Crowdfunding Movies– Why Isn’t It Done More Often?

A guest post by Joseph Friedlander
Discussing crowdfunding heats up at times, and then takes a break, but the question recurs whenever the buzz does– why don’t we hear of more crowdfunding success stories?
Brian Wang has written of crowdfunding LPP fusion
and a general crowdfunding roundup including the game Star Citizen
The Raindance Film Festival has a writeup of crowdfunding films and the booting process thereof
The Star Trek Axanar Project
quote from Brian’s page:

Why dump hundreds or thousands of dollars a year on 400 cable channels, when what you really want is a few good sci-fi shows? Hollywood is changing. Netflix, Hulu, Amazon, and other providers are redefining content delivery, and Axanar Productions/Ares Studios hopes to be part of that movement.
In that sentence the promise of crowdfunding is captured— if people would suddenly wake up and command the market by withholding money from junk and diverting it to promising projects an awful lot of junk would disappear from the market and there would be an explosion of crafted quality in films, tech, nearly every area of endeavor– and conceivably even education and government if the revolution goes far enough.
But let’s get back to crowdfunding films and a narrow focus.
This last project mentioned,  Star Trek Axanar,  is noteworthy because they are going about it the right way– known kind of product, not ticking off the fan base, reasonable and believable cast, hopefully good story well done and production well executed.  If they keep the cost low enough and make it through all the hoops (see below)  they are nearly certain to make payback.
But it is so easy to fail along the way making a movie. I like to tell people that there a thousand ways to do it wrong, and about ten ways to do it right.

  • The special effects need to look professional.  You can have high quality effects done to bad art direction and they can look bad.
As Brian has noted before, a few hundred thousand dollars today can buy indistinguishable from reality special effects.  A lot of pre 2000s movies with early digital effects, especially 1980s and  1990s are almost unwatchable without redoing the effects because they are laughably low res though they were impressive, cool and futuristic at the time. A lot of non digital effects from that era, done manually by artists, aped the new impressive low resolution digital animation style, so they too look awfully dated.

  • The special effects aren’t enough. You need a movie connecting them. Even if the whole movie is animated, there has to be a story, a situation, compelling characters and compelling situations along a satisfying story arc.
Sometimes people who are computer orientated make amazing animations and renderings but there is no story there. It is worthwhile to remember that a cigarette smoking on screen is a special effect in a way, including the hot coffee steaming in a cup. No one would go to a movie just to see Humphrey Bogart’s cigarette, though they might go to see the way he made tough guy talk while having a cigarette in his mouth. See the difference?
There was a movie based on the book The Keep, about a supernatural being wrecking havoc during World War 2 in Europe. The book was very good. The movie had a special effects duel between the good guardian and bad emergent menace. But you didn’t feel for the characters — it came down to an incomprehensible duel of ray blasts. (Other people may have been more impressed with me, the acting was good but…) The effects are not enough.
There are a lot of fan films showing the fans dueling with light sabers. How many of those are actually suspenseful?  
  •  Even if you have a good story professionally told and the genre right you can tick off the fan base if you get the feeling wrong.
Say after me people– if you’re trying to make money, people want happy endings, not sad, but if the story won’t let that happen out of self respect then they want noble and uplifting not debased and depressing. People who go to a type of movie don’t want deconstruction of that type of movie unless done in an extraordinarily clever way. They don’t want cop shows that insult the idea of being a cop, space movies that say going to space is a stupid idea, relationship movies that say the sexes will NEVER get along together,  future movies that say we HAVE no future, etc, etc.
Warning spoiler alert, skip to the  next  bold paragraph if you don’t want to hear how Ascension ended.
Ascension could have been classic but they made it a ‘they fooled the crew they were really underground facility bound for the last 50 years’ series without considering the viewer reaction (how much of a fan base would Star Trek have developed if it was really a cynical psychological experiment?)
  • You have to give the fans what they want, and then you have a business, not until.
  • Even you can raise the money you will need to decide if it is a small focus or big focus movie. 
  • To keep costs down a small focus movie is cheaper. (Definition of small focus for this purpose, few cast members, not many sets and locations)  But then the movie has to be all the better to capture an audience. And the team has to be flawless if not gifted. 

An analogy from jewelry:  If a single stone is the focus of your setting, that stone better be flaw free (or at least the side on display.

  • If you go big focus (many cast members, sets locations) then you need to be able to manage it all and make it work together.

In either case you need a good script optimized for small or big focus.  A sufficiently prepared team would have a script optimized for each in case reality changes .

  • You can compare the process of making the movie to buying a first lottery ticket whose prize is a second lottery ticket whose prize is a third lottery ticket whose prize is a fourth lottery ticket whose prize is a fifth lottery ticket. 
  •  If you win the first lottery ticket you are funded (crowdfunded).
  •  If you win the second lottery ticket you assemble a competent team on a low but adequate budget and get a time slot in which the work can happen. So much is assumed here, including a good script, reliable people and a shared vision that compels them to work like fanatics.
  •   If you win the third lottery ticket your team actually pulls it off and produces good material which is then competently post-produced into a watchable movie–and after all that you still have a small financial reserve left.
  •   If you win the fourth lottery ticket your team now can spare the time and effort to promote and pre-market the movie and you win major distribution (not literally always major studio distribution, but you get buzz and access to markets.
  •  The fifth lottery ticket is how the movie actually does. The prize– variable, from an honorable and respected line on a resume to incalculable wealth. Note that even here you can have a fantastic hit movie and due to ‘Hollywood accounting’ some people haven’t collected  much at all. (In brief, a lot of studio overhead is added to the movie so on paper a hugely profitable movie kind of drips profit out at the end of the pipe, and the person with a share of the movie gets a drop or two in his cup.)
  •   A lot of people confuse buying the first ticket with automatically collecting the fifth ticket’s highest prize.
  • Not all of these people are happy.
We can answer the title question with one brief answer:  To crowdfund a movie–even to make a movie out of your own pocket– is harder than it looks to do successfully, and you seldom hear about the failures.  That is why crowdfunding movies isn’t done more often.  Even with a dramatic increase in crowdfunding quantity and ease of raising money, it would only remove the money obstacle.  The obstacles of making a movie with even for the potential of success, and training it to leap through the four remaining hoops of assembling a team, executing competently, pre-marketing and marketing, all remain.

And this rule probably holds true for crowdfunding large scale tech as well:  Getting the money just lets you get to the field with an equipped team. How well you play is not predictable in advance.