Budgets and Crowdfunding: Why So Much? Why So Little?

I’m running a Kickstarter campaign this month, for a short film I wrote and am co-producing. It’s been a comedy of errors at times – the fund-raising, not the film. Although it looks like it’s going to succeed, it’s given me a reason to talk about low-budget filmmaking with lots of old friends in just a few weeks, and I’ve found myself on the defensive about the size of our budget, from both sides! From those who think it’s too low and those who think it’s too high.

I’ve said before that the best answer a writer can give when asked to work on a friend’s film is, “Pay me as much as you pay your soundguy.” That was a defense of the value of writing against downward budgetary pressure. As a writer-producer, though, I also know what it means to say, “Alright, I have a plan. We can actually do this.” That sometimes means being penny-pincher-in-chief, and the first pennies you pinch in a labor of love are usually your own.

Clerks (1994): Repeating these entrepreneurial "loaves and fishes" stories reinforces the idea that there's something wrong with a script if it can't be shot for next to nothing.

Clerks (1994): Repeating these entrepreneurial “loaves and fishes” stories reinforces the idea that there’s something wrong with a script if it can’t be shot for next to nothing.

Coming up with realistic plans for low-budget films is a process years in the making, and it starts with what you don’t do. Don’t launch any underdeveloped or half-conceived projects, and don’t leverage what assets you do have until you know the time is right. And I don’t just mean taking out a second mortgage on your house – but don’t do that either.

The other currencies in indie films, besides cash, are credits and favors. We’re all willing to help friends, and sometimes friends of friends or even well-meaning strangers, make their projects come to life. In return, though, we expect something, even if it’s just a “thank you” in tiny print in the credits, or an invisible token for a favor that might be redeemed if the stars line up.

If you have a friend who’s a lighting designer who likes you well enough to spend a Saturday doing lights for your most difficult interior scene, just for a tank of gas and a few slices of pizza, then he or she is an asset. Don’t use it unless you’re reasonably sure the film will a. get finished; and b. be something you’re all proud of. The relationship is more important than the favor, and a friendship is more important than your film.

You may find yourself making lunch for a music video shoot next spring just to repay that favor, but that’s my idea of fun! If a potential supporter is ever not enthusiastic about your content, then no hard feelings, this project might not be for them. Which brings me back to the first currency, money. Kickstarter takes a 5% cut of whatever you raise, which is worth every penny to both parties. It provides a ready-made platform for you raising money, but also gives your friends and acquaintances a guarantee: They’re happy to help, as I say, as long as they know it’s actually going to get made reasonably well. By pledging not to take their money unless you meet your goal, you’re letting Kickstarter guarantee your supporters that you’ll be budgeted right.

Around the time we were preparing to launch, Kickstarter’s founders announced that they were reincorporating as a “public benefit corporation.” It’s exactly the kind of move that makes the crabby old Marxist in my head I’ve been feeding since Rutgers bristle. Is that some kind of accounting trick? Well, whatever it is or isn’t, it says at least a little something about the company and what it’s doing with its profits. We’d been tempted by Indiegogo, which lets you keep whatever you raise, even if you don’t meet your goal, but we went with Kickstarter on a lark because they seemed like good-hearted fellas.

Knowing we were about to go live, I did what many fundraisers do, and started asking friends for donations for premiums: If you contribute this much you’ll get a free massage from my friend the massage therapist, that kind of thing. After a day of lining up support, I read the fine print and saw that Kickstarter forbids that! No third party products, only things that you the producer can come up with.

That seemed like a drag at first, a penalty for everyone just because some jerk once figured out how to unload junk magazine subscriptions by using a bogus art project. Now that we’re almost finished, though, it’s one of my favorite things about Kickstarter. It keeps it folksy! It minimizes the popularity contest aspect by cutting down the “who has successful friends with cool shit to give away” quotient. It forces you to be creative. I’m a food lover with a growing interest in home canning, and it is an upstate New York project, so we’re offering homemade “249 Productions” apple sauce. It keeps the price of a personal favor high. And it forces you to engage with your peers – not the crowd, your peers – who are funding you.

Those who wondered why the budget is so high were suffering from what I used to call the Blair Witch bug – back when people still remembered and talked about The Blair Witch Project. I still think it’s the scariest movie ever, but not when I’m walking in the woods: when I’m writing a screenplay! It convinced a generation of people that a film can be made for next to no money, and so if a filmmaker is short of cash then that’s just a flaw in his or her concept.

That’s what I mean by the euphemistic phrase “downward budgetary pressure,” the notion that free is the right fee for every service on your film, and cheap is the right price for every budgetary choice. Partly it’s because we all love repeating these entrepreneurial “loaves and fishes” stories. Not that there’s anything wrong with trying to make something out of nothing, but let’s agree as a profession, and as an artistic family, that some films just can’t be made that cheaply, but are still worth making.

