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Decentralization Now: Coppola Studio Brings Blockchain to the Movies

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After four years of development, Decentralized Pictures — a new project from Frances Ford Coppola’s fabled American Zoetrope production company — is preparing to go live. 

The project is just what it sounds like — a decentralized platform leveraging blockchain and digital tokens to select films for financing and production support. It is now wrapping up the beta run of its democratic film-financing application and is weeks from launching the betanet of its underlying blockchain platform. It is the first 501(c)(3) nonprofit to issue its own cryptocurrency.

Blockchain has been touted as a tool for opening up and leveling fortressed institutions of all kinds. The motion picture business — an insular world where the path to a theater release often opens through personal connections, introductions and insider knowledge — may prove a revealing test bed. 

Crypto Goes to the Movies

Decentralized Pictures, or DCP, was co-founded by Roman Coppola, Francis’ son and the writer of critically acclaimed films such as Moonrise Kingdom and the forthcoming The French Dispatch. Co-founders Michael Musante, American Zoetrope’s vice president of production & acquisitions, and Leo Matchett, the Emmy Award-winning film engineer join Coppola in the project. DCP’s website states that its mission is to support “burgeoning independent filmmakers and filmmakers from underserved and underprivileged communities.” 

Decentralized Pictures co-founders from left to right: Roman Coppola, Michael Musante and Leo Matchett

“There is something to the idea that decisions in Hollywood are made about which films to finance and produce in part based on what’s been done before. And sometimes it can make it difficult for new and innovative ideas to break through,” Musante told The Defiant. Outsourcing decision making to a decentralized community can elevate films which may not otherwise get the attention they deserve, he said. 

Spurred by the advent of blockchain on virtual machines, the founders began work on the project about four years ago. DCP is now beta testing its application in EVM (Ethereum Virtual Machine) and TVM (Tezos Virtual Machine) environments with an ERC-20 and an FA1.2 token, respectively. The tokens, called FILMCredits, are used to fund submission fees and reward community members as well as stake and mine on the platform, with additional uses to come.

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The Ghetto Film School is working with the DCP project.

For its beta competition, DCP solicited submissions from students at the University of Southern California and Ghetto Film School, a non-profit with locations in Los Angeles, New York, and London.It also recruited USC and GFS students and alumni to review the students’ submissions. The winner — to be announced by October — will receive $20,000 in financing from the DCP fund and a meeting with DCP’s talent agency partners. 

The betanet will also launch as a Tezos-based parachain by the end of this month. After that, Matchett forecasts opening the DCP application to the general public in the fourth quarter, with FILMCredits available for purchase on the platform and through crypto exchanges. Platform participants will also be able to earn FILMCredits through reviewing submissions and taking quizzes. 

Another Kickstarter?

At first glance, it’s easy to see DCP as basically Kickstarter with a dose of crypto marketing. Actually, its model is quite different. It doesn’t solicit financial contributions directly from platform members. Instead, it maintains its own fund to provide grants to filmmakers whose submissions garner the most positive reviews from the decentralized community. The community earns tokens for reviewing film submissions and participating on the platform. 

The DCP platform’s election process begins when a filmmaker submits a film. There are competitions in specific categories as well as general submissions. The submitter must pay a submission fee — called a bounty — in FILMCredits, which are dynamically paid out in a peer-to-peer fashion to community members who review the project. 

When a film is selected based on its reviews, the submitter will receive a monetary award to cover some or all of its production costs. The awardee also gets access to DCP’s matchmaking service, which connects the filmmaker with producers and perhaps additional financiers. This helps filmmakers clear two common hurdles: funding and connections. 

“We’re giving away lots of money, and we want to be able to prove that the voting process was fair and transparent, auditable and immutable. Blockchain gives us the benefit of that.”

Leo Matchett

Maintaining transparent, auditable records of community activity enables DCP to promise a democratic process with credibility, according to Matchett, who is DCP’s CEO. In fact, blockchain and tokenization bring several benefits to this type of endeavor — fairness, rareness, and efficiency. 

First, fairness. “We’re giving away lots of money, and we want to be able to prove that the voting process was fair and transparent, auditable and immutable. Blockchain gives us the benefit of that,” he said. 

Second, rareness. A regular database could be altered — an infinite number of tokens could be created. Blockchain’s transparency doesn’t allow this. 

Third, efficiency. The decentralized network allows DCP to dynamically pay out tokens to hundreds or thousands of reviewers instantaneously, avoiding a situation where “the stamp on the envelope is worth more than the check inside,” Matchett said.  

What’s in it for Hollywood Royalty? 

