BitTorrent takes a page from Netflix, plans to release original content

New sci-fi series will be offered first to users of BitTorrent file-sharing software

BitTorrent Inc., the San Francisco-based developer of the world's most popular file-sharing software, sought to break new ground last year with an original video miniseries called "Children of the Machine." Now the company and the producer of the series, Rapid Eye Studios of Los Angeles, are trying something different and potentially more consequential.

On Wednesday, BitTorrent announced that it would be the exclusive initial distributor of multiple new video titles from Rapid Eye Studios over the next several years. Slated to debut late this year, "Children of the Machine" will be the opening salvo in "BitTorrent Originals," the software company's formal entry into the world of original programming.

Said Matt Mason, BitTorrent's chief content officer, "This is our next step forward toward becoming what is very much a media company in many senses."

"Children of the Machine" is an eight-hour, eight-episode tale built around a pair of teenagers in a post-apocalyptic world of the not-so-distant future. That not only sounds like "The Hunger Games," it may look a bit like those movies too -- the design and artwork are being done by Stockholm Design, which also worked on the Jennifer Lawrence-starring blockbusters.

As Mason noted, BitTorrent views the move into original content as a key step down the trail blazed by HBO and Netflix. The parallels only go so far, however. BitTorrent isn't buying the rights to Rapid Eye Studios' videos, nor is it putting up any of the money for production. Instead, its main role will be to promote the shows, which will be distributed as a BitTorrent Bundle, to its global audience of about 170 million active users.

Its exclusive window will be relatively short, too -- 30 to 60 days. After that, Rapid Eye plans to seek more conventional outlets around the world for its videos, said Chief Executive Marco Weber.

Under the current plan, the shows will be available in an advertiser-supported version for free or in a premium version for $9.95. The BitTorrent Bundle format allows downloaders to share the file while retaining the advertising and paywall; consider it viral distribution with strings attached.

The original idea for "Children of the Machine," which the two companies announced last July, was to crowdfund the production through BitTorrent. The studio said it would film the pilot and release it through BitTorrent for free, but wouldn't produce the rest of the episodes unless a sufficient number of BitTorrent users paid $9.95 in advance for the right to download them.

They dropped that idea shortly thereafter, BitTorrent officials said, because support from advertisers covered the production costs without the audience's help. In a recent interview, Weber said the studio now expects to release all eight episodes of "Children of the Machine" simultaneously by the end of the year.

The response from advertisers was so strong, Weber said, he started talking to BitTorrent about launching more video projects through the file-sharing network.

"When I looked at the landscape, I pretty easily found BitTorrent to be the dominant, the biggest platform out there," Weber said. BitTorrent offers a potential to reach an initial audience of 60 million to 80 million viewers in a demographic that advertisers covet -- 14 to 25 years old and predominantly male. But because the studio retained the rights to its programs, it could still sell them to TV broadcasters, video-on-demand services and streaming outlets, he said, adding, "After we went through everything, we thought we had a really good model here."

Whether that model will appeal to the biggest content companies remains to be seen. Several of the major Hollywood studios tried offering movies and TV shows for sale or rent through BitTorrent in 2007, only to have the effort shut down the following year after failing to garner much interest from consumers. Since then, a few Hollywood studios have used BitTorrent Bundles to distribute promotional material, and some major artists have offered their music or videos.

Those are more the exceptions than the rule, said digital media consultant John Gilles.

"I think the difficulty, for large media companies, is that BitTorrent has had a reputation for being a center of copyright theft," Gilles said. "When BitTorrent a few years back tried to license content, it was very difficult to have those conversations."

To its credit, Gilles said, BitTorrent Inc. has not encouraged piracy the way The Pirate Bay and other notorioius BitTorrent-based sites have (although the company does sell ads that appear in its file-sharing client, enabling it to profit from whatever file-sharing its users do -- authorized or not). And the size of the audience for something such as "Children of the Machine" is mind-boggling. "If you can get a decent percentage of those people to view the series," Gilles said, "its numbers will be incredible."

Nevertheless, as long as BitTorrent users around the world are downloading millions of movies, TV shows and CDs illegally, the company is "never going to have success licensing hit shows from the big media companies," Gilles predicted. "Where they may have a small opportunity is in completely new [intellectual property], a brand new series."

Tim Hanlon of the Vertere Group, a consultancy that specializes in digital media marketing, said conventional television services are "relatively optional" for the age group that makes up BitTorrent's core audience. "Shows, clips, videos from their friends, videos of original, online-only content -- that's pretty much the TV/video diet of young males," Hanlon said. "In essence, they're already living their lives online."

This group expects to be able to find whatever it wants to watch online, Hanlon said. The challenge for media companies is finding a way to meet that demand within the confines of their current business models.

"In many ways, it's the best of times if you're a content creator," with a profusion of ways to find an audience, Hanlon said. Similarly, with the amount of content exploding, it's a good time for BitTorrent to become a full-blown content distributor. And striking exclusive deals for original content is a time-honored strategy to "convince people either to try a new platform or convert to it," Hanlon said.

"At the end of the day, I think it really comes down to more of a marketing issue than anything else," he added. "If the platform is truly legitimate, and if the platform is looking to be a viable and commercially ready distribution platform, then I think it's a matter of public image and perception. Maybe the BitTorrent name, given its long heritage, may not be the proper name."

Rapid Eye and BitTorrent are still working out how advertising will be presented with "Children of the Machine." Mason said the company is "talking to people about a number of different ways to be involved with BitTorrent Originals," including sponsorships, advertisements around the program and advertisements displayed in the BitTorrent software. It may also try inserting commercials into the content, something it's never done before.

Weber, whose production credits include the films "Unthinkable" and "Igby Goes Down," pledged not to "hammer the audience over the head with commercials." He said other options include product placement, production credits and integrating brands into storylines.

As part of the deal, BitTorrent will distribute a video game based on "Children of the Machine" as a separate bundle.

Healey writes editorials for The Times. Follow his intermittent Twitter feed: @jcahealey

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