Thursday, 18 October 2012

An apology (sort of) and some more thoughts on crowdfunding

So, this is my first blog in ten months. Let me explain! I have now entered into the second year of my study (on crowdfunding as a model for film finance, for those of you who don't know); the first academic year mercifully came to an end in September - it has been difficult for a number of reasons. The sense of isolation has, at times, been stultifying. I'm told this is a perfectly normal way for a PhD candidate to feel but that hasn't really been of much comfort. 
The year passed in a mixture of ebbs and flows. The flows have seen some welcome progress but the ebbs have been particularly barren; passages of time filled with little but procrastination. Not knowing whether I've been reading the right books or doing any constructive work led to cul-de-sacs of the imagination where rather than trying to hoist myself up I succumbed to the temptations of long hours at home and indulged in too many episodes of Frasier or The Sopranos when I could have been doing something more constructive. 
Coupled with this sense of isolation has been, to a small extent, a feeling of abandonment by my institution. Whilst I admit to squandering passages of time these episodes of inertia have usually coincided with times when I've needed the most help which I have reached out for but the assistance I needed was not forthcoming. This is something I desperately hope improves as I go forward; recent developments, thankfully, suggest they will. 
The year hasn't been a waste though,  not by a long chalk! I've developed my understanding of the topic, attended several conferences, met many new people who share my interest and have made significant advancement to my overall goal of getting through the study. 
The most beneficial development, however, has been linking up with Antony Smith at Tornado Films. Following a few speculative meetings at the start of 2012 Antony agreed with my institution that Tornado would act as a business partner for my study; I now work with him a few days a week developing feature film projects with a view to taking a crowdfunding campaign for a test drive in the not too distant future. 
Serendipitously, Antony is also working towards a PhD via a study on the independent film value chain. Our areas of study converge nicely enough and there is obvious potential in our collaboration. Furthermore, both being at similar stages of our respective studies, we are able to share ideas and practical advice about the development of our projects and this acts as a support network that I've sorely needed. 
Beyond the study, I have to admit to being very fortunate to be involved with Tornado at this particular time. From my position it certainly looks like the company is moving in a very promising direction and is making links with established names as it develops a slate of feature films. Having aspired to be a film producer for over a decade I felt that my time (following a long period when I went off to do something completely unrelated to filmmaking) had passed, so  being in this position is something I am very thankful for. Prior to my film producing hiatus, my 'career' had been devoted to producing a series of short films that, despite positive reactions, failed to propel me into a position where I got paid enough money to get by or to flex my muscles on feature film production. As any filmmaker will tell you the difference between making shorts and features (that people actually pay to see) is large and there is a knowledge gap that can only be acquired in process of making the transition between the two. With my knowledge of making shorts having been slightly dulled by passing years of inactivity it is with great relief and comfort that I find myself at Tornado; I feel that this is the place to learn, to sharpen some old skills and to develop new ones and I have enough residual confidence in my old achievements that I have something to offer that will help the company grow. 

So, to crowdfunding! On Friday last I had the fortune of attending the Iris Prize organised Producer's Forum in Cardiff where I listened to several, respected film professionals discuss the various challenges faced by the industry and by producers in particular. The  subject of crowdfunding came up several times and, whilst feelings were mixed, there was defintitely a positive response overall with one particularly exciting piece of news. 

The first plenary session, entitled Funding Your Project, was panelled by Adam Partridge (Production Executive at Film Agency for Wales) and Kevin Dolan (Talent Development Manager at Film London) and was an informative overview of film funding opportunities including essential tips and advice for producers. When questions were opened to the floor someone (COUGH me COUGH) asked the panel their feelings on crowdfunding. The response was one of qualified positivity. It would not surprise me to learn that crowdfunding was anathema to the regional public funders. Crowdfunding can potentially fund as many projects as....well, as many projects as there are projects but in contrast regional funding bodies, such as Film Agency for Wales, have a very limited amount of funds to invest in actual productions and therefore have to be very selective with relatively small amounts of money. In a possible future landscape where film producers felt that crowdfunding offered a viable route to the cash they needed without being encumbered by the conditions that come with public money then the public bodies might find that less projects come through their doors. Of course, we are not in that landscape (yet?) and so there is no real reason for the public bodies to feel threatened. They also provide a service that is essential to filmmakers which is not readily available on the pages of IndieGoGo or Sponsume (a point I will elaborate on shortly) so it is unlikely they ever will. However, regardless of the current state of play, it is unlikely that crowdfunding has reached anywhere near its full potential or maximum usage (I wouldn't be doing this study if I thought it had). Of course, it is naive to suggest that crowdfunding might have any sort of impact on these funding bodies at all but who would have thought five years ago that $1,000,000 could be raised to finance a film about moon-dwelling Nazis (Iron Sky)? It is this anything goes, unquantifiable, viral-esque nature of crowdfunding for film that would likely put the fear into those with opposing vested interests. Video killed the radio star?

