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The NYU Cinema Research Institute brings together innovators in film and media finance, production, marketing, and distribution to imagine and realize a new future for artist-entrepreneurs. 


Missing the Forest for the Trees: The Donor vs Investor Debate

Michael Gottwald, Carl Kriss & Josh Penn

A recent article in Indiewire got our attention, entitled "The Reason Kickstarter is a Gamechanger? Donating is Better than Investing When it Comes to the Arts."  In it, filmmaker Dan Mirvish makes a case for why the popularity of websites like Kickstarter should finally make it abundantly clear that independent filmmakers should consider what they do as arts to be contributed to, as opposed to a business venture to be invested in. (However, he also heralds Kickstarter's ability to garner him traditional investors as well as contributors, but that paradox nonwithstanding...) From the point of view of grassroots distribution, we have two equally paradoxical thoughts. One is that the endeavor of this study is predicated on the idea that there must be something filmmakers can learn from a political campaign, which very much is a donation-based model. Many of the successes we've written about so far have involved when filmmakers act like their film is a campaign to be donated to, one with a viewing "base" to be engaged and motivated, and to use deadlines to spark action. To donate to something is to be an advocate for it, and the (seemingly large) potential of transforming an audience into advocates is what we are exploring here. At the end of the day, besides contributing fiscally, a donor becomes part of a built-in audience. That's a good thing; how you build an audience is key.

However, do we need to readily accept this classification of Independent Film as a "fancy art" to be granted to, donated to? Or is it just that filmmakers are trying to cram the massive amount of product out there into the same, tightly bottlenecked distribution pipelines? Going further, if we properly marshalled grassroots resources and ideas and structures, and were thus able to get our films more directly and profitably to the audiences that are right for them, would independent film be such a pitied profession, in which revenue is a bonus and not an expectation? If an independent film's financial life just ends with it being underwritten, then is its value merely in its existence and not in its shared enjoyment? Is it meant to just exist as a pet project -- the equivalent of a museum piece, to be viewed by an elite few who can find their way to it (and hopefully the small audience that donated it into existence in the first place).

A relatively small percentage of the country donated to the Obama campaign in 2008; however, 51% of the voting population voted for him. If films can be campaigns, campaigns certainly depends on donations. But the idea of a campaign is to win, and the idea of a grassroots campaign is to use little to win big. And in film, isn't winning big having as many people see (and pay for) your film as humanly possible? Or is the "paying for" part a lost cause?