When Paste last checked in with Emily Best, she was producing Like the Water, an independent film starring Caitlin Fitzgerald. Inspired by some of the experiences making that film, Best and two of her Like the Water co-conspirators, director Caroline Von Kuhn and first assistant director Liam Brady, decided to create Seed & Spark, a new platform that would combine crowdfunding and crowdbuilding. In the midst of preparations for their Dec. 1 launch, Best took a few moments to explain it all to Paste.
(Full disclosure: Emily Best’s Like the Water includes a cameo from Paste film editor Michael Dunaway.)
: What is Seed&Spark?
Emily Best: Seed&Spark is an audience building platform for independent film. It is a set of tools that bring a filmmaker and an audience together for the benefit of truly independent films. So it is a crowd funding and production support tool for independent films. And it’s also a streaming platform where audiences have greater access to independent film content, hopefully, than ever before. Because they get to get involved all the way from the pitch to the premiere.
It came out of necessity, right? What is the expression? ‘Necessity is the mother of all invention?’ So, you may know something about a film called Like The Water. Your audience may not be as familiar as I am lucky to be with your spectacular acting. I want to make sure that that gets into the interview, by the way. That we get to mention that you and I met while you were an actor. In full disclosure. We’re all about transparency here.
So, we were making this movie called Like The Water, and we were a bunch of women, looking to produce our first feature together. It was a non-traditional narrative not only because it was focused just on women, but also because it wasn’t a love story and it was more a woman-styled narrative. And because we were first time filmmakers, it wasn’t as easy to raise money as we all hope it will be. So we were two months shy of our shoot date and we were about $20,000 short of our production budget. And we needed to do something fast.
And at this time, Kickstarter wasn’t quite a thing yet. It was familiar in filmmaking circles but certainly not in our broader community. It wasn’t as obvious to us that that was the thing that we should do.
We really wanted to involve our community and we really wanted to do it quickly. So, we decided to do something that we knew everybody would be familiar with, which was making something like a wedding registry format. And we listed all the items we would need to make our movie, on our website, and we put the paypal link, and we sent it to everyone we knew. Much to our surprise and delight, we raised about $23,000 in 30 days, and literally (and I’m using the word correctly!) hundreds of thousands more in donations of services, locations, material goods, coffee, lobsters—we were shooting in Maine, so there had to be lobsters—it was just sort of unbelievable, all the goodwill. What we discovered, unknowingly, was that if you give people a chance to understand how they’re helping to make a movie in a real material way, they stick around to see what happens to that movie, and they’re very likely to become audience members and audience influencers. We four walled the film in a theater in this tiny town, a 350 seat theater called The Strand in Rockland, Maine. When we showed up there, there was a line down the block. Because there were so many people who felt a real personal investment in this movie that we made, because they had a real personal investment.
So, it wasn’t, ‘I contributed $25 to a $25,000 pot,’ it was, every time an actor walked on screen and there was makeup on their face, I knew that I bought that makeup. Right?
: There was a more direct connection.
Best: We promised no incentive, besides the fact that we put everybody’s name in the credits. Our credits go on for days! But we put everybody’s names in the credits and we sent them hand-written postcards and we were meticulously grateful. And we released the trailer to them early and did everything we could to say, ‘Hey! You are special for helping us make this movie.’
What we really hadn’t expected was that by exposing the list of things we needed, our community’s imagination was sparked and they started offering things to us that we hadn’t asked for, that changed the course of the film. So all of a sudden, people were offering locations that we hadn’t considered and it actually made us change entire segments of the film. There was an entire visual landscape that hadn’t even in the movie concept, but because we broke open the story of the making of the film, our community had their own sort of imaginative experience and then started contributing in real ways. So we didn’t think that that sort of thing should only exist for Like The Water. It’s the sort of thing that all filmmakers should have an opportunity to experience-not because, necessarily, you know, any script needs changing or anything like that, but because everybody thinks the hardest part about making a movie is raising money. It is not. The hardest part about making a movie is getting anyone to see it when it’s finished.
: Very true.
Best: And now there are all of these fundraising methods that have been developed that are fantastic audience building tools. But the question is, how do you set up the fundraising process to best include your audience in your process? I think it’s different for different things. I think the Kickstarter model is perfect for creative manufacturing and gaming. But I think film takes something much more tailored. Because, as any indie filmmaker knows, it’s a beast of a business. And it has a lot of peculiarities and particulars that need special attention, in my view. So that’s how it all started. That was a very long answer.
: Tell me about how that concept of linking the funding to the audience and how that technically and structurally plays out in Seed&Spark.
Best: In talking about building audience for independent films, we were also in the process of looking at distribution for Like The Water. ... Currently, about one percent of independent films made in the United States get picked up for any kind of traditional distribution. One percent. And of that one percent, very few of those filmmakers ever see any money. Do they get recognition? Sure. Do they get some of an audience? You bet. But can they live off the money that is reaped from their films? No. Why? Because your audience goes maybe to a sales agent who probably, unless you have some leverage behind you, spends your money to to get it to a distributor, so then the distributor spends money to get it to an exhibitor, and then the exhibitor collects the money from your audience and passes it back up the chain where everybody gets their cut until your part, as the creator, is the smallest.
I think this is a lousy system in an age when connecting to your audience directly is really pretty easy. All the tools are available for free to everyone. But it does take a lot of time and energy and patience because there isn’t one place where you can do that audience building and that fundraising and the social networking and the outreach and the content delivery. So we combined forces and we decided as well that if we’re going to help films build their audiences, we should also help them monetize those audiences.
