Christine Thompson met with Lex Lybrand to talk about THE TROLLS, his fictionalized account of the “Patent Troll” issue, this film tells the humorous story of a group of tech geeks who invent an amazing new product – the NeverCharge Battery – only to become the victims of a nefarious patent troll. Down but not defeated, the gang devises a plan that turns the entire United States patent system on its head. In short, they decide to…troll the trolls.
Written and directed by Austin-based filmmaker Lex Lybrand, THE TROLLS is the first narrative feature film to directly address the hot-button issue of “Patent Trolls,” a nickname given to those individuals who use decades-old loopholes in intellectual property and patent law to game the system and bleed inventors and entrepreneurs dry.
THE TROLLS stars Austin-based comic actors Rob Gagnon, host of the popular “One Hour Comedy Fest,” and whose work in film has been honored by the Texas Independent Film Festival; Lisa Friedrich, who has appeared at the Hell Yes Fest, Crom Fest, Cape Fear Comedy Festival, Fun Fun Fun Fest, and in Lybrand‘s previous film, MEET ME THERE; stand-up comic and filmmaker Katie Pengra, co-writer and star of the web series “Pretty Awful”; and Pat Dean, who has been featured on the Moontower Comedy Festival, Hell Yes Fest and VICE and co-hosts “Shit’s Golden,” a monthly comedy showcase, and “Storyfellers,” Austin’s #12 podcast.
AMFM: THE TROLLS is full of comedians. How did that happen?
LEX: I participate in the local comedy scene. I helped produce a couple of shows in the last few years for the New Movement Theater in Austin and New Orleans.
I met Chris Trew through the Alamo Drafthouse Open Screen Night. I only found out about that because in Tucson they ripped it off and call it First Friday Shorts, which is the indie art house theater of the Loft Cinema, which was my mecca while I was in Tucson. I loved that place. They did the event ten times better than the Drafthouse ever did.
Lex: No offense.
AMFM: NO WAY! The Drafthouse rocks every event they do.
Lex: So this event became the highest grossing event for this Theater in Tucson. People were making short films specifically for this event. I made a couple too, it was fun. In the same way the 48 hour Film projects are fun, you take away all the pretense and you realize you’re doing this because it’s the most fun thing you know how to do.
Anyway, I met them all through this.
Lex: While I’m in the car, I listen to a lot of podcasts. I listen to Mark Marin, Adam Carolla, Nerdist, the mainstays.
So a couple of years ago, the patent trolls went after iTunes. I believe iTunes settled out of court. Then the trolls went after the top ten downloaded podcasts. Adam Carolla was number one, so they went after him. They threatened to sue him. I don’t think they went to trial, they settled before that.
AMFM: So who ARE these guys?
Lex: This was a company called Personal Audio… I believe their patent was for distributing episodic mp3s. So having mp3s, and calling them episode 1, 2, and then making them available for download in order – I believe that’s what all podcasts are.
AMFM: That’s crazy, it’s like the pharmaceutical companies trying to patent DNA.
Lex: Yeah, that’s one of the jokes in the movie. There’s a patent for everything.
I talked to two patent trolls while working on the movie. I also talked to patent attorneys that worked for the other side.
AMFM: What do the patent trolls have to say for themselves?
Lex: Nobody would go on record, and everytime it got to the point where – they were all in California, and it all came down to the same story. “Hey I do some business in Austin, we should meet up.” I had two different coffee dates and it never came to pass, they never showed up.
I get the feeling (and this is from talking to patent attorneys on the entrepreneur side, the good guys) – they get the feeling that these guys know what they’re doing and they feel kind of bad about it.
AMFM: But they’re out for the quick buck.
Lex: Yeah, how are you going to turn away that many zeros?
AMFM: Well how many zeros DO they get?
Lex: Millions. I don’t have those numbers, but it’s like a 2 trillion dollar industry. It’s ridiculous amounts of money. It’s to the point of anecdotely. This is in the film. Because it’s a comedy I didn’t have to fact check everything. It’s more about “This really happens.” It’s not the exact scenario we’re playing out.
For instance, somebody owns the patent for deivering pizzas…so if somebody owns a small pizza chain, you might get a letter in the mail saying “hey, send us $50,000.” Whereas the big chains, like Dominos and Pizza hut, they would know about it and make cutting that check part of their opening costs.
AMFM: They just cough it up, don’t they.
Lex: Yes, that’s part of the problem. It’s part of the cost of doing business. It’s a mob shakedown.
AMFM: That’s because they can afford it. People who are just starting out are at a disadvantage.
Lex: The mob shakedown metaphor extends to the protection they get. It protects them from another patent troll coming in and doing the same thing. So they’re licensing the patent from the first patent troll.
AMFM: So there’s the rub.
