The Dallas Buyer’s Club: How to monetize a BitTorrent release window


Dallas Buyer’s Club have launched an innovative new digital business model in Australia that promises to turn around decreasing income for movies caused by declining cinema audiences and low VOD licensing fees.

Rather than release their Oscar winning movie at the same time as in the United States the studio decided to wait a few months before it was released in cinemas in Australia. What this did was effectively precipitate a window release on BitTorrent in advance of the much anticipated cinema release.

Dallas Buyer’s Club then worked with an innovative German technology partner Maverick Eye UG to trace the IP addresses of all those 4726 Australians who helped seed the BitTorrent release. Then, assisted by a room full of ‘intellectual property’ lawyers they launched a Federal Court action to trace the people behind the IP addresses.

The plan was then to send out speculative invoices to all those people who helped seed the BitTorrent release threatening expensive legal action but promising to settle for a mere $7000.

This new business model could return more to the studio than the entire Australian box office takings for the movie if just one in nine people opt to pay the settlement fee. This represents an ambitious conversion rate of 9%. By comparison, the business model of Nigerian spammers counts on less than 1% of people paying up.

Unfortunately for the Dallas Buyer’s Club, the Federal Court judge will not allow them to send out letters until they are scrutinised and approved by the court. This time around it is unlikely they will be able to include the empty threats critical to the 9% conversion rates they need.

But the business model looks promising if the studio follow through with new court cases in the future. Who knows, by the time they release their next movie they may be able to demand even bigger settlement fees from Bittorrenters.

The added bonus of this case is that it allows movie studios, struggling creative artists and copyright owners everywhere to make extravagant public statements against the scourge of internet piracy, secure in the knowledge they occupy the moral high ground.

By monetizing the Bittorrent release of their film Dallas Buyers Club have come up with a method that could prop up the dying windows release system for years to come. Law abiding citizens who patiently wait for a cinema release will continue to pay their $15 but the Bittorrent experience will attract the premium rate.

Image by Angus McDiarmid, The Cameo Cinema

1 comment

Gogglebox, get me out of here!


What’s the best way to capture the fading attention of TV audiences?

The obvious answer is to force ‘D’ grade celebrities to eat spiders and swim with snakes and crocodiles in a five week frenzy of reality TV. Show it every night, rinse and repeat, add a generous dose of heightened enthusiasm and Bob’s your uncle!

‘I’m a Celebrity, Get me Out of Here’ has been a persistent presence in my house for the last month. It’s not like anyone actually sits down to watch it, it’s just there as background noise, strangely comforting yet annoying at the same time. I’ve been able to do the online banking, stack the dishwasher and get on with my exciting domestic life at the same time as I’ve been ‘entertained’ in that reality kind of way.

The whole show is just one continuous build up to the next reality porn moment.

But wait, it’s coming up soon, straight after this quick commercial… or a bit more inane jumped-up commentary from the hosts.

Then finally, gratification: I look up from my laptop and see a minor celebrity jumping into a vat of elephant dung or eating a live caterpillar. That’s entertainment.

I’ve got to say that the design of the show seems perfectly engineered for my type of ambient viewing habits. The signposts are clearly marked, it’s almost instinctive for me to look up at the screen at just the right time. The cues are all there, like that low-pitched synth tension track (that seems to be used on every show from ‘Masterchef’ to ‘Who Wants to be a Millionaire’) that underscores every impending big moment. Even if I’m in the next room I’m not going to miss it.

And just when I thought I had reality television worked out, along comes Gogglebox, the show where you watch other people watching and talking about TV. There’s a gay couple, a mum and dad with four kids, a pensioner couple, two millennial lads. If you can’t find your demographic here you’re obviously not looking very hard.

Because Gogglebox viewers are intercut with the actual TV shows they’re talking about, the show becomes yet another opportunity to see edited program highlights of the shows themselves. And with the amount of saturation marketing given over to ‘I’m a Celebrity…’ it’s highly unlikely that anyone who has switched on a TV in the last six weeks has missed a single highlight. It’s got to the point that when I see anything new I almost feel special.

Flashback to 1984: Ronald Regan’s colon is being broadcast on newscasts worldwide after it’s announced that they’ve found a small polyp. Why his media minders released the footage is still a mystery, but Gogglebox reminds brings that moment back for me. In 2015, TV seems to be giving itself the colonoscopy.

And the prognosis doesn’t look good. If you listen to the hand picked bunch of viewers that the networks are actually paying to watch TV, they can’t find a lot positive to say. It’s pretty obvious that most of them are not glued to their sofas out of free choice. They all appear neatly arranged in their own living rooms in a kind of network executive’s fantasy vision of how a TV audience should be. Not a smartphone in sight, not even a toilet break for this lot, they give their undivided attention to whatever their masters dish up. Perhaps if we look closer our Gogglebox viewers have their eyelids are pinned open in some sort of bizarre Clockwork Orange aversion therapy.

