Admittedly, I belong to an older generation of filmmakers. In Canada, this means that I had the fortune of starting out at a time when there were fewer filmmakers and proportionally more funding dollars available to go around. Not that I’ve ever made a profit from of any of my movies, but at least I’ve been able to keep making them.

With every decade since the 1980’s (the decade which saw the rise of the generation of renowned Anglo Canadian directors), the funding landscape for filmmakers has gotten worse and worse at a time when there are more people than ever before interested in filmmaking as an art practice. This has an impact on the distinctiveness and authenticity of our culture in an increasingly globalized world, to be sure, but it also has a very real impact on aspiring young filmmakers.

Those who know me will often hear me refer to filmmaking as the “hockey” of arts – expensive, truly inaccessible to many, and home to so many dreams. And yet, while most would balk at the idea that hockey resources and support should only be available to those who have professional potential, this is exactly what happens when it comes to filmmaking. Filmmaking has an odd placement among the artforms, given the massive disconnect between older generations who – let’s be honest here – for the most part do not remotely comprehend media technology, and the rising next generations, who more and more are choosing filmmaking as their default art practice.

The impact of effectively less and less support is doubled when you consider there is next to no paying market for the bulk of Canadian films being made today. There may be a comprehensive film festival system in Canada, but so long as the foundation of this system remains rooted in the principle that filmmakers must almost always donate their works for these public screenings, I’m not sure how this system is actually helping. This is most especially true for independent feature films and shorts, which are all but shut out of the theatrical distribution system.

The film presentation system is largely based on the non-payment of artists

An arts presentation system that is largely based on the non-payment of artists would never be acceptable in the performing, visual or literary arts. As an important result, artists in these other disciplines are actually able to make a living without stepping foot into the industry side of the spectrum. When filmmakers today ask me for career sustainability tips, I encourage them to enter into the visual art side of the discipline by targeting galleries and related exhibitors, because this side of the spectrum does pay filmmakers. But, not all filmmakers have practices that easily transfer to the visual arts. (This is, as an aside, one of the major reasons why there are proportionally more experimental filmmakers and video artists with careers of longevity in the Anglo Canadian filmmaking ecology, in comparison to those working in dramatic forms.)

In light of these two givens – that there is now less funding available to make films and virtually next to no market willing to pay for the right to screen completed works – it is easy to understand why new crowd-funding options are attractive to many independent filmmakers. For the most part, however, with the exception of some notable early entrants into crowd-funding (such as Indie Game: The Movie) and projects that have major stars associated with them (and which therefore could easily be funded through established industry systems), all the independent efforts I’ve kept an eye on over the past several years have not only not succeeded at meeting their targets, but generally have failed to inch over what can honestly be described as the “family and friends” contribution level. None of the truly independent crowd-funding campaigns I’ve followed in the past year or so has inched up beyond the $5,000 mark, and most have received a lot less.

And so, if you have an awesome film idea, I recommend you pursue traditional funding mechanisms before pursuing crowd-funding. However, if you’re still going to pursue the crowd-funding route, regardless, it is important to think critically about how to frame your effort so that it has the most likelihood of success and to establish realistic expectations.

If you’re going to pursue crowd-funding, it is important
to think critically about how to frame your effort

Projects that tend to have the most success in the crowd-funding milieu are generally niche documentary topics with strong fan bases who are broadly Internet savvy (generally, with a significant fan base under 40-years-old) and campaigns which place emphasis on perks for small contributions. Equally important to the campaign’s potential success is making sure that your fundraising target seems reasonable to the average potential contributor. Your ultra-low budget independent feature film project may truly cost well over $100,000, but the average audience-goer has a hard time understanding where all that money goes or why it is needed. Even the landmark Indie Game: The Movie targeted only a fraction of the film’s actual cost through crowd-funding, while focusing on perks that essentially functioned as pre-sales. In both of their two campaigns, Indie Game achieved proportionally much more than it targeted, and so it’s important to keep in mind that if your project does succeed at building buzz, contributors won’t automatically stop just because you’ve reached your target. This has proven itself to be true time and time again.

There are also the obvious back-end items to consider when dealing with crowd-funding – including the fees the crowd-funding platform takes, the implications on your taxes, and resources needed to deal with the logistics of distributing the contribution perks. Then there are the not-so-obvious things you need to consider, most especially how to garner attention for your project and campaign outside of the “family and friends” zone. The era has long passed in the crowd-funding environment where you can expect to get any coverage by simply issuing a press release, given that the novelty of this funding system has worn off.

Your crowd-funding account will not fill itself up like a magical piggy bank

If you do not have an active strategic marketing plan and personnel in place to drum up interest for your campaign, you are likely doomed from the onset to not meet your funding target. The biggest mistake you can make in starting a crowd-funding campaign is expecting that your account will somehow fill itself up like a magical piggy bank without much effort on your part. The second biggest mistake is you can make is spamming potential supporters in an effort to fake buzz. It is always better to develop more sophisticated strategies instead of asking the same people over and over again to re-tweet or share to their networks your request for support.

Crowd-funding is an interesting solution, especially for filmmakers who see no other options out there. It does not, however, make up for the lack of opportunities in the filmmaking milieu in general, especially considering that this milieu is, for the most part, founded on the core principle that filmmakers will never be paid for their works to be screened and we should all somehow be okay with this. Until there is a stronger collective effort placed on improving the sector, perhaps crowd-funding is the best shot most Canadian filmmakers have. But if you are really only targeting family and friends, why not try a good old-fashioned Manitoba social instead?