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Crowdfunding Film Projects: Is It for You?

Since recommending —  and regretting investing in — a Kickstarter project that hasn't turned out as advertised, I stopped recommending projects. I'll stick to that. But, as filmmakers, we must all be aware that things are changing. More and more films are being created outside the studio system, and some of them are very high quality.

I suppose Veronica Mars is the new iconic example, but there are many others (there are currently more than 1,000 "live projects" seeking funding on Kickstarter alone). You may be interested in helping fund worthy film projects, or you may well find yourself in the position of trying to market your own project to potential investors through Kickstarter or some other crowdfunding site, so here are some tips on what to look for and what to avoid in the world of crowdfunding.

You can never know what will happen when people actually get your money in hand, with virtually no external controls. If you're thinking of investing, here's what I've learned.

Get to know the people you're investing in. Check them out.
How do you get to know the principals? I go on Facebook and try to friend them. I tell them, honestly, that I'm a potential investor. Then I follow them for a while and see how I feel about what kind of people they are. I also use LinkedIn. I see who is vouching for them. You can find nearly anything online these days. Google them and find their work. Evaluate. When I looked, after the fact, at the previous work of the principals in one of my Kickstarter investments, I was amazed at how awful their work was. I was thinking, how in hell do they have any credibility?

Today, there are many online resources to check people out. If you are considering investing a fair amount, I recommend that you pay for a professional background check on the principals, or at least the head honcho. You may be surprised at what you find. But if you're investing more than $100, insist on meeting personally with the principal parties. Trust your gut. Hollywood is full of flim-flam artists who are all show and no go. I've been burned. I know. Often the producer knows way more about raising money and getting publicity than about making movies. He/she may not know a good performance if it bit him/her in the ass. The big studios are famous for having bean-counters make creative decisions to disastrous effect. Fortunately it costs them so much they eventually learn. Mostly. As for the director, there are a lot of out of work “directors” out there. Many of them know how to talk the talk but have no clue about walking the walk. Typically they will have some technical expertise, perhaps credentials as a former DP or AD. But when it comes to extracting credible performances from their usually excellent cast, they just don't get it. Lately I have seen co-directors working together successfully, one handling the technical stuff and the other handling the actors. But that kind of arrangement depends entirely on the talent and expertise of the people involved. So check them out.

Avoid the hype.
Avoid getting sucked in simply because they've got some name actors associated with the project. There are a lot of out-of-work actors out there looking for a project so they can keep working. “Faces” in the cast do not necessarily a great project make, whether they are true celebrities or simply faces that you know and like from some former TV series. Often they are supremely talented actors who are out of work. It happens all too often — they have bills to pay and these crowdfunded projects do attract them. I think everyone is excited about the concept of making movies outside the studio system, actors included. It could eventually mean a lot more work for them. So look out for the talented actors paired with not-so-talented producers and directors.

Read the script.
Sometimes these projects don't even have a script, or it is held as proprietary intellectual property. If you know the screenwriter has talent, you might consider investing under $100 without reading it, but any more and you have a right to know what you're investing in, no matter who wrote it. Often it is a first-time writer, and scripts are not an easy write. A great script is a rare thing. If you can't read the script, have it vetted by someone you trust. Way too many bad scripts are made into bad movies, and you don't want to be an investor in a bad movie.

Question whether they can monetize the project.
Way too many projects seem to be created with the same attitude: ”Make the movie, and the money will come.” That is a false premise. One project that I invested in has produced virtually nothing except clips, marketing material, hype and a Comic-Con panel. My guess is that no movie will ever be made, and if one is somehow produced, it will not be of sufficient quality to attract an audience, or distribution, or money. So if you are in it for more than a free video or your name in the credits as an associate co-executive producer, on a maybe never-to-be-produced film, check out the money plan carefully.

How do you check out the money? Ask. What you ask depends on how much you plan to invest, but if it's under a grand, ask questions, verify the answers you get and, for god's sake, research the questions you need to ask. If it's over a grand, due diligence must ensue. Many people where I live are extremely wealthy but have no business sense, making them perfect pigeons. So learn before you invest.

Get details on how they plan to distribute the film or series.
By the time I thought about distribution I had already invested. But I felt, as an investor, I had a right to be in on the distribution plan. I could not get the principals to answer my questions and eventually I found there was no actual plan. There was a vague thought of distributing on the web, with no plan to monetize it at all. I'm still getting the monthly reports and, as far as I can tell, there is still no real plan for distribution, just plans for raising more money. It is amazing how Hollywood razzamatazz can suck people in.

Know why you're investing.
You can back a movie for a tiny sum, for which you will possibly get a movie poster, DVD or even a signed script. That is all well and good. There are millions of Americans and people abroad who would just like to feel a part of the glamour of Hollywood. Bigger investors get ego trips like dinner with the stars, or a walk-on in the movie. Again. this is fun stuff that can make a someone feel important. Next comes screen credit. This is pure ego stuff and usually comes at a high price — perhaps in the thousands of dollars. As long as you know this is all you are getting for your money, so be it. Just be sure the film actually gets made and you actually get your credit. Get it on paper.

