Alki David, The Billionaire Hollywood Loves to Hate
Telegraph, May 2014
Alki David is at war with ‘evil’ TV networks, and wants to take Amy Winehouse on tour as a hologram. Who is this former public schoolboy trying to ‘disrupt’ entertainment?
Also at the Telegraph
It has just gone six in the evening and the self-described “eccentric billionaire” Alki David is making a protein shake for dinner.
“I don’t think I was ever in a lawsuit until I came to America!” he says. “But out here, if you’re not in a lawsuit, it’s like you don’t exist!”
It’s a very Beverly Hills scene – the mansion home, the wealthy older businessman and his swimsuit model wife, Jennifer Stano, handing him some homemade almond milk from the fridge. Pregnant and glowing, she sits at the kitchen table to feed their 9 month old baby, Nico, while a couple of dogs roam among them – Armani, a coiffeured Chihuahua-mix, and a huge, forbidding Doberman about whom David says, “oh that’s Satan, he’s harmless.”
He stops the blender for a minute. “I think if you Google my name, ‘lawsuit’ comes up,” he says. And he apes the search engine’s italic retort. “Did you mean ‘lawsuit’? Haha!”
David has long been a magnet for notoriety. The 46 year old Greek heir to a huge fortune in Coca Cola bottling – the Sunday Times put his net worth at roughly $2.5bn in 2013 – he is currently the owner of the multi-platform television ventures FilmOn and Battlecam, and has been variously described as a “renegade”, a “bad boy”, and by at least one district court judge, as “uncouth”. He famously offered $1 million to streak President Obama; he filmed a fake assisted suicide; and he has hired, at one point or another, virtually every known rogue in Hollywood, including Charlie Sheen, Joey Buttafuoco, Corey Feldman, Janice Dickinson and Gary Busey.
But it’s his fight with the broadcast networks that has dominated the news of late. It’s a story of a rebel versus the establishment, an upstart technology disrupting an age-old business, and at its center is David, a maverick with deep pockets. Remarkably, he has the appeal of the underdog in this conflict, billionaire or not – beside David, the broadcasters look an awful lot like Goliath. And it’s all about to come to a head this summer when the Supreme Court rules on a case that might just change the television industry forever.
Earlier in the day, we meet at FilmOn’s disheveled offices in Beverly Hills – “a temporary shithole,” David assures me – and he walks me through the blizzard of litigation that he has weathered and often instigated over the last four years.
It started in 2010 when David used an antenna to pick up local TV signals and then stream the programming for free on FilmOn.tv. At the time, FilmOn was a nascent web TV station offering both original programming and access to several video libraries that he’d acquired. With the antenna, he could also offer the broadcast networks’ programming, for which he offered to pay a licensing fee. The broadcasters sued – with CBS, ABC, NBC and FOX all joining forces to claim copyright infringement – and they won.
And yet in July 2012, a company called Aereo, backed by Barry Diller, established the opposite precedent. Aereo also live streams network television via antenna, but this time when the broadcasters sued, they lost. The judge – in New York – reasoned that the copyright laws specifically prohibited “public performance”, and since Aereo didn’t use one big antenna, but instead used thousands of micro-antennas – each one streaming for an individual subscriber – there was no violation. If anything, the “performance” was private, not public.
David was outraged. “I thought ‘fuck this! Let’s do micro-antennas as well!” he says. “We had already developed the technology, so I put 80 people on it, and we were up within a week.” He called this new company Aereokiller, and the site’s URL was Barrydriller.com, with the logo of a man in chaps holding a big drill.
“I thought he’d find it funny!” laughs David. “Barry’s on the board of Coca Cola, where I’m a lion’s share holder of my family’s group, so I thought, we’ve got great mutual friends… But no – he sued me!”
So another court battle was set in motion – first Aereo sued FilmOn for copyright infringement, then FilmOn sued Aereo for the same (David had developed a hand-held tuner called Aero before Aereo went into business). And this all came after yet another legal fracas between FilmOn and CBS, in which David accused the company of profiting from content piracy and even child pornography. (CBS declined to comment for this story).
