Sundance’s ‘Margin’ of success

While traditional investors may have gotten skittish, film fans are stepping up to help fund the indies they most want to see. In just its first year, the Sundance Institute’s partnership with film crowdsourcing fundraiser Kickstarter has helped raise approximately $1.5 million for 50 projects — about $35,000 per film on average — according to Joseph Beyer, the Institute’s director of digital initiatives.

This year, 15 Kickstarter-assisted films were accepted into the festival itself. That’s up from five (including breakout hit “Pariah”) on the 2011 slate, the first year the fest felt the impact of the crowdsourcing giant since its founding in Spring 2009 by Yancey Strickler, Perry Chen and Charles Adler.

Last year, Kickstarter’s film projects saw $32.5 million in film funding from around 310,000 people, a source notes of the initiatives, which can repay supportive cineastes with as little as a DVD of the finished film upon release. (If it fails to meet its fundraising goal, investors pledges are never collected.) “If you think (hundreds of thousands) consumers committing money to films that don’t exist yet, it shows that while some parts of the business might be in (bad) shape, there are other opportunities people are excited about.”

According to Beyer, the interest in Kickstarter among Sundance-associated filmmakers has been overwhelming, but he sometimes finds himself talking prospective producers out of a Kickstarter campaign. “Some people have said, ‘This is more work than I anticipated,’ so we help them by saying, ‘This is not for you,’?” he says with a laugh. As Strickler explains, “It tests the acumen of a filmmaker to promote a film and get an audience.”

The cross-promotion raises potential conflict-of-interest questions when Sundance Institute films funded via the Kickstarter partnership are accepted into the festival (seven were this year, and Institute emails promoting certain Kickstarter projects go out on a regular basis), but Beyer says strict rules are in place forbidding fest programmers from investing in or showing preference to those pics.

This year, the only Kickstarter-funded film in U.S. dramatic competition is Ira Sachs’ “Keep the Lights On.” Parts and Labor’s Jay Van Hoy, who exec produced, notes that online investing in the project allowed more traditional backers with bigger wallets to gauge the level of interest in the film, encouraging them to come aboard.

Other Kickstarter-funded Sundance features include documentary competition entries “Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry,” “Me @ the Zoo” and “Indie Game: The Movie.” Midnight selection “Black Rock” is in the mix, as are Next features “Mosquita y Mari” and “My Best Day,” and experimental New Frontiers projects “Abacus” and “Room 237.”

Like Sachs, many of the helmers are Sundance vets, some with followings the filmmakers have cultivated to fund their new projects. The Austin-based Zellner brothers used momentum from their 2008 Sundance feature “Goliath” and a cult DVD shorts compilation to help fund the Next entry “Kid-Thing.” The Zellners tried a short, two-week campaign as an experiment to raise starting funds, and took in $10,000 — a fraction of their budget — from more than 120 investors.

Those investing over a certain threshold receive a special mention in the credits, another way filmmakers involve and cultivate their fanbase in the crowdsourcing era.

“It helps to get the word out,” says co-director David Zellner. “In hindsight, we would’ve done a longer campaign for more money.”