Yes Men Documentary Prospers with P2P Distribution
Peer-to-peer distribution is turning out to be a lifeline for documentary filmmakers, and The Yes Men are pointing the way.
P2P or peer-to-peer distribution is an efficient and inexpensive way to send large video files around the internet. While the technology is better known as a simple method for pirating music and movies, that easy accessibility can be used for legitimate reasons too. Political activists The Yes Men (http://theyesmen.org) turned to P2P distribution to get their latest documentary seen when other avenues were closed to them.
The Yes Men Fix the World was made in 2009; it chronicles the pair playing button-down, deadpan, wildly irreverent pranks on powerful corporations and agencies, embarrassing Dow Chemical and Halliburton, among others. The documentary was first shown on HBO, which was a mixed blessing.
“We were really lucky to be able to sell TV rights to HBO. They only do, like, ten docs a year, but we were lucky enough to be one of those,” says Mike Bonanno, the nom de guerre of Igor Vamos, one of The Yes Men. “But to be an HBO doc, they had to premiere it on television, which meant we couldn’t do a conventional theatrical (release). But then again, there wasn’t really anyone lining up to do that, either.”
The Yes Men managed a theatrical run afterward, but only a small one. Working with Shadow Distribution in Maine, they got the film shown in around 80 to 100 theaters, but it wasn’t a standard distribution contract where a distributor buys the rights to a film.
Getting their work distributed was especially difficult given the subject matter and a legal action hanging over their heads. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the pro-business lobbying organization, sued them over a prank (“We impersonated them last year and announced a new position for them on climate change,” says Bonanno), and there’s always the possibility of future lawsuits from any company or agency in the film. Networks or distributors would require errors and omissions (E&O) insurance, a type of business liability insurance, to release the film, which is prohibitively expensive.
“Right now there are sort of legal hoops you have to jump through. To do something officially through established big businesses—television broadcasters, things like that—costs a lot, and you sort of have to pay to play,” says Bonanno. “Releasing on peer-to-peer is a way around that, because it’s not like we were breaking the law with anything we were doing—it’s all fair use—but you still have to pay for a lawyer, or, in many cases, pay for rights simply if the insurer requires it.”
P2P to the Rescue
In order to get their work seen and raise some revenue at the same time, The Yes Men turned to P2P distribution. Through a partnership with Vodo (http://vodo.net), a site that works with P2P clients to organize distribution of low-budget works, the movie has been downloaded many times and The Yes Men have raised more than $25,000 in donations.
Jamie King, Vodo’s founder and CEO, brought the idea of P2P distribution to The Yes Men when they were in the Edinburgh for the Edinburgh International Film Festival.
The Yes Men Fix the World won plenty of accolades but no conventional theatrical distribution, which meant that the producers retained the rights to distribute the film further themselves.