(An earlier version of this story ran online.)
Before you see Colin Firth in Arthur Newman at the theater, you can watch some of it on BitTorrent. Of course, you can do that with most movies; the 170 million-plus members of the file-sharing protocol collectively pirate millions of films, TV shows, and albums. But when you open up this comedy, about a golfer who fakes his own death, you won’t have to worry about getting sued.
Los Angeles-based film distributor Cinedigm has formed a partnership with BitTorrent to promote Arthur Newman by releasing its first seven minutes for free. Seven minutes may not be much—basically an extended trailer—but Cinedigm is hoping you’ll be so enamored of Firth’s bumbling eccentricity and his accomplice Emily Blunt’s sullen cuteness that you’ll buy a ticket to see the film in theaters. “It’s a promotional play on one of the biggest platforms,” Jill Calcaterra, the chief marketing officer at Cinedigm, wrote in an e-mail. “We’re taking the way BitTorrent has been used in the past and turning it on its head.” On YouTube, Arthur Newman’s trailer has earned fewer than 100,000 views; in its first week on BitTorrent, the seven-minute clip was downloaded more than 1 million times.
Since BitTorrent was started in 2001 by computer programmer Bram Cohen, it’s had a contentious relationship with Hollywood. A 2011 study by piracy monitor Envisional found that 64 percent of BitTorrent’s traffic, which accounts for 11 percent of all Internet traffic, came from people downloading nonpornographic copyrighted material for free. BitTorrent offers legal content, too—more than 2 million files. But often, people use it to get a look at the new Michael Bay blockbuster without buying a $15 ticket. (BitTorrent’s software doesn’t connect people to their desired download; it’s a tool used to find it.) TorrentFreak, a website tracking file-sharing news, reports that more than 200,000 people in the U.S. have been sued for copyright infringement in recent years, usually for downloading things using BitTorrent’s protocol. In 2010, Voltage Pictures filed a lawsuit against what would grow to more than 24,500 people for downloading The Hurt Locker on BitTorrent.
BitTorrent may be a movie producer’s nightmare, but it has vast marketing potential, mainly because of its desirable user base: Nearly half its users are between 18 and 35, and 64 percent are male. Studies have also shown that people who pirate movies and music online buy more movies and music than the average person. BitTorrent says its users buy a third more albums and DVDs than most people, a claim that’s reflected in a 2012 study from the public affairs forum American Assembly that puts the increase at around 30 percent. “If you have a pool of rabid film enthusiasts who are downloading films at a monstrous pace, who wouldn’t want to put a new movie in front of them?” says Christian Meoli, founder of Hollywood digital marketing company Voltaire Media.
Even more appealing to advertisers, BitTorrent users are actively engaged in the media they’re downloading. “They’re not clicking around on the Web, they’re not surfing YouTube, they’re trying to consume your content,” says Matt Mason, vice president of marketing at BitTorrent. According to Mason, only 1.1 percent of people will click on a website banner ad; the “conversion rate” for marketing material on BitTorrent is 20 percent to 30 percent. Counting Crows experimented with these engaged users when they released their album Underwater Sunshine last year. They offered bonus songs, liner notes, and other material on BitTorrent and used it to promote their tour. “The Counting Crows were able to upgrade their entire European tour to stadium-level, because they could prove they had the audience through their BitTorrent campaign,” Mason says.
Alternative distribution methods for all media are on the rise. Musicians have warmed to the idea of streaming albums for free on iTunes (AAPL) and Spotify; film studios are following suit with Netflix (NFLX), Amazon.com (AMZN), and BitTorrent. “What Arthur Newman’s doing is an example of Hollywood trying to embrace the BitTorrent platform in a serviceable manner,” Meoli says. “Is it going to stop piracy? No. But it’s a great way to make as much noise as possible and penetrate that market.”