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A Film in the Crowd

A Film in the Crowd

Articles - Directing

It’s always been hard to find the money to make a movie. Investors have forever been scarce, but in today’s toxic economic climate, they’re almost nonexistent. Then along came crowdfunding, viewed by many as the great financial hope for independent cinema.

The idea is simple: A moviemaker (painter, musician or any other kind of artist) sets up an online campaign to raise a specific amount of money for a proposed project, and anyone willing to support said project may do so with a financial donation in the amount of his or her choosing. These “backers” then receive some sort of reward in exchange for their contribution, the value of which corresponds to the size of his or her donation. Backing a film campaign with a contribution of $20, for example, might get you a DVD of the finished movie, whereas a $1,000 investment could buy you an Executive Producer credit.

In essence, crowdfunding takes a page from the age-old idea of pre-selling a movie, but instead of regional distributors in foreign territories purchasing the rights in advance of principal photography, the moviemaker is pre-selling directly to his or her potential audience. Such pre-sales are then used, in whole or in part, to fund the making of the film.

There does seem to be vast financial potential suggested in the initial numbers reported by crowdfunding Websites. Kickstarter, the most successful of these sites, states that its hosted projects raised $27.6 million in 2010 and that the site attracts an average of 400,000 visitors per month. Runner-up IndieGoGo brings in roughly 60,000 monthly users.

Figures like these make it easy for moviemakers to see the possibilities, but a closer examination reveals that the sums raised by individual movie campaigns via crowdfunding tend to be quite a bit lower than those of most production budgets, even by indie standards.

Most feature film projects seek to raise between $10,000 and $30,000 via crowdfunding efforts; by comparison, last year’s breakout indie hit from Sundance, Winter’s Bone, cost $2 million to produce, a figure which dwarfs the otherwise incredible $350,000 generated by Blue Like Jazz, Kickstarter’s most successful film project to date. Such a discrepancy leaves crowdfunding—for the moment, at least—much more the territory of the no-budget, DIY moviemaker. But how many no-budget moviemakers have a sizable base of supporters they can use to successfully fund a project?

Last year Kickstarter saw nearly 4,000 campaigns reach their financial goals, but crowdfunding is hardly a case of sitting back and letting the money pour in. For New York City moviemaker Gary King, who raised $30,000 to produce his ultra-low budget musical How Do You Write a Joe Schermann Song through Kickstarter, making his crowdfunding campaign a success meant tireless promotion.

“I knew a large time commitment would be needed, but I wasn’t prepared for the realities of it,” admits King. “Think of it as placing a media ad, having it in heavy rotation and trying to keep the message fresh while doing it all yourself. I spent four to six hours every day on the campaign, if not more.”

King used both social networking and media support to lure backers to his project. “I reached out to various film blogs and news sites to see who would help spread the word. We did as many interviews as possible to talk about our musical.”

Additionally, King’s lead actress, Christina Rose, had accumulated a fanbase from her appearances on Broadway, and King was able to persuade many of them to contribute to the campaign. In the end, half of the film’s supporters were people neither King nor Rose had ever met in the flesh.

“We were very lucky to have backers share our project with their own networks,” says King. “We received donations from complete strangers who discovered the campaign from friends who had supported us.”

Mike O’Dea, who is currently running an IndieGoGo campaign to raise $20,000 for his thriller Ghostman, finds the seemingly endless grind of self-promotion grueling.

“I learned that begging for money is a very humbling and humiliating experience,” O’Dea reports. “I feel like ‘that guy’ at the summer cookout who nobody wants to talk to because he always tries to get you to sign up for his multi-level marketing company. It’s going to be a relief when I can finally concentrate on making a movie.”

Even with such effort, it doesn’t always work. Take the case of Jerry Cavallaro, whose IndieGoGo campaign to raise production funds for Stuck Like Chuck Too seemed to have more going for it from the get-go than most: The film was to be a sequel to his award-winning, no-budget debut feature Stuck Like Chuck, so there was already a built-in audience. Cavallaro was able to get significant Web coverage for his crowdfunding efforts; he also promoted the film on the popular indie film-based Web series he co-hosts, FilmSnobbery Live!

Cavallaro’s efforts attracted a significant amount of attention: The campaign for Stuck Like Chuck Too received nearly 22,000 views, making it one of the most sampled active projects in the history of IndieGoGo, according to Slava Rubin, the site’s co-founder. That didn’t translate into financial support, however. Of his original goal of $30,000, Cavallaro was only able to raise about $2,500, less than 10 percent of what he had sought.

“I wish I knew why my campaign failed,” says Cavallaro. “I treated it as a full-time job. I utilized social media in a big way and spent at least eight hours every day promoting the project online. I went to film festivals, screenings, panels and even some charity events in New York to promote my campaign in person. I did everything to get the project out there. Unfortunately, in the end, it was nowhere near enough.”

