How a Coppola non-profit is using blockchain to put fans in charge of Hollywood

Mark Fielding
April 27, 2023
“You can’t just get Warner Brothers to read your script and say, ‘yeah, we like this, we’ll buy it from you’” — Leo Matchett, co-founder, Decentralized Pictures

Decentralized Pictures, the film fund founded by Roman Coppola, Leo Matchett, and Michael Musante, has become the preeminent voice on web3 film, and a core part of the Coppola family mission: to get more independent films made. Mark Fielding explores how the blockchain is making possible an entirely new model of film financing.

As we wait for Michael Musante to join us on the call, I’m speaking with Leo Matchett, co-founder of Decentralized Pictures, about coffee. Costa Rican coffee. Coffee so rich you would trade three nights without sleep for its electrifying effect; coffee so aromatic and complex you’d sell your house and move continents to live closer to the beans.

We’re talking about coffee because we’re discussing the Decentralized Pictures Hollywood Café. When the café opens, he tells me it will feel like American Zoetrope’s Café Zoetrope in San Francisco: a nicely lit corner of Hollywood for writers, directors, producers, and runners to hang out, drink coffee, and eat bagels. As long as they’re FilmCrew NFT holders. Launched in March 2022, The FilmCrew NFT was the first NFT collection from Decentralized Pictures (DCP). Funds raised were allocated to the foundation, while owners received access to exclusive events, Q&As, and one day soon, as David Lynch might say, a damn fine cup of coffee.  

Decentralized Pictures is the web3 extension of the philosophy behind American Zoetrope. Started by Francis Ford Coppola and George Lucas in 1969 to get independent films made, American Zoetrope helped empower the creativity of avant-garde directors Jean-Luc Godard, Akira Kurosawa, Wim Wenders, and Godfrey Reggio, not to mention Coppola’s own Oscar-winning filmography. Today, American Zoetrope is run by Roman, Sophia, and Gia Coppola, all of whom sit on the DCP Board. Roman, alongside Michael and Leo, is a co-founder.

DCP co-founder and early Bitcoin adopter Leo Matchett. The Toronto-born film producer is an Emmy Award winner and talent scout.

But for all the family ties, DCP is not Zoetrope. According to their Declaration of Independent Film, Decentralized Pictures is “a non-profit organisation that has developed a blockchain protocol on which tokenized credits can be used in connection with arts-related applications.” The organisation’s flagship tool is a film financing app which allows participants to submit film proposals, review and rate said proposals, and to vote and vie for financing and production support for their projects.

In other words, DCP want to make independent films. That begins with unearthing the talent. Because if you don’t discover the talent, the talent is going to get a job. “There have been fantastic artists,” says Leo, himself a technical Emmy Award winner and early Bitcoin adopter, “whose work we have missed because they said, ‘screw this, I need to get a job and pay my rent. I’m not going to pursue this dream anymore.’ And that’s sad because art shapes culture.”

As many a film school graduate can verify, shaping culture with film is as straightforward as shaping oak furniture with a toothbrush. Do you have a captivating, intriguing story that has to be told? Then you need to get your screenplay through the iron gates of Universal, and that, unless you move in the right circles, is an overwhelming grind. How do you get an agent, or have your script read by the right people? The familiar answer, as Leo says, is with immense struggle. “You can’t just get Warner Brothers to read your script and say, ‘yeah, we like this, we’ll buy it from you.’”

“It’s not crowdfunding, it’s crowd curating.”

— Leo Matchett, Co-Founder, Decentralized Pictures

At its most simple, Decentralized Pictures is purely about those unsolicited scripts, about giving opportunity to the unheralded and the unconnected, finding talent and then giving them access to the people who can oil the cogs of production. And giving them finance. “But we have limited resources,” Leo acknowledges. “So how do we give those resources to the right people?”

Blockchain enters stage left. Decentralized Pictures’ solution is to outsource screenplay reviews to the world (i.e. the audience that will end up watching the film), and pay them for their time. Instead of selling NFTs or asking for money, DCP will pay participants to find the film projects that deserve financial backing. “It’s not crowdfunding,” says Leo. “It’s crowd curating. That’s the reason we structured it as a non-profit. All of the earned money goes back into the film fund. There are no shareholders to pay, no palms to grease.”

Fellow co-founder Michael Musante joins the call as Leo gets to the financial explanation. “Decentralized Pictures isn’t paying them. It’s a peer-to-peer payment between submitter and reviewer. When submitters post a project, they put a fee into a smart contract that holds value and automatically pays out to anyone who gives an opinion on their work.”

DCP co-founder Michael Musante is Vice President of Film Production and Acquisitions at American Zoetrope and was Executive Producer of Gia Coppola’s Mainstream. He spent ten years practising law before becoming a full-time film producer.

This is the efficiency of the technology, the first of three reasons why DCP use blockchain. “Hundreds, maybe thousands of micro payments? It’s critical to have blockchain and use smart contracts so that the process can be done in an efficient and speedy way.”

To that, add rareness and fairness. “We can prove rareness in the asset,” Michael says. “Which gives value.” Because film proposals are recorded as smart contracts on the blockchain that anyone can see, it becomes easy to identify who came up with an idea first. In a non-blockchain world, those proposals would be stored on an internal database; the proposer would lose access to the provenance of their own screenplay. Not only do they retain that with their proposal on the blockchain, but smart contracts make it easy for anyone to see who the early backers were, in just a few clicks.

