Crowdfunding a Dream

When the 88th Academy Award winner for Best Original Screenplay was announced, Mikhaela Correa was 2,000 miles away in Chicago, staring dubiously at a blank Microsoft Word document. As the cursor flickered metronomically, Correa began to cry.

The arduous process of incubating a story from script to screen demands two things: money and time. Screenwriters know that the chances of having a script optioned by a producer are slim, especially for independent-minded stories.

The 2015 drama “The Diary of a Teenage Girl” was made for $2 million dollars, a paltry allowance in Hollywood. Action films generally garner budgets in the tens of millions. Sequels amass budgets in the hundreds of millions — the latest installment in the “Transformers” franchise was allotted $210 million for production. If it doesn’t have big box office potential, the probability of a script being purchased is low.

When Correa looked at her television, Tom McCarthy and Josh Singer were standing to accept the Oscar. Their film, “Spotlight,” was made for $20 million but racked up over $88 million at the box office. For a moment, their win seemed pretty neat. A relatively low budget film detailing the biographical drama behind The Boston Globe had grabbed the most coveted trophy in the industry. Soon though, Correa felt the weight of defeat settle onto her petite shoulders.

The semester was wrapping up and all viable opportunities for academic financing had been claimed by far less ambitious projects. Correa was twelve drafts into a script detailing the feminine experiences of three friends heavily involved in the DIY party scene. The prospect of a Hollywood producer funding the by-product of her Advanced Screenwriting final project seemed unlikely, she thought.

Most post-graduate students are lucky enough to land jobs in fields that do not require the launch of self-financed projects in order to find work. Scriptwriting is not one of these jobs. For writers that hope to see their projects make it to the screen, self-financing is often the best option. For Correa, it was the only way. An idea borne of the image of a pink donut-shaped pool float matured into a story about the reality of teenagerdom.

“I hate watching films about high schoolers or college students where you can tell that the writer was, probably, an old man whose perception of youth reality is just totally bizarre,” said Correa. “I didn’t want to write a story about girls that only discussed which boys liked them and which color lip-gloss matched their dresses best.”

After what seemed like thousands of attempts to draft an honest account of teen angst, Correa locked script on her unnamed story in April of this year. She has since assembled a crew comprised of (almost) all women, hosted six different house-shows benefitting the production of her still-nameless short film, and applied for a funding profile via Seed&Spark.

Like other public-benefit corporations, Seed&Spark aims to provide ambitious filmmakers with a platform to crowdfund their ideas. Unlike Kickstarter or GoFundMe, Seed&Spark caters only to developing films, supporting many LGBT+ and female backed projects.

“We really want filmmakers to understand that crowdfunding’s greatest value is in making a piece of IP [intellectual property] valuable by proving there’s an audience that is actually connected to it,” said Seed&Spark co-founder Emily Best in an April 2016 interview with IndieWire. “That’s an audience that will sustain you not only through this one film, but all the films moving forward.”

Seed&Spark is a popular choice amongst young screenwriters, like Correa, funding their own productions. Due to the platform’s dedication to teaching filmmakers important skills in marketing and distribution, Seed&Spark has helped alternatively-spirited projects generate up to $50,000 for needs such as equipment rentals, color correction software, and film festival application fees.

Independent screenwriter and director L Jean Schwartz recently ended a successful crowdfunding run for her film “The Average Girl’s Guide to Suicide” with $16,950 in pre-production funds. When the film — a dark comedy following a young woman named Sarah in the wake of a blundered suicide attempt — failed to secure funding through a major studio, Schwartz turned to Seed&Spark.

“People love dark comedies but production and financing companies in Los Angeles and New York are wary of them,” said Schwartz. “It can be hard for any screenwriter to get financing for their first feature, and especially difficult for female writers to find the funding to launch projects.”

Beyond Seed&Spark’s commitment to film education, the platform hosts a built-in distribution network designed to provide independent writers and directors with a space to stream their finished projects. Over the past two years, Seed&Spark has tailored its crowdfunding platform to suit films and filmmakers that would not otherwise be streamable to an extended audience.

“The problem with everybody having access to the digital marketplace universe is everybody has access to the digital marketplace,” said Best. “It creates a glut of content and makes it impossible for anybody to get sound.”

Organized by searchable categories like “Finding Home” and “That Obscure Object of Desire,” Seed&Spark actively strays away from forcing films into narrow genres. Marketing projects like Schwartz’s as being “dark” or “satirical,” promotes genre stereotypes, limiting numbers of potential viewers. The ultimate goal, according to Best, is to equip filmmakers with information about their audience through statistics provided by the site’s own streaming service. Open-ended categories promote open-minded exploration by visitors.

“The biggest benefit of funding with Seed&Spark has been the sense of community,” said Schwartz. “Because the platform is smaller than Kickstarter it was easier for backers and viewers to find our film and support its unconventional material.”

Once approved by Best and her team, filmmakers are required to “follow” a certain number of projects related to their own. The intention is that writers, directors, and producers from different films develop a co-op for information, building intellectual and creative communities that foster cinematic growth. Still awaiting the launch of her own Seed&Spark page, Correa has donated to several inspiring projects fundraising for similar causes (including Schwartz’s). Her hope is for other writers to successfully reach their funding goals so that they can grow in their careers having had the experience of self-financing and producing scripts that they believe in.

“We’re all just dealing with the weirdness of needing to pick whatever it is we want to do with the rest of our lives but we aren’t really adults yet,” said Correa. “I wrote this script from a perspective that isn’t judgmental of teens because, you know what, I get it.”