04/02/2013 - 4:42pm
How Crowdsourcing Changed Independent Horror Movies
by Darren Callahan

Back in the days of independent cinema – you know, before 1980 – there were dozens of film production houses that worked region-by-region all across America.  Small shops, small pictures, small money – mini-studios that might give you some financing if you had a track record, or were an exciting talent, or just had a cool idea.  If you traced the lineage of one of these houses, it sometimes ended in the Mob.  But not all were crooks – some were legitimate forces, such as Roger Corman or CinePix.  Still others were fly-by-night operations with $100,000 and dream, sprung out of cash made on porno or from footage for the local news.  Point is, there was money and the little guy could get it.  

That system is long dead.  Time has seen the acquisition of every small house by a larger one – big fish gobbling up the guppies until there was no more independent cinema.  

So what’s a young kid with a dream to do?  You love indie horror and you want to make some of that yourself.  You shoot a backyard monster movie starring all your friends and pay for it with your allowance.  Then you make a better and longer film for $500.  Then you drop $1,000 on your magnum opus.  Though the films are improving, they still stink.  And you’re broke.  Now that you’ve got experience, you do a line budget and get hungry to hire professionals.  Do some great splatter effects!  Make a nice DVD case and a poster!  You add it up and it totals $20,000 bucks.  That’s more than your mom has in her mattress, more than your uncle has in savings, more than your dentist has in teeth. 

Eeesh.  What now?  The answer these days is crowdsourcing (aka crowd-funding).  It is built on the classic maxim, “If you get a million people to give you one dollar, you’d be a millionaire.”

Kickstarter and Indiegogo are the champions in this space, as well as supporting organizations like Fractured Atlas.  Operating outside of Hollywood or the normal arts grant system, these groups provide a forum for people to plead their case, show their chops, and, more importantly, connect with like-minded supporters.  Showcase everything from gallery artists, to novelists, to theatre companies, these groups really have been a boon is for the new generation of horror filmmakers with an individual vision, an exploitable element, and a hook outside of the normal Hollywood fare. 

The (almost) no-strings-attached cash opportunity for genre filmmakers is unique.  John Klein, producer and director of the upcoming zombie epic, Chrysalis, raised $35,000 in budget using a successful Kickstarter campaign.  “It’s a big gamble with a lot of pressure – not unlike typical fundraising, but with the added catch of having to get as many people as possible on board within a super-short time frame.”  It should be noted that most of the donations were at the $10 and $100 targets, a fact verified by the stats of most projects on these crowdsource platforms.

Writer/Executive Producer Kevin Sommerfield recently funded his slasher flick Don’t Go To The Reunion with a successful bid to the masses.  “By Day 5 of our thirty-day campaign, we were at just over $1,000 raised on a budget of $10,000.  We spent about four hours creating the campaign and asking friends, family, and horror fans what the perfect rewards would be to get them to back the project.”  Since the contributor (also known as a backer) won’t have any artistic influence (unlike a Hollywood producer) or profit points, rewards are the key.  “Posters, DVDs, T-shirts, scripts.  For the ‘ultimate backer’ who gave $2,000 or more, we offered a death scene in the film.”

Horror fans would kill to travel back in time, maybe give a few bucks to a little-known Pittsburgh company called Image Ten, and appear as a zombie in the first independent horror flick to make some serious bucks, George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968).  Now you can hunt down the next Romero and break into the undead without a time machine.

Says Klein, “Our $200 prize was that you got to be a zombie in the film.  It was specific to that dollar amount only; you couldn't pledge $500 for one package and include that prize.  You'd have to bid separately for that perk.  We were really surprised by how popular that backer level ended up being; we were constantly upping the number of available prizes at that level because they kept selling out!  We had about 25 zombies in the film who came from that package.” 

Sommerfield recommends all levels of backing have at least some connection with the audience.  “You need to offer rewards with immediate payoffs.  Even if it is just a simple thank you, it is nice to show that you appreciate the support.”

Finding the next George Romero is no easy task, but with campaign assets – like links to the director’s previous films coupled with fresh interviews or trailers about the new project – at least you get a sense of what these people are capable of delivering.  Creating advanced assets – and buzz – is really boosted by the horror community, where a very loyal (and forgiving) fan base chases the next big thing in the same way dogs chase cars. 

