Is This the Future of Indie Film Finance?
The power to greenlight even smaller indie budgets has long been in the hands of a precious few. That's about to change.
When you want to make a movie, you can consider a few options to get it made. If you have access and representation, it might be realistic to consider pitching it to some larger companies. Maybe you can attach a producer, a star, a director. You can also consider the micro-budget route. Many filmmakers have turned to crowdfunding over the years, using platforms such as Kickstarter, for example.
There is a new name in the crowdfunding game, though, and it allows for an extremely unique method of raising a budget for a film and maintaining a lot of creative control. It very well may be the new best financing option for countless artists and filmmakers.
We had the chance to speak with a few producers, Jim Cummings and Ben Wiessner, along with Snake Oil Song filmmaker and NFS writer Micah Van Hove, about their most recent Wefunder launch, how they all came together on this project, as well as what it was like to run a Wefunder campaign. You'll not only learn quite a bit about how Wefunder works but also how Cummings' Short to Feature Lab might be an opportunity for you to expand a short into a feature as well.
No Film School: The first thing I wanted to ask you about is what it was like to use the platform Wefunder and why you chose to use it as the platform and resource for crowdfunding the film.
Micah Van Hove: I'm still in the middle of using it and it's definitely a new experience. It's definitely a different beast than Kickstarter altogether. To me the most obvious answer is it's the logical evolution of the crowdfunding modality. Many of us have run Kickstarters and it's great to be able to get support from your community and friends and family and beyond to make our films, but after running a few of them, you kind of do feel like you want to be able to offer something else. Now that it's legal to be able to offer equity, it just makes sense to me as a logical evolution of crowdfunding.
In many ways, it's much more like traditional financing for a movie. You have to be able to offer value and make it an attractive investment opportunity for somebody. You really need to have a real viable product that you can push.
NFS: How does setting up on Wefunder work?
Van Hove: So instead of supporting an artist or supporting your friend with a donation and then getting, say, a t-shirt in return, the investor is actually becoming an owner in the company. Each film on Wefunder is its own company, or LLC, or whatever structure you choose for your company. Through Wefunder, every time somebody puts in money to the project, they are becoming a part owner in the project. But I'll hand it over to Jim Cummings because he's a big reason I did this.
"...[Wefunder] is undeniably the future and the only reason that the film industry hasn't picked up on it is because they're a bunch of criminals." - Jim Cummings
Jim Cummings: Yes. Look, there is no difference between this form of financing movies and any other way you would finance movies. It's just that now it is open to the public and anybody starting at $100 can become an investor in your company.
Wefunder is relatively new. It has a really simple submission page. It's very similar to Kickstarter. You have to have at least a moderate understanding of the legal contract. You have to build it yourself, but it is undeniably the future, and the only reason that the film industry hasn't picked up on it is because they're a bunch of criminals and they want to own all of your shit. The only way for them to maintain their power in the film industry is to ignore it and to pretend like this type of model doesn't work. It has only worked for us. I really do think that a platform like Wefunder could help chaperone the future of this budget level independent film for the next decade.
NFS: You said "this level budget" of film, but first off: Wefunder doesn't just do film, right? This can work for any type of project.
Cummings: Any LLC, any project.
Micah: Traditionally it's not used for film. But because of the people like Jim, it's being used more and more for film projects, and he really showed the way. When he speaks of this project level in terms of budget, he's speaking of a roughly $300,000 budget or below for indie film, which has shown it is viable.
NFS: Do you think it can't work at a higher level of budget for any reason? Would it become problematic to try and expand it?
Jim Cummings: I don't know what the scalability is. I think it will be larger next time. Certainly, the next film that we raise money for on Wefunder will be at a higher budget level, now that we know that it can work, but I'm not sure.
I think it's a similar way to Kickstarter, where we had run seven Kickstarter campaigns through our same account over the last few years, and anytime we launched a new project, it emailed all of our previous backers saying, "Hey, there's a new project. You can check it out," and just by creating this channel, you can bring in the same amount of investment you had before while also doing other stuff to bring in larger client pools, larger investor pools.
NFS: And you believe part of the reason that it's held back is that it eliminates some of the existing power structure in the industry of, "We own your IP and your project."
