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Piracy as Marketing Tool? ‘The Man from Earth: Holocene’ Producers Have Made $45,000 From Self-Pirating Their Movie

If you can’t beat them, join them.

That’s what the independent producers of “The Man From Earth: Holocene” concluded about the inevitable piracy of their sci-fi film, a sequel to the 2007 cult hit “The Man From Earth.”

More than two months before its April 3 release on digital and DVD, they uploaded it to The Pirate Bay — available in up to 1080p HD format — and it spread to other services. The video is book-ended by an appeal from director-producer Richard Schenkman to consider donating some money if they watched the movie. “If you like it, support it, and remember that sharing is caring,” reads the note they included with the digital versions they distributed on piracy networks.

Since “self-pirating” their movie on Jan. 15, according to Schenkman and producer Eric D. Wilkinson, they’ve received nearly $45,000 in donations via their site, manfromearth.com, from fans and supporters around the world including China, Brazil and Europe.

“I’m not a proponent of piracy,” Wilkinson told Variety. “But at the same time, we have to figure out a way to live with it.”

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The plan to first release “The Man From Earth: Holocene” on piracy networks, according to Wilkinson, was part of their strategy to make the film profitable — a decision informed by what happened 10 years ago, with the first “Man From Earth” movie, penned by the late sci-fi writer Jerome Bixby.

Prior to the release of “The Man From Earth” by Starz/Anchor Bay Entertainment, it hit piracy networks. At first Wilkinson was distraught. Then he noticed that the prerelease piracy resulted in the movie shooting up dramatically in IMDb’s user ratings — to become the fifth-highest ranked movie on the service. As a result, the team set up a donation link on their website (at the suggestion of Schenkman’s ex-wife) and eventually collected $20,000 in donations, close to 20% of the film’s budget.

“Ten years ago we were being reactive, and this time we wanted to be proactive,” Wilkinson said. The first film was profitable, he said, “in spite of the piracy.”

To be sure, Schenkman and Wilkinson still expect the bulk of the revenue for “Holocene” to come from legitimate channels. The producers spent a little over $300,000 on “The Man From Earth: Holocene,” which was shot over 12 days in June 2016 in and around L.A.

Currently, the movie is available worldwide on Vimeo (to rent for $4.99 or purchase for $9.99) as well as MovieSaints (which promises refunds to customers who don’t like it). The movie is also on iTunes and Amazon Video, and on DVD from Amazon and Walmart.

It also remains — with the producers’ official blessing — available on piracy networks. Through March 28, “The Man From Earth: Holocene” had been downloaded 388,915 times via peer-to-peer file sharing, the producers said. That doesn’t include streaming piracy sites, which if factored in would likely push up the total to more than 1 million views or downloads, according to Schenkman.

The self-pirating move certainly runs counter to the prevailing attitude among most in the movie biz — if not across all industries that rely on intellectual property. Isn’t it tantamount to negotiating with terrorists? Not according to Schenkman. Content pirates, he said, are different from terrorists “because if you’re honest with them they respond.”

“It’s a global experiment in the honor system,” he said. “We realized no matter what we did, it would be big in the pirate ecosystem.”

The producers said they wanted to get a high-quality version of “Holocene” into the wild themselves, before someone else ripped a copy, so that it would include the call-to-donate pitch. Plus, the thinking goes, piracy really helped the original movie get widely noticed. “There’s an argument to be made that the piracy of the first film is what made it a phenomenon,” Schenkman said. That echoes the comment of Time Warner CEO Jeff Bewkes a few years ago that piracy of “Game of Thrones” was “better than an Emmy” at buzz-building.

“The Man From Earth: Holocene” stars David Lee Smith (pictured above), who reprises his role as protagonist John Oldman in the first movie. The cast includes Michael Dorn, Vanessa Williams, Akemi Look, Brittany Curran, Carlos Knight and Sterling Knight.

In the movie, Oldman — who is a 14,000-year-old caveman — has assumed life as a history professor at a college in Chico, Calif. The story’s conceit: He has to change identities every 10 years lest his virtually immortal existence is discovered. But in “Holocene,” he is finally starting to age, and four of his students uncover the truth and confront him.

Schenkman co-wrote “The Man From Earth: Holocene” with Jerome Bixby’s son, Emerson Bixby, who also serves as executive producer through his Falling Sky Entertainment banner, based on a story by Schenkman and Wilkinson.

The sequel hasn’t fared as well with fans as its predecessor. “Holocene” has a 31% audience approval score on Rotten Tomatoes, compared with 85% for the original “Man From Earth.” Wilkinson shrugged off the tepid reception: “There are people who are inevitably going to think, ‘It’s sacrilege — you ruined the first movie,'” he said. [UPDATE: As of April 9, “The Man From Earth: Holocene” had improved to a 58% audience “liked it” score on Rotten Tomatoes.]

In any case, Schenkman said, he’s been amazed by the generosity of those who have nabbed “Holocene” from piracy sources.

“People are giving us $5 to $10, a lot of people are giving us $20 — some are donating $50 or $100 because they shared it with friends,” Schenkman said. “And we’ve had people saying, ‘I haven’t watched your movie but I believe in what you’re doing. Here’s five bucks.'”

As for what’s next, the filmmakers are hoping to sell a TV series based on the storyline of the two movies. “The original idea was to make ‘The Man From Earth’ basically feature-length pilot,” Schenkman said. “Now I need to get in the room with the powers that be and pitch the series.”

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