Q&A with Kickstarter’s Yancey Strickler
Published on January 22nd, 2012 | by Alexandra Marvar0
Kickstarter is an online pledge system for financing creative projects—a pioneer of the “crowdfunding” movement when it was founded two and a half years ago. In that time, thousands of projects from design to dance have come to life thanks to the website, but the most prominent and profitable category has been film. So far on Kickstarter, 4,500 film projects have run their course, and a fair share of those are finding real world success with help from the funds—and fans—they’ve rallied. Approximately twenty-five Kickstarted films have gone on to see theatrical releases this year, four are currently nominated or short-listed for Academy Awards, and a staggering seventeen are premiering at Sundance this week—nearly ten percent of the illustrious film festival’s 2012 selections. Crunch those numbers, and it’s safe to say this single site (hand in hand with the nearly half million people who’ve signed on to back film projects) has had an indelible impact on the process of independent filmmaking. In some cases, it’s made films better, and in many cases, it’s simply made them possible.
Cinespect sat down with Kickstarter co-founder Yancey Strickler to discuss the magic of Kickstarter’s collaboration with the Sundance Institute, how many dinners with Russian oligarchs it takes to fund an indie film, and how crowd-sourcing support for films is shaking up the industry.
Kickstarter has an ongoing collaboration with Sundance. How did it come about?
It started a year ago officially, but it really began in the summer of 2010. Some Sundance Labs alumni were going to the Institute and asking about Kickstarter. “What is this thing, is it legitimate, how do I use it, what are best practices, what can you tell me?” I was answering those questions directly to the Institute, and that’s how we started talking. It became clear that more and more people were going to be asking these things, and that evolved into the creation of a direct line from them to us, so that anyone who’s gone to the Sundance Labs or been a part of that family can easily launch a project on Kickstarter, can easily be identified as part of Sundance, all as a component of Sundance’s Artist Services.
And, for those among us who are Sundance outsiders, please define “the Labs.”
The Labs are every summer at the Sundance Resort—Redford’s resort in Sundance, Utah—and they handpick, say, five composers, ten documentarians, ten feature directors, ten screenwriters, and they have them out to the mountains and have them work with mentors. For example, Quentin Tarantino…
Is that who was there when you visited this summer?
No, there was no one very fancy there when I was there. I think I missed the fancy period.
Or, you were the fancy guy?
Ha—yeah, it was a down year.
There are a lot of very talented people there, and you have these filmmakers in an environment where their only task is creating. You’re in a safe space. You’re in a cocoon. One of the hardest things those people face is, it’s incredible, you’re nurtured and you’re able to make things, but then after that you get dropped back into the cold reality of your life, where your boyfriend’s like “What the fuck are we doing with our time,” you’re broke, and you know, all that stuff is happening. I think the idea behind Sundance Artist Services is—and maybe I’m putting words in their mouth—just to extend that cocoon beyond the Labs and help people make things, help make it easier. Kickstarter kind of became the lead part of that—we were the lead part of that—a way for Sundance to say to their filmmakers, their community, “We care about you. We’re thinking about your next work. We’re not just concerned about that one film that we liked that one time; we have a real relationship that will stand until the end of time.” A crazy thing about this collaboration we have is that it extends to people who were in the very first Sundance Labs, in 1991. It’s a long history of people who at one time or another Sundance felt were worthy of working with, now learning all about Kickstarter. The benefit for Kickstarter is clear. Especially a year ago, it was a real endorsement of us. It was saying to that community, “This is legit. This is something that you can do. It doesn’t make you look bad. We like it.”
We hear about a lot of Kickstarter film projects—Sundance and otherwise. How much of the pie chart does film actually comprise?
In Kickstarter’s lifetime, 130 million dollars has moved through the site. Of that, forty-five million has been for film projects. That’s about thirty-five percent. It’s the largest category. The second largest is music, at 30 million, and after that is design with about 15 million. There have been about 4,500 films made through Kickstarter so far, and so far, 450,000 people have backed a film project on Kickstarter.
