Crowdfunding a TV Series with Bitcoin: An Interview with Bracey Smith

If I were doing a long-term donation based project,
including Bitcoin would be on the top of the priority list.
-Bracey Smith

When starting out, how can an aspiring director finance a movie? In the past, the answer has often been with credit cards. Spike Lee, Kevin Smith, Robert Rodreguez: They all got started by paying for their films with credit cards and all won big in the long run.

Now, though, people can try to fund their movies on Kickstarter or Indiegogo. Becky Bingham and Austin Craig are now in the second month of their pledge to spend the first three months of their married life together living on nothing but Bitcoin. Their experience is being turned into a Kickstarter funded documentary. 247 people pledged nearly 73,000 dollars to help make that movie a reality.

Two of the pioneers in the field of crowdfunding a project are Bracey Smith and Josh Bernhard who in 2010 began work on Pioneer One, a direct to bitTorrent Sci-Fi TV series. This project was groundbreaking both in the fact that it was to be distributed by bitTorrent, but also that it was partly funded through Bitcoin donations.

I got in contact with Bracey Smith to ask about his experience:

Can you tell me a little about yourself and Josh Bernhard? What have you done before, either independently or together? How did you meet?

Josh and I met while we were attending Binghamton University. I was the general manager of the campus TV station and Josh created the first show there and that really caught my attention. We did many projects together from that time on, but the one that really brought us together professionally was The Lionshare, an indie feature that Josh wrote and directed. I somewhat acted in, and loosely produced it, but ultimately that became the proof we needed to see that we could create a lot with the few resources we already had at hand. 

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First and foremost I want to commend you and Josh Bernhard for being so forward thinking. The idea of shoestringing a production and then releasing it on torrent is an incredible idea. Can you tell me how you got the idea to do this?

Thanks! I wish I could take more credit for this, but it really came down to Josh noticing the opportunity. After The Lionshare had screened at a few festivals, Josh put it up online where it got the attention of Jamie King at Vodo.net. At the time, they had just started to build the voluntary donation distribution network, so while the film got more views than it had ever had, it still didn’t give much of a financial return. However, it was during that time that Josh thought, “what if we released a series through bittorrent?” People searching for shows there wouldn’t know it wasn’t a network show until they had already downloaded and started watching it. By that point they would either be hooked or not. If we created a reason for people to return to Vodo on a regular basis, we would have a higher chance at a financial return and a decent sized audience.

We were originally planning to fundraise and just shoot a scene as a proof of concept when we decided to just aim for the pilot with what we had because a pilot would be more likely to pull people in. So we set out to make a pilot on $6K, used our credit cards to get started, and launched a Kickstarter campaign to hopefully reimburse us by the time we hit the finish line. Luckily it did.

It’s been a long time since the last episode of Pioneer One was released. Where does the project stand now? Are there any challenges (actor retention, etc.) to continuing with the project?

With the numbers we were able to get on such a small budget, we attracted a lot of people interested in helping us take things to the next level. Unfortunately we found ourselves in a position where we needed more than a small indie budget to move forward. We’ve been working on some deals that would allow us to continue, but nothing has solidified yet. 

Just based on Vodo and Disco, Pioneer One was downloaded about 3.5 million times, which would make it a smash hit for TV. It has also  won some awards. On the site, you say in a tongue-and-cheek questionnaire that the project is scalable in whatever format it ends up in. Has there been any interest shown by the networks or studios?

There has been interest from networks and studios, but nothing has solidified just yet. Unfortunately I can’t get into details, but we have had and continue to have conversations with possible network homes.

What else are you and/or Josh working on?

Following the release of episode 6, we went on to make an animated short called Ouverture (www.ouvertureanianimation.com). It has a similar esthetic to the P1 opening credits. It premiered at NYC’s MoMA in March and is currently making a run at international film festivals. When it’s done with all that we’ll release it online.

While we were in production of Ouverture, we also made another pilot called Control which premiered at the New York Television Festival but didn’t really gather us much attention. We just released it for all the fans of our P1 Facebook page so if you’re interested in checking it out head on over to facebook.com/pioneerone.

I see that you started accepting Bitcoin in February of 2011. That means you folks adopted pretty early on. How did you find out about Bitcoin? What did you think of it at the time? How has your opinion of Bitcoin changed in the meantime?

While we were excepting donations through Vodo, a few people started asking us if we except Bitcoin. At the time we hadn’t heard anything about it, so initially we didn’t think much of it. But after a while the amount of people wanting to donate that way increased enough to make us realize we were missing an opportunity, so we started an account. The value has increased considerably since those days, and it looks like there are more reliable sources to help navigate the territory. When we started, it felt very “wild west,” which made us stay more hands off. Now, if I were doing a long-term donation based project, including Bitcoin would be on the top of the priority list.

What kind of response have you seen to your Bitcoin donation drive?

When we initially announced that we were accepting Bitcoin we got a lot of donations, but it seemed to slow down once the novelty wore off and Bitcoin started to really increase in value. Since it was a part of a larger donation solution, people outside of the Bitcoin world didn’t really notice.

One thing I have noticed in my conversations with folks who accept Bitcoin is that it gives them a bit of attention, but does not necessarily drive much business. What advice would you have for a business or charity desiring to accept Bitcoin?

My advice for accepting donations would have to be to make it easy for people to give you money. It seems like a no brainer, but if people are willing to pay you through a means you don’t currently accept, you should do everything you can to allow them to donate. It takes some leg work, but it’s worth it in the end.

Bitcoin does seem to have a lot of possibilities, but it also has a lot of built-in challenges. What is your personal feeling about where Bitcoin is going?

If Bitcoin doesn’t end up being the standard international currency, then I have a feeling what does will look incredibly similar. Though many are resistant to it, the world is moving in the direction of globalization. My only concern is, and maybe it’s an unfounded one, that the currency is structured on code that has questionable beginnings. The idea that no one knows the specific who, why, and where of its origin makes me think it may not be the best financial foundation for a global society.

10/26/2013: I would like to thank Bracey for taking the time for this interview. If you know of any business, charity, or project that deserves some press, please let me know at editor@bitcoinwarrior.net. Comments and suggestions are always welcome!

You can take a look at the first episode of Pioneer One here:

About the Author: Mark Norton is a Bitcoin enthusiast and blogger who lives with his family in Tokyo, Japan. You can follow him on Facebook, Google +, and Twitter at @Bitcoin_Win. You can also register at BitcoinWarrior.net to get emailed updates of his posts.

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