When we launched this short, I had another script on my computer that had three locations: a bar, a living room, and a bedroom. (You can guess where my mind was.) It could all be shot in Brooklyn with donated locations. Well, that’s not the one that took off. The one that’s set in a remote summer house in autumn did. It has a director and cast excited about it, quite possibly because it’s better. It fulfills two of cinema’s oldest missions, it creates a unique “world of a story” and it takes the viewer on a trip – not to Cancun in high season, upstate in November; I’m not an absolute dilettante, after all. That’s why we launched, even though it’s more expensive, and I urge every writer-producer who feels creatively trapped by the limitations of the low budget imperative to invite that other voice to the table, the one that says “Wouldn’t it be beautiful if…”

As for the people who say your budget is too low, who wonder how you can make anything of quality unless you have the crew and resources of a union TV shoot, I’ve found myself wishing I could introduce them to the low-ballers. It’s true, that low budget shoots are prone to sloppy production values, and you can sometimes see the corners being cut in the final product. Very often the people raising this objection are in the industry, people whose bread and butter is making those production values, and sometimes you have to tune these people out. It’s like offering a cup of campfire coffee to an award-winning barista: He’s probably going to be a jerk about it.

If most independent cinema is going the way of non-profit art – that is, living on the largesse of benefactors, and I don’t see how it can be otherwise – then to ask, “Why so low?” is tantamount to asking “Why try?” “Why make art?” Should the husband and wife who own South, a bar in my neighborhood, stop doing their production of Shakespeare in the street every summer, because, y’know, the Public Theater already does that so much better?

Kickstarter also forbids offering remuneration for the money collected, and this makes the budgets you make when working with it the most authentic indie film budgets you’ll ever write. No gimmicks, no inflated numbers like: “We’re making a $40,000 film, with $26,000 of that covered by ‘in kind’ contributions, but if you have five hundred bucks we’ll put you in the producer’s pool.” There are very few ways to recoup an investment in a short film, and more than one potential supporter, after hearing my spiel, told me how much he appreciated my skipping all the language of percentage ownership and points toward our next feature based on the same material. All I said was, “We’re a bunch of artists. Here’s what we’re doing. Can you help us out?”

There are two ways to look at an independent film budget. You can write the best story you can and then try to find the cheapest way to make that story, and raise it, or you can look at how much you think you can raise and then write the script that can be done for that much. Each perspective needs a seat on the committee in your head while you’re staring at the blank page – and certainly while you’re at your desk raising money.

Fair Weather Mets Fans

There’s hipster currency in the New York Mets right now, but don’t let that stop you from rooting for them this week in their playoff series against the Dodgers. Sports fanhood has all sorts of meanings to its practitioners, and your Mets may not be your neighbor’s Mets. The meaning the fans collectively give to their team, as the hero in the sports epic that’s unfolding in their respective minds, is what gives every team its personality.

The Yankees, like their fans, often have an angry air about them. “Everyone is jealous of us,” they think, “and so they underestimate our excellence, but we really are that good.” I found myself having a sandwich at a bar and grill in Milford, Pennsylvania one night this week, and three 20-something guys were huddled under the TV set rooting for the Yankees, in their final game, and an off-duty employee put “Sweet Caroline” on the juke box, and led a loud singalong. It was a big “fuck you” aimed at the Yankees (“Sweet Caroline” is the Red Sox theme song.) that was not lost on the guys at all. One of them muttered to the others, “Can you believe this shit?” in a defiantly annoyed, but supremely confident voice, wasting no time thinking any further about it.

They’re easy to hate, and yet, walk into most Latino bars in New York, and you’ll see a lot of Yankee fans among the Dominican and Puerto Rican old guard, the “Yankees” having a totally different meaning to them: pride in New York when it was down and out, and America itself, the future. How can you be against the future?

Tug McGraw's 1966 Topps card, when he was a Met.

Tug McGraw’s 1966 Topps card, when he was a Met.

To understand the absolutely unique identity of the Mets, check out the fascinating map of American baseball fans that Facebook and The New York Times published last year. Using Facebook “likes” as an indicator, which is admittedly imperfect but must mean at least a little something, it lists the few favorite teams of every zipcode, and by how much. The Mets aren’t even the favorite around their own stadium! They have no homeland. Their fans are a diaspora, a smallish minority of a relatively small, but densely populated area.

Muslims in India are only 14% of the population, but out of 1.2 billion, that’s 168 million people, more than Iran, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia combined, and that says something Mets fans can understand. To everyone else they’re an anomaly. Only they comprehend just how vast their numbers are.

And then there’s the team history, so