It's been a week since Rob Thomas and Kristen Bell broke the internet with their Kickstarter campaign for a feature film version of Veronica Mars. In less than 24 hours, the film reached its $2 million goal, securing an unprecedented deal with Warner Bros. Digital for distribution, marketing, and promotion. Over the subsequent week, some 56,700 backers have donated a running total of $3.7 million to the effort — a rough average of $65.50 per donation — blasting past the previous Kickstarter record for a feature film project several times over. In just seven days, this plucky teenage gumshoe has managed to rewrite the rules for crowdfunding a movie production budget, causing many professionals in Hollywood to give sites like Kickstarter a serious new look.
The day the Veronica Mars Kickstarter campaign started, television producer Shawn Ryan tweeted, "Very interested to see how this Veronica Mars kickstarter goes. Could be a model for a Terriers wrap up film." Zachary Levi told Entertainment Weekly he was already contemplating a Kickstarter campaign for a Chuck feature film. Showrunner Bryan Fuller said to The Hollywood Reporter that he's now seriously considering discussing with Warner Bros. how he could revive Pushing Daisies as a feature film, despite his reservations about the budget he would need. (On the other hand, Joss Whedon told BuzzFeed that, for now, a crowdfunded Firefly film is "a total non-Kickstarter for me.")
With the bright media spotlight so suddenly fixed on crowdfunding, it may surprise observers new to the phenomenon to learn that, before Ms. Mars and her Neptune, California, crew showed up to the party, Kickstarter had already successfully raised nearly $100 million for independent films. About 10% of the films at the Sundance Film Festival in 2012 and 2013 were funded via Kickstarter, as was the 2012 Oscar winner for Best Documentary Short, Inocente. For four years now, crowdfunding sites like Seed & Spark, Fractured Atlas, Indiegogo, and Kickstarter have been helping cash-strapped indie filmmakers build their production budgets, finish the final edits, and screen the finished films at festivals.
Most importantly, they've also connected filmmakers with their audiences in a profound way. "Almost as important as getting you funds, those sites build a community around your project," says writer-director Jonathan Lisecki, who raised roughly $30,000 for his delightful romantic comedy Gayby via Kickstarter and Fractured Atlas. "It creates a level of excitement and anticipation for your film, at least from the people who feel like they are a part of it."
And for many in the indie world, it's not nearly clear yet how Veronica Mars' runaway success with crowdfunding will affect this still-developing economic ecosystem.
"When I look at [Veronica Mars on Kickstarter], I can only think, Oh, good for them, but it has nothing to do with me," says Ava DuVernay, writer-director of the 2012 indie darling Middle of Nowhere. "That's a show that had huge national exposure on television for however many seasons it was on, week after week. It's a venture that will eventually be supported by a corporate structure. It's wonderful that it happened for them, but for me, as an independent filmmaker who literally makes films for less than a half million dollars — my last film [budget] was $200,000 — what's happening there is outside the context of true independent filmmaking."
Echoes Lisecki, "There are hundreds and hundreds of films each year that are asking for, like, 25 grand, 30 grand, 50 grand. I'm not quite sure how many people could pull off $1 million." To wit: Big Gay Love, starring Lisecki and Buffy the Vampire Slayer's Nicholas Brendon, just reached its modest $20,000 Kickstarter goal after 27 days of trying. Veronica Mars cleared that bar in a matter of minutes.
The Mars model isn't a complete outlier, however. Producer Josh Penn — who worked with nonprofits to fund the Oscar-nominated Beasts of the Southern Wild but has turned to Kickstarter to help finance two documentaries — is more sanguine about what Veronica Mars means for crowdfunding. "It shows that crowdfunding can work all scales of projects," he says. "It really opens up the possibilities of what can be made. These [crowdfunding] tools were being used for much, much smaller projects only. I love the idea that there's a way to do something totally independently just because people believe it should be made. ... It's a whole new model for filmmaking."
For Penn, one of the caveats to Veronica Mars' success — that it had a huge built-in audience itching to support it — only proves that established indie filmmakers should consider their own fans when planning their next films. "If we had gone out three years ago and said, 'We want to make Beasts of the Southern Wild on Kickstarter,' we would not have been able to fund the entire movie," he says. "If we went out now and said, 'We want to make Beasts of the Southern Wild 2' — which we don't want to make, for the record — I think maybe we could. It would be an interesting experiment to see if we could be able to garner enough support to fund an entire film like that."
At the very least, indie filmmakers can be more ambitious with their fundraising goals — but only to a point. "The lesson for independent filmmakers here is not that you can go out and raise $3 million," says Josh Welsh, co-president of Film Independent, a non-for-profit organization that helps indie filmmakers (and puts on the annual Indie Spirit Awards). "Filmmakers need to have a sense of reality to what's really feasible to accomplish. At the same time, they should not be too modest in their aspirations. I encounter both of these [issues] with filmmakers."
Welsh says that a smart, focused, energized crowdfunding campaign has the very real potential to make upwards of six figures. "If your total budget is $500,000 and you're able to raise $200,000 on Kickstarter, that's incredible," he says. "Non-refundable money — [where] you don't have to pay an investor back — is a huge asset to your film. To me, the space where you're seeing the most impact of Kickstarter right now is in low-budget, quality filmmaking."
Jonathan Lisecki's Kickstarter pitch to finish his feature film Gayby.
Ah, but there's the rub. Veronica Mars' success has also called attention to a looming concern with crowdfunding: Backers do not receive any kind of equity in the projects they're supporting. "This is something that folks who've been watching [crowdfunding] for a while have always thought about," says DuVernay. "What if it's a hit? If this thing hits number one at the box office or if this starts to become financially viable through all its platforms — DVD, VOD, transactional streaming, international [distribution] — are the people that invested in it worth nothing in terms of being recouped in any way? It's interesting. I don't think it's ever been tackled seriously because nothing's made that much money to really warrant that kind of question having to be answered."
"That's just the nature of the [site]," counters Beasts' Penn. "People have the choice to not donate. Kickstarter is a tool saying, 'I believe in this. I want it to get made.' The return of it, sometimes it's the prizes, but more and more I think the return on it is that the thing exists. … There's a lot of reasons why people can be excited about things besides just making money."
Very soon, though, that sentiment may be moot. Last April, Congress passed the Jumpstart Our Business Startups (JOBS) Act, which, among its provisions, allows for equity-based crowdfunding up to $1 million — meaning, in theory, a grandma who gives $100 to her granddaughter's documentary could see that money back, and then some, should the film make a profit. The only holdup: Until the S.E.C. rules on how "crowd investing" could even work, no one can take advantage of it. A ruling, however, is expected soon.
"If the S.E.C. says you can raise equity through crowdfunding," says Film Independent's Welsh, "that will open the door for all kinds of filmmakers to raise substantially more money through crowdfunding than they currently do. At that point, you're essentially going to be able to buy shares in a film through a crowdfunding site. That will be a game changer."