In 2013, however, David and Diller finally buried the hatchet, and are now both focused on the Supreme Court. Since FilmOn has lost its appeals against the broadcasters to date, and Aereo has won, albeit in different courts, it’s a natural issue for the Supreme Court to resolve, not just to remove the legal inconsistency, but also the glaring unfairness of permitting Aereo to operate and not FilmOn, its direct competitor.
“It’s so crooked!” says David. “I mean, when Judge Collyer [from the District Court in Washington DC] denied us from operating in all these territories that Aereo was allowed in, she actually called me ‘uncouth’. And she hasn’t even met me!”
So it’s no surprise to David that the Supreme Court chose to settle Aereo’s dispute with the broadcasters rather than FilmOn’s. But even though FilmOn is not the defendant, this is a fight that David started, and from which he may arguably have the most to gain.
“If Aereo wins, we’re set,” he says. “We’re already in 18 cities whereas Aereo is in six. They only offer local TV, and we have all this licensced content as well. Plus, we’re free and they charge!”
And if Aereo loses?
“It doesn’t matter because the antenna stuff is only 3% of our business, but it’s 100% of Aereo’s. Most of our business is content we’ve licensed.”
According to industry analyst Mike Paxton of SNL Kagan, David is right up to a point – FilmOn will survive either outcome. “In January, FilmOn had 20 million viewers watch over 1.2 billion video streams – it’s already a strong business. But if Aereo wins, I’m not sure that either company benefits quite so much because the broadcasters will probably undermine the antenna business model by pulling their broadcast from terrestrial transmission, and making it strictly cable or strictly internet, like Netflix.”
He has, however, a word of caution for David. “I understand his consternation, but his manner of dealing with broadcasters would be better with sugar than vitriol. You might be involved in a lawsuit with someone today, but need them as a partner tomorrow.”
David, meanwhile, is nonplussed. Irrespective of the result in the Supreme Court, he has already released another device to further challenge the networks. It’s called the Teleporter, and it doesn’t employ antennas or provide streaming, though the end result is much the same.
“It works by screenshare much like Skype,” he says. “So you can watch local television outside of its designated market. If we win, I plan to open it up so that everyone in the world can watch everyone else’s television. And that will really f*** with a lot of people.”
Quite how David became this renegade isn’t clear. Born in Nigeria, he grew up in Knightsbridge, went to Stowe, followed by the elite Le Rosey academy in Switzerland, while spending summers on the Greek island of Spetses – a childhood as privileged as you’d expect for the sole son of Andrew David, his late father, whose company, Coca Cola Hellenic, today ships to 28 countries.
And yet he has always tried to shake things up. Back at the house, we take our protein shakes into the garden, and he tells me how he was once suspended from Stowe. “I locked up the whole school in the assembly hall,” he grins. “The headmaster called me a potential mass murderer! I was quite proud of that.”
Looking out onto an infinity pool and a view of neighboring mansions, David insists that he comes from common stock, not aristocracy. “My people are all peasants and priests, if you go back,” he says. “During the war, my dad sold rats tails to GI’s for good luck. He used to walk around barefoot.”
And yet his privilege set him apart from an early age. He was bullied at school, and like a lot of rich kids, when he made friends he wondered about their motives. All the travelling rendered him a perpetual outsider. “In Nigeria I was a white guy, in England I was a black guy, and after 9/11, I was a terrorist!” He laughs. “I’ve always been the misfit.”
So he became an actor. He studied at Bennington in Vermont, and then the Royal College of Art in London, and he felt keenly that among luvvies, he’d found his tribe at last. “When you create entertainment,” he says, “the reality of war, murder and crime is far away. Showbiz is innocent, it’s fantasy, and it involves people who deep down have a need to be loved.”