What stake would a cinematic dynasty like the Coppolas — with Oscars, Golden Globes and two Canne Palme d’Ors to its name — have in a venture like DCP? Why disrupt Hollywood’s status quo, which, after all, deems them royalty? 

Roman Coppola (center) and Leo Matchett (right) are interviewed by producer Sten-Kristian Saluveer at the Cannes Film Festival in July.

The answer may be to figure out what would get more people into the cinema these days. 

DCP was conceived mainly as a new avenue for talent acquisition rather than a remedy for poor box office sales, according to Matchett. Still, the steady decline of ticket sales looms in the surrounding context. Covid-19 dealt the industry a heavy blow, but even before then, sales dropped for almost two decades. Revenue in the $42.5 billion global film industry has no doubt shrunk due to streaming services like Netflix. But some industry experts say streaming isn’t the whole story, pointing, for one thing, to record low ratings for the Oscars and Golden Globes in recent years. That may be a sure sign interest in the big screen is waning. 

Film industry leaders are growing more anxious about dueling revenue streams that hurt profits. In July, the National Association of Theatre Owners publicly criticized Disney’s simultaneous release of Black Widow in cinemas and on its Disney+ streaming platform. The movie’s ticket sales dove 68% in its second week, the worst decline ever for a Marvel Cinematic Universe film. 

Price of a Ticket

Industry analysts say that big-budget productions cannot recoup costs without a long run in theaters. Others counter that Hollywood is out of touch with audiences — especially millennials — and should worry less about streaming and more about making films worth the price of a ticket. 

Marc Van Holt, a USC grad student and submitter to DCP’s beta test, said Hollywood’s problem is its lack of varied perspectives, and that it is nothing new. The 28-year-old director, originally from Lebanon, entered the contest with his project, Home. The film is about “two souls who connect in a world ridden by war,” Holt told The Defiant. He hopes to win the contest mainly for “much needed financial support to be able to tell stories that matter.”

Can decentralization provide the window into audiences’ heads that the film industry is lacking? 

Shawn Robbins, principal analyst at BoxOffice.com., told The Defiant: “[DCP’s] concept is intriguing, and could potentially offer fresh insights into consumer interests.” However, “Logistics, as with anything, would be challenging — especially given the many millions of dollars it costs to produce, market and distribute at a global level.” 

DCP’s algorithm is not a simple tally of likes and dislikes. Reviews are weighted according to the reviewer’s reputation, which is earned.

Even once a film has been endorsed by the DCP community, it isn’t home free. 

“The competition is not for a guarantee that your film is going to get made,” Musante said. “It’s a competition for some or all the financing of your project and production support.” However, he continued, “These are projects that have made it through the gauntlet of our review process. In a way, one of the things that’s appealing to our partnership network is that these are projects at the development stage that already have, essentially, a fan base.”

DCP’s algorithm is not a simple tally of likes and dislikes. Reviews are weighted according to the reviewer’s reputation, which is earned, basically, by picking films that go on to be successful. Members withchops in the movie business can inherit this reputation when they join. After that, Matchett said, their weight will be determined — and may decrease — in the same manner as everyone else’s. 

The platform will be moderated for content deemed inappropriate, such as pornography and hate speech. Matchett and Musante point out that the community will have the final say on whether content is categorized either way.  

In DCP’s early stages, “the board [of directors] will keep an eye on the voting to ensure that there aren’t any anomalies or fraud or cheating, but even at that stage, we’ll follow the will of the community,” Musante said. 

Breaking the Studio Mold

Matchett and Musante say that DCP welcomes cinema fans of all stripes to participate on the platform, and they hope to launch films in all genres. Musante said he is particularly keen on projects that don’t easily fit into standard studio molds.

To illustrate, he pulled an example straight from the Coppola film archives: Getting Apocalypse Now made back in the ‘70s has become the stuff of legend. It’s a  movie about the Vietnam War, but more importantly it’s a cerebral, hallucinatory meditation on war itself, with few combat scenes. That was definitely a break with the  tradition of what war movies should be. And Francis Coppola largely had to finance its production himself. But, obviously, the film now deemed a masterpiece has returned its investment many times over. 

“Those kinds of ideas are what we hope to elevate at Decentralized Pictures,” Musante said. 

R.D. Danes is a U.S. based journalist covering technology’s convergence with society, culture and the economy. 

Updated on Sept. 29 to add that DCP is now beta testing its application in EVM (Ethereum Virtual Machine) and TVM (Tezos Virtual Machine) environments with an ERC-20 and an FA1.2 token, respectively. The betanet will also launch as a Tezos-based parachain by the end of this month. 

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