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Yelp is bracing for a fight as a forthcoming documentary accuses the online media company of being a bully.
The film, Billion Dollar Bully, is executive produced by Michael Levine, a longtime Hollywood public-relations man who is making his first foray into filmmaking. Yelp has fired back that the filmmaker, Kaylie Milliken, set out to harm the company due to a “conflict of interest” involving her husband’s law practice.
Yelp, founded in 2004, allows users to post positive and negative reviews about stores, restaurants and other businesses they have used. The website, which is visited by 142 million people monthly, features more than 77 million reviews.
The independent film from Prost Prods. is called Billion Dollar Bully and it makes the case that Yelp is something akin to the mob, allegedly demanding “protection” money, lest your business be overrun with negative comments.
A trailer posted online, and embedded below, ominously refers to Yelp’s “filtered reviews” and features legal experts and others alleging horror stories about the service.
Director Milliken began her exploration of Yelp after an alternative doctor she was seeing mentioned to her that she was having trouble with Yelp reviews. Milliken tried posting positive reviews about the doctor, but she never saw them published. The experience encouraged her to set up several Yelp accounts and see what she could find out.
Milliken raised $150,000 through crowdfunding and several business owners who aren’t fans of Yelp also invested in the film, which will ultimately sport about a $500,000 budget.
“Several investors expressly said they were not to be named because of their fear of Yelp,” says Levine, who has spent 35 years in PR representing 58 Academy Award winners, including Michael Moore and Charlton Heston.
“Yelp needs a documentary form of examination in the same way McDonald’s did when Morgan Spurlock made Super Size Me,” Levine says. “We’re going behind the curtain of a cultural phenomenon. There are things about Yelp people don’t know, and that they won’t like.”
Levine also promises humor. “If you’re going to tell people the truth, you better make them laugh, or they’ll kill you,” he says.
Judging from Yelp’s official blog, and a statement issued to The Hollywood Reporter, the company is poised to fight back against the allegations made in Billion Dollar Bully.
“The director has a conflict of interest, as she has a history of trying to mislead consumers on Yelp,” the company said in its statement. “To be clear, there has never been any amount of money a business can pay Yelp to manipulate reviews and claims to the contrary, which this filmmaker appears to highlight, have been repeatedly dismissed by courts of law, investigated by government regulators, including the FTC, and disproven by academic study.”
A Yelp insider says the conflict of interest is a reference to the director’s “fake five-star reviews” of her husband’s legal business that were suppressed by Yelp. Milliken acknowledges trying to post positive comments about the attorney after he represented her six years ago, before she married him.
“Yelp saying I’m spiteful because of something that happened six years ago is ludicrous,” says Milliken. “I’ve been using Yelp for six years. Where there is smoke, there is fire.”
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