If you’re a beginning videographer or an established film director you know the biggest hurdle to making a big, high-quality film or video is securing funding for equipment and other people’s time and talents. Traditionally speaking there are have been three methods of finding funding: approaching a studio, approaching an independent studio or the truly independent route which can be likened to begging — in a suit.
The Lay of the Land
Studio films are made by large studios like Paramount or Twentieth Century Fox with budgets ranging from sixty to over one hundred fifty million dollars — the current record holder being Pirates of the Caribbean 4: On Stranger Tides at 378.5 million dollars. These big-budget films usually feature big name actors and famous directors, and the final creative decisions are made by the studios.
Independent films are typically low to mid range budget films anywhere from zero to a million dollars. Independents can feature big name stars but are forced to balance stars’ salaries with production value due to budget constraints. The main benefit of independent funding is that filmmakers retain more control over creative editorial decisions when studio heads aren’t in control of a film’s purse strings.
Studios have adapted to the market over the years creating smaller subsidiaries meant to take risks on new talent, ideas and methods referred to as — wait for it — Independent Studios. A few examples of titles from Twentieth Century Fox’s independent studio Fox Searchlight include “Little Miss Sunshine,” “Sideways” and “Juno.” Typical of the independent studio system, these films were made with smaller budgets, featured slightly less than leading actors but benefit from being studio subsidiaries with considerable amounts of distribution and advertising dollars.
With advent of crowdfunding, film and video makers now have the option to seek funding directly from their audiences.
Traditionally these three avenues have been the only routes to gather funds for films and left filmmakers with the choice of either pitching to studios and stomaching the blow to their creative control or spending enormous amounts of time raising their own funds, adding months or even years to any independent project. With advent of crowdfunding, film and video makers now have the option to seek funding directly from their audiences. This gives them the freedom to find funding in a time-efficient manner and still maintain their creative integrity — a first in the media industry bound to produce exciting results.
A Little Bit of Background
At this point I could go on to tell you the dry statistical history of digital Crowdfunding and its rise to notoriety, or I can give an examples by describing the journey of arguably one of its most interesting champions right now — Alejandro Jodorowsky. Along with directors like Spike Lee and Zach Braff, auteur filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky has made full use of crowdfunding and his underground following, raising $744,462
to date for his most recent film, “Poesía Sin Fin” (or “Endless Poetry”). Jodorowsky’s path shows the potential of a crowdfunded film industry that can support visions normally burdened with exhaustive fundraising. Not that crowdfunding is exclusively for boundary pushing creators like Jodorowsky, but his successful campaigns show the tolerance and even hunger, to support traditionally marginalized material.
Originally an artist and thespian, Jodorowsky made the move into film in 1968 with his controversial hit “Fando y Lis.” First shown at the Acapulco Film Fest, the film inspired an actual riot, forcing Jodorowsky to flee from the theater hidden from sight in the back of waiting police car. Many critics later went on to praise the film they first scorned, and it eventually garnered support from big names like Roman Polanski but continued to receive mixed reviews from critics in the United States.
“Fando y Lis” set the stage for the rest of his career being an auteur both reviled and revered for his work, often splitting critics down the middle. Making controversial films and being resolute to continue making controversial films put Jodorowsky outside of the paradigm of major studios and forced him to develop alternate funding sources. When he released “El Topo” in 1970, John Lennon and the Beatles manager Allen Klein were that alternate source, putting up a million dollars for his next piece, “Holy Mountain,” which was well received by critics despite distribution issues in the United States.
Skipping forward to his autobiographical trilogy Jodorowsky choose to fund his first film in twenty four years without studio support. Starting with a personal website for “The Dance of Reality” to accept funds, he later moved to Kickstarter to cover the production costs for the second film in the trilogy, “Endless Poetry,” and finally to Indiegogo for post-production funds. Both campaigns for “Endless Poetry” were successful, raising over one hundred percent of both goals for a total of $744,462, nearly twenty-five percent of the estimated three million dollar budget.
Jodorowsky intends to lose money when making films to, in his words, spurn the filmmaking industry and continue to make films that heal. Being that his films are not huge blockbusters that easily fund new films, he has become skilled at raising funds, and there’s a lot to learn from his techniques whether you want to make art house cinema or pursue a career as a videographer.
Funding has been a recurrent hurdle in Jodorowsky’s career, having to abandon multiple plays in his youth for a lack of funds and famously having to abandon three years of work on the first film iteration of “Dune.”
