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Internet Piracy and a Second Chance for The Man From Earth

Producer of Low-Budget SF Movie Reaches Out to File-Sharing Site

Generally, when an Internet site dedicated to information on "scene releases" (read: pirated material being widely distributed online) receives email from someone involved in the movie industry, it's a lawyer sending a cease-and-desist notice or worse. But when the administrator of one such site got an email from producer Eric D. Wilkinson, it was full of sincere, if conflicted, gratitude for the role of "the scene" in raising awareness of his movie.
"Our independent movie had next to no advertising budget and very little going for it until somebody ripped one of the DVD screeners and put the movie online for all to download," wrote Wilkinson in an open letter to a site that linked to illicit sources for his film, Jerome Bixby's The Man From Earth. "After that happened, people were watching it and started posting mostly all positive reviews on IMDb, Amazon and other places. Most of the feedback from everyone who has downloaded The Man From Earth has been overwhelmingly positive. People like our movie and are talking about it, all thanks to piracy on the net!"

Wilkinson's email spread like wildfire across neighborhoods of the Internet that are populated by technology enthusiasts and, especially, the information-wants-to-be-free crowd. It's been cited as proof that online piracy can be an important marketing tool instead of just a siphon on Hollywood revenues. Reached earlier this week by telephone, Wilkinson told Film & Video that, while his enthusiasm may have been a little overstated as the story spread across the Web, he's come to a new appreciation of what's possible if a filmmaker can connect to a passionate online audience. "I was thrilled that they were liking it, but part of me was a little taken aback," Wilkinson said. "My email was half-sarcastic and half-thankful. But it was right from the heart."

Wilkinson figured out what was happening when he saw a sudden spike in traffic to the official Web site for the film, which is based on a short story by the well-known science-fiction author. Much of the new traffic was referred by a favorable review at www.rlslog.net, which reviews movies based not on theatrical or DVD releases, but on their availability as illicit downloads. User comments from viewers there and at other sites were enthusiastic. (Some have even offered to translate the film into other languages and generate subtitles – a practice well-known among anime devotees as "fan-subbing.")

In the space of a couple of weeks, Wilkinson says, the film's trailer was viewed close to 20,000 times and its MovieMeter ranking at the Internet Movie Database – which gauges awareness of a title by measuring traffic to its IMDb entry – jumped from 11,235 to number 5.
But Will it Generate Any Revenue?
It's hard to draw a one-to-one correspondence between online buzz and real-world sales, but Wilkinson said DVD sales for The Man From Earth were surprisingly strong when it was released on November 13 – and they stayed healthy the following week, which seemed even more unusual given industry trends toward frontloaded sales.

The Man From Earth had a modest theatrical release earlier this year, and it was solicited unsuccessfully for distribution in other territories. Based on the DVD release (only in the U.S. and Canada) and the spike in awareness online, Wilkinson is hoping a redoubled effort to make some of those sales may finally bear fruit. Whether that works or not, Wilkinson says the experience has encouraged him to re-evaluate the power of the Internet beyond taking stock of industry losses. "You can take the number of times your movie was downloaded and say you lost X dollars to piracy – but would those people have bought it anyway?" he asked. "They call them pirates, but I think that's the wrong word. Someone with a bunch of DVDs spread out on a blanket in Manhattan, selling them for $5 each? That guy's a pirate."

To take advantage of the apparent goodwill among users who downloaded the film without paying for it, he's added a "Donate" button to the film's Web site beneath a line reading, "Enjoy the film? Help us out!" The film has made only about half what it needs to break even, so donation proceeds are being returned to the film's investors, Wilkinson said. "The donations have been generous," he said.

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