BitTorrent, a purveyor of file-sharing technology that is widely used to gain free access to music and films, has come up with a bold proposition for its tens of millions of daily users: Spend $9.95 to help finance a planned new science fiction series and gain viewing rights to its eight episodes. Or fail to pay up, and the shows will never be made.
The prospective series, called "Children of the Machine," is expected to be announced on Monday as part of BitTorrent's latest and perhaps most daring attempt to make paying customers of an estimated 170 million worldwide users. While the site itself eschews piracy, many people employ its open-source file-sharing technology to grab music, films and television shows, whether legally or illegally, without charge.
Marco Weber, a seasoned independent film executive, is to produce the new series, based on a pilot written jointly by him and Jeff Stockwell, whose credits include the movie fantasy "Bridge to Terabithia."
If all goes according to plan, Weber will distribute the pilot - which he would finance himself with help from private investors - free on BitTorrent in December, while offering to make the full series if approximately 250,000 users pay the asking price. "I think of it as the perfect hybrid between Kickstarter and Netflix," said Weber, who spoke last week of an effort that merges crowdfunding techniques with a potentially powerful distribution platform.
Once the pilot has its debut, the next steps should move quickly, Weber added. Or else they won't move quickly enough. "In four to six weeks, I'll know if it works or if it doesn't," he said.
Weber has directed or produced youth-oriented independent films including "The Informers," based on a Bret Easton Ellis book.
In September, BitTorrent will precede Weber's foray by inserting a paywall - something it has been avoiding - in one of its so-called bundles. These are downloads that for the last year have been used by musicians, graphic novel publishers and others to offer their work or promotional material in return for nothing more costly than a user's email address. The new paywall will permit access to a music bundle from what the company says will be a major artist, still to be named.
"We saw the opportunity to build what we think will become the leading place for independent content creation," Matt Mason, the chief content officer for BitTorrent, said of the new fee-based initiative.
Mason, who has made the point before, once again stressed that his site circulates sharing technology but does not condone piracy. "People wrongly assume we're about illegal file-sharing," he said.
Still, BitTorrent has failed in the past to make entertainment buyers of those who use its wares to share content. In 2008, the company shut down a short-lived operation, called BitTorrent Entertainment Network, that had joined Hollywood companies in offering a menu of movie and television downloads for a price.
Mason, who joined BitTorrent after that venture failed, said he believed it had charged too much - an episode of "Desperate Housewives" cost as much as $20, he noted. At the same time, he said, the undertaking did little to accommodate the habits of BitTorrent visitors, who tend to be male, young and inclined to drill deeply into whatever interests them.
In keeping with the peer-to-peer spirit of that audience, BitTorrent in the last year has made available about 10,000 bundles, each of which is controlled not by the company but by an independent artist or other purveyor. So far, free bundles have been downloaded 100 million times, even though many of them require providing an email address - no small act of trust by some wary BitTorrent users.
When the paywall option is in place for bundles, the artist will charge a fee, not BitTorrent. The site, as the host and distributor, will take a cut - adding a revenue stream, and perhaps genuine growth potential, if Weber, the still unnamed musician or musicians, or others can deliver a hit. Mason said BitTorrent, which is owned by its founder, Bram Cohen, and others, including the venture capital firms Accel Partners and DCM, has been profitable since 2008, but he declined otherwise to discuss its finances. The company, which is based in San Francisco, has about 115 employees, he said.
BitTorrent currently makes money by, for instance, charging users for enhanced software services.
News of the company's programming effort was cautiously welcomed by some in Hollywood, where BitTorrent is often still viewed warily as a pirate's adjunct.
"We all want to see new business models that reach audiences who are willing to reward creativity by paying a fair price," said Ruth Vitale, executive director of CreativeFuture, an anti-piracy coalition that includes both artists and companies. But Vitale is among those who want to see BitTorrent executives take a stronger stance against abuse of their technology.
"If they are sincere about supporting creatives," she said, "BitTorrent needs to condemn the widespread misuse of the protocol it created" by those who pirate the work of artists.
Weber, who spoke in a poolside interview at the Viceroy hotel in Santa Monica, California, said he had been introduced to BitTorrent by executives at Cinedigm, a digital entertainment company for which he is under contract to produce lower-budget genre films.
Cinedigm, Weber said, is expected at some point to join in promoting and distributing "Children of the Machine" through its new ConTV channel, a Web-based subscription venture with Wizard World, the company that produces the Comic Con fan conventions (which are independent of San Diego's annual Comic-Con International).
The one-hour pilot for "Children of the Machine," which Weber will direct, should cost slightly under $1 million to make, he said. His Rapid Eye Studios retains rights to the show, and, at least in theory, could sell episodes to a conventional television network if the series were to do well on BitTorrent.
The story line, about teenagers in a near-future America ravaged by global warming and gripped by the rebellion of its own increasingly intelligent technology, is specifically tailored for young, technologically knowledgeable BitTorrent users.
It even includes the occasional reference to those cascades of data that give the site its name.
"We used the torrents," Weber said. "We integrated some of their software in our plot."
© 2014 New York Times News Service