Saturday, 19 July 2014

Crowdfunded Films (VOR #20)

Want to make in Hollywood without the backing of a major studio? Fear not, the Internet has the answer. Crowdfunding movies may not be anything new, but is it about to take off in a big way? Watch out 20th Century Fox, Kickstarter's coming for ya. 

Once upon a time, making a movie meant you had to have one thing - a studio and production company to fund the whole shebang. MGM, Paramount, Universal, you know the bunch. Sure, independent production studios offered a smaller scale solution, but if you were an up-and-coming filmmakers, finding your break was always going to be tough. In many ways, it still is.

However, in 2014 there are other routes, other methods of gathering the resources film-makers need to do what they do. Through the power of the Interwebs, impoverished moviemakers can cut out of the middle man and entice audiences into directly funding their new movie. I am of course referring to such buzz words as 'crowdfunding' or 'crowdsourcing' through sites like Kickstarter or Indiegogo. This concept won't be new to many, but the big question is, what does this new framework mean for the movie industry? Will it last, and for how long?

We've seen some pretty large film projects emerge through crowdfunding sites in the last few years - many of which are fronted by a known-face, someone who resonates with the public or has an established audience. The most notable example of course is the Veronica Mars movie, which starred Kristen Bell.

A popular television show running from 2004 to 2007, Veronica Mars saw Bell (now best known for having a thing for building snowmen in Disney's Frozen) play a high-school/college student who moonlights as a private detective in her fictional hometown of Neptune, California. This series ran for 3 seasons (64 episodes) before it was abruptly canned. As a popular show that regularly drew an audience of 2.5 million viewers, Veronica Mars found a home on Kickstarter in 2013, with the show runners keen to bring the show to a satisfactory close and tie-up loose ends in movie form.

Just a year and a day after setting up a page on Kickstarter, Veronica Mars (the movie) hit cinemas, having churned through the $5.7 million budget raised through eager fans of the show. The whole thing was very reminiscent of Serenity, the film conclusion to Joss Whedon's Firefly TV series. The only exception was that Veronica Mars' budget had been entirely sourced by the audience. Another notable example is Zach Braff's recent movie Wish I Was Here, which saw over 60,000 people pool in excess of $3M over Kickstarter.

This growing trend isn't just restricted to cancelled TV shows and quirky indie stars; Internet production companies are getting in on the action also. The crew over at popular web studio Rooster Teeth are putting together a feature length movie called Lazer Team, which last time I checked, had found a budget of around US$2.5 million. In fact, it reached its original $650,000 target in less than 12 hours, highlighting the sheer speed at which popular but under budgeted studios can generate cash for a project if the audience is keen and willing to chip in.

Of course, this is all well and good, but if these movies fail to make money after being released, what's the point? Unfortunately for a movie like Veronica Mars, a gross of just over $3 million is massively disappointing given that it had a budget which was double that. Does this mean that crowdfunding isn't the answer indie film-makers were looking for after all?

Some would even argue that the concept of crowdfunding is being lost with the recent unveiling of Junction, a site which has been dubbed 'Kickstarter for the rich'. Junction is similar in concept to Kickstarter, with the exception that donations must be in excess of a million dollars. You know, just in case you wanted to chip in, that's where the bar is at. No biggie.

This means that only big stars or industry figures can make their mark on a project, and all of a sudden things have come full circle. The movies looking to generate a budget on Junction might not be big(ish) name properties, but they do have some serious star-power behind them - Tom Hanks for one is signed up for a movie called A Hologram For A King, whilst others names like Aaron Paul, Casey Affleck, Woody Harrelson, Kate Winslet and Chiwetel Ejiofor are all attached to a project called Triple Nine.

However, I think that this can be viewed in a very positive light - it again breaks away from the current studio-dominated model that sees increasingly franchised films lined-up on a conveyer belt and managed by a brain trust. Think Disney and their ever expanding super team of directors like JJ Abrams, Josh Trank, Gareth Edwards and Rian Johnson. All great film-makers, but constrained by one goal or over-arching story. Edwards has to confer with Abrams, and Trank has to talk with them both. It's a viable tactic for franchises, but for some it may appear to clinical or cohesive, with little room for individual expression.

Film-makers like Braff are utilising crowd-funding in an attempt to maintain 100% artistic control over their movie, rather than some modern blockbusters that are scripted and produced by a boardroom. Marvel Studios recent falling out with Edgar Wright shows how meddling with a film-makers vision can cause complications. You can see what I'm saying, but maybe that's a column for another time.

They say too many cooks spoil the broth, so it's understandable to see why people like Braff are keen to strike out on their own. But whether this trend of sourcing a budget through audiences will stick, only time will tell. If budgets can be found then great, I'm all for it. But if they can't be recouped, then maybe these string of movies are just a quick flash in the pan. And that'd be a damn shame.

In the meantime, I'll just sit here and keep my fingers tightly crossed for another Karl Urban/Dredd movie to start asking for donations...


  1. Great write up! I think crowd funded films can go both ways. I didn't mind Veronica Mars doing it because they had to prove to their studio that people were actually interested. Zach Braff on the other hand really could've put his own money into it and still maintained control. (I think anyways) I kind of feel like he put a bad rep on crowd funding.

    I had never heard of Junction before this though, that's interesting!

    1. Interesting idea! Braff's film has been getting some really mixed and negative reviews as well, I wonder if that notion of crowdfunding when it wasn't entirely needed has affected that. Thanks for commenting Brittani!

  2. Crowdfunding sounds like an interesting idea. Maybe there's a way I could use it to finally get funding for one of my scripts. I'd just need to somehow acquire the equipment and a crew.

    1. Certainly worth a shot, even if you only set a small target at first. There is growing community of film-makers out there trying to raise some dough :) Thanks for commenting!

  3. I know this is the age of social media and such things are easier than ever, but it seems that where crowd funded movies are losing out the most is in advertising. Being able to pool resources from a willing public is great, but if those who donated are the only ones who pay to see it I'm not sure how much was accomplished. I understand that not every filmmaker is only out to make a ton of money with their projects, but even the most aesthetically driven auteurs out there can't survive on critical acclaim alone. I don't think crowd funding will go completely away because there will always be people who just want to make a movie. However, whether movies can consistently make money that way will determine how viable an option it is for people serious about making films for a living.

    1. My point exactly! Right now, the idea of crowdfunding a movie has just graduated from being a cute novelty to a semi-serious pathway. But we haven't yet seen a big breakthrough film that has made back substantially more than its original budget. I don't know too many people outside of fans of Veronica Mars who would be interested in seeing a concluding movie. Thanks for commenting Wendell :)



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