Crowdfunding a Collaborative Film

By Audrey Ewell

2012 is going to be the year of truly free filmmaker experimentation. 2012 is going to be the year of cross-platform collaboration. And 2012 is going to be the year of filmmaker to filmmaker collaboration. I don't know how much of this will be true, but I know I wish all of it will be, and so far, there is no clearer indicator that all will be true than The 99% Film. We've heard from Audrey Ewell, one of the film's collaborators, and we know she always has progressive and provocative ideas, so why should this time be any different. Today Audrey shares with other some of the new ways she and her team are making use of some of the plethora of options that are out there to enable us to truly build it better together.

Crowdfunding a Collaborative Film: Repurposing a Distribution Platform into A New Fundraising Tool.

99% - The Occupy Wall Street Collaborative Film began as a spontaneous project, and thus it began with no funding at all. While it might seem like a poster-child for crowdfunding opportunity, this film actually has some unique obstacles: for starters, many people who support us also support the Occupy Movement, and their spare dollars go straight to them. Our film is not part of OWS; although some of our 75+ filmmakers identify as part of it, we are a separate, independent project, and we receive no Occupy funding.

Additionally, donations to OWS itself dropped off markedly after the first heady days (when it seemed as though time had stopped at the moment in Sidney Lumet’s 1976 film Network when Peter Finch’s Howard Beale led the city in a chorus of “I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore!” only to resume in reality 35 years later at Zuccotti Park). Plus, with the otherwise lovely Christmas season turning potential funding into slippers and iPads, crowdfunding has been no picnic. We now emerge from the holidays with about two weeks left to hit our goal of $17,500. Two critical weeks, because make no mistake: we need those funds to keep going.

Before I get to the new tool we’re test-driving, let me back up for a second to talk about our overall strategy. First, we put together an outreach team: Stephen Dotson and Kari Collins on Twitter, Laura Alexander on Facebook, Annie Riordan doing direct outreach to influencers and organizations who might help spread the word, Ginger Liu on newswires, blog and social (non fb & twitter) outreach, and me on press releases, blog outreach, and traditional press.

But really, nobody wants to write about your damn Kickstarter campaign, so you have to find ways to make it newsworthy. I set this up as a five-week campaign (with the expected week of Christmas drop-off in the middle). Week one outreach was about the film itself; the collaborative nature and the way our process mirrors OWS got us some press that might be difficult for a more standard doc to achieve.

For week two, Billy Miller (one of our filmmakers, also a curator) gathered our first round of rewards: artworks by 12 contemporary artists. We contacted and posted to hundreds of art blogs. Then we added a fresh round of artists/works (a lot had already been nabbed) and let that slide over Christmas into week 3: when Aaron Aites, my film partner and also the main man behind the band Iran, worked with Kyp Malone (of Iran, TV on the Radio, and Rain Machine) to put together a slew of music rewards. Signed records and artworks from Conor Oberst (Bright Eyes), John Dwyer (Thee Oh Sees), Wayne Coyne (Flaming Lips) and many more fueled a new round of targeted outreach, but still, so much ground to cover by Jan 13th!

So when Darcy at Constellation got in touch to propose a new venture, combining their social screening platform with our Kickstarter campaign, I had to wonder if this might be a peanut butter and chocolate crowdfunding moment. I’d checked out Constellation when they launched; they mix classics (Grey Gardens, Rashomon) with newer and noteworthy indie films (Food Fight, Trouble The Water, Marwencol) and there’s a social element to the screenings: pre-set times to make it a group experience, Q & A’s with filmmakers, and chats with the audience. In their words:

“Constellation is your online movie theater. Just like a traditional theater, users purchase tickets to attend scheduled showtimes of films, or create their own showtimes. However unlike other online platforms, watching movies on Constellation is a social experience. Users can invite friends to showtimes they’re attending and watch together. Many movies are presented by VIP hosts, such as the films’ directors, actors, or other notables, who appear live in the online theater to answer questions from the audience during and after the film. “

So Constellation’s interested in working with Kickstarter (and presumably other crowdfunding sites) projects, and we’re interested in reaching our goal; we agreed to be the first to try it out. Although reluctant to divert our attention while in the thick of making the film, we think there’s a place for this in our fundraising strategy.

So this January 7th at 7:30 pm EST we’re holding a screening of 45 minutes of footage that’s been shot for our film, on Constellation.TV. It’s not a work-in-progress, and Constellation have been respectful of our need to not use that language, but it is a chance for our backers and others to see some of the material we’re working with, and to talk to us as we’re shaping the film. (They also let us lower the ticket price, and gave us half-off codes for our Kickstarter backers, plus free codes so all 75 of our filmmakers can be present – woo-hoo!) It’s a chance for us to get some feedback, build our audience, and possibly even meet new backers.

