By harnessing the power of the Internet, writers and filmmakers are financing their projects and reaching investors all over the world. Sometimes in just a few hours.  

(April 5, 2013) 

The story of how writer-producer Rob Thomas financed his Veronica Mars movie project through Kickstarter is fast becoming the stuff of crowdfunding lore. Thomas put out a $2 million request on the online financing website last month and raised the money in 11 hours through online donations. Two days later he was up to $3.7 million, and donations were still going strong.

Photo: Sharline Liu
Motivated Creators Panelists (L-R) Brad Bell, John Gibbons, Josh Welsh (moderator/Film Independent Co-President), Braxton Pope and Brad Wyman.  

But if Veronica Mars is the latest crowdfunding phenom, it certainly isn’t the only one. Throughout Hollywood, writers and filmmakers are harnessing the power and reach of the Internet, using sites like Kickstarter and Indiegogo (and others) to raise money for their films and projects. At a time when studios are financing fewer films, it’s an exciting new business model, often exalted as the “democratization” of filmmaking. “It is the most innovative and unique method to raise capital that has happened in my lifetime,” Indiegogo Vertical Lead (Film/Video/Web) Brad Wyman told the audience at the WGAW’s recent panel “Motivated Creators: New Financing Models – Crowdfunding and Beyond,” which was moderated by Film Independent Co-President Josh Welsh.

To be sure, crowdfunding has thrown open the doors of financing, allowing people all over the world to toss a couple of bucks into the virtual pot - $10, $35, $35,000 – to help fund projects they believe in. In the Veronica Mars campaign, Thomas tapped into the fiercely loyal fans who have been waiting for a movie since the CW pulled the plug on his cult favorite in 2007. For The Canyons, a WGA-covered indie noire erotic thriller that opens this summer, producer Braxton Pope drew on the star wattage of writer Bret Easton Ellis, director Paul Schrader and actress Lindsey Lohan to generate interest and money. While crowdfunding campaigns typically offer donors something in return for their pledges such as T-shirts, posters or a downloadable copy of the movie, Pope also offered perks like a training session at the gym with Ellis. And Schrader put up an inscribed money clip given to him by Robert DeNiro on the set of Taxi Driver – and it snared a $10,000 pledge. “We took advantage of Brett and Schrader,” jokes Pope. “We tried to come up with new things.”

This kind of creative marketing, coupled with sustained engagement, seem to be the key to successful financing campaigns, the panelists agreed. But it’s also labor intensive. A great video to show off your project is essential to rise above the noise of thousands of others vying for financing. Then you have to keep the train rolling with nonstop tweeting, Facebook posts and other social shout outs. Once you’ve raised the money, you have to have a system (and people) in place to fulfill the pledge perks. If done correctly, and cleverly, the result is often successfully cultivating a fan base of donors to go back to on your next project in addition to your primary goal of raising money.

Photo: Sharline Liu
Husbands Writer-Co-Creator Brad Bell  

Writer-producer Brad Bell (and partner Jane Espenson) launched a Kickstarter campaign to finance $50,000 for the second season of their WGA-covered web series, Husbands, and ended up raising $60,000 – $30,000 within the first 12 hours. But one of the challenges, Bell told the WGAW audience, is to engage people without seeming desperate. “You don’t want to create the perception that you’re begging for money.”

While Kickstarter and Indiegogo go for quantity, Slated is another wrinkle in the crowdfunding universe that targets serious monied investors. An equity-based financing site, Slated typically raises between $25,000 and $250,000. According to Slated advisor John Gibbons, who was a panelist at the WGAW’s crowdfunding event, his site targets investors throughout the world who have disposable income and want to get into the movie business but have no connections. “We are filling that gap,” says Gibbons. “We do fewer films but at higher levels, and it’s for equity, the expectation of transparency in the process and ownership of the property. They get something back.”

That said, the payoff for writers who crowdfund is also considerable. Not only do sites like Indiegogo and Kickstarter empower writers by enabling them to see their work realized but, unlike many studio-financed projects, they allow their creative vision to remain intact. “It gives freedom to writers to make their vision pure,” says Mark Duplass who, along with director (and wife) Katie Aselton, raised about $33,000 on Kickstarter to fund a portion of Black Rock, their WGA-covered 2012 Sundance Midnight Series thriller starring Kate Bosworth and Lake Bell. “A movie like Black Rock is commercial and could have been made at a studio, but we wanted to make it independently so we could make it exactly as we wanted to. By crowdfunding, it was a perfect creative experience.”

In part, the appeal of crowdfunding is that it is an unregulated frontier where filmmakers get to circumvent the restrictive studio system (though Warner Brothers, which holds the rights to Veronica Mars, approved the movie version and Kickstarter campaign and will pay for distributing and marketing the film) and find their own investors. But that’s also the potential downside. If not monitored, online financing can evolve into a way for studios and larger production companies to avoid employing writers to make films and get off paying them development money. A recent column in the Hollywood Reporter pointed out that the donation model in crowdfunding could be subject to state and federal laws prohibiting mail and wire fraud, unfair competition and false advertising. And whether the IRS starts to view these donations as taxable income is still unknown.

But for now, crowdfunding offers writers and filmmakers the excitement of a new financing model that taps into the power of the Internet to reach millions of potential donors. The end result: movies and other projects are being made. Says Duplass: “This is an idea whose time has come.”