Cummings: That's exactly right. Wefunder democratizes it. It democratizes film investment, which means that the best idea wins.
What's happening now in Hollywood is that these giant projects are trying to raise huge amounts of money to then screw over the filmmakers in these contracts where they don't really have any kind of retirement ability, and with something like Wefunder, you're able to write the contracts yourselves. You get to become your own company and really have a fair assessment of your worth and your value in a way that's never been precedented in film. The majority of the time, filmmakers are trying to convince people to give us the slightest bit of money only to get screwed over in every contract. And we don't own any of the products. This is clearly a better way to do it, and having a living wage while doing it. It's a really fair and wonderful thing.
NFS: And you say the best idea wins, and that sort of takes me to this particular project. Why this project?
Cummings: So, Micah submitted his short film for consideration to a lab that I run called the Shorts to Feature lab where we bring out 10 filmmakers every year to my parents' house in Malibu and we workshop their short films to help them turn them into features. It's something that I love to do.
Micah was in our inaugural class and we just start talking about what making a feature of his short film would look like. Micah was one of the more adamant fellows of that year to say, "No, I'm going to do this thing." At that point, he had already made multiple features and was very confident in his abilities to do it. We workshopped how it could go from short to feature. '
At the time we were talking about Kickstarter campaigns and how to best run them. But then we very successfully ran the beta test Wefunder campaign, and Micah said, "All right, I think this is probably a much more viable path for a film of the size that I want to make," and so he worked for several months building out the page and we've just been kind of helping to chaperone the project to its launch.
NFS: Micah, can you tell us a little bit about the relationship between the short and the feature?
Van Hove: They're spiritual cousins but it's not a direct adaptation from short to feature. That's the kind of beautiful thing about taking something short form and going to a feature film format; is it doesn't have to be this one-to-one relationship.
The main thing I took away from making the short film was this wonderful actor that I found in the jungles of Peru, and since I met him and made that film with him, I've been building this project around the discovery of that talent and we've pushed it into other tones and other storylines. The short film can still very much act as a proof of concept to see the energy that the actor brings to the screen. You get to see the kind of filmmaking that I'm approaching it with.
NFS: Jim, what was the aspect of this story that gave you the confidence to expand on it and get behind it?
Cummings: Seeing the market and also saying, "Okay, well this is the theme that we want to be talking about. This is the style of film that we want to talk about. We have this incredible performer, let's make something that's as interesting as we can possibly make it in the jungle: let's have it be a detective story."
There was workshopping of the movie that Micah did basically on his own. We kind of let him go off and do all of that and he came back with a wonderful idea, but we had also been following in the tradition of people like Danny Madden, who was one of our mentors that year who turned his short, Krista, about this girl who's assaulted and using the theater to exercise the demons of assault.
He turned it into a feature called Beast Beast that screened at Sundance this year. Really the Krista story is a third of the movie, and so seeing that and how that became its own thing, it doesn't necessarily have to be just stretching out the short film. It's making a world where the short film can live inside.
NFS: I'm also curious in general about the process of saying, "Let's figure out what shorts can be workshopped into features," is interesting and I'm sure really interesting to our audience.
Van Hove: Going through Jim's lab, he demystified so much of that process for us and just showed us what to do to make that happen, and it's very pragmatic. It's very one step at a time, and that's very inspiring when you don't have to expand it into, "Oh, how do I turn this into a bigger film?" They proved that model and I'm just following in the footsteps of that model.
Cummings: It's a funny thing. We always talk about picking shorts and how we pick our shorts. It doesn't matter about budget level, it doesn't matter the production value... it's about craftsmanship, always. If you can see a short film that is incredibly crafted, you can guarantee that the filmmakers are considerate of that and they will make a well-crafted longer-form piece.
"If you can see a short film that is incredibly crafted, you can guarantee that the filmmakers are considerate of that and they will make a well-crafted longer-form piece."
All of the shorts that we accept are by people who use the camera and sounds to help tell the story, and it is one of the things, you know it when you see it. It's weirdly hard to explain, but when you see an incredible short film, it hits you. You're like, "Oh my God, this could be so fantastic. I want to live inside this world for much longer."
NFS: How do people get into this program?
