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Film Crowdfunding 2014: Tale of the Tape

on Monday, Jan. 27th

Judging the health of the indie movie crowdfunding scene can be a little tricky.

Should we focus on total dollars raised? Major award nominations? The number of berths at big time festivals? Box office? Okay, let’s not worry about box office. Ever.

Still, there has to be something that can be learned from looking at the impact that crowdfunded films are having in the traditional movie market. Which is why I did a little number crunching over the weekend. (Lucas McNelly, this one’s for you, old sport.)

Before I get to the numbers (Hey Lucas: psyche!) let’s look at the most high profile crowdfunded film of the moment: The Square. This film is up for an Academy Award for Best Documentary feature, and took home a Director’s Guild Award over the weekend. Post-Sundance and crowdfunding it was picked up by Netflix, who are shepherding the film through awards season.

That’s good news for the makers of The Square, because an awards season campaign can run into the millions of dollars. That’s a reason why it’s unlikely we’ll see crowdfunded efforts crack into the Best Picture category at the Academy Awards, or get very far outside of the industry-focused award circuit. While backers may be willing to help a film finish production, they probably won’t go for the “but I really want an Oscar” argument.

Of course, if a crowdfunded film is good enough that it gets major distribution the math changes. There’s a chance for backlash there, however, just ask Zach Braff.

Speaking of the former Scrubs star and Garden State filmmaker, his latest effort really throws off the Sundance Film Festival 2014 numbers for total-crowdfunding-dollars. When his latest film Wish I Was Here is factored into the equation the total amount of crowdfunding money on display at this year’s Sundance was $4,027,243. That’s less backer rewards and fees, of course.

Take Braff out of the picture and the number deflates to $921,770. That feels disappointing, but then again Braff’s project is a celebrity-driven anomaly compared to the others. Viewed through that lens the more “traditional” indie projects represent close to a million bucks. That’s not too shabby for a source of funding that’s barely five years old.

Twenty-two films, counting Braff’s, received backing through either Kickstarter or IndieGoGo at this year’s Sundance festival. Another one is raising money. Of those the majority (13 films) were or are seeking finishing funds. This appears to be a critical part of the new model. Instead of going to the well to get a project off the ground many filmmakers are hitting up crowdfunding for the last mile.

One project that did just that? Winner of the Sundance U. S. Grand Jury Prize for Documentaries: Rich Hill.

This isn’t to say that crowdfunding success is a guarantee of festival or award season glory. Neither is it a sign that a crowdfunding failure means a film is destined for obscurity. Prison Terminal: The Last Days of Private Jack Hall is one of the Oscar nominated doc shorts. It began its life as an attempt to create a feature length documentary. That project failed to fund back in 2011. The short, meanwhile, will première in March on HBO.

So take heart crowdfunding warriors: the road is strange and varied, but the trail is being blazed.

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