The internet helped 16-LOVE become the best-released movie in our U.S. distributor’s history, and the internet deprived us (my wife and I produced, and I directed 16-LOVE) of potentially hundreds of thousands — if not millions — of dollars from our movie.
The web is cool, and as the presidential candidates wrestle with competing visions for our country, I wanted to share our story of making and losing money online between 2010 and 2012 when we produced and released our first film.
When we read Leigh Dunlap’s script for 16-LOVE, my wife and I were on the edge of our seats. Literally. It was 5:30 in the morning in our L.A. hotel (we live and work in Denver), and the script had just been brought up to our room, sent over by one of A Cinderella Story’s producers, Ilyssa Goodman. Our two kids, then ages three and one, were still sleeping as my wife and I quietly turned pages on the same script, stifling giggles while falling for the main characters. By 7:10, the kids had woken up, we’d both finished reading, and we looked at one another and knew we were going to make this film. No matter what.
Good things started happening. My former next-door neighbor, Alan Caso, the award-winning cameraman for Six Feet Under read the script and agreed to shoot the movie. Talented actors and actresses auditioned for the project, and we liked them — we really, really liked them. A famous southern California tennis mecca, La Costa Resort and Spa, agreed to let us shoot there for free. And the money — which by industry standards is nothing and to the people who put it up is everything — landed in a production bank account ready to roll.
On May 20, 2010, we started production and less than four weeks later (20.5 shooting days) the entire film was in the can. We edited and test-screened and edited and test-screened the movie for eight months until locking picture. Then we mixed sound and color-timed the final version of the movie. A year and a half after we first read the script, we played 16-LOVE for the first time to a room full of distributors.
And they liked it.
But nobody was willing to buy the movie for what we’d spent making it. Some would say the Internet is a little to blame for that.
Over half of Internet users admit to pirating movies. As a result, broadcasters and distributors are paying less money for content. In fact, in the last five years dozens of major movie companies, including Paramount Vantage, Fine Line, Miramax, Bob Yari and MGM have effectively stopped making and buying films all together.
But we believed in 16-LOVE and had already spent money we felt responsible to pay back. So we released the film ourselves in 15 theaters in 12 cities, theaters we booked either through persuasion or by paying for the screens. We convinced Tennis Channel to broadcast a 30-minute behind-the-scenes TV show about the movie, which they ran over a dozen times for more than one million viewings in two months, and we partnered with tennis apparel and equipment manufacturers and the USTA (the folks who hold the U.S. Open) to promote our movie. We also reached out to thousands of girls high school tennis coaches across the United States to get them to watch the film.
But two weeks before 16-LOVE even came out in theaters, it was already up on the Internet, where thousands of people were watching it for free. It was like a punch in the stomach, seeing the movie come up on dozens of websites even before people could pay us to watch it and knowing that there was pretty much nothing we could do about it.
We went ahead with the release, and the movie came out not just in those theaters but on every Video On Demand Cable, Tel-Com and Internet platform in the country. And it was a hit. According to our distributor, Gravitas Ventures, 100,000 people rented it in just the first three months alone, and countless more have bought the film and probably told, texted or tweeted their friends about it.
We have about 10,000 Facebook fans, and to date over 600,000 people have watched our trailer on YouTube. Obviously, a lot of our success can be tied to the Internet, and over eight months after the movie came out, 16-LOVE is still on iTunes best-seller lists in the Sports, Romance, Kids & Comedy movie genres.
But in that same period, by our calculation, we’ve detected over 5,000 illegal links to the movie, but as fast as we ask the web browsers to delist 16-LOVE, it keeps popping up again on more sites. What’s more, every time we have to ask Google to take down the movie from their search engine, we must attest under penalty of losing our Internet privileges that we actually own 16-LOVE.
It seems perverse to me that the same pirate companies steal our content over and over. We ask Google and the other Internet congloms to delist them, but those same companies keep putting up new sites faster than we can ask for them to be taken down, and nobody threatens them with losing access to the web.
As the first presidential debate comes to Denver, and the candidates discuss different strategies about how to move our country forward, I hope the nuances of our story can help. The Internet is absolutely a huge part of the solution to our current economic problems, because it has always been the people with ideas and the ability to realize them who have changed the world.
But it is respect for all craftsmen and conjurers and job creators — and the expectation that society will protect their ability to profit legitimately from their work — that’s at stake when setting the balance on copyright protection in our digital era.