TWO’S A CROWD: Crowdfunding new animation

Black Sunrise: a Crowdfunded feature length animation by Nick Cross

Black Sunrise: a Crowdfunded feature length animation by Nick Cross

(First published Nov 2011) The rise of Social Media over the last five years has meant that many industries have changed the way they do business. Whilst some people’s social media world is limited to connecting to mates on Facebook and following celebrities on Twitter, social media has presented the animation industry with new ways to do business and to market itself. Whereas it used to be your dog-eared rolodex or contacts book that was the limit of your reach as a practicing freelance animator, now there are identifiable virtual communities out there to pitch to and persuade- if you have the ambition, temerity and thick skin.

Great ideas remain great ideas until you can persuade others to help make them a reality. Traditionally there are gatekeepers between you and the funds needed (like arts officers, fundholders, VCs, commissioning editors) and they don’t necessarily want to sink a few thousand into your idea, because as a creative you are probably not very good at filling in forms or describing your idea in a document, right?

In cases of funding via screen agencies, arts organisations, film commissioners or broadcasters, it can be nigh near impossible to get in front of the right person and make that pitch where they see the fire in your eyes, sense the passion in your voice and understand that whilst you couldn’t string two acronyms together in your application form, you have a great idea and can be trusted to produce a seminal animation of world shattering import.

This essentially is the lure of Crowdfunding- where the internet cuts out the middle man/woman and instead of appealing and pitching to one important funder or venture capitalist to greenlight your project, you appeal to the masses via social media. If enough people give you ten dollars, euros or pounds you have circumvented the need to go through the official channels.

FARMING FOR FUNDS

The Pig Farmer: Nick Cross's animated short that led to plans for a crowdsourced feature

The Pig Farmer: Nick Cross’s animated short that led to plans for a crowdsourced feature

One of the early successful adopters of this approach in the animation world is Nick Cross from Toronto, Canada, who raised funds for The Pig Farmer- a sad tale of porcine tragedy at the hands (or rather paws) of drug-addled yet cunning foxes. “It’s like Porky Pig, Ren & Stimpy and The Manson Family all fed into a blender together” exclaimed cgchannel in a review. Nick was no ingénue- he’d worked in the animation industry for around 14 years (including a spell with Jon Kricfalusi, where he may have picked up the Ren and Stimpy black humour) and had always made films in his spare time.

Nick used the site IndieGoGo (www.indiegogo.com) which is now one of the main internet platforms for crowdfunding, to raise money. IndieGoGo was launched in 2008 as a place where anyone with an idea – creative, cause-related, or entrepreneurial – could build a campaign and raise money, using social media to get the message out. Essentially you have a page for your campaign- to make your case with text, stills or video, or to drive people to your website. You can tap into analytics to manage the contributions you get and build a sense of community. It makes economic sense to offer what are called perks to the idly curious who browse the site, to persuade them to part with a little cash.IndieGoGo_Logo_black_high_res

In exchange for a donation of $25 Nick offered funders their name on the credits of the film as well as a DVD and found 15 people soon signed up. This was just the lowest rung in the funding ladder. For a donation of $100 you could be credited as Associate Producer and receive a full credit on the film, a DVD copy of the finished film of ALL Nick’s previous work as well as a signed, limited edition print. 12 people bought into this arrangement. True diehard fans could show their support by becoming an executive producer for $500; and that’s what three people did- receiving credits, all the other benefits, and a signed original drawing.

So Nick got almost four thousand dollars of his 5k target. This enabled him make the film (http://vimeo.com/19113506) which was released in January 2011 and allowed IndieGoGo to claim a 4% fee- one of the ways the site is sustained.

Toronto animator Nick Cross

Toronto animator Nick Cross

“I had pretty much given up trying to get funding for my films after a few unsuccessful attempts at grant applications to various government art funding agencies,” Cross recounts in an interview with Jeremy Fries on his Independent Animators Blog. “It was just too much work that I realized I could put to more productive use by actually making the film instead of writing detailed budgets and art statements trying to justify my idea and convince a group of people that it had “ artistic merit,” whatever that means.  However, it seems that this new model of soliciting fans and other filmmakers for “donations” in return for various “perks” actually kind of works. I only tried for a small sum that helped me to hire a musician and offset a bit of the cost of software upgrades, but I was really encouraged by the response that I got. I think that more and more filmmakers are going to go this route in the future”
Nick quickly got to work on another crowdfunded project. Black Sunrise will be my first feature-length film” he explains “My hope is that with financing, I will be able to work full-time on this film instead of having to divide my energies between this film and taking on commercial work”.

He’s raising his sights towards raising 25,000 dollars for a feature length animation, which at the time of writing has garnered donations of 9,500 dollars, with 16 days till the end of donations. IndieGoGo offers a limited timeframe to encourage the creator to be pro-active themselves.

THE CROWD MAY TURN NASTY?

In a way none of this is new. Artists have had Donate buttons on their websites since the birth of microtransaction operators like PayPal, or have attained funds by asking the wider family and friends to be ‘associate producers’. The main catalyst for the explosion in crowdfunding now is the ascendance of social media platforms and video services like YouTube which mean anyone can put forward a personal in-your-face pitch for cash to the online communities they can now reach.

It’s important to do a reality check here. Crowdfunding has its difficulties, it’s not a licence to print money. Firstly, it needs to be remembered that in order to get your idea made you increasingly need to promise something special in return, and sometimes that can get in the way of your production. Promising access to a behind the scenes production journal or blog, or unique assets (crowdfunded stop-motion animators Justin and Shel Wagner Rasch gave away their original puppets to funders) or offering visiting rights on set to your funders could interfere with your creative process. If you’re worrying too much about the updates to the blog or organising twenty donors to visit your audio dub you’re probably not in the right frame of mind to do the work, so you need to think carefully about what you offer. There’s a reason why creative people have agents, publicists and producers- to evangelise and barter in ways that the creator sometimes can’t.

