Why Crowdfunding doesn't work as well as it could, and what you - yes, YOU - should GoGo and do about it.
Finding money to make an indie movie is like trying to squeeze juice from a rock. It's hard. Crazy hard. Investors have always been scarce, and now, in this toxic economic climate, they very nearly don't exist at all. Desperate would-be filmmakers often end up hat-in-hand on the doorsteps of family and friends, which, after a time, usually generates more ill-will than income.
But then comes what has been seen by some as the "Great Financial Hope" for indies: Crowdfunding. The idea is simple enough: a filmmaker's "fans" donate to an as-yet-to-be-made film's budget in exchange for rewards, which usually include a DVD of the finished flick along with other merchandise like t-shirts, buttons and posters.
In essence, Crowdfunding takes a page from the age-old idea of "pre-selling" a movie, but instead of a situation involving regional distributors in foreign territories purchasing rights in advance of principle photography, the filmmaker is pre-selling directly to the audience. Such pre-sales are then used, in whole or in part, to fund production. It's a wonderfully simple idea.
It’s easy to see the vast potential in Crowdfunding, but here's the problem: how many indie filmmakers, most of whom are unknown and many first-timers, have any sort of sizable fanbase to pre-sell to? I've actually heard several indie marketing "experts" instructing filmmakers to add 500 fans per week to their social networking pages in order to successfully Crowdfund. Really? Just like that? Get people you don't know to become your diehard fans not only before they see your movie, but before you've even MADE it? And then get them to part with their money, too? Perhaps these pundits might also suggest filmmakers shit gold while they're at it. It's probably easier.
Without a large body of admirers to pre-buy your film, the Crowdfunding process often attracts very few backers from outside the filmmaker's personal social circle. True, some folks may come across your Kickstarter or IndieGoGo page (the two biggest Crowdfunding sites) and be moved to contribute to them, or the subject matter of your movie may get the attention of a special interest group. But these tend to be isolated and largely insubstantial incidences, and Crowdfunding frequently degenerates into - once again - begging your family and friends for money. Sure, many Crowdfunding campaigns can work if the filmmaker is persistent enough to really push it on everyone they know, but that hardly demonstrates the process as the financial savior the indie world so desperately needs.
So how do we make Crowdfunding really work? Well, in order to answer that question, we need to ask ourselves another one: How can we expect anyone to give to our Crowdfunding campaign if we've never given to someone else's?
Indie filmmakers are a notoriously selfish bunch: we're takers. And if we want to see more money circulating to make movies, we need to become backers. Frequent backers. I'm not talking about digging deep or emptying our bank accounts, but merely suggesting we each consider making small donations on a regular basis. Like, say, $20 per month. I'm fairly confident all of us, even the most destitute, could easily spare that amount. We certainly have no trouble finding money to pay for the latest DSLR attachment.
Of the filmmakers I know, only a small percentage have ever backed a Crowdfunding effort themselves, and mere fraction of that do so regularly. If Crowdfunding is ever going to have any real effect on indie film, this needs to change. We need to cultivate an environment of contribution.
Now, some have stated that the indie film community itself is too small to make an impact on Crowdfunding, and real growth can only happen by getting the general public to donate. While it's absolutely true there are more non-movie people than movie people, and therefore a larger collective non-movie-person wallet, getting any one "civilian" to contribute to a campaign usually has more to do with whether they know the filmmaker or if they're connected to the project personally. The idea that substantial numbers of general population will ever back indie film as a whole is just grossly unrealistic.
So, before we dismiss the indie film community itself, let's crunch some numbers:
My documentary about film festivals, OFFICIAL REJECTION, has a Facebook page with a little over a thousand fans, nearly all of whom are independent filmmakers themselves. If these 1000 filmmakers each regularly contributed a minimum of $20 per month to Crowdfunded efforts, that would see an extra $20,000 - nearly a quarter of a million dollars per year - being poured into movie production.
Now let's go broader. When I met Christian Gaines from WithoutaBox at the Riverrun International Film Festival in the spring of 2009, he proudly told me that his website had approximately 300,000 subscribers, all of whom were filmmakers, with another five-to-ten thousand signing up every week. So let's very conservatively assume that WithoutaBox now has about 350,000 filmmakers in its database. If every one of those put $20 towards Crowdfunding, we'd have SEVEN MILLION DOLLARS per month - that's EIGHTY-FOUR MILLION DOLLARS PER YEAR - newly galvanized to finance independent productions. Such an influx of additional capital would mean every project on Kickstarter, IndieGoGo, and every other Crowdfunding site would be instantly and fully funded. It would completely change the game.
Take a glance in the mirror. WE are the revolution we've been waiting for.
What I propose is this: once a month - perhaps the day you set aside to do your bills - go online and commit a minimum of $20 to the Crowdfunding campaign of your choosing. Think of it as paying your subscription to the new world order of indie film - your dues for membership. If you have a friend running a campaign, then great: donate to that one. But if you don't, simply browse Kickstarter or IndieGoGo until you find something you'd like to see made - then commit to it. If you see two you fancy, consider splitting your money.
This is what I've been doing. In the last few months I've become a backer on Dan Mirvish's BETWEEN US, Paul DeNigris' PARALLAX, Victoria & Jen Wescott's LOCKED IN A GARAGE BAND and Crystal Scott’s GIRL CLOWN. Dan and Paul I know personally, but I’ve never met Victoria, Jen or Crystal. I merely stumbled across their projects and decided to contribute to them. Their pitches got money out of a stranger. That's kinda what it's all about.
But don't just become a backer yourself. This has to be a collective effort. Spread the message. Forward this blog to whomever you can. Repost it. Or better yet, put it into your own words, in any format you feel will reach people. Let's get it out there. We're all in this together.
Now, you may be reading this and wondering if maybe I'm only suggesting such an approach because I've got my own Crowdfunding effort going. Well, let me assure you, I don't. Yet. But someday I will.
And let's be honest - one day you will, too.
Viva la Revolución.