Evidently, audiences want to see the William Shatner documentary “You Can Call Me Bill” so badly that a good chunk of them were willing to pay for it to be made in the first place.
“You Can Call Me Bill” premieres Thursday at SXSW, with Shatner himself set for a keynote conversation at the festival alongside the doc’s debut. But the film came about through an equity crowdfunding experiment by the film’s producers, Legion M. The production company’s principals Paul Scanlan and Jeff Annison tell IndieWire that “You Can Call Me Bill” managed to raise over $750,000 in a span of just four days. That number easily surpassed the film’s lean budget and has fueled its appearance and promotion at SXSW this week.
While crowdfunding itself is nothing new, the fundraising on “You Can Call Me Bill” is not a Kickstarter or a donation; it’s an investment, allowing fans of the company and Shatner to invest directly in the success — or lack thereof — of the film. Legion M is hopeful that if all goes well, it will be a means the company can use to finance future projects or acquisitions.
“We really feel encouraged by the response,” Scanlan told IndieWire. “We now have the ability and the skill set, and it’s a muscle that we will continue to grow.”
Legion M calls themselves a “fan-owned” company, where individual movie fans are equity investors and shareholders in the still-private company (Legion M currently has roughly 40,000 investors). Their investment buys them the right to vote on filmmakers they’d like to see the company partner with, projects they want to fund, or movies on which they want to see Legion M partner as a distributor.
It’s a model that’s worked for films like “Colossal,” “Mandy,” and “Jay and Silent Bob Reboot.” “You Can Call Me Bill,” however, is the first time Legion M allowed fans to invest directly in a specific project.
Legion M announced it would equity crowdfund the Shatner doc at last year’s San Diego Comic-Con, and the plan was to first allow a group of Legion M shareholders to reserve a spot where they could participate in the initial funding round. They’d then open the funding window to all those who are free members as part of Legion M’s bigger fan community, and then finally to the general public.
The producers set a funding goal of $600,000, which would encompass a $561,000 production budget with additional contingencies built in. But the demand was so great that the crowdfunding never made it out of the first round. Of 3,000 investors who reserved a spot, just shy of 1,500 ponied up over $750,000 across four days, some with huge investments and others contributing a minimum $100. Legion M ultimately capped the amount raised at $750,000 — but they could’ve easily kept going.
“This is an investment; it’s not a donation in something. And if you raise more money than you need, it just makes it harder to get everybody returns,” Annison said.
In terms of backend, Legion M says they’ve structured the financing deal in such a way that, should the film make its money back, fans will receive their entire investment before Scanlan, Annison, and Shatner, who is an executive producer, see any returns themselves. Profits will then be split evenly three ways between the fan community of investors, the producers, and Shatner. And those who contributed $5,000, for example, would receive a higher percentage of earnings than a backer who only contributed the minimum $100.
“One of the attributes of ‘Fan-First Financing’ that we wanted to do was to make simple straightforward deals. Part of the reason that Hollywood can have such a bad reputation is because the accounting is inherently very complex,” Annison said. “Bill had a say in it. We explored financing this traditionally versus fan financing, and Bill was like, ‘Let’s raise the money from the fans.’ We told him, ‘Well Bill, if we raise this money from the fans, we have to put the fans first. There’s no world in which it’s good that you made money on a project and the fans that invested in it didn’t.'”
While Legion M very easily could have taken the traditional financing route, a William Shatner documentary to them seemed like a good, low-risk, and low-cost way to do a test balloon for this model. If it works, they may once again look to fans to fund other future narrative feature projects with heftier budgets. And with how quickly they managed to raise funds this time, they wonder if such a model could one day allow them to competitively make a bid in acquiring a film out of a festival like SXSW for distribution.
Of course, all this depends on if “You Can Call Me Bill” actually makes any money. The documentary is coming to SXSW without distribution and with XYZ Films handling sales. The film has already screened for press and industry, and Scanlan says early conversations around distribution are already happening. Even if they strike out, a backup plan could be to tour the film with Shatner in tow, staging event screenings across the country as a way to recoup some costs.
Until then, Legion M is rolling out the red carpet at SXSW to those who made this film possible, offering a couple hundred investors tickets to the premiere and to meet with Shatner at an afterparty event. If they’re happy mini-producers in the end, it hopefully won’t be the last movie they help finance.
“We want everybody to be on the same page,” Annison said. “Wherever possible, we want to set things up so that we’re all aligned. We can all lock arms and just try and conquer the world together.”
“You Can Call Me Bill” premieres at the 2023 SXSW Film Festival.