Making the Movie

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Kickstarter and Rise of Crowdfunded Filmmaking

Step One: Never Give Up

If you were on Twitter or facebook last week, chances are some of the filmmakers you follow were passing along information about a Kickstarter campaign called “A Year without Rent”.

Kickstarter is a web 2.0 company founded by Parry Chen, Yancey Strickler and Charles Adler. Kickstarter takes a 5% cut of funds raised for creative projects of all kinds in return for providing infrastructure that makes the fundraising easy and safe for ‘backers.’ Unless the project raises the full budget, no one gets a dime.

“A Year without a Dime” is the fate that looked inevitable for Lucas McNelly, the independent filmmaker behind “A Year without Rent”, which, despite a seemingly selfish name was McNelly’s attempt to give back to the micro-movie community by traveling for a year volunteering to crew on small-budget movie projects. Full disclosure: I backed this project to the tune of $25.

McNelly had previously used Kickstarter to raise $4k for his feature film Up Country, which yielded an excellent blog post on what he learned about Kickstarter’s crowdfunding process. For this project, he felt confident enough to set the bar at $12,000. Yet despite doing all the right marketing and planning, the money did not come flooding in. With 24 hours to go, he had $4,359 – not even 40% funded.

But McNelly simply did not give up. He and some friends went on a sleep strike coupled with a social media blitz — McNelly even hit a limit of tweets on Twitter (something I didn’t even know was possible). He and his team recruited Film Threat, Scott Macaulay at Filmmaker Magazine, Tilt filmmaker Phil Holbrook, Ted Hope, Jon Reiss, Film Courage and many more in the final days to stage one of the greatest comebacks I have ever seen outside a fictional universe.

Here is a graph from the website:

That pretty much sums it up. A long tail of very gradual donations with an exponential burst at the end. Could this be the story of crowd-funding in microcosm? Are we about to see a similar exponential explosion in the number of filmmakers making use of this?

It’s hard to know. I contacted Kickstarter in November to try to get some numbers about how many film projects there are and how many are successful. Their spokesperson, Daniella Jaeger, said that they do not collect such data, which I find very hard to believe. Nonetheless, we can take a look at the big picture from some other directions.

Ott’s Hierarchy of Film Funding

I want to stress that crowdfunding is not a fairy godmother. Crowdfunding is not a fairy godmother. There is a hierarchy of sources of film funding, with crowdfunding at the bottom because it maximizes the time and effort that must be put into fundraising rather than production.

1. Self-funding.
Asking yourself for money is the easiest possible ask — it can be negotiated between regions of your brain in nanoseconds. Creatively, you are beholden to no one but yourself. Of course, there is the hidden cost of time and effort in earning this money in the first place, unless you are lucky enough to inherit wealth.

2. Angel or patron-funded.
This is your option if you’re looking for a fairy godmother. A single rich benefactor who wants to pay for your film is the next-best scenario to self-funding, especially if that benefactor doesn’t also want some creative input or remuneration. The more ‘angels’ it takes to meet the budget, the more time spent going out and trying to find such people, the more compromises will have to be made creatively and the more time spent on keeping them engaged once the process is going on.

3. Small group of investors.
This is much like the above, but with more of a chance of people wanting to see their money back and more work in terms of interacting with the investors. Investors don’t have to just be people buying a share in the profits. This could also encompass funds raised by pre-selling distribution rights to the film.

4. Crowdfunding.
This is the one that will require you to interact with literally thousands of people, and some of them will need lots of pestering just to contribute $25. This really wasn’t a practical way of funding a film before the rise of social media. You might off-set some costs through a bake-sale or auctioning off associate producer credits, but it was more to fill small gaps in the budget.

Enter Paypal, IndieGoGo and Kickstarter. Suddenly, it has become practical for filmmakers to raise the budget for an entire film through crowdsourcing. And there is the advantage of having the backers as a built-in audience when the film comes out or even, as McNelly recently demonstrated, to help complete fundraising through activating their own social networks.

Gordon Cox in Variety this week had a feature on crowdfunding, which noted that Sundance feature entry The Woods got $10,000 in finishing funds through Kickstarter. (To be precise, it was $11,584 without factoring subtractions from Kickstarter and Amazon payments’ percentages — see below. This approximately doubles the the $5k+ raised by the filmmakers behind Bass Ackwards in Sundance-specific funds last year.) But other numbers in the article are even more impressive: Allison Anders and Kurt Voss raised nearly $20k for Strutter on Kickstarter and, through Paypal donations on an impressive website, the filmmakers behind Artermis Eternal are about halfway to raising $150k*. The anecdotal evidence is that more filmmakers are using this process to raise ever-greater amounts of money.

How to Determine Your Crowdfunding Budget

So let’s say that you’ve determined Kickstarter or one of the other crowdfunding places is your best hope of raising some or all of your film’s budget. Not so fast! Did you do the math on how much it will cost in terms of your time, the schwag you’ll be giving away to backers and, oh yeah, the cut that Kickstarter and Amazon Payments take out of the donations?

Joey at Coffee and Culluloid put together a great guide to working backwards to determine your true costs vs. how much additionally you’ll need to raise to cover them.

Failure in Crowdfunding Doesn’t Mean the End

Even if a filmmaker doesn’t make their crowdfunding goal, it doesn’t mean the movie won’t ultimately get made. The Prospects, profiled on this site way back when this crowdfunding trend was just getting started, wasn’t able to raise the full budget through crowdfunding. Filmmaker David Brundige scaled back some ambitions, shook some other money trees, made the film, won awards at festivals and recently sold some distribution rights to IFC Films.

As you can see from the above hierarchy of film funding, crowdsourcing isn’t the only way to fund a film. But it seems that filmmakers are getting better at figuring out how to make it work. This site will keep a close eye on developments and, oh yeah, we’ve got a Kickstarter project in the works of our own to create a more useful and accurate weekly box office list. Stay tuned.

* There are some nuances to this $150,000 figure. Jessica Mae Stover, the filmmaker behind Artemis Eternal, had this to say:

We’re not quite halfway yet. But there are caveats […] One is that it’s always tough for me to talk prod. cash numbers. They’ll never be useful sans context. We’ve so many incredible deals: in the end the film will be worth 3x that, and the number Variety listed doesn’t included post or some side projects we’ve done in dev/pre-production, and is instead our production costs (and hard goal number that once met will mean we move into lensing the film).

I’m constantly reminding filmmakers that, when they hear me citing numbers, they should later remember that they’ll not get the same/epic quality for that hard price. Most films, even studio films, have some degree of this effect. Once we’re completely finished and I have final, hard data, I’m hoping to make available a reflection on “how we did it”.

A year from now I don’t want filmmakers to look at what we’ve created and accomplished and then look at the number 150k and think they can do what we did for that amount. That would be erroneous, especially as the project has other aspects aside from the film that are integral to our moviemaking success.

It hasn’t been updated in a while, but some of these links might be useful


1 Comment

  1. When estimating costs one should not forget the rewards cost. Also, when planning one should keep in mind that about 85% of all the pledges are actually funded. That Kickstarter’s own statistics.

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