Will crowdfunding usurp the studio biz?

Where's there's a niche, there's a pitch as auds pay to create content

A while back former Variety topper Peter Bart did a radio interview in which he recalled how different it was to be a studio executive back in the 1970s. “In those days,” he said, “you could make a movie because you wanted to see it.”

That thought must cause a pang among today’s studio execs.

Indeed, based on my conversations with the driven, highly intelligent people who have succeded in the movie biz, I doubt their Netflix queues and DVR recordings look much like their slates.

Yet thanks to crowdfunding and digital distribution, the public seems to be acquiring a power those elites have lost: the ability to fund a project because you want to see it.

One example is “Space Command,” a series of original online science-fiction pics. Brainchild of Marc Zicree and Doug Drexler, “Space Command” had a funding goal of $75,000 but raised nearly three times that. Sci-fi fans, passionate about their genre and no strangers to technology, ponied up to get “Space Command” made because they want to see it.

The approach extends to smaller niches as well, and to less conventional kinds of material. Another crowd-funded project is “The Sticking Place,” an interactive documentary following freestyle wrestler Leah Callahan in her pursuit of a spot on Canada’s Olympic team and, now that she’s secured a berth, a medal in London.

“The Sticking Place” (thestickingplacefilm.ca) probably cost a fraction of the budget of a human-interest profile on NBC’s Olympic coverage. It exists only online and it’s entirely non-linear. The interface is a bit like a clever menu for homevideo extras but without a “play movie” command. Visitors to the site find their own path through the footage, which continues to grow as Callahan advances on her journey.

The docu’s directors, Brittany Baxter and Josephine Anderson, graduated from film school in 2009, noting people seemed to be losing interest in theatrical films and spending more and more of their time online.

“We were struggling a little bit to find what our voice was going to be in filmmaking,” Baxter said. “So we did a ton of research, we spent about a year looking at other interactive projects and breaking them apart, figuring out how they work and how you can use that medium especially to build a really powerful piece that will be viewed online, by a niche audience, essentially.”

They got a small grant from the National Film Board of Canada, but part of their manifesto was to crowd-fund their project and “make it free for anyone to see.” They set up a 40-day Kickstarter campaign to raise $20,000, and exceeded that goal by the end of the campaign. Since the movie is available for free, no one will get a return on their investment.

The average donation to the project was less than $100, so in effect, many people who donated paid only a bit more than they might have to buy tickets. They could pay for the movie to be made because they wanted to see it.

The combination of online distribution, interactivity and crowd-funding represented by “The Sticking Place” might well represent the dawn of a new filmed-entertainment industry, one driven by the passion of filmmakers and audiences rather than corporate agendas and the drive for profit. That has enormous promise for rich, personal, intimate stories told in innovative ways.

If that approach were to catch on, though, it could lead to a very different entertainment landscape. The rise of short online videos made to be viewed anywhere, on any device, already threatens to turn theatrical films into a niche business, like opera. Crowd-funded online entertainment might turn into a viable alternative for millions of people who like tentpoles just fine, but not all the time.

Funny thing is, I bet a lot of studio executives would like to see those pictures, even if their companies won’t make them.

Bits & Bytes

Mechnology has opened a second visual effects and post studio in Vancouver. Sean Bowers has joined the company as general manager, after stints with Syfy, Screen Siren/Hasbro/HUG, Hallmark/E1, Lionsgate and Alliance Atlantis. Kirsten Sharp has come aboard as visual effects producer; Sharp was most recently at Goldtooth Creative. … Deluxe subsidiary Method Studios has expanded in New York to meet rising demand for vfx and commercials. Stuart Robinson is topper for the Gotham branch, and Dan Seddon has relocated from L.A. to New York to become creative director. Eight Method artists have also relocated.

Vfx supervisor Simon Hughes has joned Union VFX of London. Hughes’ credits include “District 9,” “Safe House” and “Immortals.” His first project for Union will be as vfx supervisor or “How I Live Now” … Digital Domain Group is creating animated videos for sports teams and sports venues. The first short from this effort, the 60-second futuristic baseball pic “Heads-Up Display” is playing at Citi Field in New York, home of the Mets, and can be seen on MLB.com.

Deluxe’s Company3 has launched an on-air promotions and trailers division. Robert Mape has joined C3 as creative director-senior editor and Steve Beal has come on as senior editor-VP promotions and trailers. The division is already working on promos for “Survivor.”

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Scientists has placed two summer tech interns: Ningyu Mao of Carnegie Mellon University will be at Rhythm & Hues Studios and Yujie Shu of Clemson U will be at Industrial Light & Magic.

Tonight, July 19, Moviola is hosting an event on collaborative workflows: “Shared Storage and Media Workflow Platforms — What’s Right For Your Facility?” Speakers will include EditShare CEO Andy Liebman and Morningstar Entertainment post-production supervisor Matt Scott. Doors open at 6 p.m. with the presentation at 6:30 and cocktail reception from 7:45 to 9. Moviola’s facility is at 1135 N. Mansfield in Hollywood.

On July 25 Hollywood Post Alliance will host “On-Set Dailies: WTF? (or What’s the Flow?)” at the Beverly Garland Holiday in North Hollywood. Panelists include Richard Winnie, VP post-production for Universal Television and Universal Television Cable; Joe Fineman of Executive Post Consultants; Curtis Clark, ASC; Gigi Coello-Bannon, supervising producer, “Criminal Minds”; and Arthur Forney, co-executive producer, “Law & Order” branded series.

Manhattan Edit Workshop and theC47 will host “The Filmmaker’s Intensive,” a two-week course for aspiring filmmakers, Aug. 6-17 in Gotham.

DDD Group has launched the Yabazam 3D movie app for Samsung Smart TVs. App streams 3D movie trailers for free and will allow customers to download 3D movies for a pay-per-view fee. … Yabazam has also pacted to stream WealthTV’s 3D programming on the app.

Coverage of the Euro2012 soccer tournament in Poland and Ukraine featured 95 Grass Valley LDK HD camera systems and 35 LDK 8300 Super SloMo camera systems. Grass Valley also provided a majority of switchers for the OB trucks and switchers for live productions.

Motorvision Group in Germany has installed a Cinegy Workflow for content management. … The Saudi Arabian Ministry of Culture and Information has enlisted Vitec Videocom to equip its new state-of-the-art TV studios. Deal is expected to be worth some £4.3 million ($6.7 million). … France’s Institut National De L’audiovisuel has installed a second Digital Vision Phoenix, enabling it to expand its film and video restoration services.

Animation/production/design studio Psyop has acquired site licenses for Shotgun Software’s Shotgun and Revolver

Autodesk has announced new versions of Scaleform UI middleware for mobile game development. … Altair has released solidThinking 9.0, with support for Luxion KeyShot. … Avid has released DS 11 with hands-on color correction, expanded file format and hardware support, 16 embedded audio channels and more.