Red Clark, director of the upcoming adaptation of Gray Matter, based on the short story by Stephen King, jokes, “I watched a movie about a killer turkey raise over $100,000 and was thinking, okay I have no excuse now.”  Clark went with Kickstarter rather than Indiegogo, explaining, “Kickstarter was more well-known at the time.  I liked the look better.  I also wanted to raise the amount or nothing at all and have the momentum build off of that.”

Indiegogo allows campaigners to set a budget, solicit funds, and keep the funds – even if you fall short of your goal.  Kickstarter – known as the slicker cousin – has a catch: you have thirty days (sometimes sixty, sometimes ninety) to raise 100% of your goal or you lose it, all of it. 

“I love the look, feel, and design of Kickstarter,” concedes Sommerfield.  “I think it is
great that Indiegogo has the option for Flexible Filming, but with the ‘all-or-none’ motto of Kickstarter, it gives it a real threat.  It makes it that much more fulfilling if you reach it.”  Sommerfield had to pull out all the stops to get over his goal.  “Call every relative, text every friend.  By the end of that campaign there wasn't a single person we knew that didn't know about the project.  I thought I was going to die at the end of it.  No sleep and lots of stress, but it was worth it to be able to make our film. We've been lucky.  This was our fourth film funded through Kickstarter and the fourth successful one.”

Not every campaign is a success – and not every project gets completed.  But for horror filmmakers and fans, it is a chance worth taking.  Direct access to a community, lower budgets with bigger impact, and the sheer showmanship are heavy gravity for horror people.

“I did organize some promotional assets.  I did some test shooting.  It was definitely helpful to showcase the style and energy of the movie and not just have a talking head,” adds Clark.  “I probably spent about $400 in pre-campaign costs because I hired a friend to do a promotional poster for me and I printed a bunch of cards and flyers.”

So what advice do these filmmakers have when asking strangers for money?  “We were completely caught off guard by taxes,” warns John Klein. “The money you raise will be taxed by the IRS as income.  For larger projects especially it's important to have an LLC or comparable entity in place to receive that money and deal with those issues, rather than trying to funnel it through your personal accounts.  Do your research and talk with an accountant early on in the process, and budget appropriately!”

Some advice applies even when horror directors and producers seek funding outside of the crowd kids. 

For example, John Pata and Adam Bartlett were co-directors of the successful feature Dead Weight.  That film’s budget came from private investors, not crowdsourcing.  Pata concedes pre-planning, quoting, and providing a budget makes a case for credibility.  “One of the items we included in our proposals to potential investors was a budget breakdown.  Somehow, we finished production just under budget.  Surrounding ourselves with incredibly dedicated and passionate people (most of which were friends before we even began the project) definitely helped quite a bit.”  And Bartlett recommends saving a little for festivals.  “We weren't aware of the high cost of film festival submissions. Someone told us once at a film festival that you should save 15% of your budget just to submit to film festivals, and that sounds about right.”

Clark adds about his experience: “It was a lot of fun and it really made me grateful to know so many amazing people.  I had old friends from junior high come out of the woodwork and pledge.  I was touched.  Very humbling and inspiring.  I talked about it as much as I could.  I brought business cards and flyers to events.  Lots of friends who helped me with this.  I had a couple large pledges did not come through.  One for $1,000.  My assumption is the person pledged the project early on then realized they didn't have the money when it came time to settle.  I'm not really sure, I didn't know them personally.  Unfortunately, there were some processing charges there, so I actually lost money, but I don't hold any bad feelings at all.  I'm just grateful for the people who followed through.”

Of the pros and cons, Klein remarks, “Funding Chrysalis through Kickstarter forced us to really plan things strongly in advance.  It was like going through pre-production several months early, requiring us to lock key crew members and scout locations and budget effectively early on.  And it also taught us an incredible amount about the value of marketing and social media; our Facebook page had over 500 fans and our Kickstarter page had close to 1,500 likes before a single frame of footage was shot!  That allowed us to figure out a lot about what people liked and didn't like about the concept and the story, and gave us incentive to keep the conversation going with our fans.  We had a fairly detailed budget going into the campaign, which included a tentative budget for how much the Kickstarter prizes would cost to produce and deliver to our backers once the film was finished, and which also took into account the 10% we'd lose to Kickstarter and Amazon afterwards in fees.  However, we initially had planned to shoot the film in the fall and not the winter (a shift to accommodate some incredible actors), which led to some tight budgeting issues, and in addition, the production was beset with difficulties that led to us having to schedule a couple of pickup days in late March.  I won't say we're over-budget, but I will say we're stretched pretty thin at this point!”

