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Jeff Nichols, en route to the Little Rock Film Festival (LRFF) days after screening his new film at Cannes for the second time in as many years, couldn't have made his debut film, "Shotgun Stories," which launched him into national acclaim, without financial help from family and friends. His parents supplied most of the small shooting budget and, while his finished film sat for months in a film canister deteriorating, Nichols hit up every friend and family member he came across to help him pay to process the film. It's a model of fundraising that's probably as old as filmmaking.
But glad-handing may be giving way to crowd-funding with the rise of fundraising websites like Kickstarter and Indiegogo that have especially taken hold in the film world. A survey of this year's LRFF lineup reveals that more than half of the featured films used Kickstarter or Indiegogo for at least a portion of funding.
The sites provide a platform for would-be filmmakers (or anyone with a creative project in need of funding) to offer a pitch through pictures, video and a mini-essay. Fundraisers name a dollar goal, a deadline and offer tiered gifts to donors based on the size of their donations. For film projects, fundraisers usually put up things like limited-edition DVDs and posters of the film as potential gifts for donors.
Annie Eastman, the director of "Bay of All Saints," who'll meet with LRFF filmgoers after the Friday and Saturday screenings of her film, turned to Kickstarter when her documentary was chosen to premier at SXSW. It ultimately won the Audience Award for Best Documentary there. "There are so many big costs that come at the end of a project, like the original score and color correction, audio mix and sound design and other finishing aspects that we need to do to get the film ready for a festival-type screening."
Crowd-funding through sites like Kickstarter and Indiegogo can be particularly helpful for documentarians because foundation money is drying up and fewer networks are commissioning films than in years past, according to Little Rock Film Festival co-artistic director Brent Renaud, a documentary filmmaker. "A lot of people want to acquire finished films. It's a little bit cheaper for the networks to do that."
Partnering with Kickstarter is simple, according to Eastman, requiring little more than filling out a form, setting a deadline and fundraising goal and requesting approval. Within 48 hours of her request, Kickstarter had approved "Bay of All Saints." Eastman exceeded her $10,000 goal before her deadline, ultimately raising more than $16,000.
Martha Stephens, director of the narrative feature "Pilgrim Song," also screeing at the LRFF turned to Indiegogo instead of Kickstarter because the former guaranteed that even if she failed to meet her goal, she would get at least a portion of the money donated towards her film. With Kickstarter, if a fundraiser doesn't meet her goal, donors get their money back.
When a donor gives money to a film on Indiegogo, the money is taken out right away. If a director does not reach her goal, she gets around 70% of the money donated, and the remaining 30% goes to Indiegogo. Fortunately, Stephens reached her funding goal of $8,440 at the last minute.
Stephens had to rely on crowd-sourcing because she had no other way to fund the movie. "I didn't have enough clout to find backers or find someone who wanted to invest solely. I come from a pretty basic middle-class family. A lot of filmmakers have well-off parents and there's nepotism involved and I didn't have any of that," said Stephens.
Her previous film, "Passenger Pigeons," was made from a small budget of $8,000. She made the film using money from her savings account and borrowing money from relatives. Without Indiegogo, Stephens would not have been able to produce "Pilgrim Song."
When asked if she thought these grassroots movements were a new trend for filmmakers, Stephens said, "I think every filmmaker should be able to make one movie on a Kickstarter or Indiegogo, and then after that I think they need to find another way to do it," adding that while she has donated to films in the past, it is difficult to donate on a regular basis.
"When you're trying to make multiple movies, I think you're asking too much from your friends and your family. 'Pilgrim Song' will be the only movie I'm going to crowd-source, and I'm going to try to find investors from here on out. But I think it is important that everyone gets that one time," said Stephens, acknowledging that it may be easier for her to make one movie after "Pilgrim Song," but after that, finding funding will be very difficult. "There's just not a lot of really rich people out there who want to invest in something that's probably not going to make its money back," said Stephens.
The crowd-funding sites will stay around "as long as there are people around with a vision who want to raise money," said Eastman. "It is such a democratic platform; you don't have to be born in the right corner of the earth to go on the Internet and attract a bunch of attention to raise money."
The growing popularity of the sites may be self-defeating, though. "Every day, local filmmakers are popping up on Facebook with a Kickstarter or Indiegogo project," said local filmmaker Levi Agee, who helped program the Little Rock Film Festival.