An important technique in his fundraising is that he diversifies funding sources. In the post-production Indiegogo campaign for “Endless Poetry,” he asked for only a portion of the total funds needed. This is powerful because your crowdsourcing campaign doesn’t have to become a live or die situation for your project if you choose to do the same, and as you continue to make films, you can foster both a crowdsourcing audience and other positive funding relationships with organizations, individuals or funding programs like grants, fellowships or initiative among others.
Stacking Up The Cash
Receiving funds from one source can encourage other investors to sign on. Seeing that someone else already believes enough in your project to put up funds and a successful crowdfunding campaign can be a huge gold star on your pitch to other investors.
Jodorowsky got creative with the rewards approach in both his Kickstarter and his Indiegogo campaigns. Using what are becoming standard crowdfunding film perks like MP3 downloads of the sound track and streaming of the film, he filled out the different tiers of donation, but he also had fun and created his own currency in exchange for backers’. The currency, dubbed “poetic money,” serves as memorabilia for Jodorowsky fans and would also eventually, as described by himself, become imbued with value by the film’s cultural significance after its release.
So you have a film or video project and you want to get to crowdfunding. Many of the preliminary steps to crowdfunding your project are the same as any other method, starting with a script. Before even logging into a crowdfunding platform, you’ll need to make both a lowest and highest possible budget. Some of the specifics vary here because platforms like Kickstarter are an all-or-nothing style, where other platforms like Indiegogo let you use whatever amount you raise. We’ll go into those details later on when you decide which platform is best for your specific project.
To get your high and low budget, you will need to figure out your above the line costs and below the line costs. You can do this by making your shooting schedule, lining your script and breaking it down to give you a preliminary budget. Next take a look at your above the line items like actors and directors salaries and you will have a rough gauge of your budget range. Your below the line items like crew, staff and equipment will narrow down your final range and give you the goals for your crowdsourcing campaign. With your script, schedule and budget in hand you can now make a video appealing to your potential backers.
Using Your Video Making Skills
Now that you have all of your concrete information you can start using your video making skills to make a video summing up your project. The video serves as the face of your campaign and a piece of media potential backers can share anywhere on the net, so it is very important to make an appealing and accessible video.
Now your crowdsourcing page can serve multiple functions as a fundraising platform and publicity tool. For example, for “Wish I Was Here,” Zach Braff’s directorial follow up to “Garden State,” he included a weekly production diary with every donation of ten dollars or more. That effectively signed up most of his backers to a weekly newsletter that had inherent value because they paid for it and served as advertising for the project, reaching over 46,000 people weekly.
Making the Choice: All-or-Nothing or Keep-it-All
The next step of choosing a platform would have been a breeze only a couple years ago, but in a few short years, the list of options has blossomed with the success of the flagships like Kickstarter and Indiegogo. Millions of dollars of investing into crowdsourcing has made it possible to find platforms to raise funds for everything from paying off student loans to getting financial support for breast implants. Thankfully, they can be split into two main groups determined by the site, which will either require a minimum goal be met (all-or-nothing) for funds to be distributed or not (keep-it-all).
In all-or-nothing style platforms like Kickstarter, every project must reach a financial goal set by the creator by the end of the campaign or one hundred percent of the funds raised are automatically returned to donors and the creator is left with nothing but a bad taste in their mouth. The contrary method, keep-it-all, used in platforms like Indiegogo, doesn’t require a minimum goal and any funds raised by the end of the drive can be kept by the creators. This method however requires that if the funds are too small to complete the project in any form, it’s the campaign manager’s responsibility to return all funds to donors, a daunting task if the project attracted a large number of supporters.
This is the main choice you will face when picking a one time crowdsourcing platform, a goal or no goal. According to a 2015 study of crowdfunding platforms by Leeds School of Business, “Small scalable projects [averaging $20,478 or less] are more likely to be funded through the KIA scheme, while large non-scalable projects are more likely to be funded through the AON scheme.” Looking at previous successful and unsuccessful campaigns show that the intended goal dictates which model will help your campaign get funded. Projects like Films that call for budgets above $20,478 will have more success with AON style campaigns whereas smaller video projects costing less than $20,478 with have more like starting a KIA campaign.
Gear Up to Launch Your Campaign
The most important step before officially launching your campaign countdown is to start your own countdown leading up to that launch. Far too often I’ve seen projects fail to do this and just as their campaign starts to gain a little steam the countdown ends. You may only have a limited amount of time to officially receive funds through a platform, but you have all the time in the world to start spreading awareness of your campaign in advance, so making use of the time before the clock starts ticking is invaluable to your project. Getting a ground swell of support before beginning helps start a drive strong and plant seeds that may bloom later mid-campaign.
