March 25, 2009

Funds from the Madding Crowd: Raising Money through the Internet

Filmmaker Paul Devlin hates fundraising. He would never solicit donations in a newsletter to friends and fans; he considers it an improper imposition. And don't get him started on fundraising parties. "I don't have the personality to do that," he says. "The whole idea turns me off entirely. That wasn't an option for me."

So Devlin had high hopes that when he signed up as the first filmmaker to raise money on the website ArtistShare.com--which, since 2003, has helped musicians fund albums by allowing their fans to pay to participate in, or have access to, the artists and their creative processes-his days of fundraising agony were over.

Instead, the experiment set him back more than $7,000.

"I couldn't even get my damn family to sign up," recalls Devlin, whose documentary BLAST! (http://blastthemovie.com/), about his brother's astrophysics adventures in some of the most desolate corners of the earth, premiered at the 2008 Hot Docs in Toronto. "My brother said to me, ‘Come on, Paul. I'm not going to look at that stuff.'"

Fundraising with ArtistShare proved so onerous that Devlin had to hire a project manager to oversee the effort. The "products" the filmmakers created for sale ranged from "The BLAST Participant" package ($19.95, giving the buyer access to deleted scenes, exclusive photo galleries and production newsletters) to the "ArtistShare Bronze Participant" package ($2,500, which came with autographed DVDs of Devlin's films, two tickets to a BLAST! film festival screening, a personal video from Devlin, a Q&A session with him and more) to the "ArtistShare Executive Producer Participant" package ($150,000--later reduced to $75,000--which included many of the other perks, plus a personal screening with Devlin and an executive producer credit on the film).

In the end, 30 people gave a total of $3,000 for the project, half of which came from one individual; the others spent an average of $50 each. Devlin estimates his expenses at around $10,000 to $12,000.

"I think there are certain films that will work better than others," he says, adding that he'd consider using the model again only "if I had a project I thought had that strong, dedicated core audience really committed to the issue itself...If you have something that really inspires people or excites them or motivates them to action, you have a really good opportunity to make this thing work."

Indeed, other documentarians, making films about pressing social, political or environmental issues, have had more success with populist Internet fundraising, or "crowdfunding." Director Robert Greenwald (Outfoxed: Rupert Murdoch's War on Journalism; Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price) made national headlines in 2006 when he raised more than $267,000 in 10 days for Iraq for Sale: The War Profiteers. Two documentaries, Changing the World on Vacation, (www.indiegogo.com/ChangingTheWorldOnVacation), directed by Daniela Kon, and Tapestries of Hope (www.tapestriesofhope.com/), directed by Michealene Cristini Risley, last year raised $10,000 and $22,500, respectively, on IndieGoGo, a new PayPal-driven online social marketplace for filmmakers. And The Age of Stupid (www.ageofstupid.net/), a British documentary on climate change directed by Fanny Armstrong (McLibel), has raised about $800,000 from more than 220 fans and activists online.

"I don't think there's any limit to what people can raise," says Brian Camelio, founder and CEO of ArtistShare, explaining that if a film's subject is compelling enough, individuals will support it. "It comes down to who wants the film and how badly do they want it and have we reached those people."

For the record, neither ArtistShare nor IndieGoGo is an investment model; no one is promised a cut of the film's potential profits. "The minute you say to someone, ‘Come in, pay money and you'll end up getting money back,' you're setting up expectations that you might not be able to fulfill," says Camelio.

The transactions on the crowdfunding sites aren't even considered donations. They are purchases of special packages designed to strengthen relationships between artists and audiences, often through the commoditization of the filmmaking process. (The sites make money by retaining a certain percentage of what filmmakers raise.) The trick, according to Devlin and other filmmakers who have tried this, is determining the magic number of packages to offer, finding the right range of prices, and figuring out what would motivate a moviegoer, or activist, to support a film before it's ever made.

Imagination is the only limit on what could be offered for sale. One could envision special high-end packages, including the chance to be a crewmember for a day, the rights to use some of the footage in the buyer's own film, an invitation to an editing session or a dinner date with the filmmaker. According to the pithy summation of Slava Rubin, one of the co-founders of IndieGoGo, "Production is the new promotion."

