On Crowdfunding

In his seminal 2001 book, The Language of New Media, Lev Manovich proposed that,”new media transforms all culture and cultural theory into an “open source”. This opening up of cultural techniques, conventions, forms and concepts,” he suggested, “is ultimately the most promising cultural effect of computerization”. Opening up is just what we are seeing now in every aspect of documentary – from crowdsourced research, through collaborative production, to interactive forms and immersive audience experiences, and, recently, to live content and data accessible through the web.  Crowdfunding, which has taken off around documentary in the last couple of years, is yet another of those opening up effects, with the public getting involved in financing production. Now two documentaries that have received crowdfunding for completion costs – Battle for Brooklyn and The Loving Story –  are on the Oscars shortlist, and recent weeks saw the news that the major US platform Kickstarter is expected to raise $150m in 2012 – that’s more than the NEA (National Endowment for the Arts) – the major US cultural funding agency – invests.

As Manovich also observed, like so many of the phenomena in what we used to call “new” media,  crowdfunding is by no means new. Fundraising, as opposed to charitable giving, has a long history. The Statue of Liberty pedestal was paid for by over a hundred thousands micro-payments (brought about by a major newspaper campaign.) Last year the Welsh blogger Carl Morris posted an example of “crowdfunding” from the 1920s – the collective financing of a poetry collection published in the Welsh diaspora of Liverpool/Lerpwl. As Morris notes – you can read his post via Google Translate –  this example shows various characteristics of the models employed by Kickstarter (US), IndieGoGo (US based, global platform), WeFund (UK),  and the escalating number of crowd-funding platforms now coming into being. The donors get a perk – in this case their credit – with the biggest contributions given top billing. There are also differentiated levels of donation – these credited donors have paid for printing while another group are mentioned as also having pledged, perhaps smaller, support. This was a community supporting the production of a desired cultural work, which is exactly what is happening on crowd-funding platforms today. So the practice isn’t new, but it’s found fertile ground in social media, micro-payment systems and in an environment where despite hard times for some, others have disposable income and want to be involved in producing something worthwhile.

The crowdfunding pioneers of of the digital age were music fans. The breakthrough in documentary was The Age of Stupid, for which Franny Armstrong and associates raised production money through a series of campaigns between 2004 and 2009. (Franny Armstrong was early to see many of the possibilities of the networked documentary, and really worked them on that project. Although a few years old now, there‘s lots of valuable information and insight in her company, Spanner Films’ detailed, informative crowdfunding guide.)

Late last year I took part in Convergence Catalyst, a Sheffield Doc Fest/Crossover skills development event held in Swansea. I was on a panel about crowdfunding with Slava Rubin, co-founder of the IndieGoGo platform, and Charlie Phillips from Sheffield Doc/Fest. Afterwards I interviewed Rubin to find out more IndieGoGo and what makes for a successful crowdfunding campaign. According to Rubin, there are three things that make a crowdfunding campaign work – “Having a good pitch. Being proactive. Finding an audience that cares.” As Rubin emphasises, there’s no magic trick, and, let’s be clear, many projects don’t get anywhere. Successful projects come about from concerted, time-consuming promotion to the potential community of interest. Rubin emphasises the need to start with your own networks. If you succeed there then funding from strangers may well follow. If a campaign looks strong according to IndieGoGo’s multiple indices of dynamism it is deemed to have the “GoGofactor” and then gets the promotional weight of the platform behind it, a decisive factor in success.

Yet for a documentary, crowdfunding can be about much more than fundraising. It’s a community-building process which has a number of potential benefits. The engagement involved in public fund-raising also of course involves a type of user-testing of the idea. It might lead to valuable research input and will certainly produce feedback, meanwhile building an audience and a group of powerful advocates / promoters. That all these things are going on is very clear in the commentary on the pitch page of successful campaigns.

A look at some recent documentary successes show that the crowd by no means equates to the lowest common denominator when it comes to themes that attract contributions or the quality of the work. As I write, the featured documentary on IndieGoGo is Beauty in Truth, a film about Alice Walker by award-winning director, Pratibha Parmar, which raised $55K.  Also successful, The Linor Documentary, a campaigning film that follows Miss World winner and rape victim Linor Abargil as she confronts her own experience and the issue of sexual violence. Projects which look like they may well hit their targets include a film about Chinese-American adoptees, Somewhere Between, a film about Thorium; The Future of Energy, which the maker explains isn’t well known because it’s “so darned complicated”, Out on a Limb,  about advances in prosthetics, and a film about the philosopher Simone Weil – exhibition costs sought. Important themes, neglected subjects, complex subjects, serious-minded work – not a Big Fat Gypsy Wedding in sight!

The questions crowdfunding raise for me are around editorial attitude and independence. Fracknation is a documentary response to Josh Fox’s Gasland, the film which brought fracking to public attention in 2010. Fracknation will explicitly attack that film, challenging its evidence, and will present an alternative view, putting the case for fracking, defending those whose livelihoods depend on it. It’s an investigative documentary on a contentious, political subject.  As I write the fundraising campaign is $30K beyond its 150,000$ target budget with 17 days to go. But what if funders in this case are also those with a vested interest? Might that compromise the integrity of the story? For 1$ contributors can get the perk of an Executive Producer credit. In professional terms an Executive Producer is not just about delivering finance but can also act as an arbiter of standards – portrayal, ethical, aesthetic. What happens to those issues, I wonder, in this scenario? What are the implications of offering credits that usually come with responsibilities?

In fact the team behind this project are experienced documentary makers with track records in investigative broadcast media, and given how publicly they are laying their reputations on the line, I expect that their approach will be solid. But these questions arise when we de-couple documentary from its historic frameworks, in this case frameworks of commissioning, and the compliance requirements that come with it. Concerns around legitimacy and reliability aren’t unique to new forms of documentary of course. These are typical of tensions that are arising across the digital sphere as old business models give way and lines between professionals and amateurs blur. It’s going to take time for snags in this new environment to surface and even longer for new protocols to be developed.

So it’s still early days for documentary crowdfunding. We can’t yet see all that this new form of funding will mean for the genre. It’s clearly a model that’s going to thrive in the US context, because of the size and relative wealth of the potential investor population. Crowdfunding in poorer regions and smaller linguistic communities is going to be tougher. It’s exciting though to see new revenue flowing into documentary, and the wealth of projects looking for support. And of course this is a perfect approach for collaborative projects.

The field is growing all the time. Last year saw the launch Mobcaster, a platform for funding and showing independent television, which has already seen some successful factual projects. The Canadian HotDocs Festival have started their own crowdfunding platform, Ignite, dedicated to “Canadian documentary works-in-progress”. Meanwhile, some filmmakers are going it alone to avoid the percentages that the commercial platforms take. Sheffield Doc/Fest were early to highlight crowdfunding, and have partnered with IndieGoGo to co-promote selected projects. Charlie Phillips, Director of Sheffield Doc/Fest MeetMarket told me, “… the decline of public funding has been accompanied by an understandable unwillingness to accept corporate or 3rd sector sponsorship – on both the public and private side the compromises it entails are countered by the inherently democratic nature of getting crowd support. But it’s not just the funding that excites me, it’s the concurrent movement- and community-building arising from crowd support, that can potentially lead to a more collaborative and democratic distribution and exhibition system as well.”

If you are thinking of trying it, do check out the interview with Rubin which you can read in full here.