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SUNDANCE: How 'The Woods' ' Unique Financing Model Could Shake Up the Festival

The satire's writer-director relied on crowd-sourcing, an idea that Kevin Smith also is considering.

The Woods
Matthew Lessner
"The Woods"

The Woods is a satire about globally conscious young adults who head out into the wilderness with the hope of changing the world. But perhaps more importantly, it also may be a film that could be looked back on as one that changed Sundance.

The film from writer-director Matthew Lessner is the first festival entrant to be funded by Kickstarter.com, the company that helps artists crowd-source the funding for their creative projects. While other Sundance films have used Kickstarter to raise money after being accepted into the festival, no other Sundance film has used the company to raise funds for production beforehand.

Lessner had financed the first month of shooting The Woods in 2008 on credit cards -- an old-school independent financing model -- just before the financial crisis kicked into high gear. The economic downturn put the brakes on production, until a friend of Lessner's introduced him to Kickstarter, which launched in April 2009. (That friend, Emily Richmond, used the company to finance her current around-the-world solo sailing trip.)

By October 2009, Lessner had raised $11,584 from just 95 people. It allowed him to pay for additional shooting and postproduction work on the film.

"It just sounded like an amazing idea; it just sounded too good to be true," Lessner told The Hollywood Reporter before the festival. "I sought it out and started a project probably within a week of her mentioning it to me."

The Woods is an idiosyncratic story about disaffected youth, and it certainly gets its point across about society's extreme dependence on technology. The troupe of idealistic young adults, who are led by pontificator Daniel (Toby David), lug laptops, a television, a washing machine and refrigerator stuffed with junk food out into the woods, but don't accomplish much of anything. The film is told from the perspective of Dean (Justin Phillips), a friend of Daniel's who becomes frustrated with the leader's efforts to run the collective and his increasingly bizarre behavior.

Several cast and crew members attended the film's Friday night premiere at the Holiday Village Cinema dressed in the colorful, early 1990s-inspired clothing that the collective wears in the film. Some sported the neon face paint that characters in the film wore. The film, which is screening in Sundance's experimental New Frontier section, plays again Tuesday night at Broadway Center Cinema in Salt Lake City.

Lessner wasn't the only director who had crowd sourcing on the mind at Sundance. Kevin Smith said after the premiere of his controversial Red Stateon Sunday night that he had considered crowd sourcing the financing of the film but was scared off after he said he was accused of essentially begging for funding. But, with bigger names such as Smith considering the idea, crowd sourcing could be turning the corner. And with Kickstarter less than a year old, Lessner could be the first of many Sundance filmmakers who use the website to get their films made.

"I wish I could say that I had some kind of great foresight, but I had no idea that there'd be anything particularly new about what it was we were doing," said Lessner, who first came to Sundance in 2008 with the short By Modern Measure. "It was new to me, but I didn't realize how early we had got in on this thing. And the success of the film -- just getting into Sundance is something that I couldn't have anticipated."