However, if crowdfunding was about to put the traditional movie business out of work it did not appear that either Adam or Kevin had been sent the memo . Both panel members were insightful about the model and offered examples of where it could succeed but were careful not to over-emphasise its potential. Adam, in particular, was forthright with his examination of the limitations of crowdfunding and stressed that production cash is only a part of the picture when it comes to film producing. Equally as important are the stages throughout the value chain that need to be negotiated; steps of the process that cannot necessarily be devolved to social media networks and benefit from the steering hand of a professional or dedicated agency. The film industry, and all it's various players, provide a quality framework that no amount of well intentioned individuals who fund your project can replicate (unless, that is, one of them happens to be Tim Bevan or Harvey Weinstein). Without that framework nothing can be guaranteed which is something that might very well put off any investors or stakeholders (such as sales agents, distributors) coming in at the back end of the process: (although I don't necessarily see that crowdfunding should exclude film professionals from this framework - as an example, perhaps you have the experience and are well versed in the process but choose to crowdfund because you want to make a film with full creative control of your own vision). However, the point being made is an important one, it just happens to opens up a number of things to consider. There is obviously a gap between the types of films that need crowdfunding to get made and those that can access public money but why is that the case? Of course, there are quality and commercial considerations but sometimes it is not access to cash that filmmakers need but the knowhow to navigate within the industry. It would be encouraging to think that our public services were working for us and that if a filmmaker came through their door with fistfuls of cash but just needed some all important advice then it would be readily available regardless of what type of project they had on the table. I think the perception that crowdfunding is just for amateurs who can't get funded anywhere else is short-sighted. What is needed is a link up between industry and crowdfunding filmmakers - people to steer those with enough entrepreneurial spirit to get things done!

Further to the above Adam and Kevin considered the nature of incentives/perks. What if in the course of a crowdfunding campaign you promise to give away 200 DVDs of your finished film? And what implications would that have to distributors considering taking your project on? Adam made a good point that it would be likely to discourage any investor of that kind as you would have already given away what would essentially be their product. I agree that this is something to be weary of but am not sure that this isn't a bit overly cautious - it raises a good point and is something I intend to investigate! Some phone calls to distributors will be made this week! Dogwoof, in particular, are a distributor that I know have a history of distributing crowdfunded films.

The points made by Adam and Kevin were excellent and provided a platform to really consider the limitations of crowdfunding as a model for raising finance for film. Given that I am just in the process of recapping on the session from Friday I do not intend on going any further down that road here; however, I pose the following questions and intend to return to them in another blog soon:
  • What are the limitations of crowdfunding?
  • What factors mitigate against those limitations?
  • Which types of project can succeed even in spite of the limitations?
Moving on from the first session of the day I attended another funding session, this time paneled by filmmakers Helen Grace, Matthew Mishory and Jason Davitt all of whom had first hand experience of crowdfunding and were a lot more positive about the advantages. There was definitely a guerilla, 'just do it' message being conveyed by the panel but beyond that ballsy message were three, obviously talented filmmakers who knew exactly what they were doing, what their product was and who (and where) their audience was. This is important! Having a full understanding of what your film is and who is going to want to pay to see it is essential if you want crowdfunding success - I doubt there are few 'hit and hope' success stories in this field. The importance of research, preparation and good business planning prior to launching a campaign cannot be underestimated. Knowing your audience and how to connect with them (via social media) will provide a good basis to work from; furthermore, I suspect that the most successful campaigns will have begun the process of connecting with their potential funders a long time before their campaign is launched. It may even be the case that the crowdfunding campaign is incidental to a flourishing Twitter or Facebook account, somewhere that already has a lot of followers. 

Finally, following a session on distribution, which I regretfully arrived late for and didn't really keep up with, two exciting things happened. Firstly, Rhidian Dafydd of Creative Skillset Cymru launched the new Digital Talent Fund; a scheme that "offers support to companies to address bespoke training requirements with a particular focus on developing skills associated with creating new products and services that can be exploited across multiple digital platforms and in international markets." This has great potential to help small and medium sized companies who are looking to grow but do not have the necessary skillset in house. Secondly, Tim Cagney, deputy chief executive for BFI, announced that a plan for a crowdfunding scheme was in the pipeline. I spoke with Tim (and have subsequently been in touch via email) after the event and, whilst any plans can at this stage be described as sketchy, the very idea that its being given consideration at the top level of our film industry is very exciting. An endorsement for this kind of finance model by the BFI would be great for UK filmmakers - it would legitimise the system and encourage producers to get out there and make movies; which can only be good!

OK, I've said enough. I fully intend to carry on the blogging from now on and will be very cross with myself if its another year before I get around to writing again. Please feel free to get in touch for a chat about this blog - please let me know your thoughts, I'd love to engage in any conversation (about crowdfunding) that furthers my understanding of what is an exciting subject at an exciting time!