After announcing Skittish last month, we’ve cranked ahead on development, adding a bunch of new stuff in the last month. I wanted to show all of it off, but social media felt too limiting, so I did what I do best: started a blog.
I also recorded a little video tour showing off some of the new features, which demonstrates how much it’s changed just in the last few weeks.
For nearly two decades, I’ve tracked the illicit distribution of Oscar-nominated films online to learn how the film industry’s new and innovative ways of thwarting pirates inevitably fail.
The end result is this spreadsheet, now documenting 611 Oscar nominees from the last 19 years, with metadata for every aspect of their online journey from handheld camcorder recordings in the theater to 4K Blu-Ray rips, and everything in between.
I used to do analysis every year, but after a five-year break, I thought it was worth coming back to revisit this incredibly strange year.
The pandemic touched every aspect of our lives and the film industry was no exception. As theaters closed nationwide, theatrical releases were delayed, forcing some studios to release their films as rentals, while others partnered with streaming services like Disney+, Hulu, and Netflix for exclusive streaming rights.
With theaters closed, a common source of low-quality camcorder leaks dried up, and the floodgates opened to a new one: theatrical releases in our homes on release day.
This year, the pandemic spawned two trends that shattered all records since I started tracking this data in 2003, seemingly in conflict with one another:
Fewer screeners leaked online than ever, with only 9% of screeners leaking compared to 32% the previous year.
Nominated films leaked online faster than ever, in a median 7 days between first release to leak, compared to 73 days the previous year.
At first glance, it seems like the MPAA finally beat the pirates at the screener game. The blue line in the chart below shows that a record low of 9% of this year’s nominees had Oscar screeners leaked online, continuing a downward trend.
But the red line tells a different story: that fully 97% of nominees, all but one film, have already leaked online in a high-quality format.
So what’s going on here? Let’s take a look at the data to understand the unique impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on how movies were released and leaked online.
Death of the Screener
When I first started tracking this data, DVD screeners were highly desirable because they were an opportunity to leak a high-quality version of the film months before its home video release, often while it was still in theaters.
Five years ago, I wrote about how screener desirability was changing as pirates were increasingly getting access to higher-quality 720p/1080p versions of films than Academy voters, who were stuck with 480p DVDs. In 2015, I wrote that “a staggering 44% of this year’s crop of nominees leaked as a high-quality rip from some source outside of traditional screeners or retail releases — the highest percentage since I started tracking films in 2003.”
For the second year in a row, most screeners were available digitally. Instead of just Best Picture nominees this year, virtually every nominated film was available for streaming by Oscar voters this year. But as far as I can tell, only three of those easier-to-access digital screeners leaked online. Why?
This year, the vanishing window between theatrical and streaming release dates made screeners completely meaningless. Why would anyone risk waiting to pirate an Academy screener when they could get the exact same quality sooner from Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime Video, or a streaming rental service?
The key chart is below, showing how the median number of days between the U.S. theatrical release date to its first high-quality rip, typically from a streaming site, cratered in 2020.
The theatrical window stayed remarkably consistent for the last five years at around 75 days. In 2020, it was seven days — a mere week from theatrical release to an HD stream rip, simply because virtually every movie was released online.
So, that’s basically it. With every theater closed, most movies first released online and on streaming services, making them instantly available to pirates before screeners were even distributed to voters, making screeners moot.
The big question: what will happen when the pandemic recedes and theaters reopen? Will studios push for once again staggering release dates between theatrical and streaming debuts? Is the 90-day window gone for good? Will the leaked screener make a comeback?
For the last few months, I’ve been quietly working on a brand-new project and it’s killed me to keep it secret, but I can’t keep it bottled up anymore—partly because I need your help.
Today, I’m announcing Skittish, a playful virtual space for online events. Skittish brings people together into a game-like interactive 3D environment that’s designed from the ground up for socially-driven events, big and small.
With Skittish, I’m trying to make a space that supports the kind of events that I love to organize and attend: creative, experimental, and deeply social.
Here’s a little teaser!
After the pandemic cancelled XOXO last year, I started attending a bunch of virtual events, mostly out of boredom and longing for connecting to other people.
Unfortunately, many of them were pretty uninspiring, basically just fancy webinars with breakout rooms for Zoom. Others were just livestreams with little room for social interaction beyond a global chat room.
Almost all of them left me feeling like I’d either sat through a long meeting or watched a long YouTube video. Was this even an event? Did I actually attend anything?
As depressing as most virtual events were, there were three bright spots of creative experimentation happening over the last year:
Experimental Events. The brilliant MUD-like environment created for Roguelike Celebration and the ongoing series of LIKELIKE events showed how event spaces could draw inspiration from games to great effect.
