News Column

'Downloaded' examines birth of file sharing

August 1, 2013

YellowBrix

Aug. 01--I'm talking to Bill S. Preston, Esq. -- you know, from "Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure," and he's taking me back in time to visit two dudes who just wanted to party on.

The dudes in question are Sean Parker and Shawn Fanning, the teenage boys who in 1999 started Napster, the music file-sharing system that remade the Internet and sent the music industry into panic mode. They became national figures and very wealthy, but in just two years were forced to shut the site down amid a hailstorm of lawsuits and federal decisions that branded them pirates.

Alex Winter, the actor who played Bill to Keanu Reeves' Ted in that 1989 time-travel comedy classic and its 1991 sequel, has blossomed into an accomplished director of films, TV series and music videos. His documentary "Downloaded" takes us back to the rough-and-tumble early dot-com era, and the hard lessons learned by startup entrepreneurs and big corporations alike.

"Napster was started as basically a youth consumer revolt," said Winter. "These changes were not ushered in by pre-existing systems or by people at the top of the food chain. It was started by very, very young outsiders who spoke for the consumer and spoke for their youth generation. I'm not saying (Parker and Fanning) are heroes to be emulated, or that they did everything right -- but it shows how these movements start and how necessary it is for people to work with these changes once they're here."

Fanning and Parker are front and center in Winter's documentary (they appeared with Winter at the film's premiere at South by Southwest in March). But the documentary is careful to present all sides to the debate of consumers and free content. Winter also interviews musicians (Oasis' Noel Gallagher), Internet experts and media critics. There are also nostalgic moments from the late 1990s in MTV News clips, early "Daily Show" clips with Jon Stewart and that distinctive but no longer relevant sound of dial-up.

"I think there's an enormous relevance today," Winter said. "Of all the problems exposed by the technology that Napster helped usher in, none of those issues have been resolved. Consumers getting their content in new ways, Internet rights, freedom of information, privacy.

"It was clear to me that people weren't looking primarily to get free content over the Internet. The consumer was embracing a new form of distribution more in keeping with their lifestyle than pre-existing systems. ... One of the biggest mistakes that have been made -- and I have a lot of sympathy with content creators; I am one -- was the inability to change their business model (fast enough). Napster was a big rock in the water."

Winter likens it to when he was a child actor during a sea change in Hollywood. He toured with Yul Brynner in a stage revival of "The King and I," worked with Charles Bronson in "Death Wish 3" and soon was a part of the new Hollywood of the late 1980s as one of the stars of "The Lost Boys," then "Bill & Ted." (And by the way, he and Reeves say they are serious about a third "Bill & Ted" installment.)

"Yul Brynner was amazing -- an old-school star who was my first mentor in the business -- took me under his wing and was very helpful to me," Winter said. "Then working with Bronson, it sounds kind of trite to say it, but they don't make 'em like that anymore.

"I sort of came up in a transitional era -- from old Hollywood to new Hollywood, from analog to digital. When 'King and I' finished its run in the Pantages in L.A., every day backstage would be Natalie Wood, Lucille Ball, Robert Wagner, Jimmy Coburn -- for a kid like me it was like dying and going to heaven. Then I came back to L.A. after NYU film school, and it was like the whole world had changed. The biggest star was Chevy Chase, and on 'The Lost Boys' we were all just a bunch of completely insane punk kids."

Downloaded: Starts Friday at the Roxie Theater, 3117 16th St., S.F. (415) 863-1087. www.roxie.com. (Winter will appear after Saturday's 7:15 p.m. screening of the film.)

G. Allen Johnson is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. E-mail: ajohnson@sfchronicle.com Twitter: @BRfilmsAllen

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