Can a 'Crowdfunded Studio' Help Indie Filmmakers Make a Living?
The process of making any film is a marathon, not a sprint. For African-born filmmaker Natalie Johns, it began over 5 years ago.
Recently, we covered the release of I AM THALENTE, the first film distributed by indie crowdfunding site Seed&Spark. Now, we've caught up with the director, Natalie Johns, as well as Seed&Spark Founder/CEO Emily Best to learn more about the film, the future of crowdfunding, and this new distribution model.
When an old friend told her about a young, talented, and homeless South African teenager named Thalente Biyela (pronounced "tal-uhnt," the Zulu word for talent), Johns went to South Africa to shoot some footage. She was fascinated with Thalente: despite his existence in a "survival economy," he had become a fixture in the skate scene in the city of Durban.
Back in LA, a chance meeting with Best and Erica Anderson, Head of Education and Co-Founder of Seed&Spark, led to a major crowd-funding campaign that resulted in the production of feature-length documentary I AM THALENTE. You can watch it now on VOD via Seed&Spark's site, as well as on other platforms such as iTunes. It's also screening theatrically across the country.
"There were moments where I'd feel, 'This would be perfect for the film,' but sometimes he didn't need a camera in his face; he needed a friend."
No Film School: What drew you to this project?
Natalie Johns: I met Thalente through an old friend, whose family had been supplying him with some money here and there for clothes, food, and skateboards. She told me I had to meet him. When I went down, I thought he was a beautiful human being. I was thinking about someone can make it out of this survival economy, where every day is a total struggle— not just for a roof over your head, but for a roof over a couch to crash on. I was very much interested in the idea of how you make that leap when you're surrounded by this poverty. A documentary film has to be about people— characters— and I recognized that he was a unique and talented person. I also loved the skate culture— how international and colorblind it is.
NFS: How did you connect with Seed&Spark?
Johns: I had an office space in LA and they did an event there. I met Emily and Erica, and it was just a matter of proximity: "Hey, would you look at this teaser?" They saw it, and thought it was incredible, and I'd been doing some crowdfunding, but then I got on board with them and we extended the campaign.
"I wanted to avoid that fish-eye lens look common to many skate videos."
NFS: How did you find working with them?
Johns: It was great. To work with fellow filmmakers, to know that we'd be getting that one-on-one, personal support, was great. They pushed me, told me not to panic, explained the ups and downs of the process. It was months of constant communication.
NFS: What challenges did you encounter making the film?
Johns: Well, there was the fact that in addition to being the director, I was also a sort of caretaker, because he was so young. As a documentary filmmaker, you've got to care about your character as well as care about getting the best footage for your film. There were moments where I'd feel, "This would be a perfect piece for the film," but sometimes I felt he didn't need a camera in his face; he needed a friend. It was pretty taxing sometimes, thinking, "Should I film this?"
"The film is helping him to help other kids, and that's what he told me he wanted to do when we first met."
NFS: There's a particular aesthetic to skateboarding videos— that Bones Brigade fish-eye lens thing. How did you approach that?
Johns: I really wanted to stay away from that, actually. We shot on Canon cameras, with two lenses, a Tokina 11-60 and a 70-200 mm. I wanted to capture the architecture of Durban and LA and have Thalente guide the audience through that space, but I wanted to avoid that fish-eye lens look common to many skate videos. My old friend from college Brett Shaw is actually a skater for Vans, and he ended up coming on the film as one of the editors. He had some old footage of Thalente, so I also used that in the film.
NFS: How do you feel about being the first film distributed by Seed&Spark? And how's Thalente doing?
Johns: When they approached us, it seemed like a good choice, considering the relationship we had. And Thalente's doing well! He's in LA. He just spoke at a school where the kids had seen the film and were really engaged by it. The film is helping him to help other kids, and that's what he told me he wanted to do when we first met. He's still struggling to make it, but now there are people around him— opportunities around him— where there weren't any before.
"It's hard to pull yourself up by your bootstraps if you don't have any boots."
NFS: What are you working on now?
