Peer-to-peer distribution is an efficient and inexpensive way to send large video files around the Internet. While the system is better known as a simple method for pirating music and movies, that easy accessibility can be used for legitimate reasons, too. Political activists the Yes Men turned to peer-to-peer distribution to get their latest documentary seen when other avenues were closed to them.
The Yes Men Fix the World was made in 2009, and chronicles the pair playing button-down, deadpan, wildly irreverent pranks on powerful corporations and agencies, embarrassing Dow Chemical and Halliburton, among others. The documentary was first shown on HBO, which was a mixed blessing.
“We were really lucky to be able to sell TV rights to HBO. They only do, like, ten docs a year, but we were lucky enough to be one of those,” says Mike Bonanno, the nom de guerre of Igor Vamos, one of the Yes Men. “But to be an HBO doc, they had to premiere it on television, which meant we couldn’t do a conventional theatrical. But then again, there wasn’t really anyone lining up to do that, either.“
The Yes Men managed a theatrical run afterwards, but only a small one. Working with Shadow Distribution in Maine, they got the film shown in around 80 to 100 theaters, but it wasn’t a standard distribution contract where a distributor buys the rights to a film.
Getting their work distributed was especially difficult given the subject matter and a legal action hanging over their head. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the pro-business lobbying organization, sued them over a prank, and there’s always the possibility of future lawsuits. Networks or distributors would require errors and omissions (E&O) insurance, a type of business liability insurance, to release the film, which is prohibitively expensive.
“Right now there are sort of legal hoops you have to jump through. To do something officially through established big businesses—television broadcasters, things like that—costs a lot, and you sort of have to pay to play,” says Bonanno. “Releasing on peer-to-peer is a way around that, because it’s not like we were breaking the law with anything we were doing—it’s all fair use—but you still have to pay for a lawyer, or, in many cases, pay for rights simply if the insurer requires it.”
In order to get their work seen and raise some revenue at the same time, they turned to peer-to-peer. Through a partnership with Vodo, a site that works with P2P clients to organize distribution of low-budget works, the movie has been downloaded many times and the Yes Men have raised over $25,000 in donations. The pair added special footage to the P2P edition that shows off their U.S. Chamber of Commerce hoax, something that would have been difficult through other channels.
“We made this special edition of the film that was all new, in a way, because it had this segment about our intervention in the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, where we impersonated them last year and announced a new position for them on climate change,” says Bonanno. “They’d sued us for that, so we had this amazing footage and we wanted to get it out somehow and we knew that no distributor was going to touch it and no television station would touch it, because no insurer would give us the E&O insurance that they would require we would have since we have a pending lawsuit.”
In the end, P2P distribution meant more viewers, more freedom, and more revenue than the Yes Men would have had otherwise.
“That’s how probably more people have seen the film than any other way. It’s been really rewarding for us, because we’re hearing from people all over the world who wouldn’t have seen it any other way,” Bonanno says.