Now that I am in the throes of funding my short film 20 Matches on Indiegogo – and for those just tuning in, yes, I was the first-ever filmmaker to employ crowdfunding, back in 1998 (read more about it here) – this is a relevant list. The heyday of famous filmmakers raising money on Kickstarter and Indiegogo may be over, but crowdfunding is still a thing, and many crowdfunded movies have indeed made their way into American theaters. Here are nine.
- Veronica Mars. (I'll start with the obvious, well-known titles. Hang tight: surprises are in store.) This big-screen revival of the cult TV series remains the film crowdfunding champ, raising $5.7 million during its March 2013 Kickstarter campaign. (It's uncertain how much of that actually went into the movie, once you subtract Kickstarter commissions, costs of fulfilling backer rewards, salaries for publicists and campaign “volunteers,” etc.) Warner Brothers covered distribution and marketing costs, probably not recouped when the movie earned a measly $3.5 million at the box office. It's unknown how well Veronica Mars – or any film – did on VOD, as those numbers are rarely made public.
- Wish I Was Here. Shrewdly predicting that the news cycle would move on if he waited too long, Zach Braff launched his Kickstarter for this, his second directorial effort, just two months after the Mars campaign. He raised $3.1 million. The film's final budget was $5.5m; Braff has claimed that he put some of his own money into it. Total box office: also about $5.5m.
- Da Sweet Blood of Jesus. Spike Lee soon jumped on the bandwagon, and even though his film didn't have a title and he was vague about its content, he still raised $1.4 million on Kickstarter in August 2013, slightly more than he asked for. It's not known whether Lee required any additional funding to complete the film. Sweet Blood is days away from its theatrical release; time will tell how well it does.
- The Babadook. Now the surprises start. This Australian horror drama, which received so much buzz from critics and film geeks last year, raised $30,000 on Kickstarter in 2012 to pay for art department and special effects costs. As the film had already secured its budget of reportedly $2.3 million, I don't know why they had to scrounge up that extra $30k. Perhaps they'd simply gone over budget. Regardless, The Babadook has raked in $4.8m internationally. (Many more viewers caught it on VOD, including yours truly.)
- Obvious Child. Like The Babadook, this edgy rom-com – which earned $3.1 in theaters – had already secured its funding by the start of its Kickstarter campaign, which raised $37,000. In fact, the film was finished and had been accepted into Sundance. But filmmakers Gillian Robespierre and Elisabeth Holm – herself a senior Kickstarter employee – needed the money for post-production needs. It's suspicious that their campaign ended just days before their film's Sundance premiere in 2014. They had absolutely completed all the post work by then. Did that $37k pay off some outstanding bills? Anyway, Obvious Child's total budget remains unknown.
- Dear White People. Most feature filmmakers prefer Kickstarter, where the all-or-nothing setup assuages people’s fears of backing big-budget projects. (No one wants to sink $1,000 into a film that only reaches a tenth of its funding goal.) But the folks behind this 2014 breakout chose Indiegogo, where they raised about $41,000. Having shot nothing, they were looking for seed money to pay for a lawyer, a line producer to budget the project, and a casting director to assemble an appealing cast – all to present the project to financiers. It was a risky proposal, but it worked: Dear White People was financed (for an unknown amount), distributed, and made $4.4 million domestic.
- God Help the Girl. Stuart Murdoch, frontman for the Scottish band Belle & Sebastian, wanted to direct his own movie musical. His Kickstarter campaign, which ended in early 2012, scraped up $121,000. As with Dear White People, this was seed money to show investors that there was grassroots interest in the picture. Its final budget was anywhere between $1.8 and $3 million (reports vary); I assume the balance was raised through other channels by über-producer Barry Mendel (The Sixth Sense, Bridesmaids, The Royal Tenenbaums). With a limited release, film only earned $100k at the box office.
- Finding Vivian Maier. Documentaries make up a healthy portion of crowdfunded films: they cater to existing niches and have trouble finding money through traditional means. This portrait of a Chicago nanny who took thousands of incredible photographs, undiscovered until her death, raised $105,000 on Kickstarter way back in early 2011. The filmmakers had asked for just $20k to cover pre-production costs. It's possible, though unlikely, that that $105k covered the film's entire budget. In any event, Finding Vivian Maier took in $1.5 million at the domestic box office in 2014, and even scored an Oscar nomination.
- The Canyons. It's frustrating, all this evidence that crowdfunding only supplies a fraction of the budgets of "major" indies – that is, those with realistic hopes for theatrical distribution. It's a reminder that, even with all the low-cost digital cameras and post-production software, a "real" feature film still costs millions. This wasn't the case with The Canyons, which in 2012 raised $159,000 on Kickstarter and apparently had a final budget of just $250,000 (possibly paid for out of the deep pockets of director Paul Schrader and screenwriter Bret Easton Ellis). Despite or because of its stars, train wreck Lindsay Lohan and porn actor James Deen, the film got a lot of press but little box office: just $56k. VOD revenue probably compensated; one can forgive people for not wanting to see this softcore curio in theaters.