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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.