The MTP Interview: Indie Film Makers Jason Stall and Topper McDaniel on Producing Indie Films in the Age of Google and Rogue Sites Legislation

This is an excerpt from the MTP Monthly Interview with Jason Stall and Topper McDaniel about producing independent films.  Sign up for a free subscription and request the complete interview!

MTP: Tell us a little about your background as a film producer, what films have you produced and did you finance all of them outside the studio system?

Jason and Topper:  Semi-Rebellious Films is now in pre-production on its fourth film, a narrative due out in 2012. This will be our second full-length comedy feature.

Most recently we wrapped on Queens of Country starring Ron Livingston and Lizzy Caplan. We are also very proud of our two music documentaries: First we made The Heart is a Drum Machine, to tell the world what music meant to us, by asking artists like John Frusciante, Wayne Coyne, Juliette Lewis, Elijah Wood and George Clinton, to tell us what music was to them. It was a great success and very well received, especially our soundtrack which featured an original score by the Flaming Lips’ Steven Drozd, and a cover of Elton John’s Rocket Man sung by Maynard James Keenan of TOOL.  We have done this with our amazingly talented directors and co-producers Ryan Page and Christopher Pomerenke.

It was this relationship with Maynard that led to our second film, Blood Into Wine, about Keenan’s journey from vocalist to vintner, as the Grammy winner establishes a wine country in the Arizona desert, and actually succeeds, putting out bottle after bottle of award-winning wine. Blood Into Wine also sported an amazing soundtrack filled with music from Keenan’s other band, Puscifer, and also was an Official Selection at several festivals, winning Best Documentary in Ron Howard’s hometown festival, the Trail Dance. All of our films have been financed outside of the studio system.

MTP:  Were your films pirated?  Is there more piracy for your most recent film as opposed to your first film?

Jason and Topper:  We had our World Premiere of Blood Into Wine February 19th, 2010 and by the time we had our first few theatrical releases we were up on the web.  The quality unfortunately was good too, so we think a theatrical screener loaded it up.  The full download was up everywhere before we even released our DVD.

Sadly, all our films were pirated and our last documentary was hurt the most by this. We saw it on hundreds of sites being  downloaded over 25K times, so those are all potential sales we missed and unfortunately the laws need to protect us better and go after and shut these sites down once and for all.  Each film has been more affected than the film before it, a lot of this is due to the advances in speed and quality of streaming, etc…

MTP:  Did you ever send DMCA notices and how many would you estimate you would have to send if you did?

Jason and Topper:  Wow, we at one time had three people working on this.  I don’t know what the estimate would be.  The sad part is we just could not send enough and everyday it felt like one step forward two steps back.

MTP:  How much would it cost you to send DMCA notices and is that an effective remedy?

Jason and Topper:  We honestly stopped focusing on this as we had to look at each of our team member’s time value of money.  We spent our time marketing our film and trying to spread the word about piracy’s effect on our film.  As an independent film company, we could not afford to continue this fight.  The rogue sites know this and take advantage of it.

Last year I believe only nine major groups were prosecuted, yet last year over 10% of the US was using peer-to-peer sites.  Megaupload and other cyberlockers are some of the most accessed websites.  Pirate Bay and others are stealing in broad daylight.  PayPal allows payments of illegal transactions by allowing this. Google sends us daily alerts that identify these pirate rogue site, but does not shut them down.  The whole system is broken.

MTP:  What do you think the long-term effects of the Internet are on film development given current trends?

Jason and Topper:  We have already seen what it has done to the music industry.  We are going that way at warp speed.  We have always said the only thing preventing this from going the same direction is the quality of the pirated versions, the speed of connections, availability of places to store all this data and a way of streaming the videos that looks good.  Unfortunately all of these things have happened.  Sadly you can now download a quality HD version of a pirated film and show it on your flat screen.

Creative America states on their website that websites trafficking in stolen film and TV content get nearly 150 million visits every day, more than 50 billion visits per year.   The impact on jobs and the industry is also becoming quantifiable as over 140,000 jobs have already been lost and they project, “Content theft threatens over 2 million jobs supported by the film and television industry in all 50 states and D.C.”

We have been excited by the recent exposure and press that this subject has received.  We were excited by the announcement earlier this month by the new Creative America organization United to Fight Content Theft.  As they stated in their press release, “Creative America, the grassroots organization organizing the effort, will begin serving as the unified voice of the more than 2 million Americans in all 50 states whose jobs are supported by film and television, as well as people in other creative fields and anyone who believes that halting the looting of America’s creative works and protecting jobs must be a national priority.”  This is huge in giving all of us small indie producers a unified and powerful voice.  This seems to be getting a great response with SAG, MPAA, IATSE, DGA, AFTRA, Sony Pictures, Walt Disney, Warner Bros, Viacom, NBC Universal, CBS Corp, 20th Century Fox, and others, all showing their support.

The first issue will be getting The Protect IP Act, now before the Senate, passed [and the Stop Online Piracy Act, now before the House].  This is the first really important aggressive move to target illegal foreign sites.  It would authorize the USDOJ to go after foreign websites that are dedicated to illegal distribution of stolen movies and TV.  The House of Representatives is also joining the fight by working on the Stop Online Piracy Act to go after these rogue sites that are stealing from artists around the world.

We absolutely need this to pass to save our dying “little” industry that has a huge impact on art and the economy.

As a final thought please contact Congress, and ask them to pass PROTECT IP and the Stop Online Piracy Act and stand up for U.S. jobs and creativity.  Also, please join Creative America.

Thanks to Chris and MTP for giving us a voice.