IN THE FUTURE...
YOUR FAVOURITE MOVIE WILL BE CROWDFUNDED
WORDS: PHIL DE SEMLYEN
What do a potato salad, a Lego Imperial Star Destroyer, a computer game and an abortion rom-com have in common? Okay, you may have known that each has been crowdfunded, but try placing them in order of Kickstarter donation sizes. That rom-com, for instance – Gillian Robespierre's acclaimed Obvious Child – gleaned $37,000 in donations because it needed to secure a Sundance premiere. Or to put another way, $18,000 less than the potato salad, which probably didn't. Welcome, ladies and gentlemen, to the weird and wonderful world of crowdfunding...
FOR THE FILM INDUSTRY, THE GENIUS OF CROWDFUNDING LIES IN ITS ABILITY TO LINK AUDIENCE, MARKETING AND FINANCING.Of course, Kickstarter isn't the only face in that crowd. This growing sector, worth $5.1bn last year, already represents significant financial muscle, with sites like RocketHub, GoFundMe and IndieGoGo now at the disposal of filmmakers, new and seasoned alike, looking to fill the funding void left by an increasingly risk-averse Hollywood. Robespierre, Spike Jones, Zach Braff, Rob Thomas and Hal Hartley have all turned directly to fans to finance their most recent projects, even if the latter fell foul of Kickstarter rules forbidding the sale of distribution rights as a pledge reward.
For the film industry, the genius of crowdfunding lies in its ability to link audience, marketing and financing, an arcane business previously best left to the pages of Forbes and Screen International, into one interconnected whole. Fans are now invested, literally and metaphorically, in movies almost from their inception, spreading word of mouth on social media and effectively serving as walking billboards. In a crowdfunded world, it's not hard to imagine that beloved but doomed properties like Firefly, Jericho and FX's Terriers would have found fresh life on network TV, supported and partly funded by their passionate fans.
Then, on the big screen, there's the surprising case of Veronica Mars. Rob Thomas and Kristen Bell's detective show ran for 64 episodes, building up a small but vocal fanbase, until The CW abruptly cancelled it in 2007. Warner Bros. then refused to finance a feature-length screenplay Thomas had written, anxious about a lack of audience for it, and it seemed Veronica Mars had solved her last case. But like Janosz ushering back Vigo the Carpathian – albeit without all the mood slime and general evil – Kickstarter breathed fresh life into the project. TV death, it turned out, was but a door to cinematic resurrection. "Kickstarter was really our only option to get the movie made," Bell told Empire on the film's set, "and simultaneously prove to [Warner Bros.] that the audience does exist."
Kristen Bell in the Veronica Mars movie.
The Veronica Mars movie gleaned a record-breaking $5.7m from 91,585 Kickstarter donations. Warners duly swooped for distribution rights but for the first time, a movie had effectively been greenlit by its own audience. "I had this fear that we were just listening to the same loud 20 people over the seven years," reveals Thomas, "and that there was no real groundswell for a Veronica Mars movie. So that day we launched was startling... phenomenal."
Rewards for crowdfunders are usually non-monetary – equity crowdfunding services like Slated.com remain in their infancy – so enticing pledgers demands fresh ideas and plenty of effort. Signed DVDs and posters are standard for smaller pledges and a role as an extra or exec-producer credit is not uncommon for bigger donations. The Obvious Child team went one further and offered a full-blown tour of New York rom-com locations for a $1000 pledge. "Our producer Elisabeth Holm worked at Kickstarter for two or three years and she's very savvy," explains Robespierre. "We went in thinking that the rewards should be intimate and good but not overwhelming for the filmmakers, because sometimes the filmmakers go too big with their rewards." Faced with recording 500 voicemails and signing 6000 posters, the Veronica Mars team would probably agree. "We were knee deep in some carpal tunnel syndrome," laughs Bell.
HAVING MADE A VERY VISIBLE FORTUNE FROM SCRUBS, BRAFF BECAME CROWDFUNDING'S CHEW TOY FOR HAVING THE TEMERITY TO GO CAP IN HAND TO HIS FANS FOR FINANCING.Other filmmakers have found crowdfunding arduous for different reasons. Zach Braff, who raised $3.1m for his comedy-drama Wish I Was Here and ran into a media storm in the process, is more circumspect. "I don't think many more people in the public eye will try it", he tells Empire, "just because it's so much work explaining to people how hard it is to get financing the normal route and dealing with the internet debate of it all."
Having made a very visible fortune from Scrubs, Braff became crowdfunding's chew toy for having the temerity to go cap in hand to his fans for financing. Excoriated on blogs and the same social media he'd been trying to mobilise – one prominent tweeter penned a crude sketch of a couple's child going hungry because they'd given their last money to "that fucking Zach Braff piece of shit" – the actor-filmmaker was also accused of augmenting Kickstarter cash with traditional financing. 'Is Zach Braff Ruining Kickstarter' mused a peppery piece on Yahoo! Finance as he was forced to fight PR fires.
As Wish I Was Here heads to UK cinemas this month, Braff is still having to explain its unusual financing model. A Cannes deal, signed with very-much-for-profit financiers Worldview Entertainment in 2013, was interpreted not as a loan to tide the production over ('gap financing' in industry parlance) but an act of cash-based jiggery-pokery that contravened the spirit of Kickstarter, the law and probably the Green Cross Code all at the same time. Braff was forced to take to the internet to explain that the nature of film cashflow demanded these kind of bridging loans and that financing itself had come purely from "Kickstarter backers, my own money [and] pre-sold foreign theatrical distribution", offering any unhappy donors their money back. Few took him up on it.
Jenny Slate, star of Kickstarter-funded Obvious Child.
From Braff's crowdfunding peer, Obvious Child's Robespierre, comes fresh perspective on the controversy. "[Zach] had a great experience on Kickstarter," she says, pointing to the $3 million it added to his budget. "He is such a public figure that he got maybe some backlash from that, but I love that there can be Zach Braff and Veronica Mars and then there can be just Joe Schmo down the block who makes these cool glass bottles."
Despite his PR fatigue, Braff remembers his Wish I Was Here experience as "a great, fun experiment to make something with the fans with no compromise". Crowdfunding may not be for all filmmakers, but as the former Dr. John Dorian points out, the chance to connect so early and so directly with audiences will be tough for those with the most fan-friendly projects to resist. "I made, like, 47,000 new friends," says Braff. "That'd be a pretty awesome wrap party."
For Jenny Slate, star of Obvious Child, successful crowdfunding is a simple business that will endure for as long as there are projects warranting support. "Kickstarter rules," she enthuses. "You just have to have something good. If your thing sucks, it's not going to work."