Michael Stabile is trying to make a film about a gay porn mogul. But Seed Money, his documentary-in-progress detailing the life of late Falcon Studios founder and political philanthropist Chuck Holmes, was, like many independent films, continually mired in financial uncertainly. He’d worked on the project without funding for four years, filming and interviewing porn stars, friends, politicians, and celebrities, such as John Waters. By the fall of 2011, the film was indefinitely stalled, as Stabile faced a chunk of post-production costs he couldn’t cover.
By December 19 -- six weeks after launching an online fundraising campaign through the crowdfunding website, Kickstarter -- Stabile had $28,430 in the bank, a little over half of what he needed to complete Seed Money, and a new private investor backing the film.
“The reason that we turned to Kickstarter,” says the director, “is because there wasn’t another way of getting this story told.”
This do-or-die imperative is what drives many directors to the three-year-old Kickstarter, a portal that harnesses the power of social media to support creative projects that need cash to flourish. The site connects two groups: creators, who present ideas both miniscule and grandiose, and backers, who, with as little as $1, decide which projects get made.
Traditionally, indie filmmakers like Stabile have begged and pleaded with private investors, producers, distributors, arts institutions, and friends and family for every dime on their budgets. But with an overly cautious industry unwilling to back anything short of the next Michael Bay CGI robot orgy, investors are hard to come by.
Queer films are especially agita-inducing endeavors for any producer looking for a return on investment, even if the film itself is strong. Stabile ran into this problem when pitching his doc to HBO, which couldn’t find a niche for it to fill. He recalls, “They were like, ‘Well, we have two markets: one that likes T&A and one that likes serious documentaries. Our programmers wouldn’t know what to do with this.’ ”
Thanks to Kickstarter, a slew of queer films--with varying levels of marketability--will see the light of day this year. The current class of 2012 includes documentaries with topics ranging from a black, lesbian strip club in L.A. (Shakedown) to a portrait of gay life in Uganda and murder of activist David Kato (Call Me Kuchu) and narratives like The Thing, a Sundance-accepted short in which “a woman, a transgendered man, and their cat travel towards a mysterious roadside attraction.”
Although a handful of crowdfunding sites, like IndieGoGo, have recently sprouted up, Kickstarter breaks away from the herd with its diabolical mechanism for ensuring results and delivery: all-or-nothing funding. Once the clock runs out on a project, creators must have raised their goal amount, or else they get nothing, even if they’re $1 short.
“It makes me, and probably other filmmakers who are not natural fundraisers, become that horrible person who writes everybody they know and every press outlet they can find, and harasses them,” says Stabile. “It made me do horrible things!”
Through its popularity, Kickstarter is thrusting a transparency onto the indie film biz, often glamorized in the public’s consciousness. On the site, you won’t find the next big mumblecore flick raising money to cast Greta Gerwig; instead, you’ll see truly independent filmmakers trying to cover post-production sessions, archival footage and music rights, and other infinitely tedious expenses.
Alternatively, Kickstarter is now allowing artists to bypass traditional producers while building fan bases and securing capital needed for their films. According to Adam Baran, who used the site to raise money for Jackpot, a semi-autobiographical short about a closeted teenage boy who desperately pursues a gay porn stash tossed in a dumpster, this isn’t a new strategy; it’s just been made infinitely easy through social networking.
“You find your audience,” he says. “That’s how someone like Tyler Perry did something on a scale that wasn’t mainstream. It wasn’t anything that was considered good entertainment, but once you’ve got thousands and thousands of people coming to see you no matter what city you come to, you become an inevitable force for someone to want to back you.”
The overarching requirement for inclusion on Kickstarter is creativity. The company reviews proposals (60% of which on average are accepted) and does not allow political fundraising or humanitarian aid solicitation.
Otherwise, there is little limit to what “creativity” means, especially for non-film endeavors. A cursory search of recently funded projects yields a $950 campaign for an “Authentic New Orleans Pralines” company’s new website, a $3,000 campaign for a magnetic levitation sculpture, and a $20,000 campaign for the Versalette, a recycled fabric that can be fashioned in over 15 ways to serve as almost any article of clothing a woman would ever need. In March 2011, The Imagination Station raised over $67,000 to erect a statue of RoboCop in Detroit after the city’s mayor, David Bing, publicly responded on Twitter, thanking a user for his suggestion to build one—an astronomical sum for a local art project.
