What a German Comedy Can Teach Kristen Bell About Crowdfunding

4:00 AM PST 03/14/2014 by Scott Roxborough
"Stromberg" is based on the German adaptation of Ricky Gervais' sitcom "The Office."

After three weeks near the top of the German box office, “Stromberg” is set to pay back online fans who invested $1.4 million to get it made.

Kristen Bell’s Veronica Mars reboot is set to light up the box office -- and the project’s rabid online fan base -- when it rolls out this weekend. Famously, the feature-film adaptation of the canceled CW teen noir series got made thanks to a phenomenally successful Kickstarter campaign, for which some 91,000 people donated a total of more than $5.7 million to the project.

But while Veronica Mars -- and similarly hot Kickstarter-backed features like Zach Braff’s Wish I was Here and God Help the Girl from Belle & Sebastian singer Stuart Murdoch -- have become the official face of the crowdfunding phenomenon, a small comedy from Germany could be the first online-backed movie to actually pay its fans back.

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Like Veronica Mars, Stromberg is an adaptation of a cult TV show. In this case, the German version of BBC’s The Office. Like Bell and Veronica Mars creator/director Rob Thomas, Stromberg head writer Ralf Husmann, frustrated with conventional film financing, decided to go directly to the fans.

But while crowdfunding typically involves asking fans for donations in exchange for perks and swag -- Veronica Mars backers received anything from a T-shirt or DVD to tickets to the film’s premiere afterparty -- Stromberg offered its fans a piece of the action.

“I didn’t want to go cap in hand and beg for money,” Husmann told THR. “I wanted to make the business argument, let people invest in the film.”

Using an online financing platform originally developed by French media group Banijay (who own Stromberg producers Brainpool) for crowdfunding music demos, Husmann made his pitch.

“It had to be something you could explain to anyone in five seconds. So it was: Invest in the movie and if we hit 1 million admissions, we pay out €1 million ($1.4 million). €1 million total investment and at 1 million admissions, everyone gets their money back.”

Individual investors were allowed to put in a maximum of €1,000 ($1,400). Within six days of launching its online campaign, Stromberg hit its $1.4 million target. “We could have raised $3 to $4 million if we wanted to, but that wouldn’t have been realistic -- we knew with those figures we couldn’t reasonably promise to pay people back.”

The crowdfunding provided about a third of the film’s total budget, with the remainder coming from conventional sources, including film subsidies and a distributor guarantee (Warner Bros. picked up the film for German release).  

The 1 million admissions target was ambitious. That’s the standard measure for a blockbuster in Germany. (To compare, Gravity sold just 1.3 million tickets in Germany.) But the bet has paid off. Stromberg is already close to 900,000 tickets sold and is certain to pass the 1 million mark this weekend. Stromberg investors still have some potential upside. The film will continue to pay out up till a cap of 2 million admissions, at which time every €1,000 investor will get a €1,500 total payout.

“It’s a relief,” says Husmann. “This was a real experiment, the first time anyone had tried this. If it was a flop and everyone lost money, it would have killed it.”

Still, Husmann doesn’t believe his crowdfunding investment model can be easily applied to other indie projects. “It’s tough proposal because you need to have a project that has real commercial potential and those are rare, especially here in Germany.”

In the U.S., laws covering investor fraud prevent projects on sites like Kickstarter from selling shares in a film or promising any sort of financial return. Even in Germany, things have gotten harder. The tax authorities have tightened the due diligence requirements for crowdfunding investments, making it more expensive for filmmakers to go down that route.

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