Is crowdfunding beginning to mature as a viable platform for screen finance in Australia?

The web platforms that enable anyone to fundraise for projects took off last year and will grow even more in 2013. The best-known US example, Kickstarter, has received pledges of more than $100 million for screen projects since April 2009. The pace is accelerating: nearly $US60 million has been pledged in the past year.

US crowdfunding has matured to the point where it is becoming a significant funder of small and medium-sized projects, including feature films. Perhaps the best-known success story is pioneering climate change documentary maker Franny Armstrong, who raised 1.5 million pounds for her feature The Age of Stupid. Kickstarter claims the platform has funded 86 films that have gained theatrical release, screening in more than 1500 North American theatres. Another 14 films have theatrical premieres slated for 2013.

An impressive 10% of the films screening at prominent film festivals Sundance, South By South-West and Tribeca are Kickstarter-funded. There have been two Oscar nominations, for docos Sun Come Up and Incident in New Baghdad.

Australian start-up Pozible is the biggest player locally — Crikey profiled its place in the arts community last year. The smaller, younger Pozible is starting to catalyse film investment for independent projects. According to Pozible co-founder Alan Crabbe, $2.47 million has been pledged to screen projects since mid-2010, with $2.21 million collected across 330 projects. More than 21,000 individual donors have chipped in. Screen is the largest category, ahead of music.

Half-yearly donations pledged to Australian screen projects on Pozible, 2010-2012 (source: Pozible)

In Australia, Pozible has mainly supported shorts and web videos. But producers and filmmakers are starting to realise the potential of crowdfunding for bigger projects. David Barker’s new feature The Second Coming raised $76,585 late last year, helping the project towards an expected production start in 2013. Barker writes online of the “51 things I learnt from crowdfunding”:

“We looked to the US for guidance. In 2011 only four films raised 100K (the number is higher in 2012 — and the Kaufman project raised $400K). We took this as a yardstick here in Australia, which has been slower to take onto larger projects with require bigger investments. We were initially going for 50K. Then we decided 100K, but in the end, after many discussions, we levelled at $75k. It was as much a gut decision, as anything.”

The Second Coming‘s producer, Aquarius Films’ Angie Fielder, told Crikey the decision to list on Pozible “grew out of a need to plug up a gap in the budget”. But just as important were the audience development opportunities. “I’m interested in seeing how that crowdfunding exercise and those people that pledged ultimately translates into an audience and a promotional tool for the film.

“The idea that you can start building an audience now, and then to grow that audience throughout the final stages of development, production and post-production, that for me is going to be the most interesting part of the process.”

Fielder is cautious about the potential for crowdfunding in the long term. “As far as its longevity goes, I really don’t know,” she said. “I ask myself the question: are people going to get crowdfunding fatigue?

“The Americans have been doing it for a little bit longer than us, and there’s more of a culture. It’s been active for less time over here … certainly in the last 12 months there’s been a really significant increase in people engaging in crowdfunding in Australia.”

Aquarius Films has a slate of 16 projects in development, following the success of its AACTA-nominated feature Wish You Were Here. “It hasn’t really changed the way that we work, but it has changed people’s perceptions of us,” Fielder observed. “Once you’ve made a feature, you’ve kind of proven yourself in a way. People are a little more receptive, I suppose, because you’ve got that calling card.”

Crowdfunding has been noticed by funding agencies. Western Australian government agency ScreenWest recently completed a $250,000 matching funding program with Pozible, thought to be a first for an Australian arts agency.

“We’d seen a couple of Western Australian projects go really well on their Pozible campaign, and then go on to get a million, a million-and-a-half hits on their YouTube clip once completed,” ScreenWest digital manager Michelle Glaser told Crikey.

ScreenWest matched crowdfunding with a 3:1 ratio up to a maximum of $50,000 — projects successfully raising $5000 would receive a further $15,000 from the agency.

So popular was the initiative, ScreenWest’s budget was quickly reached. “We launched on the 12th of December at 12 o’clock and within a couple of days all of our money was exhausted and went to the first six projects past the post. We would have expected that it would have taken a bit longer.” Projects funded include a short by Miranda Edmonds starring Emma Booth called Tango Underpants and a stop-motion animated series entitled Edison: Adventures in Power by Pierce Davison.

“I think people really enjoy having a say in which projects should be supported by a state government agency,” Glaser said. “This is a chance to bring audiences in at the start and then take them through.”

ScreenWest development director Rikki Lea Bestall cautions that crowdfunding is not mature enough to displace existing models of screen investment. “I don’t think necessarily this kind of thing will take the place of [conventional finance] … to do a feature — it’s expensive. What you see in the US is still an absolutely tiny proportion of the projects that are put up, and they are usually things that have got an awareness already, or they’re based on a book, or a comic, or have a massive star attached,” she said.

“What it is great for is new and emerging practitioners in particular. For the first time, rather than having to get into those key three or four film festivals around the world, there is an additional distribution mechanism for them now to get that traction.”

ScreenWest is still assessing its feedback from this year’s Pozible partnership. Glaser says the agency will make a decision on whether to repeat the experiment later in the year.