Just as a single Tweet will rarely make a project, going “viral” on Kickstarter doesn’t guarantee Rebecca Blackian results. But the documentary Matt Shepard Is a Friend of Mine, which examines the aftermath of the college student’s 1998 murder, gained relative success after a gay-blog domino line of support. Within a 48-hour period, director Michele Josue raised $7,000 -- 14% of her $50,000 goal -- and had gained more than 100 new backers, all of whom would then spread word of the project through their Facebook walls.
With $40 million spent on 4,700 successful projects, the film sector of Kickstarter has garnered the largest percentage of the over $125 million raised since its inception in 2009. From a trade viewpoint -- especially for independent film -- the products to emerge from this groundswell have made an unprecedented impact. Sundance, the industry’s indie paragon, opened its 2011 festival with Pariah, Dee Rees’s story of a conflicted black lesbian’s coming out. The film raised over $10,000 on Kickstarter to finance the festival run and became a smash hit, grabbing awards and critical praise when it opened this past December.
“We came up against some crazy stuff when I was trying to finance the film,” says Pariah’s producer, Nekisa Cooper. “I literally had someone say to me, ‘Gosh, you guys are great, the script is fantastic, but it’s black and gay. If it were just black or just gay, then maybe it would warrant an investment.’ ”
This year, 15 of the 110 films accepted into Sundance executed successful Kickstarter campaigns, including the “LEAVE BRITNEY ALONE!” phenom–turned–porn star Chris Crocker documentary, ME @ the ZOO, by Chris Moukarbel, and Keep the Lights On, Ira Sachs’s narrative exploration of late-’90s New York gay life.
“Kickstarter was the way to begin to involve a community in our project,” says Sachs, “to excite and let them in on it.”
The voguing, shade-throwing queens of Jennie Livingston’s Paris Is Burning and River Phoenix’s winsome gay hustler in Gus Van Sant’s My Own Private Idaho are rose-colored mementos of New Queer Cinema’s heyday (roughly 1985–1996). During this time, films like Tom Kalin’s Swoon and Gregg Araki’s The Living End boldly tackled gay stories with dark bents and strong visions, operating on shoestring budgets. Emerging in the hostile climate of the Reagan years and the panic around AIDS, these movies reflected the anger and rage of the gay community and took pride in their radicalism. Amid the rise of the Christian right, they often became a flashpoint for activists on both sides of the equation.
Take, for instance, a watershed moment of Todd Haynes’s career in 1991, when Reverend Donald Wildmon wrote to Congress, attacking the National Endowment for the Arts for granting $25,000 to Poison, a movie that, according to Wildmon, contained “explicit porno scenes of homosexuals involved in anal sex.” Such attacks only spurred other directors to follow suit, exploring and exploding cultural taboos. “They were responding to something dark, with AIDS and the way that everything felt like the end of the world for gay people,” says Baran.
Funding was a constant issue for filmmakers then as it is now, with much of it coming from private backers, personal savings, or institutional grants. “At that time,” says director Bruce LaBruce, “our motto was always, ‘Whatever it takes.’ And we would do anything short of turning tricks -- or even turning tricks.” LaBruce remembers using personal connections to scrape by for his 1996 film, Hustler White. “My editor got a free $10,000 sound mix by dating someone at the post-production facility,” he says, adding, “She was really hot.”
As gay indie cinema prospered through the ’90s, bigger-name directors and actors began to get in on the action, heightening public awareness of LGBT issues but ultimately diluting the potency of the cinematic movement with a Hollywood varnish. Conversely, gay directors were rising in profile to the point where Van Sant -- whose 1985 black-and-white 16mm film, Mala Noche, bordered on experimental -- was rewarded with two Oscars for his hetero buddy-flick, Good Will Hunting, in 1997. “Lacking the concentrated creative presence and focused community responsiveness of the past, the New Queer Cinema has become just another niche market,” wrote B. Ruby Rich, the critic who coined the movement’s name, right before Hilary Swank won a best actress Oscar in 2000 for playing a transgender man in Kimberly Peirce’s Boys Don’t Cry.
Throughout the first post-Millennial decade, gay stories were essentially co-opted into Hollywood, most prominently as Oscar-grabbing fare, with films like Monster and Brokeback Mountain demolishing the need for queerer, lower-budget works. Even Milk, Van Sant’s return to gay storytelling, was viewed by some critics as a muted interpretation of 1970s San Francisco, devoid of the libertine sexuality integral to gay life during that period. “If you look at my generation,” says Sachs, “we all stopped making films with gay subject matter.”
The past decade saw a deluge of cheap, straight-to-DVD-(then-VOD) rom-coms as gay became concretely relegated to niche status. “Recently, a lot of the gay films that have been getting funded are, like, Eating Out 12, which might be fun, but it’s like eating frosting,” says Tom Rielly, the Fellows Director of TED, the wildly popular idea-focused conference organization, and the founder of PlanetOut, who raised over $110,000 on Kickstarter for his documentary, Moving Windmills.
