What’s Happening in Indie Financing?

Alex Epstein knows:

crowdfunding book Capture
Get a better look at this book at Amazon.Com

by Alex Epstein

I keep hearing that traditional funding for indie films is getting harder and harder.

I’m not sure it was ever that easy, unless you count the moment right after video stores came in and you could put together almost any cheesy erotic thriller or teenagers-in-a-cabin-in-the-woods horror movie and make a direct-to-video movie. If you read Joe Camp’s book about how he funded BENJI, the sleeper dog movie hit of 1974, he had a lot of trouble getting his movie made, and then more trouble getting it into theaters.

But word is that indie dramas are almost dead in North America; a distributor friend of mine told me not even to use the word when describing our current project. So, everybody’s talking about crowdfunding.

Raising money from individual strangers is not new. When I was at Arama Entertainment as VP of Development a ways back, we worked with these financiers from Texas who had raised a lot of money speculating on ostrich farming. They had a “boiler room” full of guys who’d call dentists and tell them how much money they could make investing in ostriches. At the time, ostrich meat was selling at a premium. The meat tastes more like steak than chicken, but it’s low fat. Ranchers were buying fertilized ostrich eggs for $300, while an actual ostrich was worth, say, a couple of thousand. Dentists are people who (a) have a biggish income and (b) really boring jobs. Our Texas friends were offering them an investment, but they were also offering them something to dream about other than problematic teeth.

Our Texas guys could see that the ostrich boom couldn’t last; eventually there would be as many ostriches in Texas as anyone would possibly want to eat. So they decided to get into show business. They raised $600,000 for us, from dentists who would invest $5000 — an amount they could afford to lose — and thereby buy the right to tell people at cocktail parties that they were in show business. Because who wants to hear about teeth?

The way the boiler room works is there’s a bunch of guys with long lists of presumably wealthy people, and they just call and call and call until they get someone on the hook. Think Glengarry Glen Ross. The boiler room takes a pretty hefty chunk of the money it raises, and passes the rest along to the filmmaker, who spend it to make a movie. The investors rarely get a profit, but, like buying a lottery ticket, they get to dream about being in the movies.

Crowdfunding takes that idea and puts it on the Internet, with some differences. Mostly, crowdfunding is not about your contributors hoping to make a profit. They are hoping to support the arts. And, they usually get some sort of “perk,” from a thank-you on someone’s Twitter feed, to an Executive Producer title on the film, to a t-shirt, to what have you. I give Vermont Public Radio $90, I get a nice mug. That sort of thing.

John Trigonis crowdfunded his short CERISE, and wrote a book about it called CROWDFUNDING FOR FILMMAKERS. It is a very in-depth book about how he did it, and how to do it right.

Unfortunately, and this is not at all the book’s fault, my takeaway is: crowdfunding is a lousy way to raise money for filmmaking. There seems to be a huge amount of effort involved for very little reward. He spent two months intensively farming his contacts in order to raise $5000. He recounts in considerable detail how other would-be filmmakers leveraged their Twitter feeds, Facebook networks, Google Plus, etc., to raise similar amounts. He talks about how he contributed to one filmmaker who, in exchange for your $33 contribution, would mail you a vinyl LP from his personal collection. Other filmmakers will send you a “personalized sound” or work your chosen word into a song.

And it’s not mostly strangers. It’s mostly your friends. Trigonis even posted requests for money on his friends’ Facebook walls.

If you’re actually in show business, I think this would be a terrible idea. If you ask your friends for money, they will ask you for money. Everybody has a project. If 20 friends give me fifty bucks each, and then I give 20 friends fifty bucks, we’re just moving the money around (and paying Indiegogo a rake). More importantly, I want friendship from my friends, not money. I’m happy to help my friends out — help them get jobs, connect them, give them advice, feed them, pour liquor into them — but if all they wanted was money from me, I think I’d feel dissed.

So crowdfunding involves (a) annoying the crap out of your friends (b) making it your full-time job (c) for really not all that much money.

I have seen slightly more respectable crowdfunding campaigns, but they’re still for small amounts of money. Jane Espenson raised $60,000 for her web series HUSBANDS. My agent contributed to a crowdfunding campaign from David Fincher.

But these are Famous People. I am sure that if Joss Whedon wanted to raise a hundred grand for another Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along, he could do it at the drop of a hat (and a few dozen hours of work for his assistant).

But Joss Whedon could also write a hundred thousand dollar check without blinking, considering what he must have been paid to direct THE AVENGERS and what he will almost certainly get paid if he is interested in directing any future Avengers movies. And Jane Espenson can raise $60,000 by writing a television script.

Also, Joss Whedon can make a really great web short for a hundred thousand dollars, because what cinematographer isn’t going to jump at the chance to do a favor for Joss Whedon?

I am always impressed by people who make a crowd-pleasing short for $5,000, or a film that is even releasable for $100,000. For people like that, crowdfunding is a possibility. I don’t think you can count on raising anywhere near a million bucks, if that’s what you need to make a professional quality movie.

Based on this book, I feel like for most people, crowdfunding is a financing source of last resort.

And that’s not surprising. You’re not asking people to invest in a film; there’s no financial upside. You’re asking for donations.

That said, this is a useful book, should you decide to go for it. It will give you a good sense of how much work, and what sort of work, you’ll need to do in order to get your money. If you’re not sure, it will let you know what you’re in for. I am going to send it to a couple of people I’m working with who have brought up crowdfunding, so at least we’re all on the same page about what it entails.