Crowdfunding and Movies

cell_atrocities_kickstarter_75And while I’m suspicious of motivations for using it more often than not, any website that can save my favorite video store in the world gets a pass in my book.

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The first time I used Kickstarter was in early 2010, before I even understood what it was, and I donated $10 to a Portland-based film project that advertised itself as being “similar to the early films of the infamous John Waters.” (Note to aspiring filmmakers: it’s easy to dupe $10 out me if you claim to be influenced by Waters.) In the five years since I’ve made that donation, Kickstarter and its ilk, such as Indiegogo, have become real forces in the independent and off-kilter film community. It makes sense—it almost seems like that’s exactly what those websites were made for.

What’s interesting about film-related crowdfunding these days is how it’s being used, by whom, and for what. Funding a film with Kickstarter is a total tightrope—if you remotely have the means or to get your film funded outside of Kickstarter, you’re perceived as greedy and abusive if you try to use it (I’m trying really hard to not mention Zach Braff’s name right now), but then for smaller, student-type films, it seems like it can more harm than good. In the past couple of months alone I’ve personally been acquainted with several people who have been trying to fund a film with Kickstarter, and in every case I’d sooner just give them $20 in cash, rather than seeing about 10% of it go to the middleman—Kickstarter.

It’s like the omnipresence of those abhorrent Visa “gift cards” people pay $110 for around Christmastime, so that some other schmuck they gift it to can use it as a $100 debit card—you’re just donating dollars to big corporations, which in my book is never a good thing. So if you’re asking strangers for money via Kickstarter, you’re probably greedy, and if you’re asking friends and family for money via Kickstarter, there are better, more economically appropriate ways of getting the job done.

So what use is Kickstarter, then? Well, like I said, it’s a tightrope, but it is possible to walk. A certain type of filmmaker can land right in the sweet spot where you’re proud to help them with their project. That’s how it has been for me and my contribution to Christopher Doyle’s Hong Kong Trilogy project. Doyle is best known for being the genius cinematographer who shot all of Wong Kar-wai’s strongest and most beautiful films (Chungking Express, Happy Together, In the Mood for Love, 2046, you name it), and his current project is a documentary series about the Occupy protests going on in Hong Kong, structured as three films, one each devoted to the city’s children (preschool-aged), twenty- and thirty-somethings, and over 50s.

Documentary filmmaking is generally not a profitable endeavor for anyone involved in it, and while I’d rank Doyle amongst the greatest living filmmakers (cinematography division), his name doesn’t exactly have the cache of, say, a Michael Moore or an Alex Gibney. As such, I’m delighted to make the Hong Kong Trilogy the second film I’ve ever donated money to on Kickstarter, and I’ll compulsively check the site for progress, to boot. So in that regard, Kickstarter has a strong edge to get audiences truly excited about movies that are currently in production. (Note to readers: The Hong Kong Trilogy Kickstarter ends on February 5th, so by the time you’re reading this you’re probably already too late.)

While helping an independent filmmaker fund their film with Kickstarter may make sense, a recent trend has started leaning toward helping already-finished films get released. In some cases perfectly justifiable, this method seems to be lacking a bit in glamour. (And need. If the movie’s already made, it seems like if it were marketable it would get picked up by a distributor, thereby rendering a Kickstarter to get it released redundant. But then, the film industry rarely works the way one wants it to.) Filmmakers such as David Cross and Jemaine Clement have recently gone this route, and if you’re a meet-and-greet-craving fan-boy this can be a neat option, but for most others it looks like a shameless cash grab from the well-heeled to the unwashed masses.

If you’re predisposed to distrusting those with more money than you, or if you just harbor an overall jadedness about the film industry, all of this asking of fans for money can be very off-putting. I certainly don’t blame you for this position. That said, it might change your mind to see yet another way crowdfunding has broken into the film industry—DVD labels have been using it to start up new projects that are outside of the purview of their normal operating costs. Most instances of this almost seem too good to be true—as a consumer, you generally pledge to pre-order (and pre-pay) for goods and/or services to be distributed at a later date, and in doing so you A) help get the project off the ground, and B) generally get those goods and services considerably cheaper than you otherwise would have. For example, the much-beloved British DVD label Arrow had an Indiegogo campaign in late 2014 to create a U.S. arm of the same company, and at the lowest tiers, supporters got t-shirts, DVDs, and/or blu-rays for less than their retail price will be upon regular release, and the higher tiers got, say, every single release Arrow does for the next three or ten years for one relatively low price. Currently, the label Vinegar Syndrome has a similar campaign to begin a Netflix-like streaming service for their archives of weird old sexploitation flicks. Again, donating is like getting a Groupon for future use, if Groupon offered limited edition blu-rays of 70s porn. So if you’re a cheapo consumer trying to get the most out of your limited entertainment dollars, supporting a home-video label trying something new blows other uses of crowdfunding out of the water.

All this in mind, it isn’t surprising that Kickstarter does things like curate pages of Sundance Film Festival-related campaigns, or that Indiegogo and Vimeo announced a partnership that will aid in the funding and distribution of films. (The latter news can only be viewed as a good thing, as I’ve had much, much better luck with Vimeo’s general level of quality and reliability when it comes to streaming independent films as compared to some of its more high-profile competitors.) Despite the fact that Kickstarter has been around for about six years, the whole crowdfunding thing is new enough that we haven’t entirely figured out the best uses for it and the best ways to handle it, both as money-askers and money-givers. And while I’m suspicious of motivations for using it more often than not, any website that can save my favorite video store in the world gets a pass in my book, even if I never heard anything again from those wannabe John Waters filmmakers. | Pete Timmermann

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