Film festivals used to be do-or-die moments for movie makers. They were where you met the producers that could fund your project, and if the buyers liked your flick, they’d pay to have it distributed to the only place it could be seen — the grande ole cinema.
But if they didn’t dig the idea or rough cut, your film never got made or was dead on arrival.
Fast-forward and it’s a very different scene. You might want connections to film’s elite or a critically acclaimed premier, but you don’t need them. Armed with just a rough concept, you can raise millions on crowdfunding platforms like Indiegogo and Kickstarter.
Once you’ve made your film, you might want it to get picked up by a major studio for widespread release, but you don’t need it. You could sell it directly from your website; cut revenue share deals to sell or stream it on sites like YouTube, Vimeo, or Netflix; or strike a major brand sponsorship to monetize. If it’s truly compelling, virality will do the rest of the work for you.
You might not end up on the cover of magazines, but the democratization of funding and distribution for movies means you have a better chance than ever to “make it” as a filmmaker. Don’t give up, young Spielberg.
“Since we launched in 2008, we’ve sent money to over 40,000 filmmakers in 166 countries” Indiegogo CEO Slava Rubin tells me. “Obviously that means you don’t have to come to Sundance to get the money.”
Rubin’s gone to the festival more times than he can count on his fingers, and we sat down at Sundance this year to discuss how crowdfunding is changing the purpose of the event.
“Maybe 10 years ago, it was almost as if it was a requirement to go through the film festival process. If you said ‘What is your biggest challenge?’ to filmmakers, they’d say ‘give me the money everything will be fine.’ Now they can get the money and can concentrate on other pain points.”
The big studios’ iron grip on distribution used to mean fans didn’t have much say. Rubin remembers catching the midnight Sundance screening of Korean neo-noir revenge masterpiece “Oldboy” that went on to become a cult classic. “I walked out and was like ‘This is amazing! This is unique!’ and right away I wanted to tell my friends about it but that was hard because YouTube didn’t exist and there weren’t as many instant ways to see this stuff on the Internet.”
Yet last year saw a film vaulted from the Internet to the big screen thanks to its audience. Dear White people began as a YouTube short lampooning the racist stereotypes and clichés common in black cinema. It’s the kind of incendiary art that doesn’t “play well” with the mainstream film industry.
Despite some viral traction, no studio would back the feature-length project. So the creators of “Dear White People” went on Indiegogo and raised $40,000, well surpassing their $25,000 goal, and convinced Code Red Films to provide some formal financing. The film was made, it premiered at Sundance last year, won some awards, and thanks to an audience that had already raised their hands online, it was picked up by distributors Lionsgate and Roadside Attractions.
Dear White People hit theaters in October, and Rubin says it’s grossed $4.4 million and counting, making it the biggest box office return for a crowdfunded film, surpassing Zach Braff’s “Wish I Was Here”. “I think Dear White People is an example of a film that does not get made unless there’s Indiegogo, plus YouTube and the audience.
Other films that sprung from Indiegogo include Roger Ebert documentary Life Itself, A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night, and A Connected Universe — the latest motion picture to complete funding on the platform.
Emboldened by the success, Indiegogo just announced a partnership with Vimeo that will see the video site set aside $1 million to invest in Indiegogo film products. Vimeo in turns becomes the crowdfunding service’s preferred distribution partner featuring a video-on-demand marketplace specifically for Indiegogo films.
But with the democratization of any medium comes an inevitable onslaught of homemade crap. Thanks to inexpensive production gear, along with crowdfunding and digital distribution, you can quickly go from dumb idea to stupid film shoot to moronic movie. So while Sundance might no be a bottleneck for money any more, it is still a bottleneck for curation.
“Festivals still act as a filtering system because buyers can’t see everything” says all-you-can-watch movie theater subscription service MoviePass‘ CEO Stacy Spikes. The long-time Sundance veteran asserts that “It’s also the watering hole where everyone gets together.” To go really big, you need the establishment’s help, “No matter how technologically savvy you are you still have to come meet people” says Stacy.
Rubin agrees, saying “Sundance is still where everyone comes together. The filmmakers, producers, distributors. Everyone’s in one place. I think that festivals are still important.”
It’s just the reason why has changed. And so has the crowd.
Tech companies like Airbnb, YouTube, and Uber now come to Park City, UT in full-force. Not coincidentally, all help film industry outsiders attend Sundance. You can preview the flicks on YouTube, find a last minute place to crash and Airbnb, and you don’t need a personal Escalade to cart you around when you can score them on-demand through Uber.
Now it feels like you’re almost as likely to run into some virtual reality startup founder as a movie star. That might be a good thing, though. Movie makers are probably wise to study the tricks mobile apps use to keep millenials engaged.
Rubin concludes that the new challenge is competing for attention. “In the era of Snapchat and Twitter, how do you get someone to watch a full-length film?”