So, that’s how the two platforms came together. That’s how we ended up with the crowdfunding side and the streaming side. Because if you’re going to build your audience raising money, well then you should be able to sell your movie right to that audience and their friends and their friends’ friends and their friends’ friends’ friends.
When you do Seed&Spark, you build a profile for yourself and then a project page for your film. And your project page contains-really everything you would need for a film website. So, not only does it have your crowd funding tool-your wish list, which I’ll cover really quickly in a second, it has a project overview page that is your sort of artistic statement — the why me, why this, why now, your synopsis, your production plan and your distribution plan. So that if you are also garnering equity investments, you can still send them to your project page, to show them that you have plans for success. It has a team page, a cast and crew, where you can list your cast and crew currently attached, where you can also seek cast and crew. This is a free service so you can post, ‘I need a PA’, ‘I need an actress’, ‘I need a camera assistant’ and professionals can apply right through the site. It has a media page where you can host related videos and images if you want to give people a greater sense or, you know, update them with a video from set. It contains rich text blog, and this is very important to me because I think that one of the greatest tools we have in audience building is the ability to send personal updates. We found this to be very successful with Like The Water and building our audience which was, you know, week two of shooting, sharing a funny story from set. And we would get a lot of hits on stuff like that. People were very interested in it. And then, finally, a community page. It gathers all of your funders and followers in one place and you can update them from there. So there’s really robust offerings for a single page and it’s meant to support the film throughout its entire life cycle.
The wish list tool, literally, works like a wedding registry. You list the items that you need, and you build this wish list. It’s separated by department: camera, production and so forth. Your supporters can either fund or loan those items. We have no transactional interest in the loan. That’s just a piece of goodwill. We want the wish lists to be acquisitional. You should be able to ask for the exact things you need on the off chance that someone in your community has that thing in their garage. If what would really make your movie is that 1978 Ford Fairmont in pickle green, you can list that on your wish list, maybe as a rental, and hope that maybe somebody in your community could loan it to you, right? We’re hoping that it really does create a broader ability to reach out.
: Now, what are your plans to build the visibility of the site to the point that you can leverage numbers in that kind of way?
Best: Like all things, I think it starts on the ground. We have to demonstrate to filmmakers that this tool is relatively easy to use, we’re launching with between twelve and fifteen fundraising campaigns-and between 10 and 20 streaming films. And we’re starting small because we know we don’t have the huge audience reach yet. So we want to make sure that the audience we do have will really benefit the filmmakers who are stepping out on the stage with us for the beta launch. So I think that it starts in those filmmakers’ communities and I believe that the really successful engagement is going to come from word of mouth. We are launching a publicity campaign. We are going to be at Sundance and at SXSW speaking on panels. We have a really fantastic board of advisors who are influencers in all segments of the film industry and beyond. And television as well. They are helping us trumpet it out. We have connections to film schools and we’re contacting film students as well, because they’re great consumers of independent film.
In the near term, it is a ground-level tool that we believe has to be based on the trust and reputation of the site. We can do a lot of publicity because it’s a sexy story, right? Everybody, in some sense, everybody wants this to work. We want to have a system for what we’re calling fair-trade filmmaking. We want to have a system that is a sustainable self-supporting system in which filmmakers can make a living wage for practicing their very valuable craft.
: And the audiences want to find quality films that they’re invested in.
Best: Absolutely! The pay off for the audiences is the ability to find stuff that matters to them. And that’s what’s most exciting to me. Also, every time a user funds or follows or shares a project, they earn ‘sparks’. And those ‘sparks’ can be redeemed to watch movies on the streaming platform. And our hope is two fold. One is that filmmakers who are raising money on the site, will not feel so pressed to just give away a digital download for any donation, because actually we’re helping the users earn credit towards being able to watch movies for free. So that’s one advantage. The other advantage is, I think, armed with some rewards points, I’m more likely to watch a film that I might not otherwise wanna spend money on and I think it will get these already engaged audiences watching different kinds of film. And hopefully, expanding their own film tastes.
So, all of this is to say, yes. We’re going to go the traditional route of, you know, trumpeting, shouting from the rooftops, ‘Hey! pay attention to us,’ and I’ll send your readers our pitch video. I think the way we’re going to do it is by demonstrating success in the beta phase. We’ll get some projects off the ground. We’ll get them funding. We’ll stream some great films. We’ll get audiences excited about what’s possible. And we’ll move forward from there. Because, to me, it really is about the experiences of the filmmaker really being able to assert independence, because filmmakers work their asses off and then they have to give away all their rights. And I don’t like it. I want it to be better.
: Are you doing shorts too, or just features?
Best: Yes. Shorts, features and episodic content. ...For founding filmmakers, the ones who want to join us at the beginning because they believe in the idea or because they want to bring their audiences closer, we’re passing on one hundred percent of the revenue to those founding filmmakers. After that, because we also have to be a sustainable business, you can join us-if you want to stream your film with us, we pass on eighty percent of the revenue. And I totally understand if you want to hang back and see if this thing has legs.
As far as audiences go, if you really believe in and love independent film, come to the site, pick a project and get involved. Whether that’s as a follower or as a funder or as a viewer, just pick a project and get involved. And what would really be awesome is if you picked a project, got involved and told us about your experience. Because we are on a mission to make this thing work for filmmakers and for audiences. So, we’re looking for people to use it and tell us what we can do to make it awesome-er.
: What do you want the end result of all of this to be? What do you want eventually all of this to accomplish?
Best: I would like there to be a truly independent filmmaking community. Where filmmakers and audiences can come together to create and consume the films that matter to them. And that more-I mean, this is really the end goal-that more,different kinds of stories can reach more, different kinds of audiences. And that that is a sustainable business for everyone involved.