Indie films plug in to people power

Rufus Sewell, Charlie Kaufman and Bret Easton Ellis are some of the big names using crowd-funding websites to finance their dream projects

Los Angeles, 1958: A dapper private eye (Rufus Sewell) finds himself on the run and holed up in the iconic Biltmore Hotel where he becomes entangled with a confused dancer, a sultry singer and a maid with a penchant for superheroes. Welcome to Hotel Noir, a low-budget US movie shot in black and white for under $300,000 (£187,000) by the Venezuelan writer/director Sebastian Gutierrez.

What makes this film, which melds noir with screwball comedy, special isn't its somewhat slight story, its campy one-liners or even the clever casting (the movie features knowing turns from the likes of Carla Gugino, Danny DeVito and Rosario Dawson). It's making waves because of the innovative way in which it was funded and released.

Traditional wisdom dictates that independent productions build up recognition on the long, hard slog of the festival circuit during which films compete for the buzz which will ensure a distribution deal and studio backing. It's a crowded field – in 2011, 469 independent films were released in the US, almost double the number in 2002 – and one in which it's increasingly hard for low-budget movies to stand out.

Small wonder, then, that Gutierrez, who has long talked about his interest in "cracking the new code of indie distribution", chose to strike an on-demand deal to show Hotel Noir on television before raising over $80,000 (£50,000) on the crowd-funding website Kickstarter.com for theatrical releases in Los Angeles and New York. This was supplemented by another internet deal, this time with Gathr.com, which allowed noir fans throughout America to request a screening of the film, whether in Kansas City, Missouri or Mobile, Alabama. As a method it proved both innovative and gloriously free of the pain of dealing with big studio bosses.

Gutierrez isn't the only filmmaker to see Kickstarter as the future of independent film distribution. Since its conception in 2009 the site, which asks for backers for creative projects in exchange for "rewards" (anything from handwritten thank you notes for the smallest donations to nights out with the talent for the biggest pledges) has become the poster child for a new artist-led method of production and distribution with over $86million (£53m) raised for various film and video projects to date.

In a recent piece in the Los Angeles Times Lynette Howell, one of the producers of the atmospheric Alaska-set On The Ice, explained the site's growing appeal: "The Kickstarter money allowed us to hire a PR firm, make a trailer, have posters – all the things you need to do to put your movies into theatres," she explained. "And it's still in theatres it just keeps going." There was also the no-doubt sweet revenge in proving Variety's reviewer, who claimed the film had no audience appeal beyond the festival crowd, wrong. Increasingly there are some big names getting involved. When Charlie Kaufman, the acclaimed scriptwriter behind Being John Malkovich and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, struggled to get his most recent movie, Frank or Francis, off the ground despite the involvement of both Steve Carell and Jack Black, he decided to change tack, teaming up with Dan Harmon, the recently sacked creator of quirky sitcom Community, to fund the stop-motion animation Anomalisa through Kickstarter.

A video laying out Kaufman and Harmon's vision on their fund-raising page stated: "We want to make Anomalisa without the interference of the typical big studio process… As many of you know the entertainment industry is filled with incredible scripts, written by incredible talents, that have not or will never get made, or worse they'll be changed into something that is nowhere close to what the original creator envisioned. [We want to change] the way artists are treated and that's why we need your help."

Within 48 hours they were well on the way to reaching their target of $200,000 (£125,000). The page raised a record $406,000 (£254,000) from 5,770 backers promising them everything from limited edition artwork to a 20-page custom written Harmon screenplay with you in the leading role. Kaufman and Harmon are not alone. Actor Matthew Lillard raised the money for the distribution of his directorial debut Fat Kid Rules The World through Kickstarter. Novelist Bret Easton Ellis turned to it to raise the final $100,000 of his pet project, LA thriller The Canyons, featuring porn king James Deen and Lindsay Lohan. With tempting rewards including an autographed Robert De Niro moneyclip (the film is directed by Paul Schrader, the screenwriter of Taxi Driver) and the chance to have Easton Ellis read and review your novel, the film hit its target within a month.

Schrader made his feelings about Kickstarter's growing importance clear on the project's funding page, commenting: "We've all experienced the frustrations of financing and institutional censorship, but now with advances in… Distribution we can tell a story in the manner we choose. Movies are changing and we're changing with it."

Not everyone is so convinced Kickstarter and its ilk (similar sites include indiegogo.com, sponsume.com and pledgie.com) represent the future. A critical analysis in academic journal Media, Culture and Society argued that Kickstarter's much-vaunted level playing field – the idea that anyone can get their movie funded – is a myth: "It is not only the material capital, but very much also the cultural capital that a project is able to accumulate which determines whether a film receives funding in the first place and, subsequently, reaches a significant audience," concluded the article's author Inge Ejbye Sorensen. In other words cult figures such as Harmon and Kaufman find it easy to raise the money on Kickstarter. Lesser-known filmmakers may not find it so useful a tool.

A similarly downbeat piece at Slate.com used Sorensen's findings to conclude that there were issues surrounding the completion of many projects, which "simply drag on indefinitely, providing no updates and constantly postponing the launch date" and added that for all Kickstarter's supposed transfer of power to the artists the product is still dependent on traditional methods such as film distribution deals.

What then of Hotel Noir? In many ways the most revolutionary part of the film's production deals was the one with Gathr, which allowed fans to request a screening of the film in their hometowns, bypassing traditional distribution deals. Certainly it was that, as much as the money raised on Kickstarter for the Los Angeles and New York screenings, which helped Hotel Noir to reach a wider audience and which has led to talk of international distribution for the low-budget tale.

Small wonder then Gutierrez posted a celebratory message on his Kickstarter page calling the experience "a really inspiring collaboration" and thanking everyone who contributed to the campaign: with Hotel Noir he has created a homage to old movies that may just prove to be the future of Indie film.

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