Trumping The Industry with Kickstarter: Women Support Women To Get Movies Made And Seen

By Lydia Dean Pilcher

We’re nearing the end of an ambitious Kickstarter campaign for an independent film, “The Sisterhood of Night.” Adapted from a short story by Pulitzer prize-winning author Steven Millhauser, our movie is a modern twist on the Salem witch trials. It deals with teen girls and the wild west of the Internet, its potential for casual, breathtaking cruelty, and its capacity to connect and share - all slippery new challenges to this transitional generation. "The Sisterhood of Night" is about holding close what makes you different, through diversity of thought and culture. It shines a light on the dangers of cyberbullying, but it also suggests that there are ways of using the Internet to find your inner creative spirit and tap into positivity.

But this journey began a few years ago. When my producing partner, Elizabeth Cuthrell, and I first met director Caryn Waechter and screenwriter Marilyn Fu, we fell in love with their irrepressible energy and their quest to find beauty, fun, and meaning in the dark edges of life. We worked for a couple of years with Caryn and Marilyn, further adapting the original material from an 80's setting to our contemporary digital world.

Despite our passion--having a first time feature director and deeply female material, and a teen cast with no vampires--we found it hard to gain traction with the conventional ways of financing. It’s no surprise that women are more likely to green light women's pictures, have more confidence in women directors, and be more interested in stories about female characters. The scarcity of women at the top of the business-end of the film industry could have a lot to do with the fact that women made up only 5 percent of directors in Hollywood in 2011.

In addition, the issue of entry and retention in our industry for independent filmmakers, women filmmakers, and diverse filmmakers is a very serious matter. It takes someone with real vision in the studio executive's chair, and strong-minded passionate producers, to push back against the mediocre middle ground which studios tend to feed.

With crowd funding, audiences now have a vehicle to push back as well. Kickstarter and other crowd funding sites provide an opportunity for individuals to influence the development of independent film projects at the ground level, and give these films the momentum they need to go into or finish production, with or without Hollywood’s consent. Audiences can vote with their dollars and contribute to the development of projects, rather than just be mere consumers at the end of the line.

Last year saw Dee Rees’ Pariah break out of the pack at Sundance to be picked up by Focus Features, making it the first film in Kickstarter’s two year history to do so. The 2012 Sundance festival unveiled a total of seven out of fourteen Kickstarter narrative and documentary film projects by women directors and co-directors, including Aurora Guerrero’s Mosquita y Mari, Alison Kayman’s Ai WeiWei: Never Sorry; Lisanne Pajot’s Indie Game: The Movie; Erin Greenwell’s My Best Day; Katie Aselton’s Black Rock and Valerie Veatch’s Me.

And for The Sisterhood of Night, beyond getting financial momentum for the project itself, the biggest reward of our campaign has been the community we are building around our movie.

We’ve been impressed by the number of women directors backing us in order to help another woman director. Katherine Dieckmann, director of “Motherhood,” emailed to say, “I absolutely want to back this, so count me in, and I’ll pledge right now... I teach so many amazing young female filmmakers at Columbia (and they are super-diverse, often coming to me from everywhere from Russia to Laos) & it breaks my heart when they can’t get their projects made.” Other women directors who are backing Sisterhood include Mary Harron, Mehreen Jabbar, Katja von Garnier, Maggie Greenwald, Gina Prince Bythewood, Mira Nair, Tina Mabry, Pamela Yates, Sara Terry, Lilly Scourtis Ayers, Angela Tucker, Stephanie Wang-Breal, Ursula Liang, Suzi Yoonessi, Joyce Dragonsky and we’re still counting!

While our director, Caryn has been tirelessly shooting and editing videos for our campaign updates (you can see them all on our Kickstarter page), our screenwriter Marilyn Fu tapped into her Taiwanese-American community, and they in turn showed huge support for Marilyn’s unique voice as well as for positive cultural images in the media. One of the Sisterhood characters is Taiwanese American, loosely based on Marilyn’s teen years growing up in Berwyn, Pennsylvania.

Through this Kickstarter campaign and a teen art contest we’ve created called Wanna Know A Secret?, we’re using social media in a way that wouldn’t have been imagineable a few years ago. And because of this, we have no doubt, our movie will be deeper and evermore far reaching.

Kickstarter has filled a real need in bringing people together to fund the projects they want to create, and the results have been -- and continue to be -- amazing. Kickstarter is expecting to bring in a total of $150 million in funding this year – more than the $146 million provided by the National Endowment for the Arts.

Last weekend we surpassed our goal of $100,000 and we will continue to receive pledges thru March 10th, the last date of the campaign. Now we want to keep building our Sisterhood community, reaching out to our audience, and discovering new supporters. We plan to start shooting this summer, and the funds that continue to come in during this final week will get us that much closer to the final film. By pledging as little as a dollar you can become a member of the Sisterhood, privy to all of our progress updates as we bring this movie to your screen -whatever size that may be! Every pledge at every reward level proves that we are a fan-funded film that has found an audience before the director has even called "Action!"

Feel free to share wildly. Who knows what other discoveries we will continue to make together?

Lydia Dean Pilcher is founder of Cine Mosaic, a production company making independent feature films with an energetic focus on provocative and entertaining stories that promote social, cultural and political diversity. Pilcher has produced over 30 feature films and is currently in post production with The Reluctant Fundamentalist, directed by Mira Nair, based on the highly acclaimed novel by Mohsin Hamid. Also upcoming for production is Fela: Music is the Weapon, which she developed at Focus Features with Steve McQueen set to direct.