Friend benefits

Sarah Smellie looks at the growing phenomenon of crowdfunding.

So you’ve got a great idea for an arts project—a brilliant photography project, a novel, a short film, whatever. How do you find the money to put it together?

A few local filmmakers have turned to their social networks for the answer.

Traditionally, you’d pay for it yourself and/or you’d fill out multi-page applications to institutions like the Newfoundland and Labrador Arts Council (NLAC). Those applications would be vetted by a small group of authorities and, if your project suits their fancy or your reputation guarantees that it’d suit someone else’s fancy, you’d get a cheque.

But what if you didn’t get a cheque? Or what if it isn’t enough?

More and more these days, this is where crowdfunding comes in. It’s an old practice, relying on the idea that small contributions from large numbers of people add up. Think of a Salvation Army Santa collecting coins at Christmas. A modern incarnation is at the top of Wikipedia’s “Crowd funding” page, where founder Jimmy Wales appeals to readers for a donation of any amount. Got $20? He’ll take it, via PayPal. Your $20, along with tens of thousands of other readers’ dollar bills, keeps the site financed.

Charities do it, political campaigns do it, and now artists are doing it.

Allison White is looking for your twenty bucks to help support the making of her short film, Decoloured. She won the Michelle Jackson Emerging Filmmaker Award, which came with an appreciable sum of money, but she needed a bit more cash for the film. So she set up a page for Decoloured on Indiegogo.com, a popular crowdfunding site for arts projects, where people can donate anything from $10 to $1,000 to her project. Each amount netted a perk for the donor: Ten bucks got them a hug and a nod of thanks, a thousand made them a producer.

“With a feature film,” she says, “you could approach someone and say ‘hey, would you like to invest a bunch of money in my film and be an executive producer?’ It might make money, and there might be a return for the investor. But not with a short film.”

Instead, the Indiegogo approach let her solicit small contributions from a large group of people—her social network—and give them small returns, like their name in the credits.

“People could decide on their own if they wanted to give money,” she says, “and they didn’t feel pressure to give a large amount. Even $10 makes a difference.”

As an added bonus, each donor will probably check out the result, especially if their name is on it.

She applied for a grant, and considered a fundraising show with a few bands. “But if I did a show, I might make $1,000,” she says. And a show could only attract so many attendees. A website, on the other hand, can reach all her Facebook friends, and it won’t go offline after last call.

She emailed Decoloured’s Indiegogo page to her friends, and posted it on her Facebook page. It got reposted and reposted, and, eventually, she racked up $3,760 in donations. That’s more than a new artist can ask for from an NLAC Project Grant.

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George Murray has a lot to say about the phenomenon. He’s a poet and Executive Director of the Association for Cultural Industries—an organization which, in part, helps artists get access to funding.

“I think it’s a great idea,” says Murray. “It’s hard to get a certain level of funding that you need when you don’t have a certain track record. And you’re saving time on all the applications that you’re required to write, which can be onerous.”

A successful crowdfunding campaign might even help with securing grant money in the future.

“If a project has community support, then the government is justified in spending money on it,” says Murray. “200 people donating ten bucks shows that 200 members of the general public support the project. And a neat corollary is that it involves the community in the production, which might not be otherwise involved.”

Of course, peer review is a large part of securing any grant, and harvesting your social network for funds effectively deletes that component.

Chad Pelley is an author and a $25 donor to White’s film. He says he donated because he saw that White was passionate and thoughtful about her work. That, says Pelley, is a kind of peer review.

“Traditional peer review for, say, a government grant, has its merits,” he says. “Like quality control and ensuring a variety of projects are being funded. But things like Indiegogo will reduce the influence of bias and popularity. Instead of a jury of two or three people, thousands of individuals get to choose what they would like to see and hear. The collective taste might favour a certain kind of movie or novel, but there’s more hope for the obscure artists finding some funding this way.”

George Murray doesn’t think it’s much of a concern, either. “Good art,” he says, “will always find an audience. If good work is being held up by red tape around funding then this is a viable alternative.”

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Since White started her Indiegogo campaign, a number of others have cropped up: Jordan Canning set up a page for her short, “Oliver Bump’s Birthday”; Krissy Holmes and Joel Thomas Hynes are looking to you to support their film, Clipper Gold; Elsa Morena’s film, The Goblin Market, is pulling in donations; and Corner Brook artist Philip Robbins is using a similar site, www.rockethub.com, to help his photography project along.

Is this a revolution in arts funding?

Murray doesn’t think so. And he doesn’t think successful crowdfunding campaigns will dissuade governments from investing in the arts, either. “I doubt it’ll ever take off to that level,” he says.

In fact, the real problem for the crowdfunding approach might be the crowd itself. “We’re a small community,” says White. “The novelty will wear off. There are a number of other films doing this now, and there must be an overlap in the people they’re asking.”

But if the project is right, she’d do it again. “I think you have to carefully select the projects. It depends on how much money you need to raise, and if there are a lot of other people asking. It worked for me because I had this award.”

“I would have made the film, regardless,” she adds. “This will just make it a lot easier. I’ll be able to do it exactly the way I want.”

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