Why documentaries will crowdfund and self-distribute better than fictional films
Filmmaker Magazine has a piece by Anthony Kaufman that questions whether crowdfunding sites such as Kickstarter, or distributing DIY, are the salvation of independent film.
While social media’s cheerleaders are many — Scott Kirsner, Lance Weiler, Ted Hope, Peter Broderick, Jon Reiss — the solvency of an Internet-enabled DIY filmmaking-and-distribution model is far from guaranteed. At this early stage, the successes are few and far between (Tze Chun’s Sundance drama Children of Invention; Franny Armstrong’s eco-doc The Age of Stupid), and some are calling a sustainable indie-film infrastructure built around crowd-funding and social-network marketing a naïve proposal.
I’m not sure how “few and far between” successes are, when it comes to documentaries. I also think crowdfunding can be a very successful approach for nonfiction film, as can DIY distribution. Here are some reasons why:
Fictional film is an art, documentary a craft. Art is more of a mystery, even to those who create it; one’s last successful work doesn’t assure future success. Even once a screenplay is written, add into fiction film the artistic vision of a director, then actors. When it all comes together, it’s wonderful, but anyone who invests in art knows the result is not always return. Even a patron of the arts, whether it be a granting agency or a microfunder, never is sure of a finished product being worthwhile. Craft steps away from art’s pretensions and its aspirations, but it also then settles itself into workmanship as well as intrinsic value. A craftsman such as Alex Gibney or Errol Morris is likely to repeat successes more than an artist such as Kevin Smith or Kathryn Bigelow (for those of us who are a bit older, think Michael Cimino and Peter Bogdonavich, who both followed early success by nearly disappearing from the grid). The more “journalistic” the documentary, the more craftsmanship trumps art.
Fiction films are personality driven; documentaries are subject-driven. With the exception of names such as Werner Herzog (“a documentary about Antarctica? I’m there!”), audiences seek out documentaries based on topic. Find a topic of high interest to a core audience, particularly a topic that has been underrepresented, and you’ll get interest. Years ago I sat in an Atlanta theater watching the 1977 Danish documentary “A Sunday in Hell,” about the grueling Paris-Roubaix cycling race. The place was jammed with cyclists, many wearing their team jerseys and caps. It was all about their interest in seeing a topic for which they had passion. A great example of that are Gary Hustwit’s films, “Helvetica” and “Objectified,” which are about typography and industrial design, respectively. Hustwit has built a core audience out of the design community, a group that likely has read scores of design magazines that cover much the same terrain. But a documentary lets us hear the people, and more importantly distills all that material into a perceptual value. And that core audience that wants to see that film done will chip in to make it. Which leads to the next point.
Documentary filmmakers with a track record are safer future bets. Hustwit would likely do well with crowdfunding a design-related film, because he’s established himself there. I remember years ago going to Denver for my interview with The Denver Post, where I consequently worked as reporter, and sitting in the hotel bar with every television in the place pumping out Warren Miller ski documentaries. Welcome to Colorado, Dude! Miller was synonymous with ski and surf films, and therefore with Colorado and Southern California, and each successive film he made had a built-in audience. If crowdfunding had existed then, and you couldn’t wait for a new Warren Miller film, you might well have gone to Kickstarter and sent your $10.
Low cost means greater chance for success. Because a documentary budget can be siginficantly less than an actor-driven film (even if actors defer payments, they are still contracted payments), I’m more likely to believe my donation toward a documentary will actually lead to a documentary. It doesn’t have to be pitch-perfect, either: Watch Jonathan Nossitor’s “Mondovino,” a doc about small estate winemakers in France and elsewhere fighting big, bad Mondavi, and you’ll see low production value but great story. I think where some Kickstarter documentary projects have failed to get funding is where the funding goal seems out of whack – I want to know the filmmakers are sleeping on friends’ couches and not at the Hilton when they’re on the road. The famed Brazilian photojournalist Sebastiao Salgado documented the South American backroads in his book “Other Americas” by traveling in third-class buses, carrying a sleeping bag, and loading his own film from bulk reels into reusable cannisters, a “roll-your-own” aesthetic that allowed him to do great work. As Ben Franklin said, “Be Frugal, Be Free.” Documentary filmmakers who can squeeze the most out of the budgets they have beget more support. And, of course, the lower the production costs, the sooner you’ll actually make money.
As in funding, documentary distribution is topic-driven. The documentary “Beyond Biba,” detailed at this site in April, had a very successfully DIY distribution based on finding that small audience with passionate interest in fashion. Director Louis Price found theatrical distribution all over Britain and beyond for his film about “Biba” fashion doyenne Barbara Hulanicki. I’ve always thought of a film like this as being the ones distribution companies like First Run would never even bother watching, because distribution companies seem stuck in the old-school notion of all-or-nothing success. Sure, Magnolia found a winner with “Man on Wire,” but for people passionate about their topic, their all-time favorite documentary is the film the rest of us never even heard of.
In the end, no project is assured of success or interest, but it goes back to skillful craft having staying power in the market, for many reasons. Kaufman’s article is thoughtful, but makes the mistake of speaking of “film” as if there is really a strong affinity between fictional and documentary films. I think his perspective may be right and wrong, and that in the areas of crowdfunding and DIY distribution, documentary and fiction films may take greatly divergent paths to success.