A Deeper Look: Crowdfunding and the Film Industry

Let’s say for the sake of argument that you’re a mole person or something and have never seen a movie before. You’ve still been gripped by the influence of Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane. You probably heard in some context that “X is the Citizen Kane of Y”. Without knowing anything about the movie, you understand that they’re talking about something supremely influential.

Don’t worry, this is not a Citizen Kane article. I only bring up Welles because two weeks ago an Indiegogo campaign was launched by a number of producers (including Peter Bogdanovich of Last Picture Show fame) to finish Orson Welles’ last film The Other Side of the Wind. Although this is noblest of causes, I have to wonder why the film’s resurrectors needed to turn to fan donations to fund Welles’ lost masterpiece. Avengers: Age of Ultron had a budget of $250 million. Surely financiers, somewhere out there in the ventricles of Hollywood, could scrounge up a couple million for one of the greatest artists to grace the medium. Couldn’t they?

Well maybe not. As it seems, the artist-studio struggle which plagued Welles his whole career has followed him beyond the grave. The campaign itself mentions that “Orson would constantly experience the heavy scissors of studio heads and financiers time and time again on his subsequent films despite being labeled a ‘wunderkind’ for his early achievements.” Famously during the production of Touch of Evil, Welles wrote a 58 page letter to Universal politely requesting changes to their cut of his film.

This Orson Welles example is the most extreme example in the recent trend of established filmmakers turning to websites like Kickstarter and Indiegogo to fund their projects. Crowdfunding has now become a viable alternative to the Hollywood studio financing.

In the short 5-6 years that crowdfunding websites have existed, the film industry has turned more and more to “safe filmmaking.” What I mean by “safe filmmaking” is remakes, sequels, adaptations, remakes of adaptations, sequels of remakes, and comic book films. In short, studios have lost faith in original ideas and therefore any filmmaker who has one of those needs to look elsewhere for money.

That’s where crowdfunding comes into play sometimes.

Notable indie directors who used these new platforms include Zach Braff and Spike Lee. One of the most successful Hollywood scale projects funded through Kickstarter was a film based on the popular TV show Veronica Mars, which garnered over $5 million.

I think crowdfunding is an important trend to take seriously because it already has done significant work to change the landscape of film as we know it. Within the standard studio system that has thrived since the 1920s, if you had an idea for a film, you would have to go submit your screenplay to a studio or production company. Once submitted, the idea would go through countless changes before some producer picked it up and that’s if you were very lucky. Now if you have an idea that you can get enough people excited about, you can make your movie outside of the system. We’re moving toward the total democratization of cinema.

But it isn’t quite as easy as that. Since established directors started moving toward crowdfunding platforms, a little controversy has risen. Websites like Kickstarter began as places where you could raise money for your garage band to release that first demo tape or to get that artisanal soap business of the ground. Now Hollywood directors have realized how magical crowdfunding can be and have harnessed its power as an alternative to those pesky studios. Some truly independent artists find it a little unfair that someone with as many connections as Spike Lee can waltz in and collect millions for his next film. “Let crowdfunding be for the real struggling artists!” they say.

I think that there are some flaws in this argument. The alternative to someone like Spike Lee funding his movie on Kickstarter is that he doesn’t make the movie (because he can’t get the funding for that particular film anywhere else). We never get to see Orson Welles’ final work of art. Kaput. If you start prohibiting people from crowdfunding, even established directors, then you risk ruining that democratic ideal. At that point, only big films from studios get made and we are doomed to watch safe films for the rest of our days. I say let them use Kickstarter and Indiegogo because then those sites will remain viable places where art can be funded. I do think that crowdfunding platforms should work harder at showcasing smaller projects. Maybe for each big budget feature, promote 10 up and coming artists.

I’m interested to see where crowdfunding will go in the next few years. Will we see studios start to panic? Crowdfunding might even start to integrate into the Hollywood structure. I honestly wouldn’t be surprised if Harvey Weinstein started asking for funding through Kickstarter one day. Everything comes full circle in the end.

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About the author

Matt Ober

Matthew Ober is a film student who has too much time on his hands.

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