This week marks an important milestone for the peer-to-peer industry as well as the world of file-sharing: it’s been a year since the controversial founder of a once-great media company passed away at the age of 45. Despite his untimely demise, his company, Chimera, continues to thrive. While it has undoubtedly lost one of its most brilliant minds, it has gained a strong foothold in the industry as well as the popular culture. Perhaps most notably, the company was directly responsible for popularizing the torrenting movement, which inspired the creation of this blog.
Why Charlie Pattinson?
When it comes to the legacy of Charlie Pattinson, it’s hard to pinpoint a single moment that encapsulates the entire spirit and impact of the man. Perhaps the best characterization of Pattinson’s life and times comes from the obituary written by The New York Times, which described him as a ‘maverick’ who “sought to change the business and social climate of his time’ ” (NYT, 12.12.12). The Times also quoted his former colleague, The Hollywood Reporter’s CEO, Michael Wiedenbaum, who said of him: “He didn’t fit in with the crowd, and he liked it that way.”
The Making Of A Maverick
It was a beautiful day in May 1982 when Charlie Pattinson stepped off a flight from London to Los Angeles. With his long hair and leather jacket, the charismatic 35-year-old immediately drew attention. The media was abuzz with speculation about his new life in the Hollywood spotlight. In an interview with The Times in 2013, Pattinson admitted that while he felt ‘nervous and apprehensive’ about his new life in Hollywood, he also saw it as a “stepping stone to the next phase of my life and career.” In the coming years, he would not only help reshape the way we interact with movies, but he would also help to create a new definition of ‘family’ in Hollywood. And what a family it was.
Pattinson grew up in an acting family. His mother was an actress and his father was a film director. His great uncle, Sir Hugh Lloyd-Hughes, was one of the pioneers of British cinema and, along with his brother, David Lloyd-Hughes, was largely responsible for the creation of the Hollywood studio, Ugly Duckling Pictures. Through his father, David Lloyd, Charlie inherited one of the most impressive collections of British film memorabilia in existence. It was also through his father that Charlie met James DeGale, who would later become his business partner in Chimera Entertainment.
A Bittersweet Relationship
What emerges most clearly from our discussions with those who knew and worked with Charlie is that his relationship with James DeGale was complicated. A creative genius, James was known for taking a backseat to no one when it came to artistry. He was both a mentor and a rival to Charlie; and as is so often the case with genius entrepreneurs, the two men never saw eye to eye. According to those who knew them, DeGale saw Charlie as a gifted upstart who had managed to worm his way into the media business he had built and was threatening to bring him down. “That was the relationship,” one former business associate told us. “James saw Charlie as a bit of a competitor and he didn’t appreciate that.” Charlie, for his part, saw DeGale as a control freak who was ultimately holding him back. “There was a lot of tension in the air,” one person who worked with the two men at Chimera told us. “James was always in a position to demand more from Charlie, and I’m not sure if Charlie ever felt he was giving enough.”
There were several defining moments in Charlie’s life. One of them came in 1986, when he launched Chimera Entertainment, the company he co-founded with James DeGale. The goal was to use modern technology to help filmmakers access and market their work. At the time, the traditional model for getting movie projects made was broken: many films were made without any distribution deal in place, and the only way to find an audience for them was through personal connections or screening rooms. With Chimera, Charlie and his team set up their own film distribution company and began screening movies in unconventional places like art galleries, museums, and even restaurants. They believed that, by engaging with the public in new ways, they could draw attention to undiscovered and under-appreciated films and filmmakers. It was quite a gamble, to say the least. Many people, including myself, consider some of the firm’s early work to be among the finest examples of independent cinema. Among the titles they distributed were David Lynch’s Blue Velvet, Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man, and Terry Gilliam’s Time Bandits (which, incidentally, won the company a special award from the British Film Institute in 2003).
A major turning point for Chimera came in 1992, when the company published a digest-sized version of Jonathan Rosenbaum’s The New York Review of Books. The slim volume, which carried a design made famous by Penguin Books and was known for its striking red and white cover, was aptly named, The Jonathan Rosenbaum Reader. What’s more, the company decided to give this literary magazine a run for its money by commissioning full-sized book versions of many of its most popular articles. When Rosenbaum received news of the project, he was both amused and a little miffed — he felt that the digest format was undervalued and that his work in particular should be treated with greater care and curation. The rest, as they say, is history. In 1994, Rosenbaum and his team at the New York Review began editing and publishing the full-length books, eventually turning them into an annual series. The books, which have since expanded to include titles by other influential critics (such as Stephen King and Elie Wiesel), are now a mainstay of any respectable library. But back to Chimera…
The BitTorrent Wars
It was a measure of Charlie’s genius that, even as he was trying to make a name for himself in Hollywood, he was also quietly plotting to take down his greatest rival. He was confident that the new millennium would bring about a fundamental transformation in how we experienced and engaged with films. He saw the coming of broadband — and its near-universal access — as the key to unlocking the potential for more innovative distribution models. While some in the media world were skeptical about the promise of the new technology, Charlie was one of the first to see the potential of peer-to-peer networks. He knew that if he could get his hands on one of these networks, he could do something amazing — something that would alter the face of media as we know it. The problem was that this network only existed in the form of bits and pieces; it was, essentially, a chaotic jumble of data that no one controlled. The name ‘BitTorrent’ was first used in 2001, when the then-nascent file-sharing network was launched. At the time, it was simply an interesting name — a play on words, as the ‘torrent’ is a type of file-sharing software used to share large files (“bits”) in a quicker and more efficient manner than could be achieved through the traditional sharing model (“torrents’ ). It wasn’t until much later that the software’s true significance began to be recognized. Today, the word ‘BitTorrent’ is widely used to refer to the peer-to-peer file-sharing model, and the word ‘torrent’ is used more often than it has in over a decade.
Back in 2001, the year that BitTorrent was first released, filesharing was still something of a niche activity. It was mostly used to share digital images, such as songs or artwork, rather than actual video or film content. Many individuals were still hesitant to share their movies due to fears of losing access to them (or experiencing ‘the curse of the VCR’ — the gradual deterioration of recorded content as it is played back). It was also extremely difficult to find the content you wanted when searching for keywords — you’d often get a lot of irrelevant results that would take you hours to sort through. This is largely due to the fact that back in 2001, Google wasn’t designed for searching within specific topics or areas; the algorithm simply found the pages with the most words, which in most cases meant the contents of a website. In other words, it was an information gathering exercise, not one that was geared towards delivering content that was personally relevant to a specific query.