But the point is this: any money you invest in a Kickstarter campaign should be thought of as a donation, with your back-end being a CD or T shirt — unless you go big and get special consideration. If you have the means and interest and are willing to invest tens of thousands of dollars, you need to know what you'll be getting. Back-end participation is a tricky business and Hollywood accountants can see to it that you never see a cent, no matter how much profit the film makes. So if you are investing for a piece of the profit, make sure your lawyers and accountants approve the paper work. Never get caught up in all the razzle-dazzle and sign on impulse.

Do not invest just because friends are doing it! I did that and got totally burned. My friends had invested based on hype and the quality of people attached to the project for the Kickstarter campaign. I didn't research the project well because I figured, if these credible friends invested, it was bound to be a great project. Right? It turns out we all got screwed. So do your own research. I have friends involved with a number of Kickstarter projects, and I'm sure most of them are legitimate. But I do my own research and no longer rely on my friends' advice except to get me interested in the first place. After that, I know I'm on my own.

Time to get serious?
Check out Junction. It is a high-end crowdfunding system. Investors need to be pre-qualified, and the projects are of high quality with solid backing. The movies will be made with or without you, but if you're ready to make a larger investment, you'll have an opportunity to invest along with the big boys. Their team is made up of lawers, film pros, and billionaires. For example, Steve Wynn of Wynn Resorts is on their advisory board, along with Jason Blum, head of Blumhouse Productions (Insidious, Sinister and the Paranormal Activity franchise.) Their films feature stars like Tom Hanks, for example, with Silver Reel providing major money for his film,  A Hologram For The King. It's just a more serious way to go.

Funding your own project? Many of the same rules apply.
Maybe you're interested in crowdfunding your own project? Read the above pointers carefully and perhaps you will think twice about how you present it. Being one of my readers, you are likely a legitimate filmmaker. Please think about the things I've outlined above and make sure you dedicate the proper thought and planning to your project before you start asking for financial backing. Find ways to assure your investors that the money will be used for the project, as advertised, and stick to that. You'll be helping others coming down the road by establishing your own credibility now.
 
Oh, and the latest thing? People will pay a fortune for movie props. They used to be cheap. Not any more. Put your props into your crowdfunding thinking as potential rewards for investors.
 
There are many reasons people might invest in a film project. Be aware that your "funding" is really considered a donation in exchange for whatever goodies are offered. But if it's a good project, you will find funders. 
 
Crowdfunding platforms
Consider the following platforms:
Kickstarter 
IndieGoGo
EquityNet
Fundanything (this is where Penn Jellette funded his horror film, Director's Cut)
Junction

Existing projects
Check out the following projects and vet them as I've suggested. In the comments below, please tell me which ones you think are legitimate and which — if any — seem like a scam. I'll give some opinions, but I'm not making recommendations. Remember, there are over 38,000 film related projects on Kickstarter alone! As I type, more are being added.

1. White Tiger Legend This first one is a fave of mine because I am an animation fan and I know the honcho is talented and insanely dedicated. Let me know what you think.

2. Director's Cut This is being honchod by Penn Jillette with Adam Rifkin directing. Big names…but do they have a viable property?

3. The “G” Show https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/322035442/the-g-show-is-a-show-that-talks-about-real-college?ref=discovery This is an interesting one…I know little about it.

4. Invisible – A film by Christian Jackson  This one is a bit of an inigma…is there enough info to invest in it?

5. Cardinal Matter  What do you think?

Special Case
Nobility, this is an ongoing, active film project that seems to be making headway. They canceled their Kickstarter campaign and went to indiegogo, where they didn't make their goal. Yet, the project has serious stars attached and appears to be moving along. They are being supported by private investors as far as I can tell. Start here to check them out and, if you're interested, you can get more detailed investor info by writing to maryjane@cowboyerrant.com. As I stated above, I uncover but do not recommend film projects. Let me know what you think.

If you're interested in crowdfunding, please take the time to make comments below. Questions and opinions are both welcome. (We are kind of a crowdopinioning forum.) Meanwhile, I am working on the Golden Pixie awards. I'm a bit overwhelmed there, with so much to look at and so little time. I used to award them once a year, but things have gotten so complex, I'm considering making awards throughout the year. I am currently looking for a Zbrush artist who is better than me, to sculpt my concept art into a 3D Golden Pixie statue. The pay? Just a brief profile in my blog, and full credit for the work.

5 Comments

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  • Toby

    Great and honest summary Peter. One question that always remains for me is – how do find worthy projects among the thousands that exist in the first place? Along with this one (on the other side) goes the question how do you distinguish enough to be found and considered worthy investing? Because nobody has the time and likes to read a lot these days (not for starters), and I found saying less means actually saying more!

    • Peter Plantec

      You hit the nail on the head Toby. Crowd funding is a show and tell game. I think if you can put together a solid project, attach good, known people and then put on a great show and tell, the details can go in the fine print. Know what you’re doing…and let that be known.

  • videographer

    Kickstarter-ed a documentary project on a vintage airport in the Northeast. All I can say is I was surprised – not happily so – at the final product. All about “bokeh,” not much about content. I doubt I’d do it again.

    • Peter Plantec

      A good illustration of what can happen. Thanks foe sharing.

  • Peter Plantec

    Exciting to have someone with experience on your side Jett. I’ll check our your project. The more success we can get outside the studio system foe small film makers, the better. That means quality, professionally handled projects.

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