I don’t know how well this platform is working for finished films, but that also depends on each filmmaker’s goal with it (as with any distribution outlet). But it’s good to know that Constellation is open to this sort of fundraising event. I learned, while theatrically distributing my last film, Until The Light Takes Us, that event-izing really helps. So if you’re interested, this is the direct link to the screening: www.constellation.tv/99percent. Or if you need a reminder like I do, here is the Facebook invite. (Oh! And proceeds go toward our Kickstarter campaign!)

If this is successful, it could be a new tool in the indie filmmaker’s funding kit. So wish us luck; better yet, check out the screening, ask questions, and by all means, please invite a friend.

Audrey Ewell is a filmmaker living in Brooklyn, NY with her film partner Aaron Aites. They recently made the award-winning film Until The Light Takes Us, and they’re now working on a thriller called Dark Places. The 99% Kickstarter page is here.

Auteurs vs Collaborators

By Audrey Ewell

When I talk to filmmakers and industry people alike this year, there has been a new emphasis on collaboration. People are trying to find new ways to work together. With this collaboration comes a new way of looking at ownership and authorship. It is no longer always "my film" but is evolving into "our project". I even hear it in how filmmakers speak of those who watch their films -- in some cases "audiences" are expanding into "community". Yet for all that speak, I don't encounter all that action.

I am in London now, and I have been asked what the effect of the Occupy Movement has been in America. I tell them of the change in tax policy of NY Governor Cuomo. I tell them of the greater concern about the wealth divide that I heard in New Hampshire last weekend at the town hall events I went to. And I tell them of the 99 Percent Film.

We are entering the era of the collaborative film and we have Audrey Ewell to tell us all about it today.

My favorite films are those made by directors whose work is iconic and unique. Stamped with authorship. Bold. Brash. Or quiet: sublime. Auteurs.

As a director, I greatly value the work of everyone on a film, but I also know what I want, and that’s to create a singular world. I love the idiosyncratic touches of authorship that I find in the work of auteurs. An example; something about the rhythms of mid-career Michelangelo Antonioni films kicks my brain into high gear; I actually think they create a measurable change in my brain chemistry. I’d love to test that theory, actually.

Anyway, I also believe that others can enhance the director’s vision in ways the director might not come up with themselves. If the vision has been clearly articulated, the parameters defined, and skilled collaborators get the aesthetic and vibe, the collaboration should enhance the vision, while still keeping that idiosyncratic stamp of authorship. I believe in both the auteur and the power of collaboration, but above all, I value singularity of vision.

So why am I now making a truly collaborative film with a bunch of people I’ve never met, many of whom have no experience whatsoever, side by side with other award-winning filmmakers? What happened?

Well, Occupy Wall Street happened. One day a couple months back I was at home, watching on the livestream as hundreds of people were arrested on the Brooklyn Bridge. So that night I went down with my partner Aaron Aites and we filmed, and the next day, I felt a need to make this film… with others. I not only knew that I didn’t have the time or resources to suddenly jump into an ambitious doc by myself, but I also felt that the treatment I’d be interested in would be the one with many voices. It’s just that kind of story. There was also something about the ethos and the kinetic, experimental nature of the movement itself that got me excited and made me want to try a parallel experiment with other filmmakers.

So I put out the word among filmmaker friends, got a website up (99percentfilm.com), did some outreach with press, and within a week we had about 30 people. In two weeks 50, and we’d been profiled in the NY Times, Filmmaker mag, etc. This helped us find more filmmakers all over the country, and ten weeks later, we’re around 75 strong.

And I’m not sure if this has been done before. I know there have been collaborative films, but have there been collaborative films about an ongoing current event, where the footage will be woven to make a cohesive film, not strung as individual pieces? I didn’t exactly research this before I jumped into it; it was just an undeniable impulse. But I think we’re doing something new here. And if not - OMG - someone please tell me how you did it.

Because at first, I thought my head would explode every five minutes. But somehow, we’re figuring out how to make a film about this movement from many perspectives, with people covering events as they happen all over the country (sometimes as coordinated national shoots), others doing outreach or editing, others taking on directorial roles and covering threads. It’s a crazy process, the logistics are challenging, but it’s exciting too. Amazing footage is rolling in, and I can’t wait to see the film we make! In the process of editing a quickie trailer (literally: it was edited with great patience and skill - from quicktimes - by Jill Woodward), I’ve become really excited about how good it can actually be. It’s a mystery that reveals itself piece by piece, day by day. But one thing has become clear: it’s working.

