Student filmmakers turn to the crowd over financing difficulties

Unless you’ve developed the ability to ignore the numerous posters that pop up all over campus, you’ll probably have noticed that several of them this semester have been from media students and film makers, all asking for your help to make their latest brainwave a reality.

A lot of this help now comes in the form of crowdfunding campaigns on websites such as Kickstarter, which earlier this month hit one billion US dollars in total pledges made.

Toni Wiltshire, the producer and writer of Apocalypse Graduation, one of the many student films currently being made in Lincoln, chose to use Kickstarter to fund the props, make-up, and equipment that would be needed to make a zombie horror movie.

“We decided to use crowdfunding because we wanted to make a really professional début film,” she said.

Money might be the most obvious reason for using crowdfunding sites, but it isn’t the only one, Toni explained: “Crowdfunding also helped us with getting the word out about our film, which ideally will lead to lots of people watching it. The great thing about crowdfunding sites like Kickstarter is that the people who donate can get rewards and updates.”

Rewards often include things like a high definition download of the film, or for some projects, big-money backers can even grab themselves a role in the film they’re donating to.

It all sounds like a very happy arrangement for film makers and film viewers alike. Yet Apocalypse Graduation’s Kickstarter campaign was cancelled after less than a month of fundraising.

“My team and I came to the executive decision to cancel the campaign for a number of reasons,” Toni said. “Firstly, we didn’t think we were going to raise the money we had asked for. In retrospect, this is probably because we asked for a large amount.”

Their goal on Kickstarter had been £4,500, but by the time it was cancelled, they had only raised £295 – a respectable amount for a student production, but obviously well below their target.

“We felt the money factor was taking over our project, and that’s not what we wanted; we’re making this because it’s something we enjoy doing. Instead, we decided to try and make the film with the same quality but minimal funding,” Toni remarked.

“Our backup plan was to use the equipment and props that our team currently have, and to all chip in towards make-up costs. With that in mind, cancelling the Kickstarter wasn’t a hard decision to make.”

The team were also creating a campaign at a time when pledges across the Kickstarter site were generally low, following revelations that it had been hacked and user details stolen.

Account security wasn’t so much of an issue for Daniel Brown, a third year media production student, who recently used one of Kickstarter’s rivals, Indiegogo, to fund his final university project: Cinematech, a documentary about how technological change is impacting on independent cinemas. Rather than needing props or make-up, Dan had other reasons for crowdfunding his movie.

“We chose to expand the areas we could explore by going to various cinemas, which of course creates travel costs, so we needed to raise some funds to cover those,” he explained.

On the surface, it seems as if Dan’s crowdfunding attempt went even worse than the one for Apocalypse Graduation – he raised just £35 out of the £500 target displayed on his campaign page.

Yet this isn’t as bad as it appears. “We didn’t really require that much, but you have to do a minimum target of £500. £35 was less than we expected, but it’s still successful because we’re able to use that towards the travel costs for at least one cinema,” he claims.

However, these two problematic examples highlight the competition amongst student film makers, and the bumpy start a project can face if its crowdfunding campaign doesn’t all go according to plan. So does this mean that, rather than forcing their students to look for external sources of funding, universities ought to give more financial backing to their film makers?

Toni doesn’t think so. “I don’t think it would be a feasible prospect,” she considers. “If universities offered every student funding for their projects, they’d go broke.

“There are plenty of opportunities to get your ideas made; we get emails all the time! It’s just a case of putting yourself out there, and getting a team together who are willing to put in the time, effort, and maybe a couple of quid.”

On the other hand, Dan believes the university should invest more in its students. “It’s difficult to fund a project when you have little to no budget,” he argues. “There should be a little bit more financial support. It’s only now, in third year, that I’ve actually got some money from the university towards a project.

“In second year, it would have been really useful to have that, because other courses do get that support, and yet media students have to supply lots of props, locations, and travel,” he suggests.

Despite this, he still thinks it’s possible to make good films and get good marks without turning to the likes of Kickstarter: “It’s still possible to get a really good degree without crowdfunding – this is my final year project and it’s the first time I’ve actually done it. But crowdfunding certainly helps.”

“There are so many other ways of doing things,” adds Toni. “Crowdfunding may have opened a lot of doors, but it’s also made people falsely believe that they can’t make their projects without crowdfunding.”

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