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By Richard Schenkman
In 2007, I made a tiny, speculative science-fiction film called The Man from Earth. Scripted by the late, great writer Jerome Bixby, it tells the story of a history professor who reveals to his colleagues that he is a 14,000-year-old Cro-Magnon who has walked the Earth for millennia.
I had been dreaming of making the film for a decade, from the moment I first read Bixby’s fascinating script – but even I was astonished by the reception our micro-budgeted indie received upon its release. In rapid time, global user reviews catapulted The Man from Earth into the top 100 science-fiction films of all-time on IMDB. It remains there to this day, currently sitting at spot No. 75. None of us involved with the project, which was made for less than $200,000, could have ever dreamed it would so powerfully connect with so many people.
Richard Schenkman (left) and John Billingsley on the set of The Man from Earth
The only problem is that very few of those people who connected with the film actually paid to watch it.
The Man from Earth did not reach its adoring audience through theatrical screenings or DVD sales. It was largely spread via the pirate ecosystem, which at the time, mostly involved torrent sites. The movie was a word-of-mouth “hit” that most of its legions of worldwide fans watched for free.
This year, we released our sequel to The Man from Earth– called The Man from Earth: Holocene – into a digital landscape where the advent of streaming and harmful streaming devices like the “fully-loaded Kodi box” have made piracy even easier than it was 10 years ago. Already, Holocene has been illegally downloaded nearly one million times, and that statistic doesn’t factor the number of times it has been illegally streamed – which is roughly three times as likely as a download.
But this time around, my producing partner Eric Wilkinson and I had a plan to get out in front of the piracy. Rather than wait for the film to be illegally shared by someone else, we put our own version of Holocene up on piracy channels – with a special message that asked viewers to, if they liked what they saw, visit our website and make a donation to support our work.
If each one of the illegal downloaders (to say nothing of the streamers) had donated just one dollar, we would have already broken even on Holocene and been well on the road toward making our next film. Alas, most people aren’t willing – or able – to pay even that much. At the time of this writing, we’ve received around 7,000 donations for Holocene – which I am deeply grateful for, but also saddened by, given the hundreds of thousands more viewers who chose not to donate at all.
Richard Schenkman (left) and Sterling Knight on the set of The Man from Earth: Holocene
What’s more, I learned through this experiment that there are people who don’t merely pirate a film, but who are willing to take full advantage of producers like us – who, remember, are offering our movie for free – for their own profit. I’m talking about Green Ray, a Russian “distribution company” that created a dubbed version of Holocene and offered it on their website. Not only did they do so without any permission, but they removed my donation preface and replaced it with an advertisement so they could monetize it.
I had explained in our donation message that we were happy to share the movie with the whole world, asking only that if people liked it, and if they could afford to do so, that they make some kind of donation. The one thing we asked people to do was not share the movie for free without this message. That’s it. All we wanted to do was to continue giving people the chance to donate to our film if they wanted to – and these guys couldn’t even show enough respect or gratitude to honor that simple request.
“Are you planning to share your revenue with us, the filmmakers?” I wrote in an email to one of Green Ray’s principals, Evgeny Ovcharenko. “If not, the very, very least you could have done would have been to leave my message in place so that the tens (or is it hundreds?) of thousands of people who will see your dubbed version of the film would understand that if they want to see more of this kind of entertainment, they need to pay for it.” Thus far, there has been no response.
It’s especially heartbreaking because this illegal, dubbed version was made with a strong attention to detail and professionalism. The people behind it obviously used a legitimate recording studio to lay down the Russian audio, and their voice actors are highly skilled. Clearly, there is an audience in Russia who cares about seeing a high-quality version of our movie. Perhaps this same audience would have even been willing to pay the actual filmmakers behind the movie to watch it. Now, we will never know.
People who choose to pirate a movie, whether they are a criminal operation like Green Ray or just a regular individual internet user, fail to grasp (or willfully ignore) that while it may be free for them to watch that movie, it certainly wasn’t free to make. The lion’s share of films that get released aren’t studio blockbusters, but super low-budget projects from independent filmmakers who struggled just to get their films produced in the first place – and who are very lucky if they break even on them.
The original Man from Earth was pirated in part because it wasn’t legitimately available in many countries around the world where an eager audience desired it. Piracy brought the film to an audience of millions, and while I’m grateful for that audience, they need to understand that we all have a stake in the survival of indie film, and that movies like The Man from Earth and Holocene simply won’t continue to be made if there is no financial support for the people who make them. We need to educate our audience to understand that we are the same as them: working people who love cinema.
Piracy poses an existential threat to all of us.
Images courtesy of Richard Schenkman