Johns: Currently, I'm in post on a film about the criminal justice system in America, working with LiveFreeAmerica.org. I'm going back to this idea about the survival economy and how almost impossible it is to get out of that. There really are two Americas, and I want to show that side that many people just don't see. There's this whole bootstrap idea I hear from politicians a lot, but it's hard to pull yourself up by your bootstraps if you don't have any boots. It's different from the last film, in that Thalente took about five years from concept to screen and this one is already in post after a year.
Seed&Spark describes itself as a "crowdfunding and streaming ecosystem for independent filmmakers and film lovers" and boasts an 84% success rate for funding projects. Emily Best has made it her mission to help filmmakers get their movies made, and now, with I AM THALENTE, the company is entering the distribution arena, a first for a crowdfunding site. We spoke with her about this, the state of the industry, advice for filmmakers, and what the future holds.
NFS: How do you see Seed&Spark working in the distribution world, as opposed to just the crowdfunding one?
Emily Best: As a crowdfunding site, our campaigns enable us to gather an incredible data set about a given project's potential audience. After all, everyone who contributes to a campaign is a member of that audience, and they're representative of the type of person who's going to want to see that film. So we're in a unique position to leverage that information that we get during the funding process for a film's distribution. Who are they, how old are they, where do they live, how do they consume their media?
"If you have the drive, the ambition, and the tenacity to make a movie and see it through to the end, then you are already ahead of the pack."
NFS: What do you want to do for filmmakers?
Best: I love what we've built, and I want to continue to build the strongest possible connections between the audience and filmmaker with the fewest layers. I've talked to so many independent filmmakers who've told me, "If I could just make a living...." It costs about $75,000 to live comfortably in LA, maybe $45,000 in Milwaukee. They want to make a living as a filmmaker without having to scramble and scrape and struggle to pay the bills.
NFS: The film world (to say nothing of the indie film world) is evolving at a quick pace. What do you do to keep up with that, and help filmmakers keep up as well?
Best: Filmmakers are some of the scrappiest people I've ever met. If you have the drive, the ambition, the tenacity to make a movie and see it through to the end, then you are already ahead of the pack. But with the way the industry is changing, with technology evolving every day, it's almost impossible to keep up with everything, to know what to do to make yourself stand out, to reach the right audience. We think that with the data we've gathered, we can be a full ecosystem for filmmakers— one where they can develop their work, get it funded, and then, even though we're just starting, our aim is to expand our distribution.
NFS: Sort of like a crowdfunded studio?
Best: Exactly. Because, for instance, and we just announced this, but now, we're going to be starting a new subscriber model where when someone pays $10 a month, they will get to choose where $5 of that money goes (towards a film's funding campaign). Even with just 5,000 subscribers, that would be $25,000 a month for our subscribers to be putting towards funding independent films. And they're funding what they themselves are interested in seeing, and we know who they are.
"We want to be a crowdfunded studio, but one that is in the hands of the audience."
NFS: That's different from the traditional top-down model of distribution, where, at least in Hollywood, studios decide what's going to work based on past ticket sales, or because someone tells them baseball pictures are hot.
Best: We want to be a crowdfunded studio, but one that is in the hands of the audience. I think it's important for filmmakers to respect the way their audience consumes media. While a film is raising money, I think it's great for them to be able to write to connect with their audience. And this isn't about constraining the filmmakers. Because filmmaking is all about making constrained creative choices. You are always making sacrifices here and there.
NFS: What do you think the role of theatrical release is in independent film today?
Best: Today, theatrical is a marketing tool. For some films, festivals might be their only theatrical. If 80% of their audience consumes the films via some streaming platform, then it's incumbent on the filmmaker to understand that. If, on the other hand, you have a discerning, specific audience that wants to go out to the theater, then that's another matter. It's all about using crowdfunding to build independence. Our crowdfunding class is one way we've done that.
Really, our goal is leveraging brilliance to make miracles and we're excited to be working with talented filmmakers like Natalie to tell exciting stories on whatever platform, be it theatrical, streaming, or VR. And we're really excited to give those filmmakers the chance to make a living doing what they love.