Facing an Uncertain Future, Indie Films Turn to Grassroots Funding

The makers of a new feature-length comedy have taken an unusual approach to financing

Grassroots funding, when applied to politics or charities, has become a familiar part of our landscape. From those door-to-door March of Dimes campaigns, to the election of Obama, entire projects -- indeed, entire enterprises -- have relied on grassroots funding to become a reality. No matter what's being sold, there is something pure about the very idea that the "end user" is able to make a "purchase" free from the persuasion of marketing agencies. But is grassroots funding possible in the world of indie films? Better question -- is it even necessary?

The answers are "yes," and "absolutely," according to former Prague residents Ryan James and Sarah Morris, who are now headquartered in Berlin. They have formed Jumper Cable Films to launch their feature-length comedy, Onward, Amazing People!, and believe that Eastern Europe is the best place on Earth to film it. While James also engages in film projects through traditional channels -- he has acted in over 20 feature films, and has had four screenplays produced including Jump, starring Patrick Swayze -- they believe that Onward! is the perfect movie for a grassroots funding model, and vice versa.

Their idea is to raise a modest budget for Onward! through tickets that are pre-sold to interested audience members. This formula is designed not only to raise the necessary funds to make the film, but also to market it through word-of-mouth and have an audience in place upon completion of the movie, which they will distribute digitally.

In this way, that the audience member will have a "movie ticket" in its purest form -- feeling good about how their money is spent, and seeing a film they genuinely want to see come to life. This is radically different than the conventional method of making movies where investors and distributors are the ones that determine which films are made and marketed to the mass audience.

The State of Independents
Independent films as we know them might indeed be in peril. The Hollywood studio system is facing a war on two fronts these days -- a shaky economy and a worldwide culture of illegal downloading. The combination has wiped the word "risk" right off the lips of investors, leading to major reductions in, and eliminations of, their independent divisions, and an increase the number of sequels and formulaic blockbusters. (If it ain't broke, don't fix it.) Talented film-makers are thus channeled into this narrow creative outlet, which does produce the occasional worthy film, but also leads to less originality and risk-taking. From the studio's perspective it is more risky to invest in a one-million-dollar "indie" film aimed at a smaller, more cultured and intellectually curious audience, than it is to invest in a 150-million-dollar film that can be cross-promoted to a mass audience through fast-food toys, books, cereal box covers and the like.

The Digital Revolution
Fortunately, advances in digital technology have completely revolutionized the film industry, and have ushered in a new era of jaw-dropping, visually stunning independent films. Wherever you look, it seems that fresh, inspiring films from exciting new filmmakers from all around the globe are…

Oh, wait a minute. That revolution never did exactly take place. Why not?

While stunning advances in digital technology did allow more filmmakers access to higher quality equipment at lower costs, they never eliminated the need for a proper budget to shoot a proper film. Nor did it solve the problem of distribution. Even when money is raised and good films with well-known actors are made, unless established distribution companies determine that they're really built for mass consumption they can find themselves stuck in the festival circuit, unable to make that leap to cinema houses or DVD sales.

So in the end, it seems that the studio system and its channels for making and marketing a film simply absorbed the benefits of digital technology. As for indie filmmakers, the seemingly unfair challenges of the marketplace never vanished.

Jumper Cable Films & Onward, Amazing People!
The idea of grassroots funding has a certain purity to it, but can it work? The concept itself is gaining more attention through the likes of Newsweek and The New York Times, yet one only has to look at similar crowd-funding initiatives like Kickstarter.com to think twice. Grand successes in this arena are few and far between, especially when applied to the relatively new concept of funding an entire feature-length film in this manner. Most projects that take off are much smaller and less ambitious in scale.

But not all. Take the UK-born Age of Stupid project, which raised over half a million dollars through grassroots funding. "Our hats are off to them," admits Morris, "and a good film was made, but in soliciting very large donations from mere dozens of investors, it left them the problem of having a good film, but no audience. Now they have to spend all their time and money just trying to get it seen."

James agrees, and adds that, "our model is hitting that sweet spot, the small price of a movie ticket that won't put anyone out. A price and concept we're all used to in our daily lives. Honestly, we're very surprised that no one has come up with this before. It seems so straightforward."

Onward, Amazing People! is "part cautionary tale, all comedy." Written by Ryan James, it is set in the year 2008, six years after the Apocalypse, and follows a lazy, cynical "hero" who is called upon to track down outsiders after they steal equipment essential to the survival of the world's last known city.

"It's the perfect script for this type of grassroots funding project," says James. "I admit, it would be a much harder sell if it were a coming-of-age drama. So it doesn’t hurt that Onward! is quirky, hilarious and fun. Plus, it doesn't hurt that I have good connections to the industry here in Eastern Europe where we intend to shoot it. But a huge point in its favor is that for this particular story the lower budget works for it, not against it." James believes that the cult-classic vibe of the film and its post-apocalyptic set-pieces will keep costs low, and at the same time give the film a time-out-of-place effect that will make it "feel" bigger.

"The script is there," says James, "the world of the film is there. I've lived with this project for years and we're over the moon about the idea of making it come to life in this way. I won't pretend that there aren't difficulties, and doubts, but it's the best encouragement that everyone who comes to our site and sees what we're doing is excited to get involved. It makes all the dedication worth it, and makes the risk worth taking."

"Ultimately, the success of Jumper Cable Films rests in getting the word out there and getting a groundswell going," adds Morris. "If it's not on people's radar, who can blame them? Folks are busy with their own lives, and don't tend to sit around wishing there was a way to revolutionize indie films."

Visit the Jumper Cable Films website

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