Still, the successes of Greenwald and Armstrong are outliers. Devlin remains the only filmmaker who's attempted to use ArtistShare, although Camelio says he's currently in talks with two other filmmakers and has designs to launch a separate site, FilmShare, exclusively for filmmakers, perhaps as early as Fall 2009. In the first 10 months since IndieGoGo's launch at the 2008 Sundance Film Festival, about 900 films created project profiles, about half of which sought funding and half used the site for promotional purposes only, according to Rubin. Most films seeking funding don't raise any money on the site. A couple of dozen films have raised between $500 and $5,000 on IndieGoGo, and, Rubin says, for some filmmakers, 75 percent of the money still comes from the family and friends.

What allows certain filmmakers to raise several thousand dollars, while others never raise a cent? On top of the fact that the subject of his film wasn't a galvanizing societal issue, nor was his subject a celebrity with a wide fan base, Devlin believes the biggest mistake he made was starting with ArtistShare when production of the film was nearly complete. The crowdfunding model not only relies on the filmmaker's ability to exploit the production process, but it takes time to locate the handful of people who will be energized by the project to the point of financial support. (Devlin says one of his best moves was to do an Internet radio show on thespaceshow.com, which reached a niche of scientists and sparked several purchases.) "Paul found one person who bought 10 packages at $150," Camelio says. "If he had had another two years to develop this, he probably could have found a lot more of those people."

The Age of Stupid is, to date, the most successful example of documentary crowdfunding, and the filmmakers used a slightly different model. Purchases of between £20 and £500 ($30 and $750) bought a "warm fuzzy feeling" and a credit on the website, film or DVD, and some even earned a chance to appear in the film. Those who gave more than £2,500 ($3,750) received those benefits, as well as a small percentage of the film's profits, if there are any.

"Climate change is the most pressing issue of our time, so clearly the topic was a huge draw for people to invest in the film," says producer Lizzie Gillett. "Having said that, there are lots of environmental groups people could have put their money into, rather than our film. I think our success was based on a strong combination of filmmakers with a proven record, an innovative plan, the chance to be in at the ground level with a hit film and a hugely motivating cause, i.e., saving the planet. I don't think we could do the same for any film."

Risley, of Tapestries of Hope, says the basic rules of fundraising still apply in the online world, and, in fact, the amount she raised on IndieGoGo represented less than 10 percent of the money she obtained through other means. "Your own contacts are critical," she says. "Your website, how it's laid out, the subject matter are all critical...And you need to really develop the concept. In two to three sentences, max, you need to tell what your story is." The fact that Risley writes a blog on The Huffington Post, is the author of a book, and is a frequent speaker around the country--all opportunities to reach out to potential donors--also contributed to her success.

Sites like ArtistShare and IndieGoGo are appealing because they let artists raise money without the traditional limitations associated with grants, and those who give money don't demand creative control or ownership of the films. But the sites do not guarantee success, nor do they empower those who are ineffective traditional fundraisers, because the online models still favor those who have a proven track record, who are exceptionally organized, superior networkers and great communicators, and who have projects that have a clearly defined narrative and appealing subject. Films like BLAST!, which tell a more complex or esoteric story, remain difficult sells online.

The real value of the fundraising sites lies in the fact that they take some of the administrative and back-end legwork out of the process for filmmakers, bring down the overhead and provide the infrastructure for filmmakers to be able to disseminate information effectively online.

That alone will change the world of fundraising for some filmmakers, says Kon, of Changing the World on Vacation. "I think that more low-budget documentaries will have a chance to get made simply because filmmakers can utilize the support from friends and their networks more effectively," she says. "As long as you can demonstrate your commitment and make a case for the relevance of your film--be it artistic, personal or global--your approach or subject matter is not particularly offensive and your funding goal is reasonable, I would think every project has a fair chance."

 

Tom Isler is a journalist and filmmaker in New York.

 

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