Alex Cameron is the leader of a community of young British film makers which is asking the general public to contribute online to the costs of making their film 'Michael's Resignation' in return for a share of any profits made from the film.
I've been talking to Alex about the project, which has made use of social media sites like Facebook to attract talent, promote, and even write the script for the film, and the challenges he has had in getting the project together...
Why did you have to fund the movie yourself?
We didn't have to per se, but we went through all the normal options and decided we wanted to do it very differently to the norm and achieve something more substantial.
So it wasn't just lack of funds?
No it was just something that developed naturally from what we were already doing - we'd written a script online together with nearly 70 scriptwriters, and it had become a community automatically.
Write it together, film it together, so why not fund it together?
Can you explain how the funding model works?
It uses a very simple crowd-sourcing model that's been done before with a philanthropic twist.
The first idea was donations, but in the middle of a recession it seems gratuitous to ask for that, so if people were going to help us, we wanted to give back and help them too, so it then it evolved into a way of motivating others to help us by making it in their interests to do so.
In terms of a model, Indie films traditionally make their money back via theatrical and residential distribution, plus merchandising/below-the-line accumulated revenues so for us, we just said let's treat it as providing a return on donations invested; whatever we make back within a year, we give back to those who believed in us.
How many of the 50,000 shares have been purchased? Are you on track?
We did a limited trial run to identify potential teething problems, and within 2 weeks had raised just over £4000, at £1 per share. It was important to take a small first step to ensure we could scale, in time for a much larger press release to media, so we put a deliberate pause in place to change server and strengthen up the package.
Is this where you are with the project now?
We certainly are, and this week we are working with PR Newswire (who did the Million Dollar Homepage) to speak to national outlets - TV, radio, newspapers, bloggers etc.
It’s been a huge learning curve but an incredible achievement of its own. Rocketing off the blocks certainly teaches you a lot.
You have had problems with online payment providers like Google Checkout - what were the issues?
It’s been one of the biggest sticking points. Most providers just aren't geared up for new ideas and business models. Also, online fraud, crazy schemes and the like have given social media and community investment a bad name.
Google, NoChex and others don't allow any type of financial-related project or donation-based mechanisms unless they are from a registered charity, while merchant account providers are incredibly, rigid about fitting you into an existing box when it comes to business models.
We've gone out of our way to be transparent and encourage trust, but the environment is simply hostile to new ideas and models, especially socially-driven ones.
Have you sorted these issues out now?
Yes, we've resolved the issues fully and have a fully qualified merchant account with a very understanding provider which has even gone out of their way to help by holding funds in escrow for us, to be even more transparent and accountable.
What kind of guarantees have you put in place for investors?
Everything we possibly can. The first thing is a legal framework, composed of a material paper trail. The second is complete transparency and communication, which means keeping our word on the smallest possible things.
Thirdly, we have a chain of accountability backed by Barclays, working with Companies House & the FSA, having our credit card provider hold funds in escrow.
The guarantee is simple: if we don't hit target, we give every penny back, if we break even, every penny comes back, and if we make a healthy profit, investors see a return.
What happens to the investment if you fail to secure a distribution deal?
We've given ourselves a healthy 12 months to secure a deal from a database of over 1,000 people all over the world, so to break even we need to bring in £50,000, which could happen with a deal from one or two broadcasters or even PPV.
I believe with diligence we will be able to secure multiple deals, but worst case scenario is that the £10 you gave acts as an intangible investment in several hundred people's media careers; scriptwriters, filmmakers, bands etc.
How have you made use of social networks and social media sites, to raise the money?
We did all of it through Facebook! Without social media, none of this would even exist in the first place. We recruited the writers and production people through Facebook, and most of our initial payments came through contacts on LinkedIn.
We are using MySpace as a way to collect unsigned bands for the soundtrack, 600+ followers on Twitter to keep up with our progress, and we are building a network of 300 social sites to draw traffic to the main movie website. In short, this project was built on top of social networking technology.
Which ones have worked best for you?
Facebook by a mile, it’s the single facilitating factor, alliteration aside.
Why Facebook especially?
Twitter has been surprisingly useful in terms of traffic, but Facebook has the numbers and ability to group people with interests and personality. It seems easier to find and reach large groups of people with similar interests on Facebook, whereas MySpace is an absolute chaotic mess.
We have had our problems with Facebook; for instance, trying to chat amongst 20 people at a time means over 15 of us have had account suspensions for ‘using the inbox as a chat feature'. It doesn't scale too well as a group tool, which is where PlotBot.com comes in very handy when scriptwriting.
Do you think this crowd-sourcing model will work for other creative projects? Are you using it to source talent as well as finance?
Absolutely - the whole project is designed a platform to discover and showcase new talent, as well as nurture/encourage it. The current risk-averse climate is producing the worst TV in decades.
I wish I could be more optimistic on it but from our experience so far, the idea of community doesn't seem to be one that the system at large is very responsive to, sadly. There are massive practical issues that need to be resolved (e.g. finance, accountability) and more than anything else, UK culture is not encouraging of new enterprise, despite the patter about being all for new talent and ideas.
What have been the main stumbling blocks along the way?
Establishment ones, definitely. Finding the people was easy as there is so much passion, enthusiasm, faith and energy out there to collaborate and be creative, as well as achieve great things. The blocks came when we asked people for help - card providers, film industry types and business colleagues.
I think it all comes down to seeing the world differently - one that is not about money, but about resources. Achieving things is about whether you have the resources, and money is the exchange mechanism - acquire the resources, and the money isn't such a biggie. We've got the equivalent of a 5M production and have only had to locate the money for cameras/SFX, which isn't inconsiderable of course, but it’s very difficult to alleviate.
Are you still optimistic about getting the film out before an audience?
Absolutely - morale is very, very high at base camp. We have everything we need and it’s a matter of maths more than anything. We weren't supposed to write a script in days, but we did. We couldn't raise 10% in 2 weeks, but we did. We weren't supposed to do any of these things, but we did. If we can get the publicity, we can make the film. If we can make it, we can distribute it, if we can do this, anyone and everyone can - we're not powerless in a recession.
Finally, can you tell us about the film?
The idea came from thinking about how crappy it must have been that morning in September when Halifax was going under - some nut could have brought a gun into work and caused chaos. It's got an amazing script, a very talented young director, an immensely passionate crew and a huge surge of positive support - so if it all works out, I hope we can all ask the question of ourselves about what else we can do to inspire and courage others. As soon as we have hit 50k, we'll be releasing the timings for everything.