Black Sunrise (image courtesy Nick Cross)

Black Sunrise (image courtesy Nick Cross)

Crowdfunding increasingly demands the artist is a persuasive performer and eloquent orator, and that’s not the kind of personality trait many animators have. Ask yourself how many animators are household names through shameless promotion and the ability to do great soundbites, compared with film directors. Maybe Animators just haven’t got the chutzpah for this showmanship?

As the crowdfunding marketplace grows, one can imagine there’s a danger of a nuclear arms race of perks, with funders expecting ever greater trinkets or souvenirs for their ten dollars. Also, just how many associate producers can be credited before it ceases to become an accolade worth having?

Another important factor is reputation. People need to trust you can deliver before they fund. Nick Cross has been part of the canadian animation scene since 1998- making short films on his own. People trust him to deliver, and via his previous portfolio they know the kind of animation that they might expect to be produced. It’s not so obvious that college leavers will be able to generate the same kinds of sums, although some clearly do with the right patter and prototype work. Another thing to bear in mind is Nick releases his films on the internet for free- he’s not making money, so is probably viewed more charitably because of this.

IRON-SKY THINKING

A word of warning to all who enter the world of crowdfunding- you need a thick skin. There’s no guarantee that anyone will be interested in your life’s work. Also, there’s a fine art to pitching your project. It seems people react best to certain emotional triggers in the pitch.

our epic "What if the nazis escaped to the dark side of the moon after WWII?" animation

The epic “What if the nazis escaped to the dark side of the moon after WWII?” animation

Energia Productions, the company behind the science fiction comedy Iron Sky based on Nazi invaders from the dark side of the moon recently put out a request on crowdsourcing site Sponsume (www.sponsume.com) for funds to cope with going over budget during their shoot due to bad weather conditions, and asked for 50,000 euros. Only seven backers came forward, and a meagre 4% of the proposed target was reached.

Iron Sky is no hastily thought up operation- it’s a fantastic looking CGI film produced in collaboration with an on-line community of film enthusiasts, that has already secured 6.3 million euros through traditional film funding channels like the Finnish Film Foundation, Eurimages, Hessen Film Invest, Screen Queensland, and pre-sales. They aim to eventually cover 900,000 euros of the budget through crowdfunding. (see http://www.ironsky.net). As such the failure to reach 50,000 euros to assist with an over-budget shoot could be seen as worrying.

It may be the public didn’t warm to supporting the fact the production team went over budget, or it maybe that in this instance Energia Productions had pitched the offer too high- a name on the end credits for 850 euros, or an associate producer name check for 8,500 is steep compared to Nick Cross’s offer. Alternatively it might be that Sponsume is a relatively new site and therefore hasn’t got the traction of major crowd sites like IndieGoGo or Kickstarter (not mentioned in this article because it is US only). Whatever the reason or mix of factors, it seems to be a matter of finding a sweet spot where the public’s imagination and conscience can be engaged and they will donate in enough numbers to significantly meet your target.

ironsky_newlogo1The good news is that other methods of crowdfunding like selling “War Bonds” and merchandising has raised about 50,000 euros to date for Iron Sky, helping support the core team, and it has been stated that this fantastic looking project has 200,000 euros committed by crowd investors so far. For large productions it seems that  crowdsourcing needs to be just one ingredient in the funding mix. It’s clear in a world of crowdfunding there will be winners and losers- and some media forms may suit better than others.

GAME, CROWD AND MATCH?

Crowdfunding isn’t seen as a business model to reap financial profits from, but that might be starting to change. Crowdfunding offers the chance for new business models in other media too. Games apps website Appbackr proclaims itself “the first crowdfunding marketplace for mobile apps”. It uses crowdfunding principles in a different way by enabling app developers to find funders (called backrs) who can help fund applications and drive sales. The app developer receives payment from a backr for a designated number of app copies. When the purchased copies are downloaded in mobile app stores, the developer receives an additional payment and the backrs also profit. The real advantage here is giving the developer money upfront (a small percentage goes to Appbackr too). The site suggests backing an already completed app has a potential profit margin of 26%, or backing a concept (that will take several months or longer to yield revenue) has a potential profit of 54%.

appbackr-logoAt the time of writing “App of the week” on the Appbackr site is Boogie Monster by Monstrous with $11,765 raised in funds.Backing an app early gives you the opportunity to make a higher return, thus encouraging popular themes and genres, and therein may lie the achilles heel of crowdfunding, which is the notions of surprise, novelty and innovation.

Would some of the greatest animation films of all time have ever been made through crowdfunding? Or would imagery and story have been toned down to appeal to the vanity of the widest range of funders? Imagine a world where Nick Parks debut “A Grand Day Out”, Jan Švankmajer’s “Dimensions of Dialogue” or Len Lye’s “Free Radicals” were originally funded in this way. Would they have produced the same film, or have made certain compromises for the audience?

It maybe that the answer will be up to us- the public- since with our new role as funders we become arbiters of taste. We may no longer be able to blame commissioning editors, broadcasters or moguls for mediocre animation fare- we’ll be forced to blame our own conservatism. Crowdfunding gives us a chance to put our money where our mouth is. Let’s invest wisely, but not TOO wisely, eh?

This is an article originally written for IMAGINE animation magazine Autumn 2011.

UPDATE: I’ve now written a second article on Crowdfunding with a UK success story here

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