The last time comedian and radio personality Adam Carolla tried to get funding for a film, it didn’t end well. He took meetings at studio after studio, but had no luck selling his 2007 project, “The Hammer.” This time around, he’s trying something new. In July, Carolla launched a campaign to raise $1 million for his next film, “Road Hard,” using the crowdfunding website, FundAnything. Less than 30 days later, he had topped his goal with more than 10,000 contributions and counting. He’s got enough to make the new film, which he’s also starring in. Not bad for 30 days work.
“I practically begged people to help me, and it didn’t work,” the comedian told The Financialist. “I didn’t want to go through that humiliation again, and the good news is – it’s working.” Carolla is part of what may turn out to be a watershed moment for film financing. Crowdfunding websites, which have traditionally been the domain of independent and unknown artists, are increasingly being used to gather multi-million dollar funding for both celebrity-studded films and big-time television series.
In March, Rob Thomas, the creator and executive producer of long-discontinued television series “Veronica Mars,” raised an almost unimaginable $2 million in less than 24 hours through the website Kickstarter to make a “Veronica Mars” movie. In the end, he drummed up $5.7 million to fund the film, which will be distributed by Warner Bros. Actor and director Zach Braff, known for his role on “Scrubs,” also used Kickstarter in May to raise $3.1 million to make “Wish I Was Here,” a movie starring Braff about “a struggling actor, father and husband, who at 35 is still trying to find his identity.”
Suddenly, the famously clubby industry is asking itself whether high-profile crowdfunding could transform Hollywood finance. Unsurprisingly, those on the cutting edge of the trend—such as filmmakers and the sites themselves—are emphatic that it will. Brad Wyman, an executive at FundAnything who helped engineer Carolla’s campaign, says major studios are increasingly interested in getting into the game. “I’m talking to them all,” said Wyman. “I’m ready to do a crowdfunding campaign for a TV studio where they’re literally putting up five different shows. The one that gets the highest funding will get put into production.”
Wyman thinks crowdfunding is a valuable tool not only for raising money, but also for helping artists market and brand their products and engage with audiences. In his previous role in charge of film, television and web projects at the crowdfunding website Indiegogo, he increased the total value of transactions on that site from $1 million to $3 million per month over the course of a year. Now at FundAnything, he believes that crowdfunding is one bright spot in an otherwise gloomy outlook. Movie theatre admissions grew 6 percent last year over 2011, but the longer-term trend in attendance is negative: Attendance peaked at 1.6 billion in 2002, but was only 1.36 billion a decade later, according to the Motion Picture Association of America. And a recent report by Moody’s Investors Service predicted that ticket sales will never reach those heights again due to competition for consumers’ time and attention from a plethora of alternative screens, including smart phones and tablets, as well as the laptop and television screens that can show viewers Netflix movies from the comfort of home. “Right now, we’re in Death Valley when it comes to Hollywood,” Wyman said.
Few believe crowdfunding will affect the way gigantic-budget blockbusters are financed. Those projects are simply too big to fund from a plethora of small donations. Rather, the niche for crowdfunding exists in financing films with budgets in the $1 to $10 million range. But even within this sweet spot, there’s a catch. Campaigns are much more likely to be successful if they tap into a significant pre-existing fan base and fulfill an existing gap in the market. “The common misperception is that I can put a project on Indiegogo, and I’ll just get support because it’s an indie film,” said Michael Brockoff, a film and TV producer who ran a successful Kickstarter campaign to fund a documentary about “Bronies,” a nickname for enthusiastic male fans of the show “My Little Pony.” “The ones that get funded are giving a very specific group of people exactly what they want.”
Indeed, Veronica Mars benefited from intensely loyal fans, and drew on its star Kristen Bell to offer fans attractive incentives. “There’s been a community weeping about the end of it since it went off the air,” said Ethan Mollick, an assistant professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business who studies crowdfunding. “It’s much less likely that you can raise money for a generic romantic comedy or a large budget studio film. Some projects will work on Kickstarter. Some things never will.”
Similarly, Carolla’s campaign worked because the same fans who had already helped make his podcast the most successful in history wanted to see more of him on the big screen. “I have a large following, and I wanted to call on that fan base for this,” he said. Some will even find that their fan base is even bigger than they knew: For “Bronies”, Brockoff raised more than five times his original target of $60,000. What’s amazing, too, is that almost none of the funding projects hold out (or even offer) the promise of any actual financial return. They’re raising money from enthusiastic fans for whom the mere making of the movie is the return on investment.
If the “Veronica Mars,” Adam Carolla and Zack Braff ventures are any indication, the key to success may ultimately lie in crucial but “inexpensive” incentives offered to fans. “Mars” donors who pledged $350 or more got their own 15-second outgoing voicemail message from Kristen Bell, while $400 bought a Twitter follow from Bell and producer Rob Thomas. Those who gave $2,500 were rewarded with a role as an extra in the movie.
Of course, there are many detractors of the new trend. Starting with those who criticize those wealthy celebrities who choose to finance films through a process originally designed for independent filmmakers who were unable to find funding elsewhere. Braff, in particular, was criticized in blogs and social media for launching a Kickstarter campaign when he presumably has enough money to fund his “Wish I Was Here” flick on his own. “You’re ruining it,” filmmaker Jared Caldwell tweeted to Braff after his campaign opened. “I don’t blame you for using @kickstarter, but your privilege is hurting upcoming indies. Please stop.” Writer Richard Lawson followed suit in The Atlantic Wire. “I still find it strange and, yes, a bit distasteful that these rich and successful Hollywood people are asking people for, at times, thousands of dollars for a product that in no way yet exists,” Lawson wrote.
And there are echoes of this sentiment in the ivory tower. “I do think, personally, that if a well-known and well-paid actor wants to make a movie that is a pet project of his, he probably should find another way to find financing for his film,” says Michael Taylor, chair at the University of Southern California’s film and television production school. In his view, donors should see a return on their contribution as a traditional investor would. But it’s apparently not a view shared by the donors themselves.
Those who find crowdfunding by the rich distasteful should probably get used to it. It’s inevitable that more and more high-profile Hollywood names will be holding their hats out to online fans – whose reward isn’t financial but simply the ability to help their favorite entertainment projects make it to the screen. Not everything is about money in the end.