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How Zach Braff Kickstarted a Film Financing Firestorm

With no fewer than 26 crowdfunded projects in Sundance, buyers adjust to new indie funding model

When Zach Braff’s $5 million dramedy “Wish I Was Here” premieres Jan. 18, it will be one of 20 Sundance films funded through Kickstarter, alongside six financed via Indiegogo.

As the number of crowdsourced films and budgets continues to grow (including the March 14 nationwide release of Warner Bros.’ “Veronica Mars,” which raised $5.7 million from fans alongside Braff’s $3.1 million campaign), so do the questions: What’s the impact of crowdsourcing on a film’s acquisition prospects and eventual distribution?

As one of the producers of “Wish,” the biggest crowdsourced film ever to play a fest or seek a distribution deal, Stacey Sher is about to find out.

“I think it’s a gift to a distributor,” she says. “It’s (46,520) people who are as invested as we are in word getting out there about the movie. It’s as close to pre-awareness as you can get.”

Roughly half of these supporters will attend an online or in-theater screening of “Wish,” Braff’s follow-up to his $27 million-grossing 2004 dramedy “Garden State,” just before its anticipated September release. Translated to a $12 ticket or pre-theatrical VOD fee, that’s amounts to around $275,000 in lost revenue — small change for most releases, but a sizeable chunk of a low-budget indie’s gross, taken directly from its core fan base.

“Backers coming to early word-of-mouth screenings are the kind of things you would do in your publicity campaign anyway,” Sher says. “I have a feeling they’re going to want to see the film in the theater, go with friends who aren’t backers and say, ‘Look, this is the film I got made.’ ”

There’s reason to believe she’s right. The docu “Inequality for All,” which has grossed $1.2 million after an $83,392 Kickstarter campaign, is Radius-TWC’s second best title in theaters to date.

Despite many crew members taking scale or no salary to give Braff the final cut, casting approval and locations he wanted — a goal that rallied fans to his Kickstarter — there’s also the possibility that a mid- to high-seven-figure distribution deal could upset some backers if their underdog project becomes a Sundance champion. (Until the JOBS Act rules for equity crowdfunding go into effect, crowdfunders can receive gifts, but don’t get a return as with a traditional investment.)

Sher isn’t worried, noting the rewards funders get for their pledges, including set visits, screenplays, T-shirts, artwork, director’s chair backs, private Q&A screenings. “If we could’ve gotten this movie financed any other way, we would have,” she says.

Until now, most crowdsourced films have either been self-released or have arranged a service deal, a la Christian-themed SXSW entry “Blue Like Jazz” ($595,018 B.O. gross after a $345,992 Kickstarter) and the Sundance healthcare doc “Escape Fire” ($126,238 gross after $3,390 in Indiegogo funding), both in 2012 via Roadside Attractions.

Roadside co-prexy Howard Cohen says he doesn’t recall the campaigns affecting either release, an observation repeated by Music Box Films head William Schopf, who adds that the Kickstarter for the gay-themed 2012 drama “Keep the Lights On” (which grossed nearly 10 times its $26,630 in pledges) didn’t affect his decision to acquire North American rights to the film, either.

But Cohen noted that “Jazz” funders became a valuable focus group. “We showed 10 possible posters to the people who gave, and the poster they picked was different from the one both the filmmakers and Roadside liked,” he recalls. “We went with the one the Kickstarter folks liked.”

When it comes to marketing, a film’s campaign may prove more valuable than money raised. Indiegogo head of film Marc Hofstatter says there aren’t any studies measuring campaigns’ impact on films’ eventual success, but he notes that while this year’s U.S. Dramatic Competition entry “Dear White People” raised just $41,000, its YouTube concept trailer was viewed more than 1 million times. “A lot of that audience came after the campaign ended, so now people are even more eager to see the film,” he says.

There’s also the possibility of invaluable market research—showing prospective distribs areas with the most interest to target your potential audience and create a road map for marketing and distribution. Hofstatter points to Indiegogo’s dashboard, where filmmakers can access which websites directed them to the campaign (as Kickstarter’s dashboard can), which countries donations come from and other valuable data.

This may be especially important for U.S. indies not known for traveling well overseas. Though Sher says they didn’t do any “data mining,” Kickstarter pledges for international screenings made it obvious where there was strong international interest. “Zach has a big audience in the U.K., Germany, Australia, France and Russia,” she says. Foreign sales outfit Wild Bunch used this to its advantage when screening “Wish” footage for international AFM buyers in November.

One of the biggest distrib worries, especially with campaigns getting bigger, is lost ancillary revenue from DVDs or Blu-rays given to a film’s core audience, along with potentially being on the hook for any unfulfilled rewards. Both of these concern acquisitions vet Dustin Smith, VP of theatrical distribution for Gravitas Ventures. “You have to be sure that when you buy all rights to a movie, you don’t have to fulfill any of these Kickstarter deals,” he says. “I think homevideo buyers are also wondering about its impact.”

Indeed, ancillary could end up being front-loaded for some future filmmakers. One possible example is this year’s Roger Ebert doc “Life Itself”: Indiegogo funders who pledged $25 will get to see an online screening simultaneous to its Jan. 19 Sundance premiere. As of Friday, more than 900 had paid for packages including the pre-release screening option.

Regardless of crowdfunding’s impact on the bottom line, many see the phenomenon as worthwhile. One Sundance filmmaker says his campaign had little impact on nabbing a distribution deal or box office, or private funding for his Sundance follow-up, but he would “definitely” do it again: “Kickstarter is just as important as a way of articulating your voice to a wider audience,” he says.

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