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q&a with the pittsburgh filmmakers behind 'the rise and rise of bitcoin'



In 2011, Pittsburgh-based filmmaker Nick Mross and his computer programmer brother Dan teamed up to make The Rise and Rise of Bitcoin, a documentary focusing on the growing popularity of the newly developed Bitcoin. Bitcoin, a de-centralized cryptocurrency, allows users anywhere in the world to complete transactions across the Internet outside of any banking system. They chronicled the wild rollercoaster ride of Bitcoin’s rapid and disrupting impact on the finance industry. And as the phenomenon splashed across websites and newspapers across the globe, speculators, tech entrepreneurs, and idealistic early adopters of Bitcoin all held on for dear life.

With the film’s impending release in limited cities on Oct. 3 (details on the Cedar-Lee Theater showing here), a Pittsburgh premiere at SouthSide Works Cinema on Oct. 7, and video-on-demand on Oct. 10, Pop City recently sat down with the brothers Mross to talk about Bitcoin’s wide-ranging applications and how cryptocurrencies can change the world.

PC: This film tracks the Bitcoin story as recently as February 2014, when Bitcoin experienced its two largest catastrophes. (Bitcoin entrepreneur Charlie Shrem was arrested on Bitcoin laundering charges; Mt. Gox, the world's largest Bitcoin exchange, was hacked and robbed of $500 million in Bitcoin.) When did you feel like you got the film you wanted?

Nick: I think because everything was unraveling so quickly at the beginning of the year and so much was happening, we just kept shooting. With the storylines featured in the film, we just kept rolling with them and at some point, it was about trying to find a beginning, middle and end. And I think when the Senate hearings on cryptocurrencies occurred at the end of 2013, we thought that would work as a good ending. We thought that was a substantial enough milestone, along with the fact that the price [of one Bitcoin] went all the way up to $1,000 within the course of the film.

But then, all those events [related to our film] happened in early 2014  and it became hard to not include them. They were so significant. So for us, we got a little bit lucky with those big events which we helped establish earlier in the film.

PC: How did you get access to the big players in the Bitcoin phenomenon?

Nick: Part of it was that we were independent and we worked to establish trust right away. We were passionate about telling the story of Bitcoin and that made it very easy for people to realize that we were on their team. Another big factor was that we started early enough that Bitcoin hadn’t really taken off yet, as far as the price and a lot of the media exposure, so a lot of the companies and characters we were filming and talking to seemed excited to get the exposure. I always say that if we started six months later, I don’t think we would have gotten the same level of access.

PC: In light of the arrests and the hackings, how faithful are you now in Bitcoin? Are these growing pangs or warning signs?

Dan: The technology is the breakthrough here. The price reflects more of the consumer sentiment. But as far as what Bitcoin enables people to do, it’s really amazing. It makes the ability to transact with people as free as free speech. You can transact with any other human being globally and there’s no need for a third party involved, there’s no need for a bank account, there’s no need for a Paypal account, and there’s no need for you to ask anyone’s permission. That’s really disruptive for the banking industry, for the regulatory industry, and for pretty much everything, in a similar way that the Internet was disruptive.

But, for Bitcoin to truly go mainstream, it needs to find the balance between the right consumer protections and making it usable and consumer friendly without killing all the benefits it has to offer.

PC: What’s the bigger detriment to the advancement of Bitcoin: The regulation not catching up or the hackers and security issues that come with Bitcoin?

Dan: It’s going to be a tough balance. We actually have a similar argument going on with Internet regulation right now with net neutrality. If regulators write up terrible regulations, and they kill Bitcoin and the price drops really really low, and it’s only used by a handful of people, it will still work, it will just no longer be a dollar profiting kind of toy for people to play with.

PC: Bitcoin seems to attract different groups of people using it for very different things. What are some applications of Bitcoins?

Dan: The anarchists and the libertarians just want to make it available as an independent banking tool for anybody to use. But then you have somebody on Wall Street who looks at Bitcoin and realizes it’s this cool market that trades up and down and they can make a ton of money from it.

Then you have people in other countries like China where there are strict currency controls, and they are using it to move money outside of the country. Bitcoin is a lot of different things to a lot of different people. And right now, the different use tastes are wrestling with one another to make sure one group’s regulations doesn’t hamper the other.

PC: Is there any kind of groundswell to provide Bitcoin access to people in Third World countries who don’t have good banking infrastructure?

Dan: Yes, the rubber is starting to hit the road on that idea. BitPesa (a digital currency exchange) is a company I read about recently that is really starting to move into developing countries. In Kenya and Uganda, people are starting to use Bitcoin instead of Western Union for remittances. Not in huge numbers and not in ways that justifies an entry point that threatens the remittance market yet, but people are talking about it and people are doing it because it makes too much sense.

PC: Both of you are Pittsburgh residents, a city with a rapidly growing tech entrepreneur community. Do you see the city as a place for Bitcoin to take hold?

Nick: I think so, but I have talked to a few venture capitalists in Pittsburgh in the past few months, and it seems like Pittsburgh is actually behind in some ways. I started the Bitcoin Meetup group in Pittsburgh about two years ago and we are up to about 190 members. But given the tech we have in the area, the number of retail outlets that accept Bitcoin is a handful at the most. Look at other cities on the West Coast in San Francisco or in Austin, Texas: Many people are using Bitcoin and hundreds of businesses accept it. But I think with Pittsburgh, which gets compared to those cities on occasion, I’m a little surprised we are behind on it.
 
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