When crowdfunded movies came onto the scene, they held a glorious promise. Finally, we no longer had to rely on Hollywood studios to choose our big screen entertainment. We, the moviegoing public, could decide for ourselves which projects to fund, and we could hand our dollars over to independent filmmakers with intriguing concepts. Here at io9, we were especially excited for Iron Sky, a film about Nazis who have been living in a secret base on the dark side of the moon.
Sadly, Iron Sky wasn't everything we had hoped for. It had its moments, but just didn't live up to the promises of its gorgeous concept art, solid production values, and gloriously ludicrous premise. Now if you crowdfunded Iron Sky and weren't a fan of the final product, what then? Should you rethink your crowdfunding strategy? Or should you give up on crowdfunded movies altogether?
To help us in our discussion of crowdfunding, we consulted with entrepreneur and independent film investor Rizwan Virk. Virk is the author of the book Zen Entrepreneurship: Walking the Path of the Career Warrior and blogs at the site Zen Entrepreneur (which is where you can read his piece "Angel Investing: Top 5 Reasons Why Indie Films are Like Startups"). He's also invested in a number of documentary, science fiction, and fantasy films, including the upcoming LARP-themed comedy/horror film Knights of Badassdom (which I'm personally very excited to see). Virk's experience is as an investor rather than a crowdfunder, but he doesn't invest in films merely because he believes they will be financially successful; he also invests in projects that he believes in. Virk offers these thoughts to folks who are interested in crowdfunding movies, but aren't quite sure where to direct their donation dollars:
It's less about the projects you want to watch than the projects you want to support. "I look for a script that I can watch and enjoy," Virk says, but, if he was looking to fund a crowdfunded film project, "It's not just about what I want to see, but what I want to support, what kind of a film." There's bound to be overlap between what you enjoy and what you wish to support, but it might mean funding something that isn't necessarily your perfect film, but is in a genre you wish to see more of, or contains ideas you wish to see explored in film.
Virk prefers to fund films in his favorite genres: documentary, science fiction, fantasy, and horror. When he considers investing in a film, he asks himself, "Is the story interesting enough to a certain audience?" In other words, is it a film that fans of a particular genre will enjoy?
This also may mean supporting the work of certain creators because you want to see more of their type of work in the marketplace. Virk hopped onto a project to fund an adaptation of Stephen R. Donaldson's books before anyone had even started developing a script. He recently invested in Dylan Bushnell's short film Bust Down about a comic book creator who finds a glove that helps him create better comics, only to have the scenario twist into a horror story. "I liked the general concept. I liked the artist. It was in a genre that I liked, and I wanted to support that general subject matter," Virk explains.
There's probably an argument here for supporting fan films for characters and works you feel are underrepresented or would just like to see explored a bit more. Even if you don't get your personal perfect Static Shock/Deadpool/Batgirl fan film, at least you've brought a bit more attention to that character.
Look at the team, not just the project. Virk came to film investment from the startup world, where he found that having a strong team was more important than an intriguing product:
When I look at a startup, yeah, it would be great if they have a product that's going to change the world, but really, you're relying on the team and their knowledge of the market more than their product. At least in tech startups, if you focus too much on the product and not on the market then usually they fail, because usually the first product is not always the best one for that market, so they have to come up with a second product before they figure out their actual business model. I find that's true for filmmaking as well. So if they understand the business and their industry, then they probably understand their audience and what they like.
Having a team that understands what an audience will like is key, in Virk's opinion. The first film he invested in was Turquoise Rose, a coming of age story about a young Navajo girl that was aimed at a Native American audience. The filmmakers had a keen understanding of what a western and southwestern Native American audience was looking for in a film, and Turquoise Rose proved a success. Ever since then, Virk has looked for signs that the filmmakers understand their audience and what that audience is looking for in a film.
Virk notes that the product is ultimately far more important in filmmaking than in a tech startup, since the product — the film — the entire point:
But the script may be modified between the time they're raising money and the time they're filming it and what actors you get is going to matter a lot as well. So I think having some confidence that when those issues come up — and they will come up — for time reasons, for funding reasons, will they be able to make the right choices?
Just because a team has made one bad film doesn't mean you won't like the next one. A few years ago, Virk was approached by a team of filmmakers with a feature-length film under their belts — and it was bad. How bad? Syfy refused to air it. When the people who make their movies by throwing prefix and suffix darts at a board of predator names (How long before we get a Piranhapus?) won't show your dragon movie, you might have a problem. But, Virk points out, they proved their ability to complete a feature film and produce special effects on a budget. When he read the script for their second film, Paladin: Dawn of the Dragonslayer, he found he quite enjoyed it and came on as an executive producer.
Perhaps the team in question needs to prove itself with a better concept or more experienced screenwriter, but Virk also notes that you need to consider that first movie's circumstances and budget:
Usually a filmmaker's first film is very low-budget, and you might look at it and say, "That's not good." But if they made it for a million dollars, it might not be bad for a million dollars. You want to look at how good it is compared to other million dollar films.
Make sure the filmmakers can pull off the necessary effects. Crowdfunding backers don't get quite as much information as film investors usually do. You probably won't see the full script; actors may not be lined up yet; video footage might be extremely rudimentary. But if you're backing a film that's heavy on visuals, you want to make sure that your crowdfund-seeking crew can deliver convincing effects. In addition to information about the general concept and the team, Virk wants to see crowdfunding film campaigns come with a visual trailer, something that gives you a sense of the effects. They might not be as grand as the final product, but they should signal to potential backers that the team can create something visually enticing on a budget — something that says, "Here's what we can do with no money; imagine what we could do with your dollars!" After all, Virk points out, "If [the effects] look bad, they can kill the whole film."
To all this, I would add my own thought: Sometimes you're going to fund a disappointing film, and that's okay. Look, sometimes you're going to do everything right: find a solid team with a neat idea and a proven track record for developing fine visual effects on a shoestring, and you're still going to be disappointed with the results. It happens. Just as 90% of all startups fail, so too will a certain percentage of films simply fall flat.
But just because it wasn't the film of your crowdfunding dreams, that doesn't mean that funding the project wasn't worthwhile. Perhaps you put something different and unusual into the marketplace. Maybe you helped a character or creator you love gain a little bit more limelight. Maybe you just helped a group of novice filmmakers over their first stumbling blocks on their way to something greater. We may hand dollars over to a filmmaker, but we invest our emotions, rather than our money, in the film. But just like film investors, we have to be realistic about the sort of return we can expect on that investment.
Top image from Iron Sky.