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This story first appeared in the March 15 issue of The Hollywood Reporter.
Alex Winter was Keanu Reeves‘ co-star in Bill & Ted‘s Excellent Adventure. But Bill and Ted never saw anything as cool as Winter’s documentary Downloaded: The Digital Revolution, which receives its world premiere March 10 at the interactive/music/film South by Southwest Festival in Austin. It tells how two teenagers, Shawn Fanning and Sean Parker, reinvented the music industry, got crushed and still managed to get rich with such game-changers as Facebook and Spotify.
“It’s the perfect movie for South by Southwest,” says Winter, who will appear on a panel with millionaire Fanning and billionaire Parker, “because it’s about music, it’s about tech, and it’s about movies.” The film, produced by VH1, also features trenchant interviews with Oasis’ Noel Gallagher, Mike D of Beastie Boys, Henry Rollins, label mavens Chris Blackwell and Seymour Stein and tech visionaries like Lawrence Lessig.
Downloaded is about the epochal file-sharing service Napster, dreamed up in 1999, when Fanning was a college dropout living in the closet of his uncle’s office. “A kid on a laptop in the crap end of Boston invented it, coded it and put it online, and it took off,” says Winter. Experts thought nobody would want to share music on their personal computers. Within four months, 20 million did. “It was one of the first times in history that you had this sort of pure youth revolution,” Parker says in the film. “Really unsophisticated but smart kids could create something out of nowhere and revolutionize an industry that they knew nothing about.”
As Downloaded dramatically shows, the record industry knew little about technology — and when executives heard their tunes on Napster, whose users swelled to 60 million, they stomped the kids like a terrified Godzilla. “The Napster business model was solely reliant on creating a license deal with the record industry,” says Winter. “But it’s not like the record industry is a one-headed animal that can make a swift decision. It doesn’t even get along with itself. Five label heads weren’t going to all agree to turn their business over to 17-year-olds.”
As Google and Facebook angel investor Ron Conway says in Downloaded: “Guess what? Nobody cooperated, and the situation never got resolved. It’s still not resolved 12 years later, and that’s pretty pathetic.”
Fanning and Parker, says Winter, “really got their butts handed to them. They lost vast amounts of money. They had post-traumatic stress for years.” Later, educated by their youthful dire straits, Fanning made his fortune in games, and Parker (played by Justin Timberlake in The Social Network) helped found Facebook.
Winter’s film might remind people of the forgotten fact that it was Napster that inspired the first social networking giant Friendster, which Facebook supplanted. “Napster wasn’t really about music,” says Winter. “To me, Napster was a global community where there had never been one.” In fact, even Napster’s origin was community-based. When the self-educated Fanning faced engineering challenges while building the site, he posed questions to the online geek community, which crowdsourced the answers for free.
Winter contacted Fanning and Parker in 2002 with the idea to fashion their story into a narrative feature. “I sold the idea in like a day to MTV — a classic Hollywood story.” Just as classically, it went into turnaround when MTV switched to reality TV. The project languished in development for the next eight years; meanwhile, the record industry continued to flail as album sales plunged and unauthorized downloading ran rampant.
When the Stop Online Piracy Act was brewing in 2010, Winter was astonished at how relevant his movie idea still was. “I was shocked at how little progress had been made. It occurred to me, Why don’t I just make this thing a documentary? A documentary could focus on the bigger picture. It’s about a bunch of kids who saw a new way of doing things, and it worked.”
Although Winter thinks the industry was shortsighted, he gets why execs took up legal arms against the pioneer file-sharers — as did Metallica, infuriated when their unfinished song “I Disappear” appeared on Napster. “To have an unfinished version they probably weren’t going to use show up on KROQ, that’s not cool,” says Winter. “But the issues are not black-and-white, and they won’t get resolved until we look at the gray.”
As a content creator himself, Winter is braced for Downloaded‘s inevitable unauthorized upload into the digital maw. He says, “I’m gonna really feel the irony when the thing hits YouTube before it comes out.”
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