Yes Men Documentary Prospers with P2P Distribution
“Early on in the process we were discussing that as a film that might be suitable for Vodo. Then it was just the case of waiting for a chance where I could meet the guys, and also for the film to finish its traditional business cycle,” says King.
While Vodo now hosts scores of documentaries, all available as P2P downloads, its library started with King’s own work. He’s a filmmaker, as well, and shot Steal this Film with the idea of distributing it online through P2P. After it was downloaded millions of times and brought in $30,000 in donations, King decided to bring P2P distribution to other filmmakers. The Yes Men were among the first people he spoke to.
“We come with some pedigree,” says King, “in the sense that we know the people who funded their film. We come with a recommendation. It’s a way of distributing that’s increasingly relevant to documentary filmmakers.”
There are two big positives in the Vodo P2P system. One is the reach, and one is the chance for donations. King knows that for activists such as The Yes Men, the reach, the chance to get their work in front of new faces, is the most important thing.
“[The Yes Men] make their films partly as a way to bring certain messages to audiences and they want that message to be seen and heard. We’re a good platform for that to actually happen,” says King.
Of course, the money is nice too. Twice, Vodo has helped raise funds in the $25,000–$30,000 range. While that’s not much to a Hollywood budget, it’s a nice amount for a documentarian.
“That’s an amount that compares very favorably with traditional television acquisitions for documentaries,” says King, noting that $20,000 is the standard acquisition fee. “We’ve already reached the point where we’re a viable new business model for filmmakers.”
A Growing Awareness
While not many works that Vodo distributes will make big money, there’s still been a huge interest from filmmakers who want to get their work watched. King notes that Vodo has distributed more than 2.5 petabytes of film data since it launched 18 months ago. If Vodo was using a typical distribution method, its costs would be significant.
“Our bandwidth bill is next to zero,” notes King, “because the cost is entirely underwritten by the community of sharers and seeders who are taking the files and making them available with our permission.”
With costs that low, Vodo is able to take a chance on marginal or edgy material that other companies wouldn’t touch.
“As long as the community likes it and is willing to get involved, that’s really the aspect of whether we can support the production or not,” King says.
The site, then, is more a catalog of available movies, while distribution is mostly handled by the viewers themselves. Vodo’s films are available through several different torrent clients. As long as a filmmaker appreciates the value of P2P distribution, he or she will appreciate Vodo’s system.
“We try to view the peer-to-peer world as a sort of ecosystem and try and work with whoever’s there who’s willing to see the peer-to-peer ecosystem as additive to filmmakers, as adding value to their films, rather than subtracting value,” says King.
Vodo is currently approached by six to 12 filmmakers per week who want Vodo to distribute their works. It’s become so popular that King expects other sites to enter the space. He travels to film festivals promoting the P2P model and connecting with organizations that sponsor, create, or curate film.
While Vodo initially focused on distributing a select handful of films, it’s now changed its model to allow more uploads. It’s distributing nearly all the films it gets, eight to 10 a week, and letting the viewers decide which are the quality few that should get promotion. One or two per month will then get an extra push. The site will soon add a comment and rating system.
“We’re not trying to be YouTube,” says King. “Our aim is not to have a large catalog of films. We’re aiming to have a couple of hundred in the queue and a dozen which are lined up and ready to promote.”
The Freedom of P2P
Before The Yes Men released their P2P edition, they added special footage that shows off their U.S. Chamber of Commerce hoax. Because the Chamber of Commerce is suing them, distributing that material would have been difficult through other channels. Bonanno, however, isn’t worried about putting it out there.
“We’re definitely exercising free speech. Our action is about criticizing the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and telling the story is an important part of that. I can’t tell what will happen in the court; I don’t really know. But it hasn’t made us more or less liable for anything. We don’t really think about that, we don’t worry about that.
“Unfortunately, the system is all about people worrying about risks, when actually the only risks we should actually be worrying about are risks of not doing anything. When it comes to political activism, when it comes to trying to change the world for the better, we can’t censor ourselves,” says Bonanno.
Plus, he welcomes the chance to have his day in court: “If it doesn’t get thrown out of court, we’ll get the chance to talk about what the Chamber of Commerce is doing, and they have a lot more to hide than we do, that’s for sure,” he says.
The $25,000 The Yes Men have made from P2P distribution has gone to supplement the group’s other activities, such as paying someone who normally would have volunteered or buying more equipment.
In the end, P2P distribution meant more revenue, more freedom, and more viewers than The Yes Men would have had otherwise.
“That’s how probably more people have seen the film than any other way. It’s been really rewarding for us, because we’re hearing from people all over the world who wouldn’t have seen it any other way,” Bonanno says.