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How Piracy Helped ‘The Man From Earth’ Become A Viral Sensation and Inspired A Sequel

How Piracy Helped 'The Man From Earth' Become A Viral Sensation and Inspired A Sequel

It’s generally assumed that online piracy hurts filmmakers, but in the unusual case of “The Man From Earth,” illegal downloads helped to spread the word about the film. Although the film’s viral success didn’t help the filmmakers get funding for a sequel, it did help the film break even and gain a strong fan base, which they’re hoping will support their current Kickstarter campaign for a “The Man From Earth” sequel. We asked the filmmakers to explain how piracy boosted their film’s stock and why they’re taking to Kickstarter to fund the sequel. The film’s co-producer and director Richard Schenkman explains below:

Back in the early days of my “independent filmmaking career” (an oxymoronic term if ever there was one), my always-supportive parents would occasionally ask if there was any way they could help — what exactly it was I needed to make a movie. “A pile of money about yay high,” was my usual response. I had the experience and the training; I had the talented friends; I even had discounted access to equipment and locations. So all I needed was the money. That, sadly, they couldn’t provide.

Funnily enough, all these years and a number of movies later, absolutely nothing has changed. The pile of money needed has shrunk, but it’s still a lot more than most of us have lying around.

As I write this, I’m about five days into a Kickstarter crowdfunding campaign to raise money for a “Man From Earth” sequel. How did I get here?

Producer Eric D. Wilkinson and I funded “MFE” the old-fashioned way: we each invested a pile of our own money, and we finagled friends and family into investing as well. And when that wasn’t enough to make the film, I took out a home equity loan and bankrolled the rest. We also gave away 2/3 of the movie to the cast and crew in an attempt to adequately compensate them for their time and talent.

We made the movie and, to cut a long story short, sold it to Starz/Anchor Bay for domestic video and digital release. We hired a sales rep for international distribution, but they had barely begun their work when the US release began. In a series of events well documented elsewhere, a DVD screener of the movie was ripped and posted online two weeks before our street date. And suddenly, before the film had even come out, we jumped over 7000% on IMDB’s Movie Meter landing at number 6, and were one of the most talked-about movies on the Internet.

How? Why? Because people all over the world used Torrent technology to download and share the movie. “MFE” was the subject of countless blog posts and thousands of user ratings at IMDB. Happily, most viewers loved the movie, giving us so many “10”s that many people thought it was a hoax. For almost a year we had an 8.8 rating and were in the top 25 indie films and sci-fi pictures of all time on that site’s lists.

But we weren’t having much luck selling the foreign rights. The film was invited to festivals all over the world and won many prizes, but none of this turned to income and our investors were still in the red. Starz/Anchor Bay were speed-dialing their lawyers to get torrent sites shut down, but that effort was the digital version of whack-a-mole.

So Eric wrote a couple of well-placed posts, in effect “thanking the pirates for stealing our movie.” Naturally, that’s not exactly what he said, but that was the general takeaway, and suddenly we were the heroes of the p2p community. “Filmmakers thank Pirates!” went the headlines, and of course all that did was make more people download and watch the movie. But truthfully, we were grateful to all the people who had watched, enjoyed, shared and written about the film. It was thanks to them that our micro-budget, talky little indie had reached a massive world-wide audience.

And then we were presented with a pretty amazing idea: to create a PayPal account and ask viewers to voluntarily contribute whatever amount they deemed fair, to help out the indie filmmakers who created this movie they had enjoyed for free. Not only did people contribute immediately and generously, but they still contribute to this day. Hardly a week goes by that someone doesn’t send money and a note to our site. If that’s not crowdfunding, what is? Sure, it’s after-the-fact, but it’s not sales. It’s donations. It’s love.

Fans have mounted theatrical productions of the piece and have continually requested a sequel. I resisted this suggestion for several years until one day I happened upon a pretty compelling story idea for another John Oldman tale and started writing.

Eventually “The Man From Earth” did break even. The US distributor did over a million dollars in business on the title. Netflix users have left over 650,000 ratings, which I believe translates into well over a million views. So naturally, finding money for the sequel would be a snap, right?

Nope. None of the companies we’ve approached — including good ol’ Starz/Anchor Bay — have expressed any interest in funding a sequel. Does the piracy of the first film scare them off? Who knows. They won’t say.

And so, we’ve come full circle and have turned directly to the online community who supported us in the first place. We’ve launched a Kickstarter campaign in the hopes of raising the funds to make “The Man From Earth: Millennium.” We’re off to a good start, but will we reach our goal? Only the fans can say.

Check out the Kickstarter campaign video for “The Man From Earth II” here:

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