Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Is crowd-funding the future for documentaries?

While fundraising websites offer documentary-makers a novel way to finance projects, the concept has its flaws

by Kate Bulkley

Crowd-funding was pioneered by the maker of climate-change documentary The Age of Stupid, Franny Armstrong, above, raised £1.5m through the web Photograph: Spanner Films

In the face of broadcasters squeezing budgets, many documentary-makers are looking to "crowd-funding" sites, such as IndieGoGo and Kickstarter, to raise money for projects, instead of relying on commissions. These sites enable film-makers to advertise projects in the hope of attracting investors and generate revenue by taking a percentage of the money raised.

Some of the websites have a social betterment agenda at their core, which suits the ideals of many documentary-makers. But not everyone believes that crowd-funding is the answer to tighter broadcaster budgets.

"I think that these are exciting models of co-operative funding with everyone working together and the film-maker engaged with communities and their audience throughout the entire production," says Charlie Phillips, director of Sheffield Doc/Fest's MeetMarket, where documentary-makers pitch their projects to potential funders. "But I also realise that there are a lot of documentary media-makers who want someone on high to give them a pot of money and send them on their way."

Crowd-funding was pioneered by film-maker Franny Armstrong who, over several years, raised £1.5m through the web for her 2009 film The Age of Stupid, about climate change. Armstrong did this on her own site but now sites dedicated to crowd-funding are popping up all over, including two new sites in the UK, and

Social networks

"The whole concept of Do It Yourself is a little bit aged," says Slava Rubin, founder and CEO of IndieGoGo, an early pioneer of crowd-funding whose site launched in 2008 and today hosts hundreds of documentary films looking for funding. "Today raising money is about finding your influencers, tapping your social networks and doing it with others."

IndieGoGo is not limited to raising funds for film, but Rubin says that documentaries are particularly ripe for crowd-funding. "In documentary film-making there are a lot of bottlenecks in terms of decision-making, raising enough money and distribution, so the world of the internet where you can democratise funding is a good solution."

Rubin believes the crowd-funding model is only at the beginning. "Over time crowd-funding will get stronger and stronger and even traditional ways of raising money will want to tap into this demand for research and audience-building as part of their investment."

For documentary-makers the lure of web funding can be irresistible, particularly for films with a difficult social agenda. Tapestries of Hope, a documentary that investigates the sexual abuse of young girls in Zimbabwe, raised $23,000 (£14,500) on IndieGoGo from 81 funders. "The money raised on IndieGoGo helped validate demand for the film," says Rubin. "Because they had identified an audience they were able to secure a 100-theatre theatrical release."

For film-maker Emily James, who was an executive producer on The Age of Stupid and has made films such as The Luckiest Nut in the World for Channel 4, crowd-funding makes sense for her film Just Do it, which is about civil disobedience. "Crowd-funding was sort of an act of faith because I think there is an audience for this film and I think they will put their money where their mouth is. So I guess it is partly wilful optimism and it is also about what we want to achieve in terms of restructuring the funding in our industry," says James.

Matching funding

James has built her own site to raise funds for Just Do it. So far the web has pulled in £2,500 (she has raised another £21,000 from grants and two private donations). James hopes that a matching fund grant she has secured from the charity arm of Lush, the soap products company, will kickstart more giving online. "We have found that building the sharing tools ourselves on our own site has been harder than we thought," admits James who was keen to keep all the donations rather than pay a third-party fundraising site a fee. "In hindsight we might have made a different choice," she admits.

Like many documentary film-makers, James has often had her pitches turned down by broadcasters. "There are about eight people in the UK who can greenlight a film and I don't think they are always rights about their decisions," says James. "You end up getting a lot of lowest common denominator stuff because that's what millions of people will watch in one viewing on television but not all films are suited to that. If you have a slow-burn film or a niche film crowd-funding is really exciting because it offers another way to make your film possible."

Crowd-funding may fill a gap in financing for documentaries but Claire Fox, director of the Institute of Ideas, sounds a cautionary note: "Just because a lot of people click through on a website doesn't mean that crowd-funding is a more democratic way to get films financed," says Fox. "If I believed that then I would have to believe that the winner of X Factor is the best singer in the world.

"I also think that gaining an audience before you make a film gives you an advocacy audience but it ignores your role as a documentary film-maker to create a new audience for new ideas. I also like to believe, idealist that I am, that the people who are commissioning documentaries know something about documentaries, so they can overrule the crowd," says Fox. "I think it is important that films get made about things we have never heard about and crowd-funding is mostly about orthodoxy, so the films that the crowd will go for are the ones you would expect about climate change and child abuse, for example, and not the thing you've never heard of."

To find out more attend the Crossover Summit at Sheffield Doc/Fest on Wednesday 3rd November

Buzzbank Innovative investing

Buzzbank will be a new entrant to the crowd-funding scene when it launches in November, but its co-founder and chairman, Michael Norton, is an old hand at the charity-giving game. His view is that the technology of the web is pumping new life into global giving by marrying up a wider variety of projects with a much bigger pool of potential backers.

"The website won't raise you money," says Norton, who at 68 has more years of experience in the industry than many internet entrepreneurs have had birthdays. "You have to raise the money yourself, but the technology certainly facilitates it."

Norton founded the Directory of Social Change in 1974, the UK's biggest provider of information and training on charitable giving, and was a founder of Unltd, a UK social entrepreneurs charity.

He has big ambitions for Buzzbank as a means to engage the public in fresh ways. "I hope that we can build up a constituency of people who are committed givers. That way we can launch new projects non-stop."

Typical to other crowd-funding sites, Buzzbank takes a percentage (5%) of the monies raised for a project as its fee. The backers of Buzzbank include Norton's own charity, the Centre for Innovation in Voluntary Action, as well as several others including the Esmée Fairbairn Foundation, the Tudor Trust and the Wates Foundation. These and several individuals have put up startup funding of £400,000.

Unlike some other crowd-funding sites, Buzzbank is focused on raising crowd-sourced finance for social ventures, including documentary films that have a social impact. In the case of documentaries Norton advises that the "best thing to do is to start with something quite modest that will build your crowd".

One film that will be on Buzzbank is Leave to Remain, directed by Bruce Goodison, which is about asylum seeking in the UK. This is a serious topic but Norton says that one of the "perks" is to be an extra in the film if you give £50. "We have to get away from just pure finance. It has to be about engaging people in doing things together," says Norton. "We are also interested in people having fun with their money and being involved in the projects."

Raising Money for Digital Projects, a workshop featuring Michael Norton is part of the Crossover Summit at Sheffield Doc/Fest on Wednesday 3 November

To Learn More Click Here

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