Thursday, July 21, 2016

The Crowdfunding Age

The great Czech stop-motion animator Jan ┼ávankmajer recently finished up a successful crowdfunding campaign on Indiegogo for "Insects," which he expects will be his final feature film.  He joins a long lists of filmmakers who have successfully used Kickstarter or Indiegogo campaigns to fund film projects over the last few years, including Spike Lee, Alejandro Jodorowsky, Charlie Kaufman, Paul Schrader, Phil Tippett, and Zach Braff.  As an animation fan, I've also tracked campaigns by Masaaki Yuasa, John Kricfalusi, Bill Plympton, and PES with interest.  It's been roughly four years since the concept of crowdfunding films has really taken off, and I think it's a good time to take stock.

First and foremost, crowdfunding is not for everyone.  It's become a much more visible and popular source of potential funds for indie filmmkers, and makes it easier to get certain projects made, but there's a lot of risk involved in going this route.  Stephen Follows' blog crunched the numbers last year and reported that only roughly 42% of film-related crowdfunding campaigns are successful at reaching their target goals.  Short films are more likely to be funded, as they tend to ask for less money. The bigger campaigns have a much higher failure rate, which is pretty much anything asking for over $50,000.  And as many have pointed out, the high failure rate is not a bad thing considering many of the campaigns are for fairly risky projects.  Most are delivered late and it's still too common for them to never be delivered at all.

The most successful campaigns for full length feature films are generally the smaller ones, and funds are often used to patch holes in the budget of an already mostly funded film or to create pitch materials to woo bigger investors.  Campaigns like the one for the "Veronica Mars" movie that funded the production of the entire film are rare.  Jermaine Clement used a Kickstarter campaign to finance distribution of "What We Do in the Shadows" in the United States.  A campaign for "The Babadook" paid for art department and special effects costs.  After a Kickstarter campaign for a rom-com featuring Melissa Joan Hart was a spectacular bust, raising less than 3% of the $2 million requested, and Uwe Boll struck out twice on two different projects and fundraising platforms, campaigns have generally been much more modest and limited.

It's hard to forget about the success stories, though.  Crowdfunding has helped some prominent breakout films and launched careers, including those of Jeremy Saulnier with "Blue Ruin,"  Ana Lily Amirpour with "A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night," Josh Mond with "James White," and Justin Simien with "Dear White People."  Now both Kickstarter and Indiegogo  show up to the Sundance, SXSW, and other festivals every year to help promote slates of films that their platforms have helped to finance.  They've been especially important to documentaries, like "An Honest Liar" and "Finding Vivian Maier," and I'm very happy to see that more international projects are showing up in the mix.  There are hundreds of films that have been helped by one of these campaigns, and I think it's safe to say that without crowdfunding, many of them probably wouldn't exist.

It's apparent now, though, especially as the buzz around crowdfunding is starting to taper off, that it's not going to be any kind of major replacement for traditional investors.  The current models are simply too risky for both the funders and the funded, and the amounts of money involved are usually tiny.  However, crowdfunding seems to be a good option for other kinds of media producers, like podcasters and vloggers, whose work is much smaller scale.  Patreon, a crowdfunding site where funding is tied to producers delivering content on a regular basis, has been slowly gaining steam since its debut in 2013.

On a personal note, I haven't contributed to any crowdfunding campaign since "Anomalisa."  It wasn't to my tastes, but I don't regret spending the money, since it's clearly a film that meant a lot to many other people.  It's strange, because at the outset I thought my money was going to a 40 minute short film, but it turned out to be a full 90 minute feature.  I can't fault the creators for making this change, because it was surely with the best of intentions, but I have a strong feeling I would have liked the shorter version better.  I suppose that's one of the things that's been giving me pause about the whole crowdfunding business - I'm never going to have any guarantees about what my money is actually going towards.  

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