Crowd Funding or Crowd Fleecing?

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On September 13, 1996, a young, wanna-be American film director, fresh out Harvard University, was in the process of funding his micro-budget feature. That morning he made a note in his diary (which he, rather eccentrically, decided to publish live on the internet for any old Tom, Dick or Harriet to see):

“Associate Producer Scott Franklin came up with “the scheme to end all schemes.” We’ve been asking every person we know for $100. We drew up a clever letter and searched our rolodexes. The letter is doing well. People seem positive and we’ve already brought in over a grand. Anything to get it done.”

The director was Darren Aronofsky. The film, an obscure psychological thriller called Pi, shot in high-contrast, black and white 16mm. In this unconventional fashion, they raised about $60,000 and shot the film. After a limited theatrical release, it coined in over $3m in DVD sales, launching the career of one of the most highly-rated American arthouse directors in the last two decades.

Whether Scott Franklin inadvertently invented crowd funding or not, he was certainly one of the first in the film industry to use a donation-based financing model. Perhaps without Franklin’s stroke of inspiration, cinema would be missing such titles as Requiem for a Dream, The Fountain and Black Swan.

Crowd funding, then, is a concept founded on the need provide a ‘kick start’ for a project that would struggle to get funding from traditional sources. It’s a scheme that gives anybody a shot and, who knows, they could end up enriching the cultural landscape for everyone.

But it’s a scheme that has recently exploded, as new platforms tap into the commercial power of the world wide web. Sites such as indiegogo, sponsume and the biggest of all kickstarter are now almost an unavoidable phase of the financing and marketing process of any lower budget film. So you can be sure film schools will soon providing courses on such skills as designing “reward levels”, if they aren’t already.

With arts funding being decimated across the western economies, it’s no small consolation that a channel is emerging through which struggling filmmakers can draw necessary succour, without having to compete with the all-consuming heavy hitters of the industry. That is, until recently.

If Franklin’s “scheme to end all schemes” proves to be the seed from which grew the tree of life for independent film, the moment Rob Thomas’ Veronica Mars project cleaned up on kickstarter to the tune of $5.7m could prove to be the first axe-blow to it’s fragile trunk. Having set his target at $2m, and finding it met with within 11 hours, Rob got greedy. Zach Braff may just be delivering the next blow, as the Scrubs actor (reportedly worth $22m) takes $1.5m on the first day for his Garden State sequel project Wish I Was Here.

Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that as soon as a glint of money is spotted, those who have shown a knack for mopping up far more than their fair share already should suddenly appear, rolling their mighty PR machines before them.

Because it’s not just a matter of putting up a worthy project, then sit back and wait for the coffers to fill. Every crowd funding campaign needs dedicated campaigners, prepared to slog away for a couple of months, as they attempt to persuade friends, family and the general public to altruistically part company with whatever they can spare.

But why bother with hard work when you can just throw $20,000 or so at a PR company and get your campaign straight into the major media outlets on day 1? And this is just the beginning.

You can bet your bottom kickstarter pledge wealthy and powerful filmmaking big shots across the vales of Hollywood and beyond, who until now had looked condescendingly down upon the whole idea of asking the general public for money, are at this moment penning carefully worded pleas claiming to be martyrs to their art.

The danger is, those with the biggest wallets will take control of the platform. As huge PR budgets have come to rule cinema distribution, to the point where your choice of viewing is between one superhero blockbusters or another, so might this financial bullying also come to dominate crowd funding.

How then will the next Pi get funded and distributed? Well, perhaps it will be some wanna-be filmmaker who dusts off her rolodex and sends a letter to her friends and family asking for $100. Whatever happens, and Braff is already experiencing something of a lashback, is it fair that someone with the means to fund his film conventionally, instead uses his audience? The same audience who will most likely end up paying again to see the film.

Is this crowd funding, or crowd fleecing?

Simon Horrocks is an independent filmmaker, digital content producer and professional composer. He has worked in the entertainment industry for over 25 years, collaborating with several notable artists, musicians and filmmakers. His music is used on film and TV around the globe. His debut film was the first micro-budget feature-length film to show at peak time on the BFI IMAX screen, the biggest in the UK.