Kickstarter, called "the people's NEA" by The New York Times, recently sent out their 2011 round-up of success stories on their crowdsourced fundraising site, with women filmmakers taking significant applause on the roster, including Dee Rees' Pariah, which won the Excellence in Cinematography Award, US Dramatic Competition, at Sundance last January. While five Kickstarter films made it to Sundance in 2011, only Pariah broke out of the pack to be picked up by Focus Features, (distributor of Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation and other Academy Award winners), making it the first film in Kickstarter’s game-changing, two year history to do so.
Pariah, which began as an award-winning narrative short in 2006, explores a semi-autobiographical coming of age story through the eyes of a Brooklyn teenage girl, Alike (played with luminous fierceness by Adepero Oduye), “who juggles conflicting identities and risks friendship, heartbreak, and family in a search for sexual expression.”
Following five and half years of fundraising efforts toward a feature-length expansion of the short film, supported from The Sundance Institute and other sources, the narrative was shot on location in December 2009 over nineteen days in Brooklyn, NY. With the 35mm footage in the can, Rees and her producer, Nekisa Cooper, decided to launch a Kickstarter campaign to complete post-production in time for its premiere at Sundance.
Like many of the best Kickstarter videos, Rees chose direct audience address by appearing onscreen with her producer in the pitch. This personalized approach allows potential donors to connect with the back story, to witness the filmmaker-against-the-odds passion. In the case of Pariah, the Rees and Cooper also evoked the viral “It Gets Better” YouTube series in support of questioning gay youth. While the comfort zone of most filmmakers remains behind the lens, this willingness to personalize the outreach in a confident but urgent conversation with potential supporters makes all the difference in a successful campaign and can often lead to completing “the last leg of the journey,” as Rees requested in her video. The success of Dee Rees’s Kickstarter campaign adds to the accolades of a filmmaker recently named by Filmmaker Magazine as one of the “25 New Faces of Independent Film.”
In addition to Pariah, two of the other four Kickstarter Sundance entries this year featured significant contributions by women as Co-Writer/Director (Lauren Wolkstein for The Strange Ones) and Producers (Megan Griffiths and Lacey Leavitt for The Catechism Cataclysm).
While Pariah’s fundraising goal of $10,000 managed to kick over to $11,011 in the final hours, women filmmakers in other extraordinary cases have managed unexpectedly double or triple their goals, making Kickstarter’s top funders list. In Jennifer Fox's case for the successful documentary My Reincarnation, she broke all Kickstarter records, raising $150,000, outstripping her original goal of $50,000.
Documentarian Alison Klayman, mid-shoot on a feature-length profile of iconoclastic Chinese artist Ai Weiwei, not only made the top funder list, but helped break the news of Ai Weiwei’s April imprisonment by the Chinese police in April, even appearing on the Colbert Report with the story.
These anecdotes and statistics are super-charged with possibility for women media makers. As Brenna Ehrlich of Mashable notes “film reigns supreme when it comes to raising cash” on Kickstarter, indicating that women’s innate social media proclivities take on gamechanging possibilities for the next decade of media production.
The genius of Kickstarter’s design is that small donations—as little as one or five dollars—can crowdfund the campaign to rollicking success. Kickstarter differs from sites like IndieGoGo, which allow campaigns to collect on whatever amount they raise. Kickstarter pinnacles on full goal achievement. If the targeted amount is not reached by the final date, the entire campaign folds. The kinetic energy of the stakes involved, and the sometimes frenzied use of Twitter and Facebook to broadcast the approaching zero hour often inspires complete strangers to invest in projects, with multiple $25 donations that sometimes lead to a last minute angel wand waving to seal the deal. This year’s most dynamic underdog story involved the fundraising efforts of Los Angeles-based Aurora Guerrero for her feature film Mosquita y Mari, which managed to close a gap of $35,000 in just 48 hours, which Kickstarter says was “better than the playoffs.”
Kickstarter now has its top-funder “Medici” list as well, meaning that for activists and supporters interested in helping to diversify images of women onscreen, donating to fledgling projects on the site can influence new narratives in media via crowdsourcing. Prior to the advent of crowdfund sites like this, the only way for non-film world cognescenti to influence media was by viewing films and encouraging viewership after the fact at festivals, in theatres, or in their Netflix queue. Kickstarter and other crowdfunding sites now provide an opportunity for individuals to influence the discourse at the ground level.
The 2012 Sundance festival this month unveiled a total of seven out of fourteen Kickstarter narrative and documentary film projects by women directors and co-directors, including Aurora Guerrero’s Mosquita y Mari, Alison Kayman’s Ai WeiWei: Never Sorry; Lisanne Pajot’s Indie Game: The Movie; Erin Greenwell’s My Best Day; Kate Aselton’s Black Rock; Valerie Veatch Me At the Zoo and Maria White’s short The Debutante Hunters.
--Kathleen Sweeney, a media artist and web content producer, is the author of Maiden USA: Girl Icons Come of Age. A member of the Media Studies Faculty at The New School for Public Engagement, she currently curates TheViralMediaLab.org.
A version of this article originally originally appeared on the :Women’s Media Center blog.