When Emily Best spoke to Indiewire last month about her new crowdfunding platform, Seed&Spark, which also allows for online distribution, we were intrigued by her story of receiving support for her film "Like the Water," in unexpected packages, namely in donated services, loaned locations, and goods needed for production.
In the following first person article, Best explains the DIY lessons she learned from crowdfunding before crowdfunding was "a thing," and how that led her to found Seed&Spark.
Towards the end of 2010, Caitlin FitzGerald was making "Newlyweds" with Ed Burns. She was also starring in a site-specific production of "Hedda Gabler." This is where I met her (playing Thea to her Hedda), along with Caroline von Kuhn and three other remarkable women who would change my life forever. Together we wanted to make more work, possibly theater. And over drinks one night Caitlin would convince us all, thanks to Eddie’s stripped-down filmmaking style, that “filmmaking is easy.”
Don’t worry, folks, she said it with an appropriate amount of irony. While "Newlyweds" was shot on a remarkably small budget, that was true in part because Ed Burns relied upon his community. He shot in his friends’ apartments, in restaurants where he was a regular. He was able to build the world of a movie out of his community’s good will.
When we decided to make "Like the Water," we knew perfectly well we’d need a lot of help, far beyond a few locations. We were first time filmmakers on a mission to make a movie about women with whom we identified. We went out to raise money with an indie drama script focused entirely on female characters, with no romance and no nudity. We also had less than six months to raise the production budget so we could take advantage of the Maine summer required to shoot. Honestly, a lot of people laughed at us when we told them what we were attempting.
That was good for us. We had to prove ourselves. Fair enough.
Two months before we were set to shoot, we raised enough money in equity to get close but not close enough. It seemed like the whole project might all fall apart. But we were making a movie that was deeply meaningful to all of us. We just needed to find a way to convey that meaning to our friends and family, to see if they wanted to help. Kickstarter was only just becoming a “thing,” and while all our filmmaker friends had heard of it, our parents’ friends hadn't. So, we decided instead to build something they would all recognize: a wedding registry. We made a list of all the stuff we would need to make the movie: from camera and car rentals to makeup and bug spray, gaff tape, printer paper and lobsters. (Yes, lobsters. It was a Maine movie). For “incentives,” we offered what we could afford: a thank-you in the credits. We sent this list out to everyone we knew.
Then the most amazing thing happened: our friends not only started contributing cash, they started offering stuff. My cousin, who doesn't have a lot of money but works in a ski warehouse, shipped us a case each of bug spray and sunscreen (and was a hero among women all summer). Some friends who had just finished their own movie loaned us the pop-up tents and coffee makers we needed for craft services. A local coffee shop gave us 60 pounds of coffee. Some students taking film classes at the local high school wanted to intern on set. We were even offered locations so spectacular, Caitlin and Caroline re-wrote portions of the script to accommodate them.
We raised $23,000 in cash (of our un-stated $20,000 goal) in 30 days and literally hundreds of thousands more in loans and gifts of goods, locations, and services. It was as though we had unlocked the good will of our entire community.
What we came to call the "WishList" rendered our filmmaking process transparent to our community and sparked their imaginations. They started coming up with ways to get involved we hadn't imagined. They became deeply meaningful collaborators in the film who then lined up – literally – around the block to see the film when it was finished. A few of them show up to every festival screening – almost no matter where in the world — and bring friends.
Our supporters have become our greatest audience influencers. Why does this matter? Well, every filmmaker knows the hardest part is not actually funding your film, but getting anyone to see it when it’s finished – no matter how good it is.
This gave me an idea. Crowd-funding alone isn't really enough for indie films because making the film is not the end-game. Crowd-building – growing a deeply invested audience base from before the film is made – is something with which crowd-funding can help, if it’s done right. You want to give your supporters – your future audience – as many possible ways to find their place in the story of the making of your film. When both you and your supporter can name the material contribution they made to your film, you both understand your supporter’s importance beyond the number of dollars they contributed. And they should feel important because they are.
I founded Seed&Spark to allow indie filmmakers to leverage this WishList crowd-funding method specifically to build and grow their collaboration with their audiences for the entire life-cycle of a film. It’s never too early to get your audiences involved. When you activate the imaginations of your broader community, you set off a chain of actions, reactions and connections the result of which can push the boundaries of your film beyond what you imagined.
Every indie filmmaker knows that some of the best moments in film were dreamed up to work around problems money could otherwise have fixed. That sometimes the best locations aren't scouted, they're loaned. The perfect solutions aren’t bought, they’re McGyvered. And often those solutions come from an unexpected helper loaning their services for a day or two. Sourcing goods and services from the community means sourcing from the community's imagination, fostering deeper engagement and goodwill. It will get more independent films made, but more importantly, create more opportunities for greatness. Oh, and ensure that an audience will witness that greatness when the film is finished!