The sky's the limit

We take a look at crowdfunding with three producers who've tried and tested it.

by Jennie Kermode

This week sees the release of Iron Sky, an independent film about space Nazis that has clawed its way onto the big screen thanks in large part to crowdfunding. Although some have speculated that the fad for raising money this way cannot last, it's attracting an increasing amount of interest from established filmmakers. What leads people to finance their films this way, and how well can it really be expected to work?

Jarrod Whaley used crowfunding for his second feature, The Glass Slipper, which was released last year. "It helped that I'd already made a film," he says, referring to Hell Is Other People. "A lot of my online contacts had seen it or had at least read some of the reviews. Another thing that made things easier, I think, was the fact that we'd shot a complete test scene and posted it to the Kickstarter page, my Web site, Facebook, etc. The scene was a pretty compelling one, I think; it turned out so well that we actually used it in the film with very little alteration."

Pitching to the crowd is very different from pitching to a studio and it's all the more important to have something visual to show at the outset. Of course, big names also help. Ross Bigley is currently seeking funding for a film called Yellow Hill that will star Bai Ling, known for her work in films like Southland Tales and The Crow. He's started out with a short film designed to catch potential investors' attention. "Yellow Hill: The Stranger's Tale features Bai Ling as the Stranger, a gender switch to the classic Eastwood/Leone creation from the Dollars trilogy... Its goal is to gain awareness for the feature, hit the festival circuit and get people excited about the stories we want to tell. The budget for the short isn't very expensive, it just covers locations, wardrobe and accommodations. All actors and crew are donating their time and energy."

Braxton Pope, meanwhile, already had a strong reputation as a producer thanks to films like Shrink and The Take. He also had the advantage of working with cult author Bret Easton Ellis, the creator of American Psycho. "This film is the result of a stillborn project that the novelist Bret Easton Ellis, director Paul Schrader and myself as producer had been collaborating on," he says of new project The Canyons. "We were subjected to foreign currency fluctuations, a problematic financier and Spanish government subsidies which became increasingly difficult to access. As with many independent films, though this was backed in part by a studio, the number of moving parts from the financing side made things complicated and ultimately didn’t get us to the finish line. The frustration of subjecting ourselves to the vagaries of forces over which we had no control led us to hatch a plan to simply engineer a film that we would self finance, control exclusively and greenlight ourselves, bypassing the normal studio gestation process whereby you wait for rounds of development notes, jump through production hurdles, attempt to meet casting requirements and the like. We wanted to do what James Ellroy says of his novels: what I conceive, I execute."

Although some filmmakers are willing to compromise on creative control in order to attract funding, offering big investors small roles or even the chance to write lines in their films, all the producers I spoke to shared Braxton's approach. "I could easily have secured funding from one or two individuals via the traditional route, but those individuals may well have come to the table with demands which could be at odds with the decisions I'd made about the project," said Jarrod. "Thanks to the distributed funding route, though, and the fact that Kickstarter pledges can come with perks other than creative input, I was able to have complete control over the entire film."

Control has to be balanced with realistic expectations. Iron Sky has been praised for what it has managed to put together on a budget of just €7.5m. Braxton stresses the importance of writing with a low budget in mind.

"Bret wrote a terrific script, a thriller that had real cinematics and rich, ambiguous and authentic characters and that was produceable on a restricted budget. Any number of elements can spike a budget, from numbers of extras to scenes requiring CGI to stunts, etc. So without sacrificing the dramatic, tense nature of the story, he crafted it in such a way that we could mount the production with the resources that we were willing to commit."

Careful financing, however, should not mean settling for second best. Braxton explains that the quality of the script made him determined to produce a high quality frilm. "We had originally thought that we would scare up a lean crew that might be a mix of established professionals and recent film school grads, but we quickly decided that this needed the same calibre of artisans that much more expensive features deploy."

Ross acknowledges that, whilst he is trying to keep his budget small, the nature of his planned feature is "more epic in scope" than his short and will need to be properly resourced. Fortunately the early stages of his crowdfunding work have been going well. "The majorityof the budget is in place and we just need to raise between $3-4,000 and we can shoot. What would happen if we don't get that amount? Well to be honest we'll keep at it. This is the project that we all want to do. So we'll keep at it until we get what we need to make these films."

"We hit our funding goal very quickly--maybe about a week or so after we launched the campaign," says Jarrod. "I set a pretty modest goal and chose a very short (two week) campaign length, so those factors may have driven pledges. I imagine that people feel confident that the project will be funded when the amount is a reasonable one, and a quick window lessens the risk of procrastination."

"The crowdfunding is off to a good start but naturally you are sweating until you reach your goal – you don’t want to fall short, especially in a public venue when you are putting your reputation and ideas and aspirations on the line," saya Braxton of his project. "But this process and not knowing necessarily how it will all turn out is part of the grand experiment, of trying something new and different and an alternative to the traditional ways of getting things made. We’ve utilised an online casting service which I had never done before to great effect: We have embraced social media with Twitter and Facebook and Mobli to get our message out, have adopted crowdfunding and have been in a post empire way transparent about the process in a town that is both notoriously secretive and publicity hungry at the same time, constantly playing an angle. I think the straightforward, Rotarian Midwestern ethos of: this is who we are, this is what we are doing and this is how to be involved without worrying about perception is liberating. It isn’t exactly how Hollywood works, but that doesn’t mean that we can’t try."

Whaley was also drawn to the idea of engaging with the public in a way that went beyond the funding search itself, saying that using Kickstarter, with its established profile and variety of projects, helped create a buzz about his film before he even started shooting.

"There are a host of ancillary benefits that derive from this type of social engagement," says Braxton. "It creates a dialogue between you as a part of the filmmaking team and an audience who is interested in what you are doing. It builds a community. Different and unexpected offers come your way and people are looking to get involved. It is an amplifier for your movie in the best possible way. Any trepidation we had was, I think, misplaced. The proof is in the increasing number of original, bold creative endeavors that have been funded in this way and are selected by some of the premier festivals such as Sundance, Tribeca and SXSW."

"I'd absolutely recommend it in almost any circumstance," says Jarrod, "The only possible exception being in situations with a traditional funding source who/which is willing not to meddle creatively. Those situations are exceedingly rare."

Jarrod's film is already finished but if you want to get involved with Ross or Braxton's projects there's still time to do so.

Yellow Hill takes place during the gold rush of the 1860s, and deals with such themes of racism, corrupt politicians and the formation of America. In the middle of it all is Bai Ling's character struggling to reclaim her humanity, fighting for the oppressed. You can support the project here.

The Canyons documents five twentysomethings' quest for power, love, sex and success in 2012 Hollywood and will be directed by Taxi Driver's Paul Schrader. You can contribute here.

Iron Sky will be on short release in UK cinemas tomorrow and available to buy on DVD from the 28th.

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