The third axis is fairness. “We have to be sure the most deserving participant gets the support from our foundation,” Leo says. “We’re a non-profit giving huge opportunities and large financing awards. There’s also mentorship with Academy-Award-winning filmmakers. We need to be able to validate we are doing it in a fair and transparent way.” Because all film proposals, and those who backed them, are public on the blockchain, it’s trivial to identify when special favours are handed out. In traditional filmmaking, those favours are prone to be handed out… unfairly.

I raise the question of bias on a peer-review platform. Can filmmakers play the system? Take advantage of their network? As interest grows, tricksters and grifters will find it more difficult to dilute the pool, but the incentive to do so would also grow. Meanwhile, while web3 film is but a small subculture, could a filmmaker with an army of followers influence the voting?

In a word, no. DCP has what is called a reputation system to mitigate that sort of abuse. As Leo explains, “Reviewers who write honest and insightful reviews carry more weight than someone who comes in, votes once and goes on their merry way. A popular filmmaker who gets a hundred people to come in and vote once would be mitigated by three or four reviewers with high reputation.”  

If they really believe in a movie, reviewers can also lock up FilmCredits on a review. “That’s a weighted variable,” explains Leo. “So is our ‘Confidence Score’, a timing score which essentially means that trendsetters get more weight than trend followers.”

Roman Coppola, co-founder of Decentralized Pictures, photographed on set. Credit: Decentralized Pictures.

“The idea is that we have designed the protocol to encourage people to review and vote in a thoughtful way,” says Mike, adding “and minimise voting for your friends.”

Decentralized Pictures certainly feels different to what’s out there. Created by pillars of the industry who have already realised their ambition, DCP have nothing to prove; their focus is pinpointed on the next wave, the next generation of filmmakers, whoever they may be, and wherever they are to be found. “One of the most difficult things for a filmmaker to do is get work out there,” Leo says, echoing the DCP mission. “We’re just another tool for the filmmaker to advance their career. The more tools we can give them, the better.”

“It’s alternative and additive,” Mike adds, keen to highlight that DCP is not a replacement for legacy systems and NFT funding. “It doesn’t need to displace or disrupt conventional methods. We encourage filmmakers to explore those avenues too.”

“Trendsetters get more weight than trend followers.”

— Leo Matchett, Co-Founder, Decentralized Pictures

Yes, of course, Hollywood does a great job. We all love the dream factory. But as Leo says, “the way it’s structured, the way decisions are made, is risk averse.” Everything is now done retrospectively: what films have worked in the past? Which actors pull in the box office numbers? Which struggle? Fresh and innovative voices, voices that could be artistically and commercially successful? Good luck. They mostly slip through the cracks.

Decentralized Pictures believes it can find the films that go AWOL. I ask Leo if they have found any so far. “Some of the films we have been involved in are amazing. One has just been accepted to a major film festival. During beta testing we financed Poachers Tiffany Lynn at the USC of cinematic arts. It’s been in festivals and done very well. We’ve put her in touch with Universal. Looks like they are going to work together.”

Left to right: Michael Musante, Steven Soderbergh, Leo Matchett and Calladita director Miguel Faus after the announcement of the first Andrews/Bernard Award. Credit: Alex Vazquez/Decrypt Studios.

The benefit of being a non-profit, having the Coppola’s involved, and being linked to American Zoetrope, means access to big names. Steven Soderbergh Sex, Lies and Videotape, Ocean’s 11, Erin Brokovich, Magic Mike and his production company, Extension 765, committed $300,000 to DCP projects to support the platform and give completion funds (the funds necessary to complete the final half of production).

Known as the Andrews/Bernard Award, Soderbergh’s donation will be broken into three $100k awards. The first allocation was won by Miguel Faus and his film, Calladita, and the second award has just opened for submissions. Up to two winners will be able to split the completion fund (and get notes from Steven Soderbergh). A further five runners up will get support from DCP. Project owners have until May 17th to submit their entry, and DCP will announce the winner at the Tribeca Festival in June.  

“It doesn’t need to displace or disrupt conventional methods.”

— Michael Musante, Co-Founder, Decentralized Pictures

And it isn’t only Steven Soderbergh. DCP collaborated with Kevin Smith of Clerks, Dogma, and Chasing Amy on a comedy-short-writing award that will be a huge stepping stone for the winning writer. There were hundreds of entries, all of which are currently with Kevin Smith and his team. A winner will be announced soon, DCP says.  

Decentralized Pictures is a fair and democratic film fund, free from the pull of billion dollar box office receipts, re-boots, and prequels. With its peer-to-peer review system, a network of directors, writers, and producers, connections to the web3 film space, and an ambition to get films made that wouldn’t otherwise, they represent the true cultural potential of blockchain technology that is percolating through the film industry.

With the familiar names of Scream 6, John Wick 4, Creed 3, Super Mario, and Dungeons and Dragons all slaying the Box Office this week, never has that potential been more needed.

“You can’t just get Warner Brothers to read your script and say, ‘yeah, we like this, we’ll buy it from you.’”

— Leo Matchett, co-founder, Decentralized Pictures

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Driven by an acute awareness that the internet experience of his children will be vastly different to his own, Mark writes about emerging technology, particularly artificial intelligence and blockchain, with one eye always on the future. As an independent writer, he explores web3 for LVMH, metaverse events of RLTY, and writes gaming stories and lore for the highest bidder.