Cummings: It's an open submission. We get hundreds of submissions every year. We have a film freeway page or you could submit directly through the short to feature website. I watch all of the shorts and we pick nine or 10 of them every year and fly everybody out. Room and board are paid. We pay for all the travel.
We live in tents in my parents' backyard and it's wonderful.
NFS: I'm really fascinated by the idea of Wefunder as an emergent platform for filmmakers to get better ownership of their projects, but also a better relationship to the people who are financing them. Can you speak more about Wefunder in that sense?
Ben Wiessner: In running a Wefunder, we get to interact with the financiers. It becomes a collaborative experience in a way that working with the studio often isn't.
NFS: Is it having 10 to 20 executive producers of varying influence? Talk us through how it changes when you have all these potential voices who are invested literally in the project.
Van Hove: The people who come in to invest through the platform, they're coming in as owners of the company and as shareholders, but they're not necessarily getting a voice in the project in that way.
Cummings: We have people who are asking questions, and that's really neat, and they get access to what the production is thinking and doing and how it's moving, but there's not that dictation of terms or anything like that.
Everybody's invited on set, everybody has a say. It becomes this wonderful collaborative experience, like any other aspect of filmmaking, and then like we also invite them into the editing room so we can all kind of watch. I mean we're all learning together. It can become this really fulfilling community of collaboration, and really most of the investors just want to be along for the ride. They want to see the thing get put together so they can leave the experience more educated on how to do it themselves. It's this really incredible way of making movies, I feel.
NFS: So there is a voice at the table of some kind, but would you categorize it as a guest voice? Are these written into the bylaws of your specific project as you make them up?
Van Hove: All of that would be in the contract. So it depends on what the filmmaker is looking for. I think that's all unique to each project. You get to dictate how involved you want anybody in the project throughout the project.
Wiessner: I would say it's "access and involvement" rather than "control and influence".
Cummings: It's much harsher to deal with a single investor who owns the entirety of the movie, and then they become the person who has to give a thousand notes that you have to listen to, where this way it's like, "Well, I think the movie should be this way," and then you have three other people saying, "Oh no, it's working perfectly fine," Because it's a shareholders meeting rather than a dictatorship, it does end up supporting the artists much more.
Wiessner: They get a voice, but the filmmaker is the one who makes the ruling. They're chairman of the board, so to speak.
Van Hove: They're the DJ. So they can get requests from the audience and say, "Hey, play this song next," and you're like, "Actually, this song is going to do much better on the dance floor."
NFS: Are there any things about Wefunder and building the page that people should know about?
Cummings: It takes a while, would be one thing I'd say. You can do a Kickstarter and put together a campaign in a week or two, but this is something you should really give yourself a couple of months until launch day. That's one of the quirks that make it different.
Van Hove: I think for a Kickstarter it's always argued that the video is the most important thing, and while the video is quite important for Wefunder, the rest of the page is just as important. You have to put together a financial statement that's reviewed by an independent CPA, for example.
If anyone wants to know about the project, it's almost like all I need to do is send them the link to the Wefunder page and everything they could possibly want to know is right there. So it's pretty exhaustive in its layout and questions and things that you want to have available for investors to know. General advice for page building is keeping it visual and keeping it engaging.
Cummings: The excitement for this platform is not just films made at this scale, but looking forward and trying to prove that this model can work. That it can actually create a new class of film investors. These are people who are not coming from New York and Los Angeles. They don't have the same traditional access and they're not part of the system where there are six companies and there are only six rooms where these films get greenlit.
It's giving people the power to people with $100, with $1,000, to be a real part of doing something and taking those decisions out of just these really privileged rooms. Right now we're doing it with $300,000 projects, but I hope by the end of this year we'll be in a place with these projects that we can do it for multi-million-dollar projects.
NFS: That's a lot of $100 dollar donations. It sounds likes it's grassroots filmmaking.
Cummings: I think the cat's out of the bag. It's happening, man. We launched... we were successful, and then four of our friends started building their campaigns the next week. It's just going to start exponentially growing and change the way that films at this level get financed.
What you can do next?
If you're interested in learning more about Micah Van Hove's film Snake Oil Song, head over to the Wefunder page. You can also explore Wefunder to learn more about it, and check out Short to Feature on Film Freeway and apply for next year.