Which is great. Because this film was really scary for the first couple months, when we were just making it up as we went along, and hadn’t seen much footage. It’s a practice in letting go of ego, and it feels good (granted, that’s also because of the exciting footage coming in now, and because I can see the film taking shape. I might be less zen about it if that wasn’t the case.) I even respect the footage that comes in with a perspective other than my own, and I’m embracing and making room for that.

So, is this a contradiction of the things I said earlier about auteur films? I don’t know. Life’s a journey, right? I don’t think this process works for most films, but for THIS film it’s perfect. Even though I’m cursing my way through my days, I’m grateful for this experience (and I enjoy laying down a good swear or two any day). So right now, we’re putting out a general call for FCP editors (and there’s still some room for others). It’s not a free-for all; we have systems and leaders. We’re not Occupy; we’re filmmakers making a film about it in a process that in many ways, mirrors the movement. So if you’d like to, come join this infuriating, rewarding and exciting film. Auteurs welcome.

To give an idea, this Kickstarter trailer has about 20 filmmakers represented. I’ll write a follow-up super soon to talk about a new strategy we’re trying as part of our fundraising campaign. Stay tuned for that, in the meantime:

Audrey Ewell is a filmmaker living in Brooklyn, NY with her film partner Aaron Aites. They recently made the award-winning film Until The Light Takes Us, and they’re now working on a thriller called Dark Places. The 99% Kickstarter page is here.

Guest Post: Audrey Ewell "Until The Light Takes Us case study: DIY and DIWO International Release"

What do you do? You have no money but KNOW your film has an audience. Even sometimes with great content, the world conspires and leaves us all alone, just meat for the vipers. Often, a good movie is not enough to make it in this world. Faced with surrender or the long hard road, it's then that the real filmmakers, the ones passionate about their babies, are willing to sharpen their claws and dig in. Audrey Ewell first guest posted with the now legendary "Younger Audiences & Creators Tell Old Fogies To Shut The F Up!". She has continued to be a generous contributor, sharing her knowledge and experience in both making and distributing her work. Today's guest post is a case study in DIY/DIWO distro. Read on!

Until The Light Takes Us, a documentary about black metal (a violent music scene from Norway) premiered at the ’08 AFI Fest in LA. We spent the next year playing festivals and turning down terrible offers. It was a hard time for film, and a terrible time for docs, as you may recall, but no time would ever be so hard that I’d be willing to take a $10,000 MG on an all-rights deal, with a 25% back-end that we’d probably never see anyway, or a 25K all rights offer from another distributor who wouldn’t guarantee theatrical or even DVD. We didn’t want to just get shunted to the VOD ghetto to sink or swim without any support.

By the summer of 2009, confident that the film had a sizeable and reachable audience, we decided to keep our rights and do it ourselves.

INITIAL BUDGET: zero dollars. This was before people were talking about working distro dollars into your budget. It had never occurred to us that we’d go DIY; ours was an award winning film with a passionate core audience and enough headline grabbing content (murders, suicide, church arson, nationalism, Satanism) that we thought our floor was a little higher. But a mix of bad economic timing and a treatment some buyers thought was too “arty” limited offers. We knew we had to take a DIWO approach – doing it with others. The others we had at that point were our fans. And thankfully, they showed up.

SOCIAL MEDIA AND ORGANIZING: Remember Myspace? When we got back from Norway, where we’d filmed for two years, we actually set aside time every day to send out 300 invites/messages to likely fans. We built up about 18,000 fans there, and then watched as everyone stopped using the site. Then Myspace randomly deleted our page anyway. That sucked, but was a good lesson. We don’t own social media pages – so have a lot of them. But we’d at least gotten the word out to those 18K people. One of those fans offered to make us a facebook page. I said sure, and we now have over 200 of those; more than half are fan-made. I encouraged fans to make pages for their city, as I think it gives them more of a sense of ownership and involvement with the film’s success there, and because they know their community better than I do, and are already part of the audience, so it becomes peer to peer marketing. BTW, you can now do on Twitter what we did on Myspace: just follow people you think will be into your film, or who talk about similar films.

THEATRICAL DIY: We put out the word that we were taking the film on tour. We told fans that we needed 3 things to bring it to their city: 1) a list of the indie/arthouse theatres near them 2) calls/letters/visits to those theaters to request the film 3) commitments to flyer and blog for us.

