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Right before documentary director Steve James’ Life Itself premiered at Sundance, 1,900 Indiegogo backers, who gave $25 or more to the film about Roger Ebert’s life, received an email with a link and password to view it online. Although they were good for up to two weeks, over 1,500 of the backers logged in right away so they could watch a live stream along with Ebert’s friends, family, and colleagues in Park City.
That evening, the instant Twitter reviews of Life Itself weren’t just coming from the press and filmmakers fortunate enough to attend the world premiere, but from backers who were able to watch the screening and emotional Q&A from home. It was a prime example of how some films are finding unique ways to use crowdfunding for more than simply raising money.
“To me, the crowd-building is just as, if not more, important than the funding part of crowdfunding,” Tim Horsburgh, director of communications and programs at James’ Kartemquin Film, tells The Hollywood Reporter. “Nothing gets a film to audiences better than having the support of a hardcore group of fans who will be passionate on your behalf. It’s my belief that only getting the full backing of ‘the choir’ can help you reach ‘beyond the choir’ with a documentary, even one with a celebrity subject.”
The success of the Life Itself experiment has many wondering if permitting backers to stream the film’s premiere points at the future of crowdfunding rewards. Marc Hofstatter, Indiegogo’s Head of Film, tells THR he expects there will be future crowdfunding projects that follow Life Itself’s lead, while Jamie Wilkinson of VHX — the digital distribution company Life Itself partnered with to do their live stream — reports he’s already received a number of inquiries from filmmakers looking to do something similar.
Kickstarter’s Elisabeth Holm tells THR she could imagine the Life Itself reward model working for other crowdfunding campaigns because it directly connects backers to a project through every stage of production. “For filmmakers, the bread and butter of rewards are often DVDs and/or digital downloads,” explains Holm, “So for sure, streaming the movie during a festival premiere could be a very cool reward backers receive more immediately than waiting for more traditional ancillary windows, not to mention sharing in the excitement of a real-time world premiere.”
Holm, who also produced the Sundance hit Obvious Child, says she would even consider offering this type of reward for her next movie. But like several producers and filmmakers THR spoke with, Holm had a number of questions about the process and ramifications of doing a live-streaming premiere.
“At the end of the day, if it is displayed on the screen you can screen-capture it,” summarizes VHX’s Wilkinson. For some, fear of piracy is the biggest stumbling block to streaming a premiere. For example, Zach Braff promised 5,707 Wish I Was Here backers the ability to take part in one of three streaming opportunities at an unspecified time. Braff’s producer Stacey Sher tells THR that the inability to supply backers with a high-quality stream of the film that was also piracy-proof made doing one these streams during the film’s Sundance premiere an impossibility.
“We have been working since before the Kickstarter campaign began to create the best streaming experience for the film for those backers who have been promised a stream upon release, but the technology simply isn’t ready yet,” she says. It’s an issue that they are taking so seriously that they are still figuring out how best to fulfill their streaming obligation to backers so that it is “both secure and high quality.”
Indie producing powerhouse John Sloss, who repped the sale of Life Itself, tells THR that he sees it differently, comparing the streaming opportunity supplied to Life Itself’s backers to Ultra VOD. In that strategy, employed by companies like Magnolia and IFC, the film is available on demand — and hence vulnerable to being ripped off the web — prior to its theatrical release.
Horsburgh says he was not concerned Life Itself’s backers would help pirate the doc: “The people who backed the film at $25 and up financially have also already shown their personal, emotional commitment to helping us get this film made and distributed widely, and to supporting Steve James and Kartemquin as working artists. So it never really crossed our minds that one of our community members would do that.” For his part, Wilkinson believes one of the keys to crowdfunding, and digital distribution in general, is enhancing the trust between the creators and fans: “We always say you shouldn’t frisk customers on the way into the store.”
For most filmmakers the goal of premiering their film at a major festival is to acquire distribution. Not surprisingly, based on the producers who spoke to THR, the biggest fear of live streaming a festival premiere is that it could scare off potential buyers.
“That’s garbage,” replies Sloss. “That’s an excuse and reluctance to change. Every playable movie does a word-of-mouth screening. This is the functional equivalent. This is a self-identified audience, so not only are they predisposed [to like the movie], but they feel greater ownership, which makes them a better word-of-mouth source.”
Sloss indicates that he did not come across one distributor who had a concern about Life Itself’s live stream for backers, which is supported by the fact that IFC, Oscilloscope and The Weinstein Company were in on the bidding for the doc which ultimately sold to Magnolia in what Sloss described as a “nice, healthy deal.” The distribution companies THR spoke with for this article acknowledged there was some slight value to the word-of–mouth screening, but that 1,900 backers’ ability to stream the film did not affect the decision, one way or the other, to bid on the film.
Getting into a marque festival like Sundance is a major objective for most filmmakers, which is why one major concern to offering a live streaming reward is that it might be frowned upon by festivals, which sometimes demand an exclusive premiere. But this can be avoided in the wording of the crowd funding reward. For example, Life Itself could not announce they would be playing at Sundance when their Indiegogo campaign launched, so they initially only promised a pre-theatrical streaming experience.
Still the question remains, how do the festivals feel about what Life Itself did?
John Cooper, director of the Sundance Film Festival, tells THR, “As independent filmmakers seek new and increasingly public methods of financing their work, they are also engaging and building their audience earlier in the process. That and other factors mean that the window between a film’s world premiere at a festival and its distribution to wider audiences can sometimes be narrower. The Sundance Festival supports filmmakers in these efforts, as was seen at this year with the private stream of Life Itself during its premiere, Mitt becoming available on Netflix days after its premiere and HITRECORD ON TV’s screening on the eve of its TV premiere on Pivot.”
Head of SXSW Film Janet Pierson agrees, believing that festivals need to be open “to finding new ways to help filmmakers cultivating, finding and increasing their audience.” Pierson, whose festival is premiering the crowdfunded phenomenon Veronica Mars, indicates she’d be open to the idea of doing a Life Itself-like live stream for the film’s backers, saying “as long as it was logistically possible and affordable. I think it’s exciting.”
Logistics & Cost
Probably the biggest misconception about the Life Itself live stream is that it was both expensive and technically difficult. “Almost every filmmaker has a High Res MP4 copy of their movie sitting on their laptop,” explains VHX’s Wilkinson. Once that file has been uploaded, VHX needs less than a day to get the film ready for distribution. The quality of the HD streaming video, similar to Netflix and HBO GO, is dependent on the users’ internet speed. For Horsburgh the biggest technical and logistical concern was making sure that the 1,900 backers received their passwords and links so that they could stream the film — a problem he addressed by emailing each backer from four different email addresses.
And the cost? Currently VHX allows filmmakers to fulfill their crowdfunding streaming or digital download rewards for free, with no obligation to use VHX for future distribution. Wilkinson doesn’t plan on altering the promotion in the foreseeable future, but even if a significant increase in demand forced VHX to charge, “the costs would be competitive with the shipping fees of the normal crowdfunding reward.”
More and more, the live stream is wooing crowdfunder-sourced indie cinema, offering a cheaper and more marketing-friendly alternative to traditional backer rewards. Wish I Was Here, for example, has promised backers 9,952 Tee Shirts, 2,952 framable art prints, 254 director’s chair backs, 1,000 vinyl soundtracks, 710 signed posters and special advanced screenings with Q&A’s in 11 cities stretching from San Francisco to Berlin.
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