Lex: Yeah, “you can’t sue me ‘cause I’m already licensing it from this company.” As far as I know, no patent troll has gone after another patent troll in that situation, and I’m glad, because if it has happened, it’s not been big news. That’s kind of like what our film is about.
AMFM: Where do you hope this going? What do you expect from it and what do you think those guys who provided the finishing funds are expecting?
So the great thing about Cesare & Reed, the local patent attorney firm, is they are angel investors. They just wanted to see the film get made. They didn’t ask for or force any creative issues. They informed me just as much as the patent trolls did. When to make something super-realistic, when to make it funny. Outside of that they just wanted to be able to tell their clients “This is how much we believe in your side of the argument.”
“I came across the crowdfunding site for THE TROLLS just a few hours after it ended, but I knew that I had to be involved,” attorney Kirk Cesari stated. He continued, “I love films, so this is a great opportunity to help make a film about an issue I am passionate about. Luckily, we’re both located in Austin, so I invited Lex over to our office and we talked about what he wanted to do with the film. After reading an early draft of the script, I was hooked! This film sheds light on patent trolls while still being hilarious, in addition to having some pretty fun plot twists! Personally, I hope this film can help put pressure on Congress to pass the Innovation Act, which would help balance the playing field against real-life trolls.”
AMFM: How did they find you?
We ran our campaign on Indiegogo, and prior to running, there were three different tech websites that were committed to it. Then when I started running the campaign, they stopped returning my emails, so I put my conspiracy-theory hat on, and started looking at who’s buying ads, and how many are involved in patent litigation, and…no comment.
Lex: I have no way of proving anything, but I put two and two together. Either some writer thought it would be a cool story and then some editor said “that’s stupid.” I got the same standard answer from everyone. “We don’t really cover crowdfunding. Get back to us when the movie is real.” There’s two sides to that, the other is “If you don’t raise the money you’re looking for, don’t bother making the movie.” I have the opposite attitude – it’s whatever it takes to make it.
AMFM: Yes, indie filmmakers do what it takes, no matter what anybody says – that’s what makes it great.
Lex: So they say “oh, you didn’t raise your $100,00, guess you won’t make your movie. I said “I’ll send it to you in November.”
AMFM: What’s your budget?
Lex: To date, still less than twenty grand.
AMFM: High five.
Lex: It’s my most expensive feature by about ten grand. But we were looking at $6000 and a bit of change of the $25,000 we were asking for. We were also asking the Texas Film Commission for help, but we got a big goose egg from them. They said sort of the same thing – we weren’t asking for enough money, and they were concerned with how much we were relying on crowd funding.
So I do get a little satisfaction from making the feature with half of the amount we were asking for.
AMFM: Where do you think the audience for this movie will be? Film Festivals?
Lex: Based on the subject matter, it’s biggest audience will be Video on Demand. I hate to say it but probably illegal torrenting. My other two movies are all over the torrent sites.
AMFM: How about youtube?
Lex: With youtube’s new weird ad supported system, I still don’t know how that affects me as a content provider.
Our main goal is to premiere it with the best audience, clearly SXSW. A chance to have it premiere in a room of 500 people, half tech nerds and half film nerds, Each laughing at different parts of the movie. These two sectors don’t hate each other, they may laugh at the same things.
AMFM: Wouldn’t that be ironic if a big-time studio got hold of your idea, and then made it in Hollywood. Wouldn’t that be trolling the indie filmmakers?
Lex: Ok, here’s the “Armageddon,” ” Deep Impact” situation that I’m in. After 6 months of me writing the script, and months of pre-production, the same day we launched the Indiegogo, that same day, Dreamworks announced “Trolls,” the animated film about little troll dolls. So we had to change our name to “The Trolls,” just so IMDB doesn’t put a little roman numeral II after ours.
That, and “Silicon Valley” on HBO got heavy into intellectual property, and I was just waiting for them to say the words “patent troll.” I was going to pull the plug because people would have thought I’d just ripped them off.
AMFM:There are a lot of filmmakers in Austin, did you move here on purpose for that reason or did your job bring you here?
Lex: I went to school in Tucson, that’s where I met my wife, and I was a couple of years ahead of her. I graduated got into corporate communications, working very exciting 9-5s. When she finished school I was very eager to get the hell out of Tucson.
I had a couple of years of buffer. The other people in my BFA film class, half moved to LA, the other half moved to NY. I heard these stories about what to expect. I didn’t want to be somebody’s assistant in LA, and I was getting married so I didn’t want to share an apartment with some people in Brooklyn. So NY and LA were not appealing from a practical standpoint. Geographically, Austin is right in the middle of Tucson and Tampa, Florida, where our families are located.
It’s the best place to live to get cheap plane tickets to either city, and it’s got that third coast quality, it’s not NY or LA but there’s enough of that stuff that goes on here, that have come from those cities. The spillover from those big budget projects into the indie community. There’s only a couple of cities that have this vibe going on.