In the old cliché of Hollywood self-regard, Oscar winners in their acceptance speeches thank the anonymous “little people” who helped them achieve stardom. Although Oscar-nominated documentary filmmaker James Spione did not get the chance to make an acceptance speech this year, he could have thanked the little people and only have been speaking the truth.
Spione produced and directed Incident in New Baghdad, which owed its presence on the red carpet in part to 84 mostly small-ante donors whom Spione found though the crowdsourcing funder, Kickstarter. His 22-minute documentary examines a misguided July 2007 U.S. Army helicopter attack in the Iraq War, which resulted in the deaths of two Reuters photographers and a dozen innocent companions, and the attack’s effect on a U.S. soldier who happened on the scene. The file premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival in 2011 and won the best documentary short award. (Oscar voters, however, preferred a competing short documentary, Saving Face.)
In order to qualify for an Oscar nomination, Spione needed New Baghdad to have a theatrical release in Los Angeles. He turned to Kickstarter, where users contributed a total of $11,000 in increments as small as $5, in exchange for producer credits on the film.
Incident in New Baghdad is the only the second Oscar nominee to be funded by Kickstarter. Last year, Sun Come Up, a film about climate change refugees—was nominated in the documentary short category. (Like New Baghdad, it came up short in the final voting.) Even so, Kickstarter is making its presence felt. This year two other Kickstarter-backed films, The Battle for Brooklyn and The Loving Story, were on the short list for best documentary feature (though they didn’t make the cut as nominees). In addition, 17 films at the Sundance Film Festival this year raised funds via Kickstarter. And there will be 31 Kickstarter-funded films at SXSW in March.
Fundraising is a fundamental and pervasive problem for independent filmmakers, Kickstarter founder Perry Chen told GigaOM. “When you look up and down at artists, from those starting out to career artists, fundraising is incredibly hard to get,” Chen said. “Just because someone has a track record, it doesn’t mean fundraising is easy for them.”
Founded in 2009, Kickstarter’s success in funding documentaries illustrates its potential to help greenlight projects that tend to be overlooked or rejected by traditional sources. The organization’s ability to meet creative funding demands extends past film, as well. Recently, Kickstarter has helped launch projects in other supposedly defunct and unprofitable areas such as point-and-click video games and long-form online journalism.