U.S. crowdfunding draws crowds

As film producers across Europe struggle to contend with increasing cuts in government funding, crowdfunding via the Internet is beginning to emerge as one, albeit small, alternative source of complementary coin for specialty pics — with the built-in benefit of providing free buzz.

During a Rome Film Festival forum in November, Eurimages executive director Roberto Olla noted that the EU co-production fund is “starting to see a lot more crowdfunding entries” in the financing breakdown of its submitted projects, leading Olla to conclude that such funding could begin to play an important role.

Among the crowdfunded projects is dark sci-fi romp “Iron Sky,” helmed by Timo Vuorensola, about Nazis who fled to the moon in 1945 and return to attack Earth. The Finnish helmer capitalized on the cult following he built with sci-fi parody “Star Wreck: In the Pirkinning,” which was published both as a free download and a commercial DVD.

That base helped him raise almost ?1 million ($1.3 million) of “Sky’s” $8.9 million budget from fans and followers — much more than the $800,000 the pic got from Eurimages.

Currently shooting, “Iron Sky” is a Finnish-German-Australian co-production, produced by Finland’s Blind Spot Pictures and Olivier Damien’s Berlin-based 27 Films. Pic boasts more than 150,000 Web fans per week who have access to making-of sneak peeks, a privilege gained by their contributions, which can be as little as a ?1.

Sometimes film-funding webbies transcend transmedia, and materialize physically.

On Dec. 18, a crowd carrying yoga mats gathered in London’s Covent Garden for a 10-minute sun salutation session to create awareness for “Yoga for Unity,” a feature-length doc produced by U.K. shingle Roundtable Films about a mission to use yoga to reduce tribal tensions in Kenya.

Roundtable, which has had a hand in high-profile docs, including Sundance-winning “Afghan Star,” is looking to raise some $400,000 through a combination of crowd-funding and TV coin in order to make “Yoga,” which has enlisted Brit documaker Nick Broomfield and Hollywood yoga guru Baron Baptiste as “patrons.”

“Yoga” offers to add a contributor’s name on the credits for $50, and the website offers five-minute video updates while filmmakers shoot “so people can follow the progress of the yoga teachers in Kenya,” says producer and co-director Ash Jenkins.

Jenkins says the picmakers are fortunate, in that a million people in the U.K. participate in yoga. “But word around the London film community is that commissions are harder to get, and the way to go is private, so you are pushed into doing things by other means.”

For British documakers, the crowdfunding model is “The Age of Stupid,” the 2009 eco-docu by Brit helmer Franny Armstrong, who raised its full $700,000 budget by offering executive producer credits to contributors via a website.

A different emerging European crowdfunding model comes from Paris-based Touscoprod, the Gallic production and distribution platform that pitches multiple projects and offers a potential return on investment as well as refunds to contributors if a project doesn’t meet a stated financing target by a set deadline.

“Knowing you will get your money back if the film doesn’t get made encourages folks to invest on riskier projects,” says Touscoprod co-founder Barbara Tonelli, who launched the service in 2009.

So far Touscoprod has had a hand in financing 16 completed projects, raising between $20,000 and $120,000 for each one, for a total of some $663,000. “It’s comparable in scale to a small regional fund,” Tonelli says.

Recent pics that have tapped into Touscoprod include Pina Bausch docu “Dancing Dreams,” directed by Rainer Hoffmann and Anne Linsel, and musical “The Sound of Noise,” a first feature by Swedish helmers Ola Simonsson and Johannes Stjarne Nilsson, which played in competition at the Stockholm Film Fest and soon will bow Stateside at the Palm Springs fest.

“It’s obvious that in European countries like the U.K. and Italy, alternative sources of funding are becoming a fundamental need, either from sponsors, private investors or Web communities,” Tonelli says. “But crowdfunding is also a way for the consumers to regain a say about what they want to see; it empowers spectators.”

In December 2009, the Rotterdam Film Festival, under director Rutger Wolfson, launched Cinema Reloaded, the first fest-based crowdfunding scheme, specifically geared toward arthouse pics. The project tapped into the Rotterdam fest’s fan base to finance, via online contributions, two shorts by helmers Alexis Dos Santos (“Unmade Beds”) and Ho Yuhang (“15 Malaysia”). (A planned third short, by Harmony Korine, was scrapped due to a scheduling conflict.)

“One of the things we learned is that fans of filmmakers will support them financially if they feel involved in the making of a project. Not that they need to have any input, but they can follow it,” Wolfson says.

“To be able to have more intimate knowledge of how a director is thinking or how a project is being developed — I think that is the motor behind a project like this.”