It’s especially exciting if you contrast that with—I think a couple weeks ago Variety or one of the trades had a story about box office attendance being down four percent this past year, and everyone is upset about that. But, at the same time, you have 450,000 normal people who are willing to contribute money to a film that doesn’t exist yet. So it’s hard to say that there’s a crisis in film. Maybe there’s a crisis in the business of film. But people want so badly to see work get made that they’re willing to contribute even in an economic apocalypse. Filmmakers are in a better position than it might seem.
Funding ten percent of Sundance’s 2012 selections is sort of a sure sign this is more than a flash in the pan. Do you think this website is changing the whole landscape of the way films are being made? Is Kickstarter replacing something that was part of the equation before, or is it a whole new aspect to the film industry?
I think Kickstarter has changed it. I think it’s changed it pretty dramatically. People make films differently now. At this year’s festival there are going to be 195 films. Kickstarter funded seventeen of them, and I’m sure the every one of those other 178 at least thought about Kickstarter. Maybe it wasn’t right for them for various reasons, but it has become a standard way that an independent filmmaker makes a movie. If you’re a doc, you have your grant money, you have your private money—friends and family—maybe your equity money, if someone is foolish enough to do that, and then increasingly you have this notion of public money. And that’s what Kickstarter is. It’s an opportunity for people to engage with you and what you’re doing, and at the same time, a chance to just tell a lot of people about your work.
I don’t have a film background, I’ve had to get a crash course this year, but I had always imagined that someone like Jim Jarmusch just sat in a castle somewhere and looked at camera lenses for twenty hours a day and was like, “That one.” And, that’s how a filmmaker spends their time. But, I realize now that as a filmmaker, you are a perma-fundraiser. You’re having weird dinners with oil barons from Oklahoma, and Russian oligarchs, to try to get 100,000 dollars out of them, and meanwhile you cast their, you know, second mistress in the lead or something in exchange… There’s a really dirty part involved in how you have to fund these things. It’s hard work, and the return is purely financial. I think what Kickstarter’s doing is to take that same energy—a different kind of energy but that same process—and make it public. So, you strike out sometimes when you go to wine and dine that rich guy. But here, even if you don’t make your goal, you raise a lot of awareness.
That is a major advantage, over dinner with an oligarch.
Also, we see increasingly that a lot of films that are getting funded are ones that are not finding support in other places. Some projects come here out of need, others for political reasons, others just for opportunity, but even in the world of indie film, people are putting money into films they think will be successful, where they’ll be a return on their investment—there’s a financial consideration. There is no financial consideration here. If you look at a project on Kickstarter, and you think, “Will this be a good investment?” ninety-nine times out of a hundred the answer will be no. It will be clearly no. But, if instead, the question is “Do I like this, and do I wish it could exist? And am I willing to spend $25 in hopes that it will?” suddenly that’s like fifty percent of the projects for which that’s true. And so, it just changes what people are asking for. It means a film can be really quixotic and idiosyncratic and purely art, with no notion of audience or market or any of those things—it just wants to exist—and that’s enough. In the real world that is not enough. But on Kickstarter, it is.
Is there one genre that’s more successful with the Kickstarter audience? Documentaries versus features, for example?
Everyone assumes documentaries are more successful because you have the social component, but actually, docs and features have raised about the same amount of money: each about fifteen million.
One category I think is most interesting in terms of the amount of money it’s been able to raise is short films. Eight or nine mil has gone to short films—interesting because there’s no market for short films. That money is purely for art’s sake, or altruism, or whatever. It’s great to see an audience for that. We also have categories for animations and web series. I think web series have raised six million.
What are some stand-out examples of Kickstarter film successes?
There’ve been a number of films that have had real world success. There’s a film called “Resurrect Dead”—a really, really interesting documentary about these weird signs that are imprinted into the asphalt, and it’s a guy trying to figure out what that is. He got picked up by Focus, won best documentary director at Sundance… He was cleaning houses before that. And he was shooting this on nights and weekends when he had time for five years. And suddenly he’s a filmmaker. That one’s really neat.
Two of our very earliest documentaries are short-listed for the Best Documentary Academy Award right now. “Battle for Brooklyn” is a documentary about the Atlantic Yards Project. They raised $25,000 the first year of Kickstarter, which was by far the largest film we’d had at the time. Also up for Best Documentary is “The Loving Story,” another really early one—I backed both these projects—a documentary about Virginia vs. Loving, the Supreme Court Case that first legalized interracial marriage. It’s based on archival footage of the Loving couple. It’s just incredible—I’d known about that case my whole life, and I’d never thought about the actual people involved. It was really startling.
