Kaylie Milliken wrote a handful of reviews on Yelp, the crowd-sourced and multinational recommendation website after moved from Sonora to Los Angeles and the Bay Area.

Milliken, 36, used the site to find restaurants or businesses, leaving positive reviews after good meals and one negative after a particularly poor cleaning service.

“Yelp portrays itself to be an online review source so customers can find the best local businesses,” Milliken said. “I didn’t know they were a marketing giant.”

While living in the Bay Area, Millliken was seeking treatment for an unknown ailment. She visited three doctors who were stumped. The fourth diagnosed her with an allergic reaction to parabens, common in soaps, lotions and detergents.

“I was so grateful to her,” Milliken said.

But after the doctor asked Milliken to write a positive review on Yelp, Milliken said she was exposed to a vast enterprise of profiteering and coercion that inspired her first feature-length documentary, “Billion Dollar Bully.”

The doctor said she was being harassed by repeated phone calls from a Yelp salesperson who was selling increased exposure for the business on the website. She eventually said no, and her Yelp rating plummeted, Milliken said.

The first reviews on her page were suddenly the negative ones and new one’s appeared to be fake, describing ailments and patients she never treated.

“The more she talked about it, the more illegal it seemed,” Milliken said. “If what she said was true, I wondered how is this multimillion dollar company getting away with this?”

In 2015, Milliken said her research into Yelp “took me down the rabbit hole.” She found thousands of business owners online sharing similar stories and was able to get a few on camera to record a movie trailer. She promoted the feature length film on Kickstarter, a crowdfunding website, and funded the movie in two weeks.

“I thought consumers need to know about this because by using Yelp we’re all just feeding the monster,” she said.

Kathleen Liu, a spokesperson for Yelp, denied the company highlighted lower-star reviews or modified the pages of businesses who refused ad services.

“While we can’t comment on accusations made in a film we haven’t seen, any claims that Yelp manipulates reviews for money or that the reviews of advertisers are treated any differently than those of non-advertisers are completely false,” she said.

A developing filmmaker

When Kaylie Milliken — then Kaylie Stenger — was in second grade at Sonora Elementary School, she was enamored with Les Misérables, a musical based on the 1862 novel by French writer Victor Hugo. During show and tell Milliken sang the lyrics to “Lovely Ladies,” a song which unbeknownst to her was about prostitutes.

“The words in that song are very explicit for an adult, but for a second grader it goes right over their head,” Milliken said. “Everybody was always kind despite my inability to actually sing. I pursued film because I soon realized I wasn't good at acting or singing so I wanted to be behind the camera.”

Born in 1983 as the New Years Day baby featured in the Union Democrat, Milliken was spurred by an interest in media and filmmaking. Throughout her adolescence, she used her parents’ “old funky video camera” recording fake news shows and filming farm animals.

“She was always pretty theatrical, and I’m not saying the drama queen type, but she was very drawn to the arts,” Milliken’s mother, Arlene Stenger of Sonora, said.

Milliken dug into the arts at Sonora High School and participated in local theater productions before graduation.

“Growing up that community, embracing creativity, it definitely helped me get the notion that I could do something,” Milliken said. “It gave me the confidence to pursue making a feature length documentary despite my lack of experience in the film industry.”

She later earned a bachelor’s degree in film production from Biola University in 2006, but said she left Los Angeles disillusioned with the film industry. She set out to teach English throughout Europe and earned a teaching credential from UC Davis in 2011 before the Yelp story reignited her passion for film.

“When I heard about this Yelp story I thought there must have been a documentary already made. There wasn’t, so I decided if I could figure out a way to make it, I will,” Milliken said.

Stenger, who said she has seen the movie, said her daughter’s first film marked a creative evolution she had seen in Milliken since she was young.

“That passion she had for film returned in this,” Stenger said.

Milliken now lives in El Sobrante with her husband and children.

Billion Dollar Bully

“Billion Dollar Bully” has taken years to produce, culling together interviews from business owners in the Bay Area, San Diego, Los Angeles, Houston, New York, Washington D.C., Virginia and Hawaii, Milliken said.

In the handful of trailers released so far, owners say they felt threatened to pay for Yelp services, or the site’s algorithm would filter good reviews, post negative ones and their business would suffer. The movie alludes to legal challenges against the company due to deliberate manipulation of user-generated data.

“Yelp is a marketing company masquerading as a review company,” Milliken said. “They make all their money from business owners.”

According to the Yelp website, the company was founded in 2004. In the fourth quarter of 2018, the company had a monthly average of 33 million unique visitors who used the cellphone app, a monthly average of 69 million unique visitors who visited the mobile webpage and a total of 177 million reviews.

Yelp’s CEO is Jeremy Stoppelman.

According to the company’s investor relations page, the company made $943 million in revenue in 2018 and traded at $35.59 on the NYSE on Tuesday.

“Billion Dollar Bully” will be released via DVD, iTunes and some streaming platforms on May 21.

Contact Giuseppe Ricapito at (209) 588-4526 or gricapito@uniondemocrat.com . Follow him on Twitter @gsepinsonora.