Proximity Chat. Second Life has supported spatial voice chat for nearly 15 years, but a crop of experimental new platforms started using spatial/positional audio and video to make virtual parties feel more real.
Social Games. Approachable games like Animal Crossing: New Horizons, Among Us, and Fall Guys were breakout stars of the pandemic, giving us new ways to connect to with friends when we couldn’t be together in person.
There are some amazing projects out there, but I started outlining a hybrid of these ideas: an online event venue for large-scale gatherings that used spatial audio, didn’t assume people were comfortable being on camera, with real-time customization of the space, and built in a 3D engine for a more immersive game-like feel.
More than anything, I wanted it to be optimized for fun: interesting to explore on its own, make new friends, and a vibrant place for creators and event organizers to bring together their communities in a new way.
Grant for the Web
As I was working on the first prototype, it was clear this was far more than a side project, and I’d need additional resources to fund development and design.
Desigan Chinniah encouraged me to apply for Grant for the Web, a grant fund he co-created with Coil, Mozilla, and Creative Commons to finance projects pushing forward an open standard for monetization on the web.
So, last June, I submitted a grant proposal to build a “virtual venue for playfully-immersive events in the browser,” in which attendees can financially support creators, organizers, and events they love using the Web Monetization API (or traditional payment methods, of course).
Three months later, I found out I received their flagship level grant. By early November, I received the funds and was able to bring on a contract developer to help out.
How It’s Going
In December, I scrapped my initial Three.js prototype and worked with creative technologist Mike Bodge to build a proof-of-concept prototype in react-three-fiber, a powerful React renderer for Three.js, with a thriving community and helper libraries. Unfortunately, existing client work took Mike off the project a month later.
Through his work on react-three-game-engine, a budding game engine for react-three-fiber, I found Brisbane-based developer Simon Hales, who started working with me on Skittish in January. He hit the ground running, adding much of the functionality you can see in the current app.
It’s still early in development, but this is what Skittish supports so far:
A game-like interactive 3D environment, with a fixed camera perspective, simple navigation controls, and animated avatars
Positional stereo audio, allowing you wander in and out of conversations naturally, with sound playing relative to your current position
Inline creation and editing tools for collaboratively customizing the world in real-time with 3D objects
Embedded inline videos with spatial audio for watching or listening to livestreamed or pre-recorded media from YouTube, Twitch, Facebook, Vimeo, Soundcloud, and more
Support for multiple interconnected rooms
Adding Web Monetization payment pointers for streaming payments to event creators
Special thanks to Sam Buttrick, who created the banners and profile images you can see on social media and at the top of this post. Sam’s a Portland local, a recent PNCA grad, and I loved her work on Instagram so much, I approached her to create some illustrations for this announcement. Go hire her!
What I Need
So that’s what I’m working on! I hope to start running events in Skittish in the next couple months, and opening it up for other people to use for their own communities. In the meantime, I’m currently looking for some help.
Beta Testers. I need a group of willing trusted beta testers to show up once in a while to help load-test, spot performance issues, and give feedback as we build out features. You’ll get work-in-progress previews along the way, and help shape what Skittish becomes. If that sounds interesting, sign up for the mailing list to get notified.
Creators. I’m intent on making Skittish into something that individual artists and creators can use to bring together their own community, whether it’s debuting a new video on YouTube, doing a book reading, a live concert, or playtesting a new game — and make money doing it. If that sounds like something you’d be interested in, get in touch.
Event Organizers. After having co-organized seven years of XOXO, I empathize with the plight facing event organizers right now who are struggling to convince attendees and sponsors to pay for lackluster events. I want to make events that are unique and valuable, worth the time and energy to show up for, and worth paying for, so you can continue to support yourself doing what you love. If you have an idea for an event you’d like to run in Skittish, I’d love to hear it.
Environmental Artist. I’m looking to immediately hire a freelance 3D environmental artist to help design a space for everyone to explore, somewhere between a festival grounds and Disneyland—warm, approachable, and playful. Candidates will be comfortable working in flat-shaded low-polygon constraints optimized for the web. Aesthetically, I’m inspired by the wholesome games movement, and games like Alba, WATTAM, Untitled Goose Game, Ooblets, Windosill, Donut County, and I Am Dead. If that sounds like you, email me a link to your portfolio. Introductions welcome!
What starts as an ordinary cluttered living room quickly descends into a labyrinth of merchandise, with towers of DVDs, CDs, books, and miscellaneous goods filling every space.
