Sundance Film Festival

From Amanda Palmer to DETROPIA: How established artists build crowdfunding communities

We’re used to our friends’ Kickstarter pleas and occasionally throw cash their way (the average project that meets its funding goals rakes in about $5,000). Recently, however, some big names in indie talent have made headlines thanks to their own campaigns on the crowdfunding platform. In this corner, we’ve got punk cabaret doyenne Amanda Palmer, who raised almost $1.2 million via Kickstarter to fund her new album. And in the blue trunks, we’ve got Oscar-nominated documentarians Rachel Grady and Heidi Ewing (JESUS CAMP, THE BOYS OF BARAKA), who wowed everyone at Sundance with their latest film DETROPIA, but still failed to find a distribution deal. Instead, they’ve taken to Kickstarter to raise $60,000 in order to “be directly involved in managing the life of our own film.” Both Palmer and the team of Grady and Ewing have had success, and struggles, with more traditional, independent channels, and they both turned to Kickstarter for different reasons.

The New York Times has in in-depth look at the fruits of Palmer’s crowdfunding success. If you need some backstory, Palmer had a pretty successful run (both as a solo artist and as part of Dresden Dolls) on Roadrunner Records (a “major-backed indie”), but fell out with the label and struggled to get out of her contract. She then set out to raise $100,000 to finance the release her next record, Theater is Evil, (along with an art book, a tour and a few other artistic endeavors tied to the new album–she’s that kind of artist).

Palmer, the Times points out, was able to raise about twelve times that amount because of the special relationship she has with her fans and the community they’ve built together. She commits serious time and energy to engaging with them on stage, in person and online. For example, she sketched photos her fans tweeted at her and then shared them back with the twitterverse. She also invited her Kickstarter backers to a huge party/spectacle in Brooklyn this past weekend where all 24,883 backer’s names were incorporated into a “human aquarium”. When was the last time Radiohead did that for you? There was also nudity, which you probably didn’t want from Thom Yorke, anyway.

The filmmakers behind DETROPIA have also worked successfully within the indie film distribution model. JESUS CAMP debuted at Tribeca in 2006, was picked up by Magnolia, made over a million dollars at the box office (not bad for a doc) and got an Oscar nomination. DETROPIA is a gorgeous, cinematic study of modern day Detroit that allows the images to speak for themselves. It’s not a traditional doc, like JESUS CAMP, but it debuted at Sundance this year and got pretty good reviews (although some people found it too abstract and too negative). Despite that response, nobody picked up the film (or nobody offered the filmmakers terms they would accept). And so, they went to Kickstarter. According to Grady and Ewing, this isn’t a one time thing. They’ve changed how they plan to make films in the future. They plan on building $100,000 into any future production costs to hold back for distribution. And they’re finding out they have a community they can rely on for it.

The fundamental takeaway is that, for independent creators, it’s not about an audience…it’s about a real, engageable community. It’s no longer about independent artists struggling against an establishment system. Right now, we’re in the process of creating new systems that use the community around a project as part of the project.