Learning from The Elders: Crowdfunding, Transmedia, and Documentary

Curator's Note

Nathaniel Hansen’s documentary project, The Elders, plays like a more poignant counterpoint to David Lynch’s web series,The Interview Project.  On his Vimeo page, Hansen reports that he has conducted twenty interviews with elderly people from across the United States, many of which he has posted online.  The subjects, like Louise, profiled in the teaser trailer, are all natural storytellers, relating small slices of their daily lives.  It’s the kind of project that can, in the best circumstances, serve as a kind of oral history of the labor and leisure activities of an earlier generation of people.

Hansen’s project might have remained unknown to me if it was not for the pitch he posted on the website, Kickstarter, where he went to raise funds for the film.  Like many other independent filmmakers, Hansen faces the challenge of finding an audience—and financial support—in an increasingly crowded audiovisual culture, in which thousands of films are submitted to festivals such as Sundance and South by Southwest annually.  Kickstarter, like other similar websites, including OpenIndie, invites people to post a pitch video on their website asking for funding.  Donors can receive rewards, whether a DVD of the film or a special thanks credit, and if the filmmakers do not reach their fundraising goals, the donation is refunded.

Hansen’s pitch illustrates many of the formal properties of a typical Kickstarter pitch.  It consists of Hansen directly addressing the camera while describing his personal investment in the project and his plans for The Elders, which include both film festival and museum screenings.  Although Hansen’s project was funded, many filmmakers are not as fortunate, but I think the success of Hansen’s pitch may tell us a little about how crowdfunding as a practice will be incorporated into new models of independent production.   First, although crowdfunding pitches have often been criticizing for turning filmmakers into self-marketers, Hansen’s project illustrates how these appeals can be seamlessly integrated into the broader storyworld of the film, whether a documentary or a narrative feature.  Many of the principles that have typically been associated with transmedia franchises function equally well in the independent and documentary realm. Further, as Hansen notes, the pitch’s use of direct address, almost invariably from the director, seems to suggest that donors are typically investing in the filmmaker as much as they are in any individual project.  Finally, crowdfunding can potentially be valuable for documentary filmmakers in particular, given that donors may be willing to support a film that engages with a cause they support. Thus, although crowdfunding does not eliminate the power of the marketplace in determining which films will get funded, it is an important site for defining how “independence” circulates after the collapse of the Hollywood indie film.

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