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Kickstarter: The Indie Filmmaker’s New Best Friend

Paul Schrader is using crowdfunding website Kickstarter. So is Matthew Lillard. Who will be next?

When Matthew Lillard needed a distributor for his directorial debut, “Fat Kid Rules the World,” he knew he had an alternative to the traditional Hollywood studio: Kickstarter.

“Mainstream Hollywood doesn't know how to make money on a movie like this,” he wrote on the crowdfunding website. “They don't believe that there is an audience, and we mean to prove them wrong.”

As studios become more risk-averse, filmmakers of all stripes are turning to Kickstarter, as well as other online crowdfunding sites like IndieGoGo, to fund production, marketing and, in some cases, distribution. 

That includes everyone from "Raging Bull" screenwriter Paul Schrader to a relative unknown like Rob Hugel.

Sundance hosted 17 premieres for films funded at least in part by Kickstarter. At South by Southwest, 33 funded films screened. At Tribeca, there were 12.

Even Cannes, the province of luminaries like Roman Polanski and Michael Haneke, has a film that got help from those on Kickstarter.

And earlier this month, Paul Schrader and Bret Easton Ellis announced they would use Kickstarter for their next project, “The Canyons.” It has already raised almost $80,000.

According to Braxton Pope, a friend and collaborator of Ellis’ who is producing the film, the group wanted the artistic freedom using Kickstarter funding would provide.

On top of that, they wanted to be sure they could see something from the back end. Too often when selling a project to a distributor, they did not get a share — or only a small portion — of the movie's profits.

Even HBO has gotten into the game, purchasing "Me @ the Zoo," a documentary partially funded on Kickstarter, that will premiere June 25.

Launched in 2009, Kickstarter has broken new ground in areas other than film over the past few months.

In February, the Elevation Dock, a docking station for iPhones, became the first project to pass the $1 million mark. Since then the Pebble, a customizable watch, set a new standard, captivating many by surpassing $10 million in funding.

No movie has neared that level, but more than $60 million has been pledged to film and video projects on Kickstarter, making it the single largest category on the site.

Crowdfunding is an increasingly popular and viable avenue for independent filmmakers — and Kickstarter has taken the lead among other outlets.

“It’s been happening on a really grass-roots level for a long time," Lillard told TheWrap, "but I never thought about putting it together to use on a completed project for [print and advertising] funding. That was part of the awakening at South by Southwest.”

It was at the Austin-based festival that Lillard’s film about a hefty teen who discovers punk rock earned the Audience Award, as well as a series of positive reviews.

Also read: Bret Easton Ellis, Paul Schrader Drumming Up Funds for 'The Canyons' through Kickstarter

Lillard, an established actor ("The Descendants") making his feature directorial debut, initially met with traditional indie distributors. Yet he didn’t get a single offer he thought could even recoup his budget.

The budget? “Way under $1 million,” he said.

So he turned to Kickstarter, where so far he’s scrounged up more than $30,000. His target is $150,000, which he acknowledges is a lofty goal.

If he raises that amount, $50,000 will go to the Vans Warped Tour, a rock-focused festival that will promote the movie all summer. The remaining $100,000 will go toward self-distribution.

If not, he may end up where he was before — searching for funds and distribution.

For most studio campaigns this kind of money is negligible. But Kickstarter's target client is not looking to fund a blockbuster.

“Martin Scorsese should not be going on Kickstarter,” Mark Urman, CEO of Paladin Entertainment, told TheWrap.

When Urman’s company bought Taika Waititi’s “Boy” last summer, he turned to Kickstarter for supplemental P&A funding.

He was reticent at first, believing he would appear “beggarly.” But then he realized that his movie about disenfranchisement would gel with a certain message: This small New Zealand film needed to crack the rough-and-tumble U.S. market.

Not only did they raise more than the goal of $90,000, but “Boy” ended up in more than 90 different theaters and is still playing after an early March debut.

"It became a talking point and perpetuated itself," Urman said of the campaign. "It wasn't 'the little engine that could' but the little engine that is actually doing it …  that can."

Like Urman, Kevin Iwashina, managing partner at Preferred Content, cautioned that a campaign must be very carefully managed.

Yet Iwashina acknowledged a recent inflection point whereby people are going to Kickstarter first rather than after being turned down elsewhere.

“As the economics of traditional distribution become more challenged, crowdfunding is an important resource that filmmakers now have to not only secure production financing but P&A and marketing dollars,” Iwashina told TheWrap.

Also read: SXSW 2012: Matthew Lillard, Fresh Off 'The Descendants,' Makes His Directorial Debut

“Everybody feels that unless they know somebody or sleep with somebody or have an uncle that works at a studio, they can’t get in,” Derek Christopher, co-founder of Movie Cloud, told TheWrap. “Agents won’t read their scripts, managers won’t return their phone calls, studios try to screw them if they pick up a film.”

Christopher and his partner Dov Simens have both worked with aspiring filmmakers for more than a decade and are trying to launch their own studio, Movie Cloud, using IndieGoGo.

Pope (above) said that with the “The Canyons” they would use the funding for everything from makeup to wardrobe to a longer stretch of post-production.

Some money will also go to marketing. Yet Kickstarter, if done right, also serves as its own marketing platform.

“You’ve funded a film, but it’s also a way to engender an audience that’s more engaged and is part of the fan base you’re building,” Tom Quinn, co president of Radius, a company under the Weinstein Company banner, told TheWrap.

“For a smart producer or director, you want any social currency you can get, and this is one more concrete piece of proof that indicates fans and followers.”

And that viral element is why Kickstarter can help not just a Paul Schrader but also a Rob Hugel, an aspiring comedian in New York hoping for his big break.

Hugel filmed the first two episodes of his web series, “I Hate Being Single,” using $200 from his bank account. Those episodes won the audience award at the New York Television Festival, and some cable networks met with Hugel about it.

With hopes of getting a future deal, Hugel turned to Kickstarter to ensure that the final two episodes — he had filmed five — would have a greater cinematic quality.

He raised $6,000 — $1,000 more than his $5,000 target.

Hugel's show may never get picked up by a cable network, but even then the Internet provides additional distribution methods.

"Maybe a couple of years ago I would have been thinking, 'Of course I want to get a TV show," Hugel said. "Looking at how the web is going, TV and web are merging."