Thursday 3 September 2015

Seven things I learned about crowdfunding movies

Alex Cox is the director of Repo Man, Sid and Nancy, In His Life, The Oxford Murders, and a bunch of others. For his next project, he is riding off into the Old West to make a film, courtesy of crowdfunding, an art he explored previously when making Bill the Galactic Hero.

Here are details of seven things Alex learned during that process.

Crowdfunding enabled us to make a piece that was simultaneously the cheapest deep-space intergalactic war movie ever, and the most lavish of student films. I was the principal director, screenwriter and production bookkeeper. Undergraduates did everything else: shot it, designed it, acted in it, edited it, composed the music and created the visual effects. Iggy Pop came in at the end and wrote the theme song: he and I were the only “professionals” involved.

Now I’m at it again – with a crew including former students, master screenwriter Rudy Wurlitzer and visual effects genius Phil Tippett, on a new crowdfunded western feature, Tombstone Rashomon. The first time, I knew nothing about crowdfunding.

This time, I bring seven pieces of knowledge to the party. Let me share them:

1. Digital rewards - but not entirely

Digital rewards or perks are best because there’s no physical product to create or ship. The funder downloads or streams the content, and voila! But most film backers are interested in a physical item — a DVD, a Blu-ray disc, a poster, perhaps a memorable prop from the film. For now, feature film-making remains a manufacturing process.

2. You don't need a social network as long as all your friends have one

I am still social-media illiterate and have never connected a project to Facebook. Fortunately I have many 21st-century friends, and I am shameless in begging them to get the word out.

3. Weird alliances produce good results

The Bill project was mentioned on film and science fiction sites, which generated hits and backers. But a surprisingly large number of donations came thanks to a mention on the tech site Slashdot. I’d backed a campaign for a Linux-based editing system called Openshot. Its creator supported Bill, and Slashdot picked the story up.

4. Don't underestimate shipping costs and complications

Between the time you raise your budget, and the time you have the DVDs and posters ready to go, shipping costs will have increased. You can count on this. And be discreet in how you describe the contents of your packages containing props on customs declarations. “Fake iPad” or “death ray gun” are likely to result in packages being opened and arriving empty, if at all.

5. Deliver the goods

Some crowdfunded campaigns deliver late. All film-makers are already bound by the cineaste’s code of on-time delivery, so the possibility of late delivery cannot apply to a film project. Film-making, unlike the construction or war industries, stays on schedule.

6. Offer survivable rewards or perks

Giving props or costumes from the film to supporters sounds like a great idea. They are infused with the essence of the film, and are unique. Unfortunately, they are also beat-to-shit. Amanda Gostomski, the production designer of Bill, looked around the prop room one day and said, “People don’t realize that everything on a film gets destroyed.” This is unfortunately true: first priority is to protect the cast, crew and camera equipment. So this time we’re offering indestructible props, like replica pistols and silver-headed walking sticks, while advising that costumes “may contain bullet holes”.

7. Stay in touch

People crowdfund a film because they are genuinely interested in it. They want to watch the picture, but their interest extends beyond the screening. The crowdfunding supporter gives the film-maker a gift in the form of money. It’s a gesture of solidarity, and practical support. In return, the film-maker shares more than the finished product: they share the writing process, the location scouts, the casting, the shoot, post-production, music, visual effects. All this is of interest to the film’s funders. Staying in touch – by frequent online updates, by posting behind-the-scenes videos and audio of interest – is the most important practice.

Crowdfunding puts film-makers in direct contact with their potential audience. There are no “gatekeepers” or studio heads or marketers, beyond the good people at Kickstarter and Indiegogo, who seem to have a genuine desire to see good films get made. I’ve been lucky so far, so I’m gambling again, on a Rashomon-style story of gambler-gunfighters, in Tombstone, Arizona, in 1881.

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