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Indie films find financial backers online through Kickstarter

May 10, 2012 |  8:00 am

Somewhere Between

This post has been corrected. See note at the bottom for details.

Paul Li is a Bay Area doctor whose show business experience is mostly limited to visiting the multiplex. Yet Li, through the website Kickstarter, managed to help underwrite the coming theatrical release of the Chinese adoption documentary “Somewhere Between.”

Li joined with about 1,400 other donors to raise more than $100,000 to finance “Somewhere Between's” U.S. distribution. “It really struck a very emotionally resonant chord,” said Li, who with his wife is raising an adopted Chinese-born daughter. “It really connected with me on a personal level.”

Increasingly, outfits such as Kickstarter and its chief rival, Indiegogo, are helping ultra-low-budget productions make their way into movie theaters.

Looking to raise money to finance a movie's production or distribution, a filmmaker will take his or her project to the Internet, pitching not only its premise but also a specific fundraising goal and deadline. There's no chance that the donors will make any monetary return on their gifts, but they can receive plenty of perks — from free DVDs to invitations to movie premieres — to encourage contributions.

“The kind of art and culture that we like are things that tend to be more on the margins and aren't easily funded,” said Kickstarter co-founder Yancey Strickler. “Normally, people put money into things because they're gonna make money and that's a primary motivation. But the kinds of things that we like ... they just want to exist and to be heard.”

It's called crowd-funding — the fundraising campaigns usually entail hundreds of small contributions rather than a handful of large gifts — and Kickstarter and Indiegogo are being used to finance all manner of creative endeavors, but they are particularly addressing a perilous bottleneck in the independent film world.

Last year, 469 independent films were released theatrically, a huge increase from 2002's total of 270 titles. The most prominent art house distributors — companies such as Fox Searchlight and Sony Pictures Classics — typically handle only a dozen or so movies a year each. Although million-dollar sales deals generate film festival headlines, the vast majority of movies receive puny distribution offers (or none at all), leaving their backers swimming in red ink with little chance at breaking even.

After premiering at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival, “On the Ice” received good reviews and a couple of distribution nibbles, but none that would cover more than a fraction of the Alaskan coming-of-age drama's $1-million budget.

So, the film's makers decided to fund their own distribution and turned to Kickstarter to raise $80,000. The campaign succeeded, and “On the Ice” rolled into a handful of theaters this February, where it has grossed more than $70,000 to date. While those sales still leave “On the Ice” well short of making a profit, the theatrical release should boost DVD sales.

“The Kickstarter money allowed us to hire a public relations firm, to make a trailer, to have posters — all the things you need to do to put your movies into theaters,” said Lynette Howell, one of the film's producers. “And it's still in theaters. It just keeps going.”

Kickstarter campaigns must reach their funding goal by a deadline set by the project's creators, or all funds go back to donors. On Indiegogo, filmmakers who come up short can return funds to donors or pay a 9% fee to keep the balance. For projects that reach their goals, Indiegogo charges a 4% fee, while Kickstarter levies a 5% charge. Furthermore, Kickstarter accepts donations from all around the world,  but the recipient of any donation must have a U.S. bank account.

Linda Goldstein Knowlton, the director and producer of “Somewhere Between,” said she wasn't sure her $800,000 film should try for a theatrical release until it started winning festival prizes, including the people's choice award at the Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival. “It's really hard to distribute a documentary theatrically if you're not Michael Moore,” she said. “But the response to the film was beyond our dreams. It plays well with a crowd.”

All the same, the reaction from potential distributors was muted. “Even without seeing it, they feel it's a very niche thing,” Goldstein Knowlton said.

So she decided to release the film herself, and she turned to Kickstarter to raise the money. “I believed people were out there who wanted to support the film. And they were. It really created a community of supporters around the film,” said Goldstein Knowlton, who exceeded her $80,000 goal by more than $20,000.

The documentary is tentatively set to hit theaters this fall.

Steve Taylor, the writer and director of April's “Blue Like Jazz,” turned to Kickstarter after a local investor reneged on $250,000 in production funding. A Seattle supporter agreed to match anything raised on Kickstarter, so Taylor and his producers set a $125,000 goal. But they nearly tripled that, raising $345,992 from 4,495 backers, the most successful campaign for a film on the site.

Taylor promised to personally thank anyone pledging up to $100, requiring more than 3,000 phone calls.

In making those calls, Taylor discovered that many backers were fans of the source material, Donald Miller's memoir “Blue Like Jazz: Nonreligious Thoughts on Christian Spirituality.” Said Taylor: “A lot of them were just responding to how much the book meant to them.”

Kickstarter claims it has raised $145 million in pledges for all projects since the site launched in 2009. Applying the 5% service fee it charges recipients, that would yield more than $7 million in fees (Kickstarter declined to tell The Times its revenues). An additional 3%-5% of donated money goes to Amazon.com's credit card services; the online retailer processes transactions for the site.

Howell said that the do-it-yourself distribution model can be “an awful lot of work” and that the Kickstarter model isn't perfect. For a donation of $10,000 to “On the Ice,” Howell gave the donor's son an unpaid Hollywood internship, only to see the donor cancel the gift after the internship was completed.

“Luckily, we still had seven days to complete our funding, but we could have lost everything,” Howell said.

Kickstarter's Strickler said, “Backers are free to cancel their pledges at any point.”

Still, Howell said the benefits of crowd-funding rewards can outweigh the costs.

“Would I do it again? Yes,” he said. “It can be a terrific way for movies to find an audience, especially in today's tough climate.”

[For the record: 11:40 a.m. May 10: A previous version of this post incorrectly stated that the website Kickstarter accepts donations tied to only U.S. bank accounts.]

ALSO:

Roman Polanski to direct a movie about the Dreyfus affair

Movie academy goes casual with plan for outdoor summer screenings

-- John Horn and Emily Rome

Photo: "Somewhere Between." Credit: Linda Goldstein Knowlton


 
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