It’s easy to get lost as you find randomness around every corner: a bathroom with two toilets side-by-side, a carpeted urinal, a GameCube, a portrait of two brothers, a chonky cat, a human arm, and much more.
But a larger question remained: what’s the deal with this place? Whoever owned it, they were too organized to be hoarders. The home appeared to double as the office and warehouse for an internet reseller business, but who sells a house crammed floor-to-ceiling with retail goods?
Internet sleuths unearthed several news articles from 2014, outlining how police discovered thousands of stolen items being sold online during a raid at the address, the result of a four-year investigation resulting in criminal charges for four family members living and working at the house.
But it didn’t add up. If they were convicted for organized crime, why was there still so much inventory in the house, with products released as recently as last year? Why is it still packed full while they’re trying to sell it? And what’s with the bathtub!?
I had questions, so I picked up the phone. The realtor put me in contact with Troy Curtis, the home’s owner, and we chatted about the history of the unusual house, the nature of his business, and why he’s moving on.
He addressed the criminal charges immediately. The terms of his settlement limited what he could say about the raid, but he told me he’s nearing the end of a seven-year probation period for his organized crime charges under the RICO Act, as well as tax evasion.
As Curtis describes it, he never knew that he was selling stolen merchandise at all. He was running a legitimate family business buying discount goods from peddlers marts and flea markets and reselling them for profit on Amazon and eBay.
But one supplier he found through Craigslist repeatedly sold him bulk goods at clearance rates, claiming they were purchased legitimately, but were actually stolen from local Target and Kroger stores. He never knew they were stolen, but he also never dug deep, even though he was at times suspicious — something he clearly regrets now.
The authorities allowed him to continue his reseller business, as long as he kept receipts for everything he bought for resale. Amazon dropped him as a reseller in the process, but he continues his business legitimately on eBay, where he maintains an outstanding seller rating.
The house was originally a church and a Christian school, with the small house first built in the 1950s, and two larger structures added in the 1970s.
Its origins as a church explain the unusual bathtub. Curtis confirmed that it was once a baptistry, a large pool that originally opened out into the congregation for baptism viewings, before they walled it off and his nephew plumbed it as a shower.
Curtis knows how strange his house is, but the sprawling layout and size for his business made it well worth the purchase price, which cost him more than twice what a normal house would cost.
Selling the House
Troy Curtis is selling his unusual home for a good reason: he needs more space. He’s looking for a larger building that can handle his growing business and overflowing inventory.
Emptying out the house before selling simply wasn’t an option, since he needs the funds from the sale to buy the larger property.
So, he let the realtor come in to shoot the virtual tour in its current packed state. The 3D photographer told Curtis that it typically takes him 30-40 minutes to shoot a house of that size, but going up and down every aisle, it took over three hours to capture it all.
Curtis was aware that people were talking about his house, but he wasn’t clear how viral it was going online. He doesn’t have a Twitter account, and his phone wasn’t able to view the virtual tour, though some friends mentioned it to him on Facebook.
He seemed excited that people were finding it, and that it would bring more viewers to his listing, but then two strange things happened unrelated to our conversation:
The link to the 3D walkthrough was removed from the listing.
When loading the walkthrough directly, you can’t get to the bathtub anymore.
I quickly called him back, and he was puzzled that it was gone. He never asked for them to remove it, and certainly never told them to change the walkthrough.
He called his broker on the other line, and we quickly learned why they blocked it off: Girls Gone Wild.
The room right before the bathtub is filled with shelves of Girls Gone Wild DVDs, and the DVD covers are clearly visible. The brokerage agent felt it was inappropriate, so removed the links and blocked off that room, making it impossible to get to the bathtub.
Troy Curtis is hoping the brokerage company changes it back.
He was really hoping to unload some of those Girls Gone Wild DVDs as souvenirs to people who won the game.
Grace Hayba, a reporter for the local Fox affiliate in Louisville, visited the house to interview Troy Curtis and get a real-world tour of the house, plus the first known footage of Loco, the chonky cat. If you want to buy the house with everything in it, Curtis will sell it for an additional $250,000. (Loco not included.)
The VRChat port is complete, and a bunch of furries conducted a virtual open house. Hilarity ensued.
November 12 — I’m not sure when this happened, but the original uncensored tour is back online, complete with bathtub and adult DVDs.
This morning, my friend Tamás dropped this tweet into the #internet channel of the XOXO Slack, a place where we talk about weird and good internet.
Never one to turn down an inconsequential quest, I did a deep-dive through Google’s fragmented late-1990s Usenet archives to see if I could piece it together. What caused such a specific group to be created?