It also involves people who smoke pot, which David took to rather too eagerly. “I’m talking half an ounce a day of skunk,” he says. “I was like an insane person – paranoid, schizophrenic, psychotic.” Once he sobered up, in the mid-90s, he quickly began to explore the possibilities that his inheritance and imagination offered. He launched a film production company in Los Angeles. Then with uber-agent Duncan Heath, he founded the Independent Models agency in London, to which Helene Christensen was signed. Heath went onto run the enormously powerful Independent Talent Group, repping the likes of Michael Caine, Maggie Smith and many others. And with Heath’s help, David too fulfilled his acting dreams, landing small roles in movies and TV shows, often as the swarthy British villain – to date his credits include the TNT miniseries, The Grid, as well as the 2008 movie The Bank Job, alongside Jason Statham.
It wasn’t long before he was financing his own projects, often writing, directing and starring in them too – which is when the idea for FilmOn emerged.
“I was fed up with the film distributors ripping me off,” he says. “So in 2004, I developed a system to distribute films direct to buyers online, missing out the middle man.” He also acquired several film libraries, including that of the late movie producer Elliot Kastner, and in 2007, the entire Paramount Pictures library. But his online video-on-demand idea fell flat, because the distribution software was too complicated for the public to use.
“I spent millions promoting it, and it was a disaster,” he says with a shrug. “So I streamed live TV instead. And in the first week we made more money on subscriptions to live TV than we did in two years on the movie libraries. I learned a lot in that week.”
Much like TVCatchup, FilmOn began livestreaming the public service channels in the UK – BBC 1 and 2, ITV, Channel Four, Channel Five and S4C. To this, he added licensed content and his ever-expanding libraries, and from his studio in Beverly Hills, he started creating original programming, of a very particular niche – low budget, low-brow and frequently outrageous. A form of televisual clickbait, designed principally for sensation and shock. So far, there has been the occasional film – the latest starring Gary Busey, whom David describes as “totally fucking crazy” – as well as a number of anarchic chat shows hosted by Andy Dick and Corey Feldman.
“Everyone’s always trying to corral the A-listers and drink champagne with P Diddy in Cannes and all that crap,” he says. “But no one’s corralling the D-list of car crashes!”
Today, FilmOn has become a reliable catch-net for fallen celebrities. At the peak of Charlie Sheen’s porn star “troubles”, David hired him to the board of FilmOn. “Charlie is a genius, I mean that,” he says. “He’s just too high maintenance and unpredictable.” Ice T was on his books for a while, to provide the “urban perspective”. And recently, David acquired the rights to stage a celebrity boxing match between 90s rapper DMX and George Zimmerman: “There are more important things right now, but it’ll be a huge attention-getter. And I love doing things for attention.”
His favorite project is Battlecam.com – an interactive community in which viewers project themselves onto live TV and make money so long as they keep the voting audience entertained. He calls it “Jackass on steroids”. So far, he has paid people $10,000 to tattoo Battlecam.com on their foreheads, he paid one man to eat a lightbulb, and another to streak at an Obama rally (although the streaker only received $130,000 because David claims Obama didn’t see him.) And as unseemly as that may sound – a billionaire paying the desperate to debase themselves for our entertainment – David is arguably only exposing the fringes of our culture, rather than exploiting them.
“It’s a laboratory,” says David. “It’s whatever people will do for money.” His latest offer is $25,000 to any contestant who can survive a month in a 7ft by 7ft box called The Hole enduring any number of tortures suggested by the viewers. So far we’ve seen a man strip and wear a diaper whilst being smeared with pizza by the former model Janice Dickinson.
“I love Alki,” says Dickinson, a former judge on America’s Next Top Model. “He’s probably fired and rehired me like 18 times now.” The David she describes is part renegade and part sweetheart. “He’s like a cowboy, guns out, no holds barred,” she says. “But when I put all my money into my daughter’s college education, Alki just said, ‘here, take this and pay your rent.’ I really consider him a friend.”
This is the conundrum of David – in person he’s nothing like as coarse as his taste in programming. Rather he’s warm, chatty and self-deprecating, with a very English decency about him. It’s a rare billionaire who invites a reporter to his home to meet his pregnant wife and baby. Even rarer to bounce the baby on his knee during the interview, while talking emotionally about his life and family. But with David, the usual formalities don’t apply.
