Monday, October 04, 2010

Vo.Do and Distribution

I had the distinct pleasure to moderate a post-screening discussion and Q and A with director Gregory Bayne and screenwriter and actor J. Reuben Appelman after the screening of their film Person of Interest at the Open Video Conference. I highly recommend both the film and the conference (it's over, so check it out next year if you missed it), but what I really liked was all of the news from VoDo - the P2P distribution system for indies.

In the spirit of seeing opportunity where others see a threat, Jamie King and friends have created a pretty spectacular little system for harnessing the power of P2P file sharing, the generosity of the Commons and the apparently ubiquitous human desire to collect meaningless rewards in order to benefit those indies who give their films away for free. On purpose, that is, because all of you give them away for free like it or not. Once a film is shot it will be pirated. If it isn't, you have proof that it sucks because no one bothered to pirate it. With VoDo, however, all hand-wringing over this situation stops.

Jamie and friends looked at this system and said, essentially - "wait a minute. One of the biggest hurdles for indies is finding an audience, and one of the biggest costs is physically distributing the film. Here we have a system that negates both of these problems, and somehow people think this is a bad thing??? Why don't we turn this problem on its head and build a business model around this new reality...."

Now, you may not be as predisposed as I am to believe in the power of alternative thinking. That's okay, but let me just postulate, as others have done before me, that most cool inventions come around when someone looks at something stupid in the world and takes an approach to the solution that seems 180 degrees opposed to the presumed wisdom of the experts. Hollywood and a few others are spending a fair amount lobbying Congress, holding secret meetings and suing their fans to combat piracy. One could ask whether they might profit more by not spending all of this negative money and just putting it in the bank, but that's another conversation. VoDo has said, well, let's give this shit a try.

Try they have. You can read all about the history and success here, but the short version is that they've built a system to promote and share films for free on most of the P2P networks and are encouraging people to donate to the filmmakers behind these "free" films. People are doing it. Not in droves, but it's growing, and filmmakers are making money. Not gargantuan sums of money, but some money and often more than the typical offer for a Minimum Guarantee by distributors these days. Here's their blog (ok, a blog isn't a person, but Jamie King wrote it...) on the subject:

Up until now, we’ve been distributing in co-operation with what we call the DISCO (Distribution Coalition), an ad-hoc group of the world’s largest trackers, indexes and clients — including uTorrent, Limewire, Vuze, The Pirate Bay, Isohunt and many others. This has worked very well for our filmmakers, generating (for example) around 875,000 downloads for Pioneer One Season One, Episode One and leading to over $30,000 in audience sponsorship (exceeding our target by $10,000.) The Yes Men, multi-award winning filmmakers who’ve been distributed by major channels like HBO and Arte, told us that VODO has been their favourite distribution of their film so far. They received around 650,000 downloads of their release, and over $25,000 in donations. 

That's not bad for a beta test! I would point out in particular the audience views, for now only represented by downloads (no way to know who watched the whole thing, I don't think) - some serious numbers. More people than those usually queuing up in Netflix or watching your indie flick on demand. You can see this as lost income or an audience - I'm obviously interested in the latter and think the donations are a good beginning.

Well, this could obviously get even better if more people knew about it and promoted it - if they harnessed the power of the web - you might be thinking? Vo-Duh, they've said with the new Vo.Do 2.0 - which now recognizes that some people are influential and help spread the word. They've created a reward system - the DO (pronounced dough) in vodo - that let's fans, influencers and downloaders earn a reward for spreading the word. Here's how they (er, Jamie) describe it:

Actually, we know that individuals are out already promoting our work, and without any real recognition from us. We get serious amounts of traffic from Facebook. Pioneer One tweets were seen over a million times following our release. But we want to show you how much we, and our creators, value all this help. So we’ve created an internal currency, the Do, with which we’ll reward Influencers. Every time someone downloads a release because of you, visits an artist’s VODO page, signs up or sponsors an artist, you’ll receive a few Do.

There are two ways to look at Do: as a reputation currency that allows people to compare (or even compete on) how much value they have produced for VODO creators; and as an exchange currency that has actual value in the world. In time, you’ll be able to trade Dofor all sorts of offers, prizes and merchandise. In this first (experimental) stage, feel free to build up Do in preparation for later offers. But we’ll probably have to knock a few kinks out of our internal currency before it’s ready for prime-time. You can help us by gaming it as hard as you can.

What does this mean? Like FourSquare, you receive a fake currency - on 4Sq it's a badge or a mayorship, on Vodo, you get the Do, and yes it is addictive. I tweeted about a film on VoDo last week and within minutes I became the top-ranking holder of Do. I lost this distinction within minutes as more people learned of the system, but I have to admit, I want to climb back up the ranks. Perhaps that's why I'm really writing this blog post! What? - we get so little real reward in life that this is what it's come to? Apparently so. Count me in, and give me some Do! It works, however, and helps spread the films - and you get rewards as well that you can use as currency within the VoDo system. Pretty cool.

I also have to draw attention to something else they did right - got a great URL.
Pretty cool and enuff said about that one! They have a couple other announcements, but I won't detail them here. Suffice it to say - they're up to some cool stuff.

Let me wrap up  by saying here - they may fail. They probably will fail. Most early adopters do fail, but imagine for a second an alternate scenario. VoDo is a solution made by a bunch of crazy, underfunded people with a cool vision, some technical know-how and a lot of friends, but not much else. Can you imagine what could be built if instead of funding more custom suits for lawyers, the MPAA and others were experimenting with similar innovations instead of fighting for an old, and frankly boring system? We might have some seriously cool things in store if that were the case. Oh, wait. Don't tell them. Let them spend their money elsewhere while Jamie and friends, or someone who copies their underlying ethos, builds the next big thing.

The filmmakers behind Person of Interest are distributing their film themselves, and have opted to use VoDo. As Gregory Bayne said last night in our discussion - "it seemed like a perfect fit for an underground film." I'm hoping that it goes well for him and will hopefully report soon. You can also pay for a download or DVD, which is what I did - to support the filmmaker. But Greg is fine with you using VoDo to check it out for free. He's cool like that.

Download Person of Interest here - and give me some Do, just by checking out the link. (please, please, I'm a Do-junkie now)

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