If the pre-Kickstarter era is emblematic of a long drought for the LGBT filmmaking community, it may only be publicly noticeable in hindsight, due to the return of exceptionally complex and first-rate queer cinema in 2011. Indie fare like Beginners, Weekend, Tomboy, and Circumstance suggest that distributors are taking chances and funders are willing to give gay a chance again. And even if investment opportunities are still hard to come by, Kickstarter provides an alternative that puts autonomy and responsibility back into the filmmakers’ hands.
“There’s beginning to be a community of people coalescing around these kinds of works,” says Baran, who foresees the end of “a period of homogenization, where people thought, Oh, well we got on major TV shows, so we don’t have to put gay stories out there, we don’t have to strive to tell weird or creepy or strange stories. I’m hoping we’re in a new moment.”
Kickstarter exists in the minds of many as a solely virtual realm, but its office is in New York’s Lower East Side. Occupying three floors of an aged four-story row house—with ornate moldings, pressed-tin ceilings, and creaky hardwood floors—it was filled with a genial buzz in early January for a private screening of Battle for Brooklyn. The documentary, which raised over $25,000 in 2009, was one of three funded through Kickstarter to be shortlisted for the 2012 Academy Awards.
At the screening, I was greeted by Justin Kazmark, Kickstarter’s director of communications, a slim, six-foot-five guy with a Jesus beard. He described the company’s formula as the intersection of “patronage and commerce.”
The same slogan was later repeated by Elisabeth Holm, who specializes in film projects on the website.
Even though she’s been with Kickstarter for a year, Holm paused when asked for her official position. “Our company is so anti-title,” she said. “This place is kind of wonderfully non-hierarchical, which is really rare and unbelievable.”
Is the goal of Kickstarter to dismantle all traditional methods of film funding? “I think all the old models still exist and continue to be necessary and important,” she said. “But what’s emerged is an opportunity to connect with an audience and build this level of awareness about your work.”
Holm is currently producing a film, Welcome to Pine Hill, whose own Kickstarter campaign ended in mid-January. But she initially came into contact with the site while financing another film through it. “Kickstarter was doing something revolutionary,” she said, pausing to sip from a plastic cup of wine. “I was kind of romantic about the whole thing -- I still am. I know it sounds like I’m drinking the Kool-Aid, but I think anyone who’s gone through the process is on that train.”
All filmmakers, queer or not, would like to stop asking everyone for money. Kickstarter is an empowering tool, sure, but it may not have the power to reform the typically impoverished creative lifestyle. The site’s model is particularly well suited for funding and making films, but getting them seen and profiting from them is another story.
“I remain highly interested and concerned on distribution and discoverability of queer cinema,” says Rielly. “We still have many problems to solve. The good news is if you make a fabulous queer movie, it will get seen if it’s at least of a certain production value and budget. I just want the ones that are a little bit more modest to still have a chance to be distributed and to be seen.”
Cooper, who is flush with potential projects in the wake of Pariah, including a new film with Rees backed by their original distributor, Focus Features, faces similar concerns. “There’s no business model that works right now, especially in the independent space,” she says. “As a producer, I’m still trying to figure out how I’m paying rent and working on these projects that all warrant my full attention.”
There’s no doubt that Cooper is entering a relatively cushier point in her producing career as a result of Pariah. Kickstarter helped her and Rees get that final push to Sundance, but ultimately, only funded a fraction of the filmmaking cost, which she estimates at half a million dollars. Before working on the film, Cooper had an apartment in New York City -- she sold it, living off the funds and investing some of them into Pariah.
Sini Anderson, director of the Kickstarter-backed documentary on Bikini Kill and Le Tigre frontperson Kathleen Hanna, The Punk Singer, has mixed feelings about the crowdfunding experience. She worries that it perpetuates a fundamental problem that has long plagued artists. “This is the age-old idea that if you’re creative, you have to be an expert at every angle of it,” she says. “You’re the producer, you’re the director, you’re the writer, you’re the publicist, you’re the sales agent. You are all of these things. And that’s not how you get fantastic art. It’s spreading your efforts pretty thin.”
Then again, filmmakers -- especially those who want full creative license to make truly queer products -- have never really had much of a choice when it comes to funding. Ultimately, the film needs to be made—whatever it takes.
SLIDESHOW: view Kickstarter success stories, click here.
SLIDESHOW: View timeline of the rise of Queer Cinema, click here.