AUSTIN, Texas -- More than a decade ago, Alex Winter saw a revolution brewing. Winter is perhaps best known as Bill, the blond-haired high school slacker from the 1989 comedy “Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure.” But he’s also a tech head, a music fan and a director.
On Sunday, Winter’s new Napster documentary, “Downloaded,” will have its world premiere at the South by Southwest Film Conference and Festival.
Made with the participation of Napster co-founders Shawn Fanning and Sean Parker, “Downloaded” charts the rise and fall of the music file-sharing service, which had 25 million users before shutting down in 2001, and presaged the explosion of Internet communities and the widespread piracy of media on the Web.
“To me, Napster wasn’t about music,” Winter said. “It was a robust, fast-moving global community. It was a youth revolt.”
Winter first approached Fanning and Parker in 2002, after Napster had already been taken offline in the wake of legal challenges from record companies that said they were losing millions of dollars to people stealing music via the service.
The filmmaker’s original plan was to direct a narrative feature for MTV Films about the pioneering young men who founded Napster. Fanning and Parker were drawn in by Winter’s approach, but MTV stopped making narrative features, and the project ended up in turnaround at Paramount Pictures.
“I spent seven years trying to get that movie made,” Winter said. “I couldn’t get it greenlit.”
While Winter’s project was languishing, the issues it depicted were only magnifying, as Internet communities like Facebook and MySpace took off, and the phenomenon of illegal downloading spread from the music to the film industry.
Despite the galloping changes in their businesses, by 2011 the entertainment and high-tech worlds seemed to Winter to be further apart than ever.
“I was a little bit dismayed at how far backward we’d gone — the movie industry, the record industry,” he said. “I really thought it would have gotten worked out. I was amazed at how divisive, contentious and plain-old ignorant everyone was. It occurred to me to make a documentary out of it, cause then I could focus less on the characters and more on the topic. I could use Napster as a symbol for the beginning of this quagmire we’re in.”
Within a week of switching his format, Winter had a deal with VH1’s documentary unit and had begun shooting. He conducted more than 200 hours of interviews with Napster personnel, musicians such as Henry Rollins, Mike D. from the Beastie Boys and Noel Gallagher, and recording industry executives like Columbia Records President Donny Iner and Island Records founder Chris Blackwell.
“I tried to keep my opinion largely out of it and let all the sides speak,” Winter said. “I have really close friends in the record industry who’ve lost their jobs, and really close friends who are musicians who can’t make a living anymore. I understood why it wasn’t that easy for the record industry to make a 180-degree turn. People can get very black and white about this stuff, but I think it’s very gray.”
Fittingly for a festival that also spotlights the music and digital realms, SXSW will include multiple other events that highlight the conflicts the entertainment and high-tech industries are embroiled in, including the North American premiere of the documentary "The Pirate Bay: Away From Keyboard" about the embattled, Swedish file-sharing site, and a Skype conversation with Kim Dotcom, the bombastic, New Zealand-based founder of the site Megaupload, who is facing extradition to the U.S. on charges of piracy and money laundering.
Winter is returning to the festival after showing five minutes of his film here last year, in hopes of finding a theatrical distributor (VH1 owns the broadcast rights). Fanning and Parker will be with him for the premiere.