames.  The simple truth is that absolutely nobody knows where this all leads.  It’s going to be a case of trial and error.

I know, I didn’t really answer whether legal file sharing is a good idea.  Frankly, it’s too big a question to give a direct “yes” or “no” answer to.  I don’t want that on my conscience.  All I can do is give data and hopefully let people think outside the box enough to at least consider truly alternative forms of advertising.

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Dave Minkus

Dave is located in Denver, CO and can also be found occasionally sullying various podcasts who don't know better than to invite him on.

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