Maybe Gogglebox is really one big tutorial video on how I should be watching TV. Should I comply, I’d have to get off Facebook, go and round up the kids, (who are each on a different device in other rooms) then line them up in a neat line on the couch and have a communal bitch about D grade celebrities. My life would be so much more meaningful, my family that much more cohesive, if only we celebrated the communion of nightly television.

Alas, we live in a world of short attention spans and iddy biddy screens.  Shouting too loud all the time guarantees that people won’t pay attention anymore. Give me something a little more contemplative on the TV and I might find myself actually looking at the screen.

Image: Family watching television, c. 1958, Evert F. Baumgardner.


Forget Art Let’s Watch the Footy

I attended a roundtable session today called ‘Content Crisis and Convergence’ run by QUT’s Centre for Excellence in Creative Industries and Innovation. For me it was a blast from the past. Debates I hadn’t heard aired since 2007 seem to be back from the dead. Sadly we don’t seem to have moved on substantially.

Self congratulation seemed to be the order of the day with the ABC and Screen Australia very chuffed with themselves that TV viewing figures haven’t fallen off a cliff as predicted by digital hardliners as early as 2006.

As it turns out, the introduction of a raft of new digital TV channels in Australia have reversed the downward trend, at least for the time being. The only catch is that Seven2, Seven mate, Gem, Go, One and Eleven are not showing Australian content. ABC 3 has the best record of any of the digital multi-channels on digital content – but so it should, this was the ABC’s promise when it attracted government funding to establish the channel.

So there was a lot of talk about TV first up in the day and back slapping because Australians are watching Australian content. I’d contend this has more to do with our national religion – televised sport – than cultural content funded by agencies such as Screen Australia.

The agency has just released a new report – Beyond the Box Office – which gently acknowledges that we might need to look at new media platforms… um, some time soon. In the meantime 96% of Australians have watched free to air or subscription TV and average Australians consume 21 hours of TV per week. Whew! But wait, there’s more – view their video below.

So what are we watching? Underbelly and Packed to the Rafters seem to be the only Australian drama listed in the top 20 programs of 2009 (these are the most recent figures on Screen Australia’s website). Masterchef comes in on top followed by the AFL finals, the Melbourne Cup, the Rugby League Grand Final, the State of Origin then Tennis. I rest my case.

But feature films are doing well aren’t they? Yes, young people like the cinema almost as much as console gaming. Cinema attendances have actually gone up – but if you look at other Screen Australia statistics Australian share of box office actually went down from 2009 to 2010.

So what do we know? Zoom out a bit on the graph and compare TV viewing in 1991 with 2011 and it’s clear that there is a long term trend of decline. Cinema attendances have remained more stable but Australian box office share has generally declined on a very bumpy path.

So where does that leave us? What about the interwebs? Shouldn’t we be trying out a few new things there because the government is putting all this money into this NBN thingo? The one-size-fits-all “quality Australian content “formula isn’t going to work here – and I’d contend it’s not really working so well on the telly or the cinema screen. TV drama is important but it’s not the only valuable Australian cultural content. If we’re going to populate the frontiers we need to go there and that means embracing bloggers and gamers, social networks and multiplayer worlds. Otherwise when the big pipes get turned on they’re going to be brought to you exclusively by Google, the BBC, EA and Sony. Lots of content plays online and we have to depart from the old formulas if we’re going to make a splash in the new pool. It wouldn’t be unreasonable to reserve part of that pool for a new generation of Australians to start to create the future.


Tunnel to the Future?

OK, I admit it, I downloaded a feature film on Bittorrent this week and watched it! Don’t worry, I wasn’t doing anything illegal. The Tunnel is a new Australian horror feature which was released via Bittorrent on the Vodo portal on May 19. The film has hit the news because of its low budget, the attachment of Andrew Denton’s company Zapruders Other Films and some innovative uses of online media (it won an Australian Interactive Media Industry Association -AIMIA – for its use of social media in 2011).

So after all the lead up how was the movie?

To be honest I think it was actually a bit slow to to get going but well worth hanging in there for the sequences set in the tunnel system under Sydney (which do exist by the way). The Tunnel is really a great ‘found footage’ film demonstrating that with the right set up you can indeed invoke profound terror using little more than infra-red footage and a wobbly camera. So hats off to filmmakers Enzo Tedeschi and Julian Harvey for delivering a great film experience – it was truely gripping!

I think some of the investment, distribution and marketing models these filmmakers are pursuing is also worth talking about. In May last year they started to sell ‘frames’ of the movie via their website for $1 each with a target of $135K to be raised. They got to about $35K before releasing the movie on Bittorrent but in the past week this has increased to over $41K and there have been over 144,000 downloads of the film.

