Just days after the domestic rights to the Zach Braff-directed and Kickstarter-funded Wish I Was Here sold for $2.75 million to Focus Features at the Sundance Film Festival, there’s a new crowd-funding plan making the rounds here in Park City. While his Passion First Funding isn’t up and running yet, Dogfight producer Richard Guay, who has been part of the New York indie scene for years, thinks he’s found a way that people can actually see some financial return for contributing to future projects like Braff’s movie. “It’s going to bring traditional financing and the power of the crowd together,” he told me today. The idea comes out of aspects of the 2012 Jumpstart Our Business Startups Act that permit general solicitation of accredited investors. The act was intended for startups in general, of which film is but a niche, but in this case people putting money in to a project seeking crowd-funding won’t just be getting a signed poster or set visit but they could actually make their money back as well as profits. The SEC has finalized some regulations but has others still out for comment and likely won’t move on implementing them until much later this year. So right now Passion First Funding is an idea and an online landing page. However, it still raises a wealth of possibilities in this new and fast-changing sector of the industry. Eventually someone’s going to figure out how to make crowd-funding work financially for the crowd as well as those they fund.
Until then, I know there will continue to be some who think Kickstarter and other current crowd-funding outlets are a scam. They think that guys like Spike Lee, who raised just over $1.41 million off Kickstarter for a film last year and former Scrubs star Braff are rich dudes getting something for nothing and in the end a film and its profits for free. After producer Stacey Sher suggested Kickstarter, Braff, who told me before Sundance that he did in fact put some of his own money into the film, raised $3.1 million last spring in 30 days. That was over $1M more than he initially asked for, but the reaction was so good he raised the goal. The attitudes of some is that, with another almost $2 million in interim financing from Worldview Entertainment, Braff was able to risk-free make the film he just scored big with here at Sundance. It drives critics “apeshit,” as Braff said at the Sundance premiere, that he put in nothing or little and he and his producers get all the profits and the little guys and girls who gave him cash are left empty-handed.
It’s a nice pitch, but I wouldn’t donate.
What I think a lot of current crowd-funding critics don’t get is that this is an exchange between the asker and the giver. It is not sold nor perceived as an investment. You give me money for my movie because I’m going to give you X, Y and Z in return, depending on how much you give me. And in the process, through the exchange itself plus updates and other outreach mechanisms, the filmmaker will bring you the feeling of being closer to the process than the average moviegoer gets. I personally gave Lee $10 toward his Kickstarter campaign because I’ve long been a fan of his work and because I was promised and received a signed Jungle Fever postcard for my donation. I like that movie, so it seemed like a fair exchange to me. Partially thanks to my minor contribution, Spike made Da Sweet Blood Of Jesus, the Jungle Fever postcard is stuck up on my fridge, and I get a zillion emails updating me on the project.
This is not a billionaire’s kid financing blockbusters and buying their way into Hollywood and studio distribution. This is fans like me taking advantage of social media to make an impulse buy and some bragging rights. Nobody gets hurt and everybody seems happy; so what’s the problem? With that in mind, Kickstarter data reveals that the big boys help the smaller ones — donors attracted to the Spike and the Braff pitches also spend time and money on lesser-known projects.
I’ve talked to plenty of filmmakers, small and large, and they love the Kickstarter process not just because of the access to dough but because it cuts to the chase: They find out in 30 days if their project is going to fly or not. No endless and often fruitless back and forth crafting a deal with financiers, producers or studios. No elongated development and production by committee. It’s a clean arrangement that rises or falls fast on market value from their target market. If it works out like it did for Braff, the Veronica Mars crew or Spike, a picture is born. If not, it’s disappointing but you move on — hopefully having gleaned some insight from the process to better sharpen a project for next time.
There is a reason that crowd-funding has been a major topic of discussion here. Guay’s Passion First Funding announcement comes the same day as Kickstarter’s third annual party in Park City. Tonight, Kickstarter holds that bash to celebrate the films they helped fund that are appearing in this year’s festival. Hopefully they’ve rented a big room, because a total of 20 documentaries, shorts and features have been staked or partly staked by Kickstarter. These films include Braff’s Wish I Was Here and Drunktown’s Finest, which has Sundance patriarch Robert Redford on its roster of exec producers. Kickstarter is behind about 10% of the total films at this year’s Sundance. That’s pretty remarkable in such a short span of time.
Obviously there are people who donate and walk away bitter, something that could be exacerbated if one of these films turns a big profit: Donors reap no financial benefit beyond whatever tchotchke they signed on for. They should read the not-so-fine print before they start squawking. One of the trades made a small splash about a handful of Wish I Was Here donors who showed here at Sundance on the weekend for the premiere and expected to be handed tickets they were never promised. Most of them gave between $50 and $500 to the pic, and they were upset.
Before he knew his flick would get into Sundance, Braff told potential donors last spring through Kickstarter that if they gave more than $750, they’d get tickets to the either a NYC or LA premiere of the film. Donors of $200 or more got an invite to one of the advance screenings of the film and a Braff Q&A in Berlin, Chicago, London or one of 9 other locations. For the 150 backers who gave $1,000 or more, the carrot was tickets to the one of the coastal premiere plus an invite to the afterparty. On the flip side, the 9,133 donors who gave $10 or less got an email production diary and will get a copy of the script after the film’s release.
“Making a movie is hard enough, but simultaneously making sure that all our amazing backers felt taken care of made it almost two projects in one,” Braff told me. “We had people that were full time making sure that our backers felt like the VIPs they are.” He seemed slightly defensive when he said this, but to me he did not sound like a guy who is exploiting his fans.