Over the past year in DOX Magazine, several filmmakers have shared their experiences with new ways of building audiences and finding funds using the Internet (see box). In particular Paul Devlin (Nnov-2008) evaluated his experience with ArtistShare, a website originally aimed at helping musicians to fund their music through their audiences. Devlin concluded that the model had potential but that it would be necessary to identify suitable films and filmmakers and to take the time to develop a fan-base.
The magic words here are crowdsourcing and crowdfunding. According to Wikipedia, crowdsourcing is “taking a task traditionally performed by an employee or contractor and outsourcing it to an undefined, generally large group of people or community in the form of an open call.” The strategy relies on Web 2.0 technologies. Crowdfunding, on the other hand, is on the other side “an approach to raising the capital required for a new project or enterprise by appealing to large numbers of ordinary people for small donations.” The combination of the two seems to be the core of business model 2.0.
Recently, US journalist Scott Kirsner published Fans, Friends and Followers: Building an Audience and a Creative Career in the Digital Age (FFF), a guide to this new business model. It discusses how to build an online audience that will both be your funder, co-operator, and your audience. It also addresses ways to include fans and stakeholders in your project creatively. The book includes tips and tricks, interviews with artists who tried such strategies, and a wide range of references and URLs to further information and online tools.
The release of FFF is a good moment to take a European pulse: how do European filmmakers build their audiences online? Are they including them in their projects and are they generating funds from them? Four European filmmakers, tracked through sites IndieGoGo and Wreck a-Movie (see box), share their experiences and views on the main elements of Kirsner’s book: searching for your crowd, getting funds, involving your crowd in your project, and keeping in touch.:
Elena Rossini is working on The Illusionists, a feature-length documentary about how women’s insecuritiesy about their bodies are manipulated and exploited for profit. Ernst Gossner is working on Global Warning – The Thaw of War, about the threat, dangers, and likelihood of WWIII. Steven Dhoedt is filming Inside the Metaverse, a documentary exploring the rise of online virtual technologies and their impact on present global society. And David Baker has made a fiction film, Mission X, about a documentary film student caught up in a revenge attack by a gang of mercenaries.
Film-related websites as well as social networking websites create an opportunity to gather a crowd around your project. But, as Kirsner puts it, there has never been a noisier, more competitive time to try to make art, entertain people, and tell stories. Despite the competition the filmmakers interviewed seem to find a way. Elena Rossini mentions two reasons to go for internet crowds: the subject and the audience. As she says: “In the film, I denounce mass media and advertising for saturating our lives with images of idealised beauty and censoring images of real women’s bodies. I challenge the status quo and the very essence of mass media. In France, where I live, film production companies get their funding for documentaries from TV stations, which are heavily dependent on advertising. I wouldn’t want a big cosmetics company to pressure a TV network to drop my project or to severely edit it, under the threat of pulling advertising. Well, there is very little such companies can do to an independently funded film. Also, women’s voices often go unheard, as our cultural institutions and mass media are male-dominated. But when it comes to the Internet, all bets are off: women have as many chances as men to publish their writings and videos. The web is the most egalitarian medium that has ever existed.”
Rossini combines working online with that of off-line platforms, such as conferences and women’s organisations. So far, she has focused on audience building. Twitter has been an effective tool: “I started a profile six months ago, posting daily links to articles from my research and also mentioning stories about larger feminist issues. Followers started pouring in and in the span of a few months, I had connected with hundreds of women.” She has recently met a number of her Twitter contacts and counts on organising another ‘Twitup’ with Illusionists followers soon.
Dhoedt’s Inside the Metaverse contains characters whose lives have been intertwined with a virtual locus: “So really we are aiming at the cyber-human: online gamers, users of online virtual worlds such as Second Life, where all kinds of people hang around, and users of social networks like Facebook and Twitter. So there is no clear cut profile of our audience.” For the moment he relies on his blog, his Facebook page and his IndieGoGo page to build an audience: “IndieGoGo seemed the most interesting because it is aimed specifically at filmmakers. And also, social network sites like Facebook and webmail such as Gmail are included in the platform. It’s very efficient.”
