Spring, a new horror/romance by filmmakers Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead, is definitely the first film in history to be billed as “Richard Linklater meets H.P. Lovecraft.” It’s also the first feature film that forward-thinking Austin-based theater chain Alamo Drafthouse and its distribution arm Drafthouse Films are releasing in theaters and for download via BitTorrent’s Bundle product simultaneously.
The film industry has resisted wide adoption of a day-and-date theatrical and digital release strategy in order to maximize box office revenue, but Drafthouse cofounder Tim League believes that brick-and-mortar theaters, which are his main business, can “peaceably coexist” with digital distribution.
“There are people who want to go out, there are people who want to stay in their pajamas and watch a movie on their laptop,” says League. “I’m a big advocate of trying to make our content available wherever people are consuming content. If you’re an iTunes loyalist and want to see our content there, I want it to be there. If you get your content on BitTorrent I think it’s interesting for us to be in that space as well.”
Spring stars Lou Taylor Pucci as an American who meets a woman of mysterious origins while backpacking in Italy, and is the second feature film released by BitTorrent after David Cross’s HITS in January. BitTorrent is used by 170 million people worldwide, according to the company, and promotion for Bundles can be surfaced on any client using the protocol. The peer-to-peer technology allows for sharing and downloading of large media files, and Bundle protects the content behind a gate that can be unlocked for a price set by the publisher and promoted on any site or platform. The gate travels with the content as it is shared. The artist or publisher keeps all revenue except for transaction costs and BitTorrent’s 10% cut. When Sony canceled the theatrical release of the Seth Rogen-James Franco comedy The Interview in December, BitTorrent lobbied Sony to let them put out the film, to help break down Hollywood’s resistance to a company whose name and technology is so often associated with piracy (it was later released on a variety of video-on-demand services).
Drafthouse Films has previously worked with BitTorrent Bundle to release film extras for The Act of Killing, Cheap Thrills, and Mood Indigo, but now the company is experimenting with a full release. A trailer and message to fans is available through Bundle for free, but $14.99 gets the film, score, and several behind-the-scenes videos. Some of the advantages beyond the potential new audience, says League, are that VOD services require a longer lead time, and that the Bundle technology makes it easy to give people a taste of your work for free before they buy, depending on where a publisher initiates the paygate. But League is one of the earliest adopters of the BitTorrent tech for feature distribution, as much of Hollywood has been hesitant to experiment with it.
“I think that BitTorrent has its PR challenges in terms of people’s understanding of what it is,” says League. “It’s a transfer mechanism, but people sometimes believe that BitTorrent equals Pirate Bay. I’m not denying the fact that a lot of people use BitTorrent to download movies illegally, so I think there’s some confusion around what BitTorrent Bundles are, and what this community is.”
It’s also the case, says League, that filmmakers and studios “want to see how it all pans out, get the data before they jump in with two feet. But I love to experiment, it’s such a Wild West time in terms of how people are consuming their entertainment. My headspace is that we really need to be nimble and we need to be convenient and be where people are.”
League is also looking into video game platform Steam, which has a huge user base of gamers. “They’ve built a great platform and they’re talking about getting into the film space,” says League. “That’s a cool audience and a lot of our content ties into the video-game world. I just like to keep my ear to the ground–not everything works, but I’ve been a dabbler and experimenter for a long time.”