While risky or unconventional films have always had their share of challenges making their way to theatres, it seems that lately, the well has run dry for studios that were at one time willing to bet on a project with less mainstream appeal. And thus the rise of crowd-funding and the growing popularity of websites like Kickstarter as a way to fund the production and distribution of new independent films. Those of us watching such a trend, however, have been surprised to discover the pedigree of filmmakers popping up on the site in the past year, from names like Paul Schrader to Charlie Kaufman to Barry Mendel — directors and producers who have spent most of their Hollywood career on the fringes are embracing a new found freedom in funding that doesn’t come with a barrage of studio notes, re-edits and the risk of creative compromise.
For those unfamiliar with the site, Kickstarter is a funding platform exclusively for creative projects (not just films), where artists and innovators post a pitch for a project and set a goal for how much money they’d like to raise by a certain deadline. Donation levels range anywhere from $1 to hundreds to thousands of dollars, and come with a perk or prize of some kind to be handed out once the project is completed. Based on numbers released at the end of August, the film category has come in second place for money raised in 2012, with a grand total of $42 million having already been pledged to a variety of cinematic projects. From simply a script to a completed film looking for distribution, projects come to the site in all different forms and states, and the trend has not gone unnoticed by the industry. Sundance Institute, once known for providing the opportunity for small-time filmmakers to walk away from their annual film festival with big-time distribution deals, began partnering with Kickstarter in 2011 to coach the institute’s alumni on how to use the site for finding a way to get their films seen by audiences. With entries into the fest (along with other popular film festivals around the world) growing in recent years, fewer filmmakers are walking away with the distribution deals they want, and crowd-funding seems to be emerging as the chosen alternative.
Is Kickstarter the needed boost for independent filmmaking, or another sign of its demise? Even someone as name brand as David Fincher recently made headlines by turning to the site to try to find financing for the animated "The Goon" he's co-producing and has been trying to mount for years. Meanwhile, “Hotel Noir,” a feature film by Sebastian Gutierrez, is not short on marketable names, yet Gutierrez turned to the site when he couldn’t find a distributor other than VOD. His is the first of some of the bigger name films that found funding on the site to be released this year, and "Hotel Noir" will be appearing on New York screens beginning this weekend. Like most Hollywood trends, if successful, “Hotel Noir” is sure to lead a wave of filmmakers following suit, but the trend, while growing, has yet to see if fan fervor for getting projects off the ground will turn into money at the box office. If it does, however, we’re sure to see many projects following the path the below films are paving. A ringing theme found in all of these Project pages is one of pride on the part of the filmmakers to be bypassing the studio system and hope that with the coming of sites like Kickstarter, it is also the coming of a new era for truly independent filmmaking.
With a script by Bret Easton Ellis and directed by Paul Schrader, “The Canyons” raised eyebrows last spring when it was amongst the first feature narratives to appear on the site from a group of seasoned Hollywood vets. Looking to “maintain complete creative control of the distinct source material” according to the project’s page, Ellis and Schrader, along with former Lionsgate producer Braxton Pope, turned to Kickstarter and managed to raise their $100,000 goal (plus 50%) by their June deadline. While neither Ellis nor Schrader have the Hollywood popularity of directors like Scorsese or Spielberg, Schrader in particular, is certainly held with respect in the film community as the writer of films like “Taxi Driver” and “Raging Bull,” and Ellis has his own cult following. While cult appeal appears to be becoming less attractive to studios, it was likely a major contributor to the out-pouring of support ‘Canyons’ received when it posted to Kickstarter. Filming took place this summer and the first trailer dropped on Wednesday. You can see the results here.
Based on a play written by Charlie Kaufman, “Anomalisa” is a 40-minute animated film being developed by Dan Harmon and Dino Stamatopoulos. Duke Johnson, who directed the animated holiday episode of “Community” for Harmon and Stamatopoulos in 2010, will be taking on directorial duties here as well. Both Harmon and Kaufman have made names for themselves with unconventional storytelling, but recently have hit challenges when dealing with major studios. Harmon recently and very publicly butted heads with Universal executives over his meta-sitcom “Community” (which he ultimately exited) and Kaufman, coming off of a mixed reception for “Synecdoche, NY” back in 2008, has seen his latest feature project, “Frank or Francis,” hit a stall. Much like Ellis and Schrader, Harmon and Kaufman are known quantities but tend to draw specific audiences — but audiences apparently loyal enough to contribute funding so they can see more from their favorite filmmakers. “Anomalisa” set a Kickstarter record in September when it raised the most funds through the site ever for an animated film. With a grand total of $406,237 from 5,770 different backers, the filmmakers brought in double their original goal. Production will soon be underway on the project at Harmon and Stamatopoulos’ studio Starburns Productions.
This stylized black-and-white tale comes to theatres this weekend care of 1,871 backers who raised $81,552 (that’s $31,552 over the production’s goal). Perhaps one of the most surprising of the Kickstarter graduates, ‘Hotel’ rode out of the festival circuit on positive reviews and boasts a solid cast, including Rosario Dawson, Mandy Moore, Carla Gugino, Malin Ackerman, Danny DeVito, Rufus Sewell, Robert Forster and Kevin Connolly ("Entourage") amongst others, yet could only find distribution on VOD. The project came to the site completed, but looking for funding for distribution in theatres, which writer/director Guttierez hopes will give it a better shot at being seen by bigger audiences. A theatrical debut will also qualify it come awards season. The film premiered on VOD on October 9th and can be seen in theaters at Cinema Village in New York starting this Friday.
Another project that came to Kickstarter already complete but looking for funds to help with distribution is “Ingenious.” Starring Jeremy Renner and Dallas Roberts, “Ingenious” is the true story of how an invention took off — the name of which the filmmakers have kept a mystery. Sales from the product on which the film is based are what actually funded the production of the film, and in coming to Kickstarter, producers hoped that they would be able to finish and distribute “Ingenious” outside of the studio system as well. The project is still live on the site, and with two days remaining, the goal has already been surpassed, and producers will receive their funding. Hopefully we’ll see a theatrical release in the coming months (and we’ll learn what the mystery product is that inspired and funded the film).
“God Help the Girl”
Last but not least, another film that boasts a few familiar names but one you might not suspect to find under the “film” category. “God Help the Girl” is the brainchild of musician Stuart Murdoch, who wrote the screenplay with the intention to direct. With an appropriately melancholy, yet whimsical premise we’ve come to expect from work by the Belle and Sebastian frontman (the campaign site describes the project as “a story of renaissance over a long, dream-like summer”), the musical has been in the works for some time; producer Barry Mendel came on board as far back as 2007, and an album of the same name — meant as a pre-cursor to the film — was released in 2009. ‘Girl’ made its way to Kickstarter in early 2012, and by the February deadline had raised their $100,000 goal with a few extra thousand to spare. Production began this summer with Hannah Murray and Emily Browning in the leads, and the latest on the project comes from Murdoch himself, who posted on the film’s website in mid-August, announcing production had wrapped and editing was underway.
There are more films popping up on Kickstarter every day and if these models work, expect even more. Want to support what hundreds have backed? If you’re in New York, check out “Hotel Noir” in theatres this weekend, care of “viewers like you.”