What's Popcorn Time and Why Does It Alarm Netflix's Reed Hastings?

In a January 20th, 2015 letter to shareholders (that accompanied a bullish earnings report after a major stock price collapse in October), Netflix founder and CEO Reed Hastings and his CFO David Wells warned of a significant threat to their online motion picture streaming service: "Piracy continues to be one of our biggest competitors."

In particular, Hastings and Wells expressed concern about a service known as Popcorn Time, a portal that helps users to stream illegal copies of motion pictures and TV shows for free.

Originally developed by a coder from Buenos Aires, Popcorn Time is "basically a browser that users HTML, CSS and JavaScript to serve the movie [torrent] streams" employing "sequential downloading and uploading to play films in its media player."  In other words, the Popcorn Time service provides a user-friendly video player where anyone who wants to can search for and stream movies (from torrent sites) without a subscription or a bill. 

Movie fans, who wouldn't ordinarily patronize a shady torrent site (where illegally copied content can be found), might find the cute graphics, access to free content, and easy to navigate Popcorn Time app much more inviting. 

In late March 2014, the Popcorn Time service abruptly shut down - having only been active for a few weeks. It has since been revealed (via the Sony Hack) that the MPAA may have been behind that shutdown: The MPAA claimed in a (previously private) letter to studio heads that they had “scored a major victory in shutting down the key developers of Popcorn Time.”

But that wasn't the end: After the original developers were out of the picture, Popcorn Time re-emerged. In July of 2014, the MPAA went after the repositories for a variety of Popcorn Time applications. And those too were shut down. Then in October of 2014, another Popcorn Time domain name, Time4popcorn.eu, was shut down.

Still (as of January 2015) it appears that the Popcorn Time app lives on - taken up by other coders. 

So what in particular is causing major media execs to concern themselves with Popcorn Time?

Unlike the legal services, Popcorn Time apparently never obtains permission or pays anything to the creators of the content that streams. And Popcorn Time makes finding and copying a movie or TV show as easy as using Netflix. 

Critics of the studios say that they bear some responsibility in creating a market for illegal content - as they build global demand with their marketing while many movies and TV shows are unavailable in key markets. And it is true that global demand for content online is growing - even as the systems for providing legal online access are not yet global. That's one of the reasons that Popcorn Time potentially has a much larger library than any one legal service. Unlike Netflix, Amazon or Hulu, popular shows won't disappear at the end of a license period in one territory while being available in another. Similarly, content that is unavailable legally in one region - but that can be legally obtained in a digital format in another territory- has a tendency to show up on Popcorn Time. But none of that excuses the illegal copying and sharing that Popcorn Time (and similar apps) encourages. 

And, as seen in this Google Trends chart (below), from Jan. 2014 to Jan. 2015, Netflix has reason to worry: There was a sharp rise in searches for Popcorn Time relative to Netflix and HBO in the Netherlands.

While Popcorn Time isn't yet a worldwide threat to Netflix (see the Google Trends chart below, that compares searches around the world for the last year, showing that Popcorn Time hasn't developed into a big deal for Netflix globally), Reed Hastings and David Wells are sounding the alarm now. Let's see how the authorities in the relevant jurisdictions respond.

Why (For Most Indie Filmmakers) Getting Into Sundance is a Waste of Time

For a certain generation, the Sundance Film Festival will always be the gold standard.

I admit it. I was one of them.

But these days?

I think Sundance has become an all-but-meaningless waste of effort for most indie filmmakers.

What happened?


And online distribution.

And now?

Celebrating large crews, star-driven projects and mostly meaningless Sundance “deals” seems kind of silly.

Why perpetuate Old World ideas about filmmaking when those ideas are actually misleading (destructive?) for a lot of aspiring filmmakers?

Maybe a metaphor will help to explain my point of view:

Today everyone knows that amateurs in a garage can make rock music.

And that some of those amateurs might go on to make money.

But, for sake of argument, let’s assume (because of an ongoing revolution in the technology for the creation and circulation of music?) that most people didn’t know that.

Imagine a world where aspiring artists didn’t understand how easily they could create and circulate their art. In this crazy imaginary world, infographics and listicles are relied on to give young artists an idea of how to pursue their dreams (nutty world, I know).

Imagine an infographic distributed to aspiring musicians that showed them that it would take scores of people to make music worthy of performance at Radio City Music Hall (including dozens to load in and hang lights, large union crew for making and hanging signage, security and ticket takers, marketing staff and ushers, not to mention guitar techs, caterers and bodyguards, etc.)?

Can you see how such an infographic – based on assumptions about Radio City, a peculiar Old World institution – might be curious and interesting (especially when a big show like the VMAs was coming to Radio City) but not really that helpful to young musicians?

And what if that imaginary infographic implied that going to Radio City was a viable path for obtaining a record deal? Deals that almost invariably left even those musicians “lucky” enough to play Radio City in the hole (broke, responsible for their own recording costs, without ownership of their music and without any meaningful release of their songs)?

Now let's come back to our real world circa January 2015. What are we to make of an infographic (like the one below, from http://www.culturalweekly.com/, based on films that starred Julianne Moore, Nicole Kidman, Scarlett Johansson, etc.) that simply misses the huge new world of filmmaking opportunities that don’t rely on Sundance – while perpetuating the idea that having a big crew and going to Sundance is somehow the path to a meaningful distribution “deal?”

Korean Hip-Hop

At Hong Kong's AsiaWorld-Expo on December 3, 2014, Korean rappers 도끼 (Dok2), 바비 (Bobby), 더콰이엇 (The Qquiett) and 마스타우 (Masta Wu) broke it down.

Randy Finch's Film Blog:

Thoughts from a film producer about making and distributing films.