“I've been making movies since I was little,” says Clark, “so I sort of spend all my money on making movies or going out on dates to see movies.  This was my first crowd-funding project where I actually asked if people wanted to get involved on the financing.”

So when will Gray Matter hit the streets?  “We're in production now,” says Clark.  “Due to needed weather conditions (the film takes place in the winter, which came very late this year) and the practical effects taking a lot of time, we are still shooting the final pieces.  That said, it's looking really awesome and I'm beyond happy with everyone’s work so far.”

Why would someone not do this kind of funding?  For the makers of Dead Weight, the choice came down to putting their energy into the film itself, rather than a campaign.  Says Pata, “During the writing process, we had an in depth discussion about how we wanted to raise money and, although we knew it would be the difficult path, we made the decision to go with private funding.  Ask any filmmaker, no matter how many investors you have, or how much you raise, you could always use more money.  For starters, I sold a screen printing shop I co-owned to work on Dead Weight full time, and ended up putting about 90% of the money I got into the film.  Sadly, films cost money to make and money can go really fast.  Being able to directly involve people we know with our film is definitely the best thing about how we funded the film.  Also, to know that people believed in us and our project enough to loan us money was an incredible feeling.”    Bartlett adds, “Being privately funded I'd say the biggest pro was that we control and own the film 100%. This is ours. I guess the only real con I can think of is that it was incredibly difficult to raise the money we were looking for.  Through a crowd-funding platform like Kickstarter, people are just out there looking for projects to back.  We had to get out and look for people that wanted to support the film.  The obligation that came with funding is a plan to repay the investor and an executive producer credit.  There are some investors who didn't want to be listed as an executive producer on the film or IMDb page, which was their choice.”

Next time for Bartlett and Pata, will they put a hand out to the crowdsource community?

“We may fund things differently next time around,” says Bartlett.  “With Dead Weight under our belt and the large amount of praise through reviews, film festival acceptance, award nominations, etc., we feel like that will give us a lot of ammunition if we decide to take our next project to a platform of crowdsourcing. We will still pursue some private investors, as we have actually had interest from a number of parties already, but with independent filmmaking you can never have too many options.”

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If you’d like further information about the projects mentioned in this article:

Chrysalis (http://chrysalis2013.com) is a post-apocalyptic horror film, set 25 years after a bio-terrorist attack unleashes a virus upon the world, transforming much of humanity into vicious creatures and laying waste to civilization. 

Dead Weight (http://www.carryingdeadweight.com) tells the story of Charlie Russell as he treks through the wilderness in search of his girlfriend, Samantha, after a widespread biological outbreak wipes out civilization.  

Don’t Go to the Reunion (http://www.slasherstudios.com) Paying homage to revenge slashers like Slaughter High, Terror Train, Happy Birthday to Me, and Prom Night, Don't Go to the Reunion is the ultimate love letter to slashers. 

Gray Matter (http://graymattermovie.com) is a non-commerical short horror film adaptation of "Gray Matter,” a story by Stephen King from his collection Night Shift.  The story takes place during a winter storm, when a group of regulars at a liquor store travel out to check on a friend who has slowly been "changing shape" over the past couple months.  

And, if you’d like to see a campaign in full effect at the time of this article, checkout Patrick Rea’s Enclosure over at Indiegogo:

Enclosure (http://www.indiegogo.com/projects/enclosure) is a monster movie where most of the action is centered inside of a tent during a camping excursion.

Darren Callahan has written drama for the BBC, SyFy Channel, National Public Radio, and Radio Pacifica New York.  As the author of several successful stage plays, including The White Airplane and Horror Academy, both published by Polarity Books, he is highly involved in theatre as a writer and a director.  Novels include The Audrey Green Chronicles and City of Human Remains.  Screenplays include Documentia, Nerves and Summer of Ghosts.  He is writer, director, and composer of the films Under the Table and Children of the Invisible Man.  He is also a musician and has released many records, including film soundtracks, on various labels.  His website is darrencallahan.com.