When Napster co-founders Shawn Fanning and Sean Parker took the stage after the world premiere of the new documentary Downloaded at SXSW, about the rise and fall of their revolutionary music-sharing service, they were met with tremendous applause. That, says director Alex Winter (Bill from Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure, incidentally), was a moment of tremendous relief and vindication.
“The guys were just happy to see the public liked it,” says Winter, 47, who first met the tech entrepreneurs back in 2002 and has been working to bring Napster’s story to light for over a decade. He himself was an early web adopter and distinctly remembers his first introduction to Napster. “Someone on news groups said, ‘We should just move over to Napster, it’s a lot easier to talk,’” he remembers. “These were dial-up days. You didn’t talk online. And so I swapped over to Napster and suddenly I was in real-time chat in somebody’s hard drive. And they were in Japan! We had a global community overnight that was absolutely incredible.”
He reached out to Fanning and was taken with how their entire conversation revolved not around music piracy but in this notion of creating a global community. On the flip side, Winter had made a name for himself as a prolific music director, working with artists like the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Ice Cube. “I had major investment in the record industry and the music business and I know a lot of bands,” he says. “It wasn’t like I was super pro-Napster. I just really understood how gigantic the change was that they had been part of enacting. Napster wasn’t two backwards baseball cap-wearing guys who wanted to get Madonna tracks for free, which is how people think of them. Napster was created by two very brilliant global visionaries who wanted to create a global community. And they did. And it worked! And that paved the way for everything that’s happened since then.”
Watch a trailer for the doc below.
Winter first sold the rights to a TV movie about Napster to MTV back in 2003, but when the network lost interest and invested more heavily in reality TV, he brought it to Paramount. He worked on a screenplay for years, envisioning Shia LaBeouf and Joseph Gordon-Levitt in the roles of Fanning and Parker. But when the script eventually went into turnaround, Winter had had enough and refocused his energies elsewhere.
Ultimately, he scrapped his screenplay and decided what would best serve the complicated issue of the proliferation of social media and downloading was a documentary. “I didn’t want to make a story that dug into the psychology of these two guys and all they went through,” Winter says. “I wanted to focus solely on context. This way the protagonist of the movie could be the technology. Napster was the baby of the digital revolution and now let’s watch it grow up into adolescence, which is where we are today.”
So Winter took his plans to the folks at VH1 rockDocs and sold them on it the same day. Within four days he was in San Francisco shooting Fanning.
On Thursday, the Downloaded team will participate in a highly anticipated music-business panel. Winter is busy negotiating an impending deal for a theatrical/VOD/digital release. But perhaps what’s been most rewarding, he says, is Fanning’s response to the film. “He said to me ‘My memory of this experience will now be this movie, and this is better than the memories that I actually had!’” says Winter. “I think the movie helped get some of the crap out of the way and frame it up for him.”
As for Parker, who joined Fanning and Winter on stage after Sunday night’s premiere, the director admits one aspect of the documentary left his friend frustrated. “After all this, 11 years of dealing with this, walking through legal minefields, wanting to really rip the scab off all this, Parker’s first reaction to the movie was ‘Oh god, my hair!’” Winter says. ” And I was like ‘I know, what can you do, man? Look at pictures of me from Lost Boys and you’ll feel a lot better.’”
Read all of EW’s SXSW film coverage here.