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.

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