Asking crowds to help fund your film by donating small amounts for small returns has not yet taken off with these three filmmakers. But Rossini is enthusiastic about the advantages of crowdfunding: “A key element is identifying the best donors. In my case, I’m focusing on the United States and Canada, where people are accustomed to donating to causes they feel passionate about. My first step will be setting up fiscal sponsorship in the United States for the purpose of tax-deductible contributions for American donors.”
Dhoedt received funds from the Flanders Audiovisual Fund and it was the intention to finance the whole project via traditional channels such as co-production and pre-sales. Dhoedt sees crowdfunding as an experiment that suits his film but he really has yet to start, due to lack of time: “We will start to promote our crowdsourcing call from September on. Crowdsourcing is an intense activity, especially as a beginning filmmaker with a small group of supporters. Nobody knows who you are and you have to make an extra effort to stand out and gather people behind your project.
If you want to collect money quickly and you think crowdsourcing is the way, disappointment will await you.”
And, when asked about whether to involve your crowd creatively, Baker’s first response is that retaining ‘creative control’ is paramount. But he did make some exchanges: he gave film credits in return for Twitter plugs and a small private investor is an extra in the film, with a few lines, and has an executive producer credit. However, he is hesitant about involving followers in the real creative stuff and would rather consider involving them in spin-offs, viral promo movies, or doing online interviews.
To sustain an online audience, keeping in touch is, according to Kirsner, essential. To stay in touch with her crowd, Rossini will create a parallel project on the web: “Interaction and audience participation are of paramount importance, since one of the main messages of the film is that images of real women’s bodies are often blocked out of mass media. People who support the project – and the Internet audience at large – could feel more empowered by voicing their own opinions on the subject.”
The business model 2.0 seems to be developed further in the US than in Europe. What does the future look like? Opinions differ here. According to another person, Ernst Gossner, it will be essential: “All over the world you reach the audience and your niches. I believe it’s different for each project, art form, etc. You have to find the right fit and you have to experiment all the time. But you can experiment and check the results very quickly. It’s a great way to communicate and people love being part of a film project. And it’s a great way for the author to become autonomous from distribution middlemen. It’s a great time for independent filmmakers. All the paradigms are changing. You can shape your distribution to your project. And as a filmmaker you will think more about the audience before you even get started.”
Baker sees differences between Europe and the US: “I do have a sense that crowdfunding will be more possible from the US. I had a little taste of it. The feedback, the support from the States was very different from that from the UK. It’s a society that supports and roots for the underdog.” Baker sponsored a trip to Cannes Film Festival with money that mainly came from people in the US: “From people who liked my website, and the whole DIY, go for your dreams attitude. I think people invest in ‘people’, ‘passion’, ‘energy’, ‘vision’ and ‘the underdog’. I think the actual film comes last. People help people, so I think that is why it is so important to brand yourself as an individual that gets things done.”
Rossini also sees a difference between the US and Europe, or France at least: “As I said, in the United States and Canada people are accustomed to donating. Adults in France, Italy or the UK are less accustomed – and inclined – to donate online.” However, she hopes crowdfunding and -sourcing will be here to stay: “Many European countries have very rigid rules that apply to business and filmmaking, strewing the simplest task with miles of red tape. Crowdfunding is an amazing alternative to this problem.
”Dhoedt is more doubtful: “American filmmakers have always been much more inventive in financing their films because they have been less able to rely on national film funds and cultural and artistic subsidies. However, as a production company we hope to replace corporate sponsoring by crowdsourcing. Probably for a small amount of the total budget, but we prefer support from an interested crowd to corporate sponsorship. A more European crowdfunding website might help here.”
From the above it seems that these European filmmakers are stuck at business model 1.5. They have no problem finding crowds on the web and using the Internet for PR and DVD sales. They easily find their way to specific and general audiences using their own sites, crowdfunding sites and social network sites. They sell their DVDs and expect to stay in touch as well, so PR seems covered.
But they seem hesitant to ask their followers to contribute financially and artistically and to offer something in return, which are the most salient aspects of the 2.0 model. They still rely on traditional funding methods and seem to regard crowdfunding as an additional option, also because they think supporting a cause financially is more an American practice than a European one. So it remains to be seen whether business model 2.0 will become a natural model for European filmmakers any time soon.