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.