Our fans happen to rock, so we got the help we needed. I booked the film into 12 cities, either one-offs or weekends – I billed these screenings as sneak-peaks, wary of over-playing markets that we’d want to hit with longer runs. (And I avoided NY and LA.) The screenings were a success. My partner Aaron Aites and I did our first one in Austin during but not part of SXSW. A risky move. Our amazing new friends at the Alamo Drafthouse were kind enough to clear a midnight screening with the festival (fair warning: if you go this route, you risk pissing off the festival unless it’s cleared with them). Since Aaron’s band Iran was playing that year, we piggybacked our travel arrangements, got press lists from friends, and promoted it to film and music fans alike. A perfect fit. The screening sold out. Next stop: Seattle International Film Festival. I mean, we weren’t technically in it… but that didn’t stop us getting some of the indie film write-ups that were in the air. We booked a few late nights at the Northwest Film Forum – sold them out. One kid told us he’d driven 5 hours to see the film, not sure if he’d ever get another chance. We did Q&As, then headed to Portland for more of the same.

We continued with non-piggyback screenings, with lots of sold-out shows. We tried to hit the right balance with press – enough to get the word out, not so much as to have shot our load if we made it back later with a longer run (which was always the end-game). Toward the end of our solo bookings, we decided to just go for it in San Francisco, a market where we knew we had a huge audience – we booked a week with a museum screening series and went after press. We were about to approach distribution services to take over, so we wanted to show we could perform over longer runs. And we did. Variance Films came on about a week later, and the first thing they did was get us moved over to the Roxie, continuing our SF run.

DISTRIBUTION SERVICE, THEATRICAL DIWO: We then raised a P & A budget of 25K off the strength of those solo screenings and having Variance onboard. $25,000 dollars: AKA “nothing,” to distributors. And we started our formal US and Canadian theatrical release.

Variance handled bookings, ads and co-promotions, we managed street teams and did nonstop interviews, and also brought on co-promotions through our music contacts. A very deserved shout-out to Emma Griffiths at EG-PR who took on this indie doc about a foreign music scene and worked it like crazy. We also eventized many of our screenings: we launched in NY with a party at the Knitting Factory where Dave Pajo of Slint/Papa M, Kyp Malone of TV on the Radio, and some of our other indie rock friends played (btw, our film is about metal – this did not impress the core audience terribly much, but we had a secondary audience that we wanted to reach, and we also had a second NY launch party a few days later which was all metal bands). We continued to open runs with giveaways, bands, parties. For our Canadian premiere, the film was projected onto a giant screen made of ice, outside, in the winter (fitting our film’s aesthetic and subject matter). Elsewhere, fans flyered like crazy, set up FB pages for their town, blogged, talked about it on forums. We only ran print ads when theaters demanded it. People came out. Our opening weekend per screen avg in NY was over 7K . Sadly, we only had one screen here, the indie loving Cinema Village.

We grossed about 140K overall, in 35 cities. We paid back the theatrical investors, with a little extra on top. Toward the end of our run, the film went up on the Sundance Channel’s broadcast schedule, and theaters backed off. By then we’d drastically expanded our fan base and found distribution partners for DVD, VOD, Digital, TV, etc with Factory 25, Gravitas, The Sundance Channel, and Dynamo on our own website (since we kept non-exclusive streaming). I like retaining some control over this thing, and I like having partners, so this is the best of both worlds, and it was brought about largely by our theatrical success.

KNOWLEDGE TRAVELS (AND SO DID WE): In fact, it worked so well that I repeated this process in Europe. I set up a three week screening tour (mostly at festivals and arts venues with cinemas) from London to Krakow, met contacts who facilitated us selling the film to a German distributor, and then took everything I’d learned and theatrically distributed the film in the UK in the spring of 2010. That made a profit, and we then self-released a very profitable DVD there. We later sold digital/VOD rights to a UK company.

The rewards of all these DIY and DIWO releases were great: the film has a much higher profile, my partner and I have fantastic contacts and relationships with great companies and venues and people all over the US and Europe, we’ve grown our own audience, (with street team captains who I know by name and keep in touch with because they’ve become a part of my world), and had utterly amazing experiences. The downside is that I stopped being a filmmaker for two years, and became a distributor, promoter, sales agent, community organizer, online work-bot; it was 18 hour days, 7 days a week, and it was completely exhausting. Now at the end of it, I’m glad I did it, but I can’t wait to make a film again!

I hope this is helpful info for some of you who are doing this now or are thinking about it. I’m happy to clarify anything in the comments.

-- Audrey Ewell

Audrey Ewell is a filmmaker living in Brooklyn, NY with her partner Aaron Aites and their three rescue animals. More info on her current film can be found at http://www.blackmetalmovie.com