“I highly suggest having a backup plan,” says King. “If you want to make your film then definitely don’t let the campaign be the make or break of it. At the end of the day, know that you are going to make your film no matter what. I had a Plan B in place for if my Kickstarter campaign didn’t succeed. That’s just being smart.”
One way to ensure that a movie doesn’t live or die by the success of its crowdfunding efforts is to only try to raise a portion of the budget on sites like Kickstarter while relying on other sources for the rest, like Dan Mirvish did for his film Between Us.

Mirvish’s campaign to raise $10,000 was so successful that he exceeded his goal by more than $4,000. But the real victory was in how it helped him attract traditional investors.

“We’d already raised $25,000 and knew that the least we could make the movie for was about $35,000,” says Mirvish, a moviemaker and co-founder of the Slamdance Film Festival. “So the Kickstarter money made us into a ‘go’ picture and also allowed us to make legitimate offers to actors.” Both of these factors made Between Us more attractive to additional investors, so Mirvish was able to use his crowdfunding campaign to raise even more money for the film.

“It’s called Kickstarter, not Kickfinisher,” Mirvish quips. “The money we generated there was great, but the real benefit was how it affected the more traditional fundraising efforts.”

Crowdfunding is still in its infancy, however, and few believe its full potential has yet been reached. The majority of the general public is only now beginning to become aware of it, and as more people do, more potential backers are being born. But one organization already banking on crowdfunding’s financial viability is the Sundance Institute, which recently announced a partnership with Kickstarter. Their arrangement, intended to bring attention to crowdfunded projects made by Sundance Institute alumni, will consist of three main components: Educational programs run by the Institute on how best to mount a successful crowdfunding campaign, direct promotion of these Sundance-branded projects to its enormously loyal audience and a specific page on Kickstarter spotlighting these projects.

“Our role is to be on the soapbox, making people aware of these movies,” says Joseph Beyer, Sundance’s director of digital initiatives. “I hope what we’re doing with Kickstarter will pave the way for crowdfunding to move into the mainstream. We understand there’s a wave; we don’t believe it’s crested yet and we want to make sure we’re on it when it does.”

Beyer sees the attention Sundance will bring as beneficial to anyone who may use crowdfunding in the future simply by convincing more people to donate to campaigns they deem worthy.

“I don’t believe supporting projects is a one-time commitment,” says Beyer. “When you’re able to watch that project come to fruition, it’s incredibly rewarding. It makes you feel connected to a larger group.”

Kickstarter co-founder Yancey Strickler shares Beyer’s view. “For backers going through the site, it doesn’t feel like shopping,” he says. “It feels like participating. When they support a project, they’re becoming part of an artist’s dream. In this way it turns audiences into creators. Most people have never had an opportunity to do that. It’s a unique situation.”

“You could see these backers turning into a virtual army of supporters for a moviemaker,” adds Beyer. “We here at the Institute are barely able to grasp how far this could go.”

But the real explosion may come when a well-known moviemaker who already has an army of supporters decides to finance a high-profile project through a crowdfunding platform. It seems likely that an artist like David Lynch or Kevin Smith, who’s counting on his massive fan base to make his self-distributed Red State a success, could decide to use those same fans to fund a movie at some point in the future. Such an endeavor could see a project generating millions of dollars.

“We know it’s going to happen,” says Strickler. “We’ve had conversations with that class of director. We’re not interested in chasing big projects—dollar values are invisible to us—but we’re certainly open to them. And when a project like that does happen, obviously it’s going to get a lot of media attention. It will be read as a political act.”

If that becomes the future of crowdfunding, with a vast majority of the general public willing to back projects and celebrity moviemakers getting into the mix, what will become of the smaller, unknown artists who stand to benefit the most from sites like Kickstarter and IndieGoGo? Will the influx of additional money from a larger, collective public wallet make it easier for their projects to get funded, or will these would-be auteurs simply get lost in the shuffle?

“Higher profile projects would benefit everyone,” says Strickler. “It would get the story out there.” Kickstarter’s statistics support this; in 2009, a campaign would receive a donation an average of .4 times per day. By the end of 2010, that figure had increased to an average of once per day, meaning that the number of backers is growing faster than the number of projects.

“It’s not going to be a situation of more and more campaigns fighting over the same $5,” asserts Strickler. “We’re seeing crowdfunding’s viability growing each month.”

“Look at YouTube,” adds Mirvish. “Becoming mainstream hasn’t prevented average people from breaking out there.”

The question of whether or not crowdfunding is a realistic option for indie moviemakers has an answer that is both evolving and increasingly optimistic. While hard work and self-promotion will always be part of the equation, sites like Kickstarter and IndieGoGo represent a growing opportunity for potential film financing that need only be earned.

“We’re not in the business of creating art,” concludes Strickler. “That’s for artists. Our business is about giving them opportunities to do so that might not have existed otherwise. What they make of those opportunities is based on their dedication, ingenuity, creativity and the quality of their project. It’s entirely up to them.” MM

Paul Osborne is the director of Official Rejection, the acclaimed documentary about the experiences of independent moviemakers on the film festival circuit. He also wrote and produced the indie feature Ten Til Noon, and is not coincidentally currently raising funds on Kickstarter for his new film, the suspense drama Favor. Follow him at twitter.com/paulmakesmovies.

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