You’re a first time independent filmmaker with a great story but no money. Up until recently, this all too familiar scenario would have seen you approach any number of investors, businesses, studios or grant schemes in order to acquire a budget to turn your film into a reality. But just as your vision was being funded, it was also being diluted, by the investors and producers with one eye on an artistic vision but with another on the demands of the market, and ultimately their bank accounts.
The last few years, however, have seen a seismic shift in how independent and first time film makers get bankrolled as a result of the emergence of crowd funding websites such as Kickstarter, which allow anybody from across the world to finance your film in incremental amounts based only on a pitch. This is usually done in return for just a T-shirt and possibly a digital copy of the film once it’s completed. These sites have empowered aspiring film makers, but also upset the investor-filmmaker-audience paradigm in a way that has attracted the attention of the profit hungry studios and their subsidiaries.
The growth of Kickstarter has been incredible. Founded in 2009, the site has to date funded independent film projects to a tune of over $190 million. The site’s alumni have comprised over 10% of the films exhibited at The Sundance Film Festival for the last three years in a row, and the site has had its hand in some of the biggest independent hits of the last five years. From recent dark comedy and critical darling Obvious Child to the genre success of last year’s Blue Ruin, the site has launched numerous success stories and provided a great way for first time directors to tell their stories.
Kickstarter has also become a haven for documentary filmmakers, with the $190 million split almost equally between fiction and non fiction projects. However, last year’s well regarded Room 237, which explored elaborate explanations of Kubrick’s The Shining, illustrates the general trend of many of the non-fiction projects to tend towards geek culture, as with the recent release of Video Game: The Movie, a documentary exploring the gaming industry from a variety of angles. Apart from these successful features, directors of short films, a format notable for its almost guaranteed unprofitably, have found the site incredibly receptive. This has made Kickstarter a go-to resource for first time productions or student filmmakers who are eager to establish their filmographies with financial resources but limited pressure.
Predictably, the site’s success at engaging an audience of amateur financiers has attracted the attention of big business, and with it, questions have arisen about the equity of the Kickstarter model. Established names have always dabbled with the site – Paul Schrader and Bret Easton Ellis funded the Lindsay Lohan vehicle The Canyons through the site in 2012 – but it wasn’t until the $6 million success of the Veronica Mars film project, which revived the long dead TV series starring Kristen Bell, that Hollywood really began to take notice. Fans were told that the Veronica Mars campaign was the last shot at making the film, that Warner Bros. had definitively passed on financing it. That the fan funded film was then distributed by Warner Bros. left a sour taste in many people’s mouths. Whilst Warmer Bros. counted their profits thanks to their extremely limited investment, fans were left with a copy of the film they’d invested in and perhaps a limited edition hoody.
This discontent reared its head a few months later, when Zach Braff’s kickstarter for a “spiritual sequel” to his 1999 cult smash Garden State seemed opportunist to many. That a well liked and by all accounts extremely wealthy sitcom actor and proven director couldn’t find funding for a sophomore feature seemed unlikely to many, and accusations of profiteering were levelled at Braff. When the film was later acquired for distribution in a multi-million dollar deal by the speciality division of Universal it seemed to many that Kickstarter had become just another cog in the corporate side of speciality film distribution.
The problems inherent in the increased presence of celebrity and Hollywood on Kickstarter are two fold. Firstly, the high profile projects which attract significant media attention threaten to drown out the visibility of filmmakers for whom the site represents a real last resort. The site is a lifeline for groups traditionally marginalised by Hollywood, such as female, queer and ethnic minority voices who genuinely face incredible obstacles in acquiring funding and attracting an audience to their work, and to whom establishing an audience though a Kickstarter campaign is vital.
Secondly, Kickstarted films are funded by people who have no stake in the film’s success. When financing microbudget films with little commercial appeal, the lack of equity stake seems relatively unimportant, particularly when the upside is an independent filmmaker’s dream – a pre-established audience, money and artistic freedom. However, when this model is applied to films from directors with enough connection to cast Hollywood A-listers and who later sell their films for millions in upfront payments from distributors, the inequity of the site’s reward structure appears more problematic. Even whilst their high profile project may attract a few more eyeballs to the pages of more transgressive projects, it is hard not to feel that these celebrities are perverting the site’s goals for their own gain and to attach a little more indie credibility to their projects.
The challenge facing the site and those hoping to use it is now to maintain both viability and credibility. The site’s touted 40% funding success rate obviously remains attractive to student and first time filmmakers, but it remains to be seen what the celebrity dalliances of 2013 will do to this statistic. Will it be that the pot of money people use to fund Kickstarter projects with will now gravitate towards the more high profile projects, or will there be a reactive backlash from the independent community? The early signs indicate the latter. Since Victoria Mars grabbed headlines with its record setting success, high profile projects such as Braff’s Wish I Was Here and Spike Lee’s The Sweet Blood of Jesus have drawn increasingly muted responses from the site’s funders, each project surpassing their goals with slimmer and slimmer margins. Furthermore, Lee felt compelled to emphasise his own underground roots in his campaign, hoping to avoid the seismic Twitter storm previously weathered by Braff.
Ultimately, Kickstarter remains an important and effective tool for the creation of low budget original features from emerging and student filmmakers, where artists are able to sell their vision rather than their profitability. Hopefully celebrity’s dalliance with the site will have only brought greater visibility to these emerging talents, and the people who fund them.