Crowdfunding 201: Champion of the Sun(dance)

on Wednesday, Feb. 13th

Imagine you’re a filmmaker staring into the great abyss of attempting to get your next film made. You’ve had some success in the past, but oddly no one is offering to write a blank check for your next film, even though you’re pretty sure it’ll be amazing. You’ve heard of Kickstarter, mostly on your Facebook feed, but it all seems kind of daunting. Where to start? There’s so much information.

It’s not just the funding that’s changing by the minute. Distribution, publicity, social media: it’s kind of exhausting to keep track of it all. Scratch that, it’s incredibly exhausting.

Enter Artist Services, a wing of the Sundance Institute. I had the opportunity at the Sundance festival to sit down with Joseph Beyer, the point person for Sundance’s Creative Funding & Partnerships team. Beyer and his team are the folks responsible for bringing the Kickstarter campaigns for dozens of Sundance-branded films to fruition. Beyer laid out the idea behind his work:

“You’ve got this distribution opportunity, now how can we help you achieve some resources for all of the expenses you’ll have?”

They became the very first organization to strike a deal with Kickstarter, way back before you probably even knew Kickstarter existed.

Artist Services starts with the Alumni program of the Sundance Institute, which is pretty much exactly what you assume it is–people who got into Sundance at any point in the history of the festival, either in the festival itself or their various labs. That’s roughly 6,000 people, and it grows every year.

Beyer refers to Artist Services as a “turnkey universal distribution option” where, “if you’re a Sundance filmmaker and you don’t get a deal and you want to distribute your film digitally, we have the best terms that were pre-negotiated for you and those retailers have to take your film because you’ve been qualified as a Sundance artist.”

They’ve worked out deals with iTunes, Hulu, Netflix, YouTube, and pretty much anyone else you can think of (there’s a longer list at the very bottom of the page). While an aggregator like Distribber will get your film on those platforms at a price (if those platforms will take it), Sundance has taken care of all of that for you.

That’s actually a pretty killer perk, if you think about it. Getting on Netflix and iTunes, for example, isn’t nearly as simple as one might expect it to be, so anything that can simplify that process is going to be a boon for filmmakers who can then better spend that energy on actually promoting the film.

With that in place, it’s rather natural that they’d expand into crowdfunding. Maybe “expand” is the wrong word, as Artist Services operates under the umbrella of a non-profit. That’s a somewhat important distinction.

A cottage industry (of which I’m a part) has risen up around Kickstarter. People of varying degrees of competency– and let’s say ethics– who work to help people maximize their crowdfunding efforts, at a price. They’re reliant on funding being successful, whereas Artist Services isn’t, at least not in the same way. In theory, that means they’re able to spend more time on campaigns that never actually end up launching, which Beyer confirms is true. Or, one would suspect they’d be more able to take on lost causes.

Yet they have a success rate of roughly 99%, which is kind of stunning. No one has a success rate of 99%.

So, uh, how?

Well, the first answer is the easiest: they’re the Sundance Institute. Or, as Beyer puts it, people are much more likely to return their calls. It’s a nice line, but there’s a lot of truth to it. One of the more difficult parts of crowdfunding is getting the attention of the audience in the first place, so a voice that’s trusted and has a large reach is incredibly valuable. You can’t do much better than having Sundance champion your film. (Note to self: convince Noah to title this “Champion of the Sun“)

At minimum it puts your project in front of the right type of people, people who already have an affinity for independent film. Or, if you’re looking to reach a niche audience, someone like Beyer is going to be taken much more seriously by, say, a trade magazine than some random filmmaker they’ve never heard of. The list of organizations with that sort of reach and traction is a very short one. Let’s just say the number of people who think they have that impact is much bigger than the number that actual do. You could count them and have fingers left over.

But they’re Sundance, right? They have that bullhorn. Yet to focus on that would be to lose focus of the fact that Beyer knows his stuff.

I talk to a lot of so-called experts on crowdfunding. Probably half of them know what they’re talking about. Some well-respected ones are flailing around in the dark, clinging to platitudes and generalizations like some strange hybrid of Murray Chass and Joe Morgan. But few grasp the underlying concepts of what makes crowdfunding work as well as Beyer does. I don’t say that lightly.

One of the campaigns that Beyer talked about in our interview was the one for the American release of Taika Waititi’s Boy, a campaign that struggled for the first stretch until the folks at Artist Services were able to get Waititi to realize how essential it was for his personality to take over. To give people the opportunity to connect with the filmmaker himself. It looks like maybe that light bulb went off somewhere between update 4 and 5. Suddenly, you’ve got a good campaign on your hands. And, sure, it helps to have that megaphone of the Sundance Institute, but none of that is worth a thing if the filmmaker doesn’t put in the work.

And it’s worth noting that they didn’t put him in a box, they didn’t tell him he had to do things a certain way. They got him to embrace that which makes Waititi unique. Ultimately, that’s what makes it successful. So now, as that release rolls out, Waititi has an engaged audience that’ll follow him to all these distribution outlets, not just for Boy, but for his next film. And his next film. And the one after that.

Isn’t that the goal?

Below, you can listen to the full version of our interview, from Park City. It’s worth it, honest.

Extra Credit

Speaking of the next film, look what Freddie Wong did….And speaking of Sundance, there’s a campaign running for The Square….Over on my blog, I (finally) posted my Top 10 films of 2012, which I mention here mostly because two of them are projects that were funded on Kickstarter….One of the cooler end-of-year awards, the Muriel Awards, have started. It rolls out a category a day. So far, The Master is doing well….A documentary about Nixon is raising money to go to SXSW…Oh, and Beyer mentioned this campaign too. Told you they’re doing well.

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