By planting seeds I mean advertising online, scheduling appearances with radio stations, television stations or podcasts, all of which can reach people directly or spread the word to people who will possibly donate later on. Once the campaign has kicked off, your sole job is to promote the project until you can’t find a person you haven’t told cross-promoting yourself on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, and staying diligent with reward updates on your platform of choice.
With all of your hard work and a bit of luck, you will soon have not only a funded project but also an audience you can take you on your next big project and beyond.
SIDEBAR 1:Subscription Based and Other Forms of Crowdfunding
There are several other methods of crowdfunding — some relevant and some not — that are important to be aware of, most importantly Subscription based funding.
In equity-based funding donors own a portion of a proposed business. In debt-based funding investors receive their original donation back plus interest in return for donation. Finally, in subscription-based funding content creators gather patrons who support their work by pledging a custom amount of money every time a new piece of work is uploaded.
For the purposes of film and video making, equity-based funding is irrelevant unless you are thinking of forming a production company.
Debt-based funding would be almost identical to traditional funding, mandating a profit on the backend. Depending on the length of the project and funds needed for completion — which are often long and high in film — could be a hefty sum once everything is shot and edited.
Subscription-based funding like Patreon.com is a great choice for those who make videos often. Content creators of all kinds can set up a profile and start soliciting subscribers similar to public radio subscription. If you make videos often this platform is perfect, allowing for a regular source of income and a eager connected audience. Some creators, like Every Frame a Painting, make over $5,000 a video and have access to their audience immediately for things like feedback and creative direction. Audience building takes a lot of time and effort but with platforms like Patreon can be very rewarding, creatively and financially.
SIDEBAR 2: Additional Crowdsourcing Tools
Although crowdsourcing is still in its infancy, it’s already produced many new avenues to meet film and video makers needs on and off the set. For example, if you’d prefer not to have to do all the hard work of fundraising, now you can simply shop your script around to studios from the comfort of your computer. Amazon Studios, JuntoBox and Trigger Street allow you to submit a script, have it reviewed and, if it receives a favorable reception, you could have a green lit script ready for pre-production.
Maybe you’ve done all the fundraising but left little time to find a casting agent or do it yourself; TentSquare and VoiceBunny make it easy to find talent that fits your needs in a timely fashion without having to put out a time consuming casting call.
TentSquare, alternately dubbed a social media site for artists, allows anyone to search their database of talent by name, location, skills or union membership to find the best fit for any project. They also feature regular short video challenges with occasional prizes like a paid trip to the Fly Film Festival for making an original Hitchcock inspired scene, making it a site to keep tabs on whether looking for talent or not.
Finally if you have a film or video you think has an audience, but distribution has been elusive, Tugg.com comes to the rescue. Tugg allows video and filmmakers to request a screening at participating theaters, and if enough people buy tickets to the screening the theater will host your film. Their theater database is robust, and includes partnerships with Cinemark, Landmark Theaters, Alamo Drafthouse Cinemas and more, providing many options for screenings in individual cities or even film screening tours throughout the country. The site is filled with films making the rounds around the US often selling out from the looks of it, but their filmmaker commission leaves a lot to be desired. With a fee of only five percent on each screening, even a huge theater seating one thousand people would only make fifty dollars. Although exposure to audiences across the country through this platform is extremely valuable, most of the money made from screenings goes directly to the theaters and not the creator.
Finally we would be remiss if we failed to mention a favorite crowdsourcing platform, Wreckamovie. We leave this for last because although it’s a great platform and had some success in its day, it’s no longer operational. The platform was a collaborative film production tool that allowed video and filmmakers to outsource singular tasks like graphics, film scores and even title and end sequences. In terms of production, the Finland-based site made the act of video and filmmaking a truly communal exercise and accessible to anyone. According to Cisco Systems Finland “Wreckamovie [was] a model example of the potential of web 2.0” and presents a new model of filmmaking that is the exact opposite of the traditional way of makings films, something to look forward to under a new name in the future. The site may no longer exist, but the spirit lives on — which you can visit for yourself in an online forum discussing their first successful project, a “Star Trek” parody called “Star Wreck: In the Pirkinning.”
Sky Scholfield has been producing videos for clients including National Public Radio, The Smithsonian and NGOs throughout Northern California for over ten years. He now lives and works freelance in Portland, OR.