We tend to think of movies as being funded solely by rich Hollywood studios, but crowd-funding movies through Internet donations has established itself as a legitimate practice. Audiences have been responsible for some splendid films, and now there are even film festivals being arranged through Kickstarter. We’d like to show you 10 highlights from the early stages of this exciting new way of creating art.
10. Wish I Was Here
Zach Braff’s comedy about a middle-aged man going on a quirky quest for insight into the meaning of life was the cause of a considerable uproar when its fundraising campaign was first announced. Donating money to a celebrity’s film project was considered a ridiculous misuse of donations, since someone with that degree of power and influence could surely get their film financed through conventional means. However, it got sites like Kickstarter considerable media attention, and its wide theatrical release is helping to further legitimize the process.
Since its release, audiences have been considerably kinder to the film than critics. Although reviewers like Rex Reed, who protested it being crowd-funded in the first place, made a point of bringing up the film’s budget and where it came from in their negative reviews. That suggests a wee bit of critical bias.
9. Bronies: The Extremely Unexpected Fans of My Little Pony
Adult males obsessed with a cartoon for little girls seems like something that would make many people uncomfortable. However, this documentary was made and financed by people who are fans of the show, and thus it doesn’t attempt to wring any freak show appeal out of the subject matter. Some even argued that it went too far the other way and was too soft on its subjects.
Still, for all the film’s bias it possesses a few good moments, such as an awkward family trip to a fan convention. If you’re curious about watching it, you’re probably nerdy enough to appreciate one of its big selling points: animated sequences voiced by John de Lancie of Star Trek fame.
8. Beyond Clueless
Coming of age movies like She’s All That and the “Brat Pack” films of the 1980s have been widely derided for having a sanctimonious tone while talking about a period of our lives that’s full of either trivialities or unpleasant memories. Beyond Clueless took over two hundred of those films and used clips of them to look for recurrent messages, themes and undertones. The result wasn’t an audience favorite, but it received a variety of positive reviews. Even if it doesn’t have anything too groundbreaking to reveal about teen movies, it’s a fun and amusing film with excellent music and narration.
7. Inequality for All
If you’ve watched documentaries like An Inconvenient Truth or Manufacturing Consent, then you’re probably aware of the surprising power that movies largely comprised of one person lecturing can have. One of the more recent and highly regarded examples is this film about former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich’s lectures on America’s income gap. It’s a somber but optimistic report from a man who was a member of multiple Presidential administrations, and is full of fascinating information and candid confessions. Naturally, it became a critical favorite, and it was also well received by audiences looking for food for thought about the health of the economy.
Inocente Iczur is a homeless, teenage illegal immigrant in San Diego with artistic aspirations. She creates bright, colorful and cheerful paintings and sculptures, rather than the dour works you might expect from someone with her hard background. While that premise may sound like Oscar bait, Inocente is a short documentary, giving it considerably more legitimacy than a cynical and contrived piece of fiction might. It was the first crowd-funded movie to win an Academy Award, but if you give it a chance you’ll see filmmakers Sean and Andrea Fine earned that award instead of just manipulating critics into giving it to them. If you want to learn more about how Inocente is doing after watching the film, check out her Facebook page.
Richie is a man intending to kill himself when he’s saved by his sister asking him to babysit her daughter. He and his niece spend the evening out and lift his spirits, and while at the end he’s reminded that one happy encounter isn’t enough to clear up years of pain that doesn’t mean he has to give up hope.
The same year Inocente won its award for best short documentary, Curfew won for best short film. While Inocente was financed through Kickstarter, auteur Shawn Christensen financed Curfew with longtime rival crowd-funding company Indiegogo. That projects from both companies won an Oscar in the same year was a big sign of just how fast crowd-funding was moving in. Whatever the implications of that are, fans of this short will be pleased to learn that the film was expanded into a feature length presentation, Before I Disappear.
4. Blood Brother
Rocky Braat, a volunteer worker at an Indian orphanage for children with AIDS, is the relatable but deeply troubled subject of this crowd-funded documentary. Some critics believed that the children he works with should have been the subjects, but director Steven Hooper was close friends with Braat before filming began, and thus was in a better position to show how Braat was changed by working with this orphanage (in a village where he ultimately married a local and settled down) than to show the reverse. With his emotional baggage and personal weaknesses, Braat is certainly no deified white savior of foreigners and says in the film that he’s worried he’ll come across as one. He need not have worried — Blood Brother isn’t about AIDS, social work or anything so specific. It’s a movie about broken, desperate people connecting.
Pi is a movie about mathematician Max Cohen, who’s looking for patterns both in the stock market and the value of Pi. It’s an extremely stylized story full of paranoia, frightening and beautiful images, and Hasidic Jews, like all the best movies are. It launched the career of director Darren Aronofsky, who would go on to create Requiem for a Dream, Black Swan, The Wrestler and other hits.
Pi predates online crowd-funding by more than a decade — Aronofsky raised the money by getting donations of one hundred dollars from six hundred friends and family, and their friends and family, and so on. So if any you try an online crowd-funding project and struggle, there’s always the old-fashioned way.
2. Veronica Mars
Based on a short-lived but beloved TV show, Veronica Mars proved to be a surprisingly mature film about a former teenage private investigator who’s grown up. With Kristen Bell of Frozen and Forgetting Sarah Marshall fame reprising her role, the story is about Veronica returning to her hometown for a class reunion. She soon finds herself with a murder mystery involving her old high school sweetheart to investigate.
While the other crowd-funded films on this list have much deeper and more socially significant subject matter, Veronica Mars was significant in terms of crowd-funded films generating big bucks at the box office. Released to a relatively small 291 theaters, Veronica Mars was still one of the top 10 grossing movies for its opening weekend. With numbers like that, Veronica Mars went beyond merely being a novelty to being considered for sequels and having a confirmed spinoff TV series. The impressive numbers were enough to make traditional filmmakers and businesses sit up and take note.
1. Life Itself
It seems natural that movie critics would be very generous to a film about the life and death of Pulitzer Prize winner Roger Ebert. But Steve James, known for his documentary Hoop Dreams (of which Ebert was an admirer), wasn’t about to coast on all that good will while making a crowd-funded fluff piece. His film is a “warts and all” biopic about the film critic — in addition to detailing Ebert’s early and sometimes very far from esteemed career, addictions and combative relationships, it features some uncomfortable footage of Ebert being treated while literally on his deathbed. Yet the end result is life-affirming in a way that only a movie which features the subject happily joking about the time he has left and appreciating the footage shot of him as he’s dying can be.