Like a lot of sober people, he’s very earnest. He says things like, “I’ve done a lot of self-work to get to this place,” and, “if all the beautiful homes, the beautiful wife, if it all went away, I’d be just fine with me”. And, “I used to write people off instantly and that was no way to live. Then a friend said, ‘love is looking for the good in people,’ and that really resonated. Now I give people the benefit of the doubt.”
And yet, he draws the line with the broadcast networks, whom he describes as “truly evil”. Indeed, their nefarious ways have changed David’s rose-tinted perception of America. So this battle has become a cause, and David is fighting on behalf of us all, because it’s us, the viewers, who are suffering here.
According to David, the real reason the networks oppose live streaming is to preserve the Nielsen ratings system which determines the television industry’s advertising revenues. The way it works is Nielsen assigns set-top boxes to a sample of 10,000 televisions in America, and by analyzing the viewing patterns, it extrapolates ratings for thousands of channels across the entire country. The Internet disrupts this system entirely, hence the broadcasters’ pushback. David is far from the only critic of Nielsen, but he may be the most vociferous, calling it “moronic”, “bullshit” and “the biggest scam in the history of man”.
But it goes beyond Nielsen for David. When he learned in 2011 that Download.com, which is owned by CNET, a CBS company, had been permitting downloads of the file-sharing software Limewire, David erupted with righteous anger. This was the same CBS that was sueing him for copyright violation on account of his antenna streaming. So he accused CBS of hypocrisy and assembled a group of musicians – yesterday’s rappers, mostly, like 2-Live Crew and Ying Yang twins – to join his lawsuit against them. He also set up a website, cbsyousuck.com, on which he spells out his most inflammatory charge that since Limewire was used by pedophiles, CBS had directly profited from “child porn movies, movies of infants as young as one, being raped and molested”. The site is still up.
“That’s why they’ve fought so hard to make me look like a bad guy,” he says. “And even though I’m under a gag order to not talk about it, I still do. I’ve had senior CAA agents come up and embrace me, because they know what goes on, but they can’t go against the grain publicly. It takes someone like me, who’s a bit of an idiot, with money, to go and poke a finger in their eye.”
Remarkably David isn’t worn down by all this. He quite relishes being the bad guy, and no matter how vicious the lawsuits get, he can’t help but be cheerful – this is far too exciting a time.
In addition t0 FilmOn, he’s also busy with Hologram USA, a projection technology he bought two years ago, after he saw the long dead Tupac Shakur perform on stage at Coachella. Even though it’s not a “real” hologram, more of a souped up version of an old 19th century theater illusion called Pepper’s ghost – David can talk for hours about its many applications, the “reincarnation factor” and the upcoming Amy Winehouse concert he’s planning, in which a hologram will perform in the late singer’s stead. (Winehouse’s father was furious at the idea, but David insists it’s still on. He’s also planning “The Doors, Live at the House of Blues.”)
“You know I had a friend called Baba, a Sri Lankan guy,” he says. “He had a beard down to here, with long grey hair. And he would say we’re just a skinbag of sensibility and consciousness. Truth and reality are just concepts. So the idea to streak the President, or the Amy Winehouse concert, these things are anathema to people. They don’t compute. But for me, they’re just fascinating concepts. And anyone can do it – anyone can poke holes in the balloon.”
“But that makes it sound like you’re just playing around,” I tell him. “You’re just some rich guy playing games and not taking things seriously like your critics say.”
He laughs. “They’re right! When I was a teenager, I was serious. I thought we had to be really focused and everything had to be analysed. But that’s an awful way to live. Then I had a spiritual awakening – it was to stop taking things so seriously. So people who say that – yes, I am some rich guy who doesn’t take things seriously. Suck my dick!”
And with that, he’s up and about his office, as excited as a boy. “Before you go, I I have to show you this one thing, it’s cool as fuck.”
He takes a console from his desk, inserts his phone into the holder and marches outside to the front of his house with what looks like a little drone. “It’s got a camera on the bottom which streams direct to my phone,” he says. “It’s an aerial camera, basically.”
And with a few tweaks on the controls, the drone takes off and flies over Beverly Hills, with David laughing away and fiddling with the controls. “Come on! Let’s see what my neighbors are up to!”