But there’ve been a lot of great films—some silly and fun like “Girl Walk // All Day,” and some more serious. I think there were several Kickstarter films that had theatrical releases this year. “Pariah,” a documentary called “The Jay DeMerit Story,” “Resurrect Dead,” “Sun Come Up,” “Battle for Brooklyn,” “The Loving Story,” “Incident in New Baghdad”… There was a while where I couldn’t go to a theater without seeing a trailer for a Kickstarter project.
I know Hal Hartley is an example of an established director who’s gone the Kickstarter route. Is he a pioneer in that demographic, or are there other filmmakers of similar career clout on the site right now?
Hal Hartley’s definitely a pioneer. There’s also Amos Poe; he’s about as idiosyncratic as you can get. He did an adaptation of Dante very early on.
You know, no one wants to be first. Everyone wants to be a really close second. You go first, it’s really making a statement about yourself, really putting yourself on the line, and people are really apprehensive about that. We’ve been very aware of that. There is some anxiety about it. It’s very public, it’s a lot of work, I think at this moment it’s like when your first friend signed up for Facebook, and you’re like “Who’s this loser?” But suddenly, within a year, it’s the backbone of your entire social existence. And I think that we are on a similar trajectory. This will become more socialized, will have less of a political meaning or message to it, and it’s more just, like, a thing you do. My guess is this year will be a year of bigger names. I’m aware of several people we’ve been talking to, but even if none of those things happened, we’d be thrilled. I very sincerely feel like even if the most famous person to use Kickstarter has already used it, that’s great with us. The point of this is not to help already-successful people be successful in a different way. The point of this is to help more things get made. It doesn’t matter to us who that is. I feel a more romantic tie to the things by normal people who just want to do the thing that they really care about, and they haven’t had that opportunity. That’s really our core mission.
Very equal opportunity of you.
Well, there’s this really interesting thing about art—especially art when it’s commodified by studios and labels and things like that—there’s a very clear line between amateur and professional. That line exists because there’s a gatekeeper who says you are good enough to come here and get this deal and we’ll take all your ownership and do all this other fucked-up stuff, but you’re in. You’re in the door! You’re in the gilded room! And there’s that line, and everyone else is down here. For the people below the line, you’re making zines, and you’re self-releasing stuff, you’re making truly indie movies, and there’s a really big gap between the two. Kickstarter has really been serving that more amateur side. Because of tools, because of the web, “amateur” is not what it used to be. It’s a lot more pro. But what’s exciting is, because of the success that the amateur class has had (and I use the word “amateur” very lovingly here), and the amount of money they’ve been able to generate, it’s made the professionals more interested. Suddenly, pros are looking at this thing thinking, “Maybe I want into that,” because it seems genuine. And it seems cool, and it seems honest. So you can see how, eventually, the two suddenly intermingle. And consequently you have the really pro, established filmmaker sitting next to the guy who maybe idolizes them. It could be somewhere on the site right now—Hal Hartley’s project sitting next to some kid’s who saw “Trust” when he was fifteen years old and realized that’s what he wanted to do with his life. And they sit side by side, and that’s really kind of the point: It’s just about making things, no matter who you are. But, you see how that success brings these other people. So, I think that’s probably where Kickstarter’s trajectory goes, but if it doesn’t go that way, that’s fine too.
In conclusion: With all this talk about film, I can’t not ask: What films do you love? Tell us a favorite.
My favorite movie is a three-way tie. “The Third Man”—Orson Welles, Joseph Cotton. It’s a Graham Greene short story, one of my favorite writers. Orson Welles is in Vienna post-WWII, and he’s selling bad penicillin and gets caught. Incredible movie. “All the President’s Men.” That was one of my favorite books growing up and the reason that I wanted to become a writer and a journalist, which is what I did before this. One that I watch and re-watch all the time. And the last one: “The French Connection.” Great film. Gene Hackman is crazy charismatic. Those are the three that I tend to watch and re-watch over and over, and that I always get something out of.
Check out Sundance filmmaker projects on the Sundance Institute-curated Kickstarter page.