Crowdfunding draws crowds

U.S. filmmakers and legiters give grassroots fundraising a try

Euro bizzers carve out specialty slice

Allison Anders has always been a low-budget filmmaker, but on projects like “Gas Food Lodging” and “Four Rooms” she was at least working in the low seven figures. For her next project, “Strutter,” the helmer needed a mere $17,500 to make the microbudget digital feature, so she turned to crowdfunding website Kickstarter, where a six-week campaign netted her and partner Kurt Voss about $20,000.

Anders, who has been making films for some 25 years, offered prizes for contributions that were a step up from public radio totebags: Her longtime connections came through with vinyl record-store gift certificates and Quentin Tarantino-curated swag.

In an arts funding environment where coin is still scarce and investors risk-averse, crowdfunding is gaining traction not only for film but also for legit projects.

Sundance feature entry “The Woods” was already shot, but filmmaker Matthew Lessner needed another $10,000 or so to finish the film for submission to the fest; Donavan Seschillie’s short “The Rocket Boy” also secured coin via crowdfunding. Simon Helberg, a star of “The Big Bang Theory,” went out to his Twitter followers to raise funds for “I Am I,” a movie from writer-director Jocelyn Towne in which he hopes to star.

On the legit front, a brewing Broadway revival of “Godspell” is giving crowdfunding a go.

It doesn’t stop there. Well-known creatives are joining boot-strapping young unknowns in the crowdfunding game, drumming up larger and larger chunks of change.Based on the average amount of money raised per project — said to be about $10,000 for film projects on Kickstarter — crowdfunding accounts for a drop in the bucket of the funds required to finance an indie film. Still, proponents see major growth potential in a new funding option operating outside the traditional system. But questions linger regarding the limits of crowdfunding, both in terms of the cash that can be raised and how long the current surge in activity will endure.

Kickstarter, IndieGoGo and RocketHub are some of the higher-profile websites creatives are turning to solicit small individual donations from the public in the hope that contributions will add up to significant coin.

An increasing number of creatives are using the Web to launch fundraising campaigns that skip studio execs and deep-pocketed producers. At the same time, potential funders are growing more aware of these sites, which have systems in place for receiving and distributing donations.

On the other hand, some producers opt to raise money online independently. Jessica Mae Stover, currently in preproduction on a sci-fi short called “Artemis Eternal,” with a target fundraising goal of $150,000, is among those cutting out the middle-man.

“If crowdfunding has this idea of rebellion to it, and of circumventing the system, then these crowdfunding sites aren’t really freedom,” she says. “We’re just creating another gatekeeper.”

Ken Davenport’s legit production of “Godspell” is also raising funds independently. Davenport considers each donor an investor who could receive returns should the show make it into the black. It’s a consideration that requires him to

follow SEC regulations — avoided by crowdfunding sites, which classify the coin they collect and distribute as donations.

According to Kickstarter, the 18-month-old site has raised almost $30 million from 300,000 contributors, with more than 1,500 successful film projects tapping a total of more than $10 million. Some 300 theater projects have drummed up more than $1 million overall.

Competitor site IndieGoGo does not release statistics, but says it has raised millions of dollars through 14,000 campaigns in 139 different countries.

That kind of money is starting to turn heads in influential circles. Author Neil Gaiman, for instance, helped mobilize his deep fanbase to raise more than $150,000 for Christopher Salmon’s short animated pic based on Gaiman’s short story “The Price.”

And when a major funder of “Blue Like Jazz,” a film adaptation of Donald Miller’s book of essays, pulled out in the fall, a crowdfunding campaign to save the pic raised almost $350,000 — well over the $125,000 goal. “It ended up being almost half our budget,” says director Steve Taylor, who pegs the pic’s entire budget at $750,000.

Few film projects raise entire budgets via crowdfunding. More commonly, projects break out certain budget lines to fund with campaign money. “It seems like post-production is a particularly good time for crowdfunding,” says Kickstarter’s Yancey Strickler.

The specifics of money disbursal, fees and project requirements vary per site. Some, including Kickstarter and RocketHub, require each project to hit an individually determined target number by a set deadline in order to receive funds. Failing that, the money’s never collected from those who have pledged. On the other hand, IndieGoGo lets fundraisers keep whatever they manage to attract.

There are also fees. IndieGoGo charges a 4% fee on projects that meet their targets and 9% on those that don’t. Kickstarter gets 5% from only those projects that successfully meet goals, with Amazon, which handles the payment of contributions, taking an additional cut.

Even proponents caution that crowdfunding doesn’t rep an easy route to “free” money. A successful campaign requires canny incentives and ongoing promotion from those running it — and a pre-existing crowd of fans doesn’t hurt either.

“I knew Neil had a terrific fan base, and I thought they would be the people who would pay to see ‘The Price,’ ” says Salmon of Gaiman’s enthusiastic following. Anders, too, has a group of supporters and online fans she can rally.

Although projects in a wide array of media have turned to crowdfunding, some in the film world see particular potential for growth. “Crowdfunding isn’t a major force at the moment, but it’s an emerging option for filmmakers to generate funds for their work,” says entertainment attorney Steven C. Beer. “The costs of making an independent feature or a short are declining due to technology, and as that happens, crowdsourcing figures to play an even greater role.”

While producer Howard Gertler (“Shortbus,” “World’s Greatest Dad”) hasn’t yet given crowdfunding a try, he’s seriously considering it for future projects. It could be particularly handy, he says, in tapping fans to secure development coin for idiosyncratic ideas whose commercial viability might not be immediately obvious to traditional backers.

“In a way, what it’s created is micro-presales,” he says.

Legit songwriting team Kait Kerrigan and Brian Lowdermilk (“The Unauthorized Biography of Samantha Brown,” “Henry and Mudge”), credit their fundraising success to the younger-skewing fans they’ve cultivated online. Aiming to drum up money to cover the modest costs of recording an album, they achieved their initial $10,000 goal in 48 hours; eventually donations spiked to $35,000, prompting them to decide to record a second album.

The pair intend to use the recordings — as well as the newfound proof of the bankability of their fanbase — to push their careers to the next level, either onstage or in the studio. The first album, “Our First Mistake,” will be released Jan. 18.

But while crowdfunding shows promise as a financing tool for indie projects, the jury is still out on whether it can play a similar role on considerably larger films.

On the plus side, IndieGoGo’s Slava Rubin points out, “If you’re Kevin Smith and you have 1.7 million Twitter followers, you can probably raise a sizable budget.”

But Voss has his doubts. “In the long term, I can’t imagine this is going to be a growing trend, with the prohibitive cost of making films even on a micro scale,” he says. “There’s not much chance you’re going to raise $100 million.”

But there are definite benefits, says Anders — not least of which is taking a step back from the fundraising process that sees creatives shilling and compromising in order to raise coin. “With this, everybody feels good about it,” she says. “And you don’t have to take notes from anybody.”