Eric Vonfeldt, Co-Founder and Co-CEO, Leveller
For as long as there have been movies in Hollywood, it’s been a cliche that Hollywood is a small town. These days, it seems like the town is smaller than ever, as a few giant companies continue to grow earnings, annex competitors, and monopolize audience attention. To take the most obvious example: in the first nine months of 2019, Disney films accounted for forty percent of American domestic box office. That number is likely to rise by the end of the year, as the company continues to release tentpole blockbusters on a monthly, or even bimonthly, basis. Everyone’s in search of the next spinoff-ready TV show, the next franchise cinematic universe, and the next billion-dollar behemoth. These products have a role, but we should expect more from America’s dream factory. Perhaps new technologies may provide a way out.
The warning signs have been present for years. In 2014, FlavorWire reported on “The Death of Mid-Budget Cinema” and the damage the pursuit of the blockbuster inflicted on the art of the motion picture. Hollywood accountants, it seems, no longer have enough time or attention for anything that costs under nine figures. This may be good for bottom lines — provided the films aren’t flops on the level of Gemini Manor Dark Phoenix— but they’re not great for culture. There are some stories that creators need to tell and that audiences need to see that don’t require hundreds of millions of dollars spent in production and earned in ticket sales. It’s essential that we find a way forward for these stories, whatever they may be, in an industry seemingly intent on moving to generic crowd-pleasers.
Crowdfunding has occasionally helped creators find backing for projects that executives wouldn’t greenlight, but it has its drawbacks. In 2016, the Czech filmmaker Jan Švankmajer used IndieGoGo to raise money for a planned final film, Insects. Švankmajer’s surreal and occasionally transgressive animation has been praised by critics the world over, but no traditional financer was willing to give a few hundred thousand dollars for the creation of a new movie. In about a month, Švankmajer raised over $300,000, but much of the money he raised didn’t go directly to the filmmaking process. There were likely fees to pay the platform, advisors who helped Švankmajer’s team craft their appeal, and costs for the production and distribution of backer rewards.
The backers of Insects received rewards for their contribution, ranging from downloads of the new film to Blu-Rays of previous Švankmajer works to taxidermy insects used in the production, but they have no lasting financial stake in Insects’ success. Had, by some fluke, the film become a hit, backers wouldn’t have had any financial involvement: They wouldn’t have received dividends or royalties or licensing fees. Their name might appear deep into the film’s credits, but no credit would accrue to their bank account. Of course, implementing profit-sharing across hundreds or thousands of international contributors would be an accounting nightmare.
Even considering the limitations of traditional crowdfunding, we have to consider that Švankmajer was an established artist at the end of his career. During the fundraising for Insects, he received endorsements from avant-garde luminaries like the Brothers Quay and mainstream filmmakers like Best Picture winner Guillermo del Toro and Nightmare Before Christmas director Henry Selick. A young filmmaker or scriptwriter with few industry contacts and a short CV would be unlikely to succeed in a fame- and renown-driven environment like IndieGoGo. And while young or marginalized filmmakers might be able to offer their supporters eternal gratitude, they might be hard-pressed to craft backer rewards that would entice anyone beyond their friends and their immediate family.
It might seem that crowdfunding isn’t a solution to Hollywood’s abandonment of new voices and smaller stories, but new technology may make crowdfunding, or more properly crowdinvesting, viable. Blockchain or distributed ledger technology came to public prominence through its association with cryptocurrency, but central innovations like decentralized ledgers and self-executing smart contracts have substantial implications for accounting. By automating processes like fund distribution, blockchains with smart contracts could make genuine crowdinvesting possible by reducing administrative overhead to almost nothing. If your name appears in the credits, credit will appear in your bank account.
As the streaming wars continue and merger follows merger, it makes sense to worry about the formation of media oligarchies. Big businesses want big profits from big productions; they may not want stories that don’t seek to be the next Game of Thrones, the follow-up to Stranger Things, or the heir apparent to Star Wars. Not every new creator wants to make the world’s biggest franchise, and many diverse and marginalized audiences may not much care for tomorrow’s blockbusters. Thankfully, new technology provides us — the “crowd” — with ways to ensure that we hear the many new, challenging, and inspiring stories that are waiting to be told. Many projects have little hope for a traditional Hollywood greenlight. That’s OK. We, the audience, can give a greenlight ourselves.