It ended up being an interesting microcosm exploring three approaches to community moderation: hands-off moderation, majority rule, and strong moderation.
The original charter for the alt.binaries.images.underwater newsgroup was extremely wholesome:
The theme or Topic of this newsgroup shall be images portraying “an underwater scene.” Only photographs, paintings, and graphics whose primary subject is shown in an underwater setting are “on topic” in alt.binaries.images.underwater. Its title’s broadness is deliberate, and indicates inclusion of a varied range of UW themes and imagery. Some examples: shipwrecks, non-human sea life (i.e. fish & coral), swimmers & divers (scuba, snorkelers, free-divers, mermaids, pearl-divers, “hard-hat” divers). The setting may be an ocean, river, lake, or swimming pool… as long as the picture’s primary subject is seen underwater, the image is on-topic.
The setting may be an ocean, river, lake, or swimming pool… as long as the picture’s primary subject is seen underwater, the image is on-topic.
Certain “surface scenes” shall be considered acceptable *if* the image’s subject is seen *semi-submerged* (meaning more in-the-water than out of it. Some examples: a surface view of a semi-submerged shipwreck, or divers/snorkelers floating beside their boat or a buoy.
It was designed to be G-rated and family-friendly, placed outside the alt.binaries.pictures.erotica.* hierarchy, and with no mentions of sex, nudity, or fetishes. Its creator chose to use “images” in the name instead of “pictures,” to distance from alt.binaries.pictures.* and because he felt it “conveys a classier feel.”
Pornography was never explicitly forbidden, and artistic nudity was explicitly allowed, which created a slippery slope. The creator’s hopes for tacitly allowing it were almost hilariously naive. In a FAQ from 1998, he wrote, “Underwater pornography is actually rather scarce, and I do not think it will be as much of a problem here as James suspects… I think that most of the nudity which will (inevitably) show up in a.b.i.u. will be tasteful, and beautiful.”
Quickly, it’s clear from old threads that NSFW photos came to dominate the group, even though it was never intended for that purpose.
And there were other types of images that were technically underwater, but veered far from the group charter: images of shark attacks, drownings, bondage, and children and underage models.
After being taken to task for deciding a moderation guideline against bondage imagery unilaterally, the group’s creator/admin decided to allow policies to be determined entirely by majority rule.
The banned-in-ABIU subjects are: (1) shark attacks and victims, etc. (2) portrayals of drownings & drowning victims (3) portrayals of UW bondage (tied-up/chained, or otherwise “bound” people) (4) pictures of naked (or clothed) children or legally underage models (US Law)
Beyond here, the history gets muddy. It’s clear that these rules weren’t taken kindly to some of the active members of the group.
A splinter group, free.underwater, was created with absolutely no rules. (I’m only able to piece this history together because of cross-postings to that group and others like rec.scuba, since Google doesn’t host archives of the alt.binaries.* groups.)
From other postings in scuba enthusiast groups, it’s clear that the reputation of alt.binaries.images.underwater was irreparably damaged: through lax moderation, it was dominated by NSFW photos, and the accompanying porn spam ads that come with it, with little else of value.
By August 1999, the group’s original creator decided he’d had enough of his wholesome underwater photography newsgroup being flooded with porn and spam, and banned it entirely from alt.binaries.images.underwater.
He created a second newsgroup solely for NSFW (but non-violent!) underwater photos, the unwieldy alt.binaries.images.underwater.non-violent.moderated, named to indicate content disallowed by moderators, but neglecting to mention that NSFW images were allowed. The newsgroup’s one-line description only reads, “No death/drownings/bondage (Moderated).”
In a post to rec.scuba from October 1999, he proudly advertised that alt.binaries.images.underwater had changed.
Its binding original G-rated scuba-oriented Charter rules are being enforced. It is ready for you scuba fans to come and fill it with your G-rated UW photos. As its creator/admin, I’ll actively help you keep the spam and sex stuff out.
Back on Aug. 30th, a new Moderated newsgroup was created for the fans of underwater erotica (nudes & sex), and they have left. ABIU is now the place for family-safe UW pics.
How well did this approach work? Hard to say definitively, since neither group was archived by Google Groups.
But judging from a search of mentions on rec.scuba, it seems like alt.binaries.images.underwater once again became a place recommended by enthusiasts to find and post underwater photography, like its creator originally hoped.
There’s virtually no mention of alt.binaries.images.underwater.non-violent.moderated again, leading me to believe that it quietly died as people shifted to other unmoderated Usenet groups, as well as web-based forums, P2P file sharing, and later, communities like Reddit.
Have an internet mystery or inconsequential quest you want solved? My inbox and DMs are always open.