So what’s the economic model? The sale of frames would not have gone close to covering the salaries of the crew or a lot of the expenses. From looking at their website the team seem to be hoping that loyal viewers will want to buy additional merchandise including a DVD packed with extras, the soundtrack and an e-book featuring some of the artwork of the film. I’ve got to say the visual look of the film is great, the tunnels under Sydney are a spectacular location and some of the VFX work is top notch. I have no information on how the sale of this merchandise is going but I’m betting that sales are going to be slow. If anyone hears any different I’d love to know.

Another platform being used by the Tunnel is Flattr, a crowd-sourced micro-payments system which allows you to make donations to creators of projects that you love. The idea is that you set a monthly budget which is split between the Flattr projects which you nominate each month. Flattr’s motto is ‘many small streams will form a large river’. It’s a great concept but ultimately relies on enough talented content creators adopting the system so that the big river can form. What do you think, should I put a Flattr button on my blog?

Getting back to the Tunnel, the biggest problem I have with the project is actually something at the creative heart of the project. The story context is very ‘Australian’ – I know that sounds funny coming from an Australian – but if you’re going live to the world on Bittorrent surely you need to make every effort to speak to an international audience.

It’s the opening of the film I had the most problems with, conspiracies within the NSW Government just seem a little too parochial (and as a Sydney-sider I’m over them). I might not have been so sensitive to this but I read some online commentary about the film urging the filmmakers to include English subtitles on the film. Not sure if it was the larrikin ocker mateship between the TV crew featured in film, or the intelligibility of Australians under ‘found-footage’ duress that prompted these comments. I think they ring true in a local industry that often doesn’t think big enough in what it sets out to do. So while I applaud these young filmmakers I also was slightly aghast that their bold new distribution strategy wasn’t backed up with characters that were a bit more transcendent and content a bit more universal.

But I see that since writing the first draft of this post this afternoon that The Tunnel now has over 150K Bittorrent downloads. I really hope it does succeed, not just for the Australian industry, but for the global independent film industry which has been in steep decline for the last five years. Courageous new business models are urgently needed and more experiments like The Tunnel need to be tried. Filmmakers need to embrace the power of the internet and actually put time and effort into exploring new options.

And, by the way, the Tunnel has already been broadcast on Showtime on Foxtel and opens at the Hoyts EQ cinema in Sydney on June 8. I’ll bet that the Bittorrent publicity actually boosts their box office receipts.


Digital Sydney

I’ve been involved in an advisory team set up by the NSW Government last year to develop the Digital Sydney Initiative. It’s been a great experience for me to meet other people who work in the same city but in different parts of the digital industry such as research and development, education, business and digital content in all its many forms.

Digital Sydney aims to showcase Sydney as an international leader in digital business, education, creative collaboration and innovation. It’s about community building, aggregating events across a range of digital industries, and promoting ourselves more effectively to the world.

We’ve just launched our community and have developed a Sydney Branding Online Competition which is explained in the above video.

If you live or work in NSW and have an eye for design, this is a great opportunity to have a go at creating a visual identity that best represents Sydney’s digital community. There’s a cash prize of $10,000 and designs will be judged by a respected panel of leaders from Sydney’s digital community. Simply download the competition brief and submit your designs by April 11. The winner will be announced at the official launch of Digital Sydney on May 30.

Look out for more Digital Sydney events and activities coming up during the Vivid Festival in May.


New Switch Centre Launch


I attended the launch of the new Information, Cultural Exchange ICE/SWITCH centre in Parramatta this week and was inspired by the creative energy and commitment I witnessed. I’ve worked with a lot of people who have been active in Parramatta digital arts and culture over the years and ICE or SWITCH usually figures in their history.

The new centre has been designed to be a focus for creative activities in Sydney’s West and will run workshops and short courses as well as host business incubation and creative projects. The design of the space is very innovative and they’ve really managed to build in a lot of potential for flexible use.

It’s a renovated warehouse space really – previously a Vincent De Paul second hand goods centre. The design is very open – large Mac computer screens are featured in the reception foyer mounted above round tables. As you walk into the space a kitchen area is centrally placed with an island bar suitable for hosting events but also small creative meetings over a cup of coffee.

Two computer labs are visible from the foyer behind large glass windows and at the rear of the building there is a large multi-function space suitable for performances, meeting and events. Glass folding doors separate a big meetings and function room at the rear of the building which can also be opened to become part of the larger open performance space. Multiple video projectors and flat panel screens were used to display some of the dynamic work that has come out of the centre.

Finally I was really impressed by the open plan upstairs offices and a space (not quite finished) that is going to host incubator projects and businesses – a large open plan space with a view of the parkland at the Parramatta end of Victoria Rd.

The centre was launched by NSW Arts Minister Virginia Judge and there were some inspirational speeches including the Chair of the ICE Board Susan Green who related her personal story of empowerment through her work with ICE.