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Steal this blog; then the film

When Radiohead announced that it was going release its latest album, “In Rainbows,” directly, without DRM, and with a unique name-your-own-price scheme, people took notice. Ultimately, the actual release showed only mixed results, and to this date observers and critics are still scratching their heads on whether to write the album off as a failure or a success.

Fast forward a few months and it appears that someone at The League of Noble Peers, using a little bit of clever psychology, may have found a way to make the “donationware” model work: Steal This Film II, the group's “suggested donation” documentary on intellectual property issues, met with resounding success immediately following its release at the end of 2007, amassing more than 150,000 downloads and $5,000 in donations within the first four days. The movie’s web site claims that Steal This Film II, so far, has at least 4.86 million viewers, with close to 2.7 million downloads across a multitude of networks, spearheaded by the site’s official torrents.

Writing in his blog, Steal This Film II director and producer Jamie King attributes the movie’s success to adjustments made to the donation request since the first Steal This Film, which asked for $1 donations to the creators’ Paypal account: “[We] received thousands of them,” wrote King. “PayPal took around about 30 cents [per transaction], and after the cost of transferring to our bank account, [there wasn’t much left] of the generous donations to work with.” In Steal This Film II, the donation request was adjusted to suggest – but not require – a minimum donation of $5, with a “mystery gift” given to all those who donate $15 or more.

The League of Noble Peers quickly learned that, in King’s words, “people want that gift.” The “overwhelming proportion” of donations received ranged between $15 and $40, which indicated that those that chose to donate did so willingly, paying significantly more than they would have “for a DVD or a cinema ticket.” More notable is the proportion of people who choose to donate, which King roughly estimates is around one in thousand viewers – a number closer to spammer’s odds as opposed to a viable way of recouping production costs.

In a brief e-mail interview with DailyTech, King was quick to separate Steal This Film from Radiohead’s similar forays. “For us at STF,” he said, “the expectations are much lower.” Radiohead was “looking for a model that can answer the old question of ‘how do we get media creators paid an obscene amount?’ We’re asking, ‘can we work towards a point where we could be able to continue to make [movies] while exploring this new model?’”

Meanwhile, TorrentFreak attributes Steal This Film II’s success to the creators’ wise avoidance of psychological reactance, which states that people are inclined to respond in a manner opposite of the rules when it inhibits behavioral freedom, much like how many are inclined to pirate a given piece of media as opposed to purchasing it encumbered with DRM.

While King doesn’t have any updated statistics on the film’s progress – he is currently travelling and has limited internet access – he maintains that donations and support are pouring in “apace, if not at the same level of the first few days.”

Production costs totaled almost $40,000, with pay costing even more. At this rate, Steal This Film II could easily recoup its costs, and even turn a tidy profit for the League’s next project – something it struggled with for the first Steal This Film.

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RE: Hold the press...
By Spivonious on 1/17/2008 10:35:52 AM , Rating: 2
You can't really compare it to a theatrical release though. Compared to DVD sales, that's $30 a copy going directly to the film maker. In a brick-and-mortar distribution model, the movie would probably sell for $20, with $5 going to the store, $5 going to the distributor, $1 going to the physical material, and a piddly $9 going to the film maker.

Sure it's not in the millions of dollars, but for a freely downloadable documentary, $30 a download isn't too shabby.

RE: Hold the press...
By masher2 on 1/17/2008 10:42:05 AM , Rating: 2
Ah, but only 1 in 1000 people who downloaded actually donated. Can you imagine a theatre staying afloat if only 0.1% decided to buy tickets?

And as I said in my first post, I doubt the vast majority of those few who did donate did so because they enjoyed the film on artistic merits. They were simply making a political contribution to a cause they believe in.

RE: Hold the press...
By Ratwar on 1/17/2008 3:05:47 PM , Rating: 3
As long as they bought lots of food, sure...

Still, you are quite correct. As long as 'donation optional' downloading is something new, the returns will be exaggerated, with people putting money into it, not for the product, but to prove that the distribution actually works.

On the other hand, a few Web-Comic operators have been able to make a living off their 'free' content, using a mix of ads and donations. This would certainly be more difficult with music (as updates would obviously be less frequent), but I wouldn't be too surprised if we see a workable model for a similar system for music.

RE: Hold the press...
By ShadowZERO on 1/21/2008 11:20:18 AM , Rating: 2
But, if we were to speculate a ratio of all the legal ways movies are acquired vs illegal methods, is it possible we could be in the 1/1000 area?

Considering there's a lot more than theaters selling tickets in the grand scheme of profit vs. cost, isn't that possibly a more pragmatic way of looking at it?

"Let's face it, we're not changing the world. We're building a product that helps people buy more crap - and watch porn." -- Seagate CEO Bill Watkins
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