This year’s Sundance festival saw 11,000 submissions, that’s more than double the number from a decade ago. And yet studios are buying far fewer films at the festival at the astronomical prices that were a hallmark of Sundance in the early 2000s. So what’s causing this renewed interest in indie film production? Kickstarter.
The crowd-funding platform helped finance 10% of the films from this past February’s fest. And that figure is only going to increase, says Keri Putnam, executive director of the Sundance Institute. "I can’t guess by what percentage it grows, but I think it’s going way up right now—everybody is using it."
And Putnam has been instrumental to this shift in the movie-making industry. The non-profit Sundance Institute became the first curated partner on Kickstarter last year, and has since helped raise $2.3 million in crowd-funding for indie film projects. Putnam says her success rate is double the average Kickstarter submission. But convincing the crowd to fund your film is not as easy as it might appear. "We’ve learned from working with all these different campaigns that it’s much easier to just say, 'Oh, I’m going to just get this on Kickstarter,'" Putnam says. "It’s hard—it takes a lot of work. You can’t just throw it on there, get lucky, and take home $50,000."
That’s partly why the Institute employes in-house staffers who are, as Putnam says, "essentially, I don’t know how to put it, Kickstarter coaches I guess." They assist filmmakers in raising funds for distribution and production, and even brought Kickstarter cofounder Yancey Strickler to its lab to advise artists on how to succeed on the platform.
"We sit with them and say, 'Okay, here’s everything about your campaign; how you’re going to roll it out; if you’re not at this point—say 30% at this time—in your window, you’re not going to make it,'" Putnam explains. "Essentially, we help them figure out how to develop their voice for the platform; how to use the community; how to create their video—basically coaching them every step of the way in helping them create their materials. It’s a marketing campaign really."
How big will Kickstarter movie funding get—big enough to attract marquee directors like Martin Scorcese who need to raise $100 million? That idea surfaced recently during a debate between Reddit cofounder Alexis Ohanian and USC professor Jon Taplin. Putnam doesn’t think the Hollywood sign is going to be replaced with a Kickstarter icon anytime soon. "The studios are not going to give up on the Scorcese tentpole filmes—that’s their business," she says. But the size of funding will scale up from the current crop of $400,000 productions to movies that cost $25 million, "because the studios have given up on those films."
And Kickstarter isn’t the only player trying to eliminate the studio from the artistic process. Putnam points to services like Slated, which are taking advantage of new laws to do online equity funding for film projects. Sundance has also created its own platform, called Artist Services, to help independent filmmakers get distribution across digital outlets—they’ve already partnered with 10 companies, including iTunes, Amazon, Hulu, YouTube, Xbox, Netflix, and Vudu. And Putnam has helped strike a deal with a service called New Video, which helps to aggregate digital content.
"You know, ideally what happens is someone brings their movie to the festival, Fox Searchlight buys it, and we get to go home and say, 'Success!'" Putnam says. "But for a lot of filmmakers, the deals aren’t there, or the deals aren’t great, so what we want to do is come up with new ways and tools for digital distribution and audience building—take the lessons we’ve learned and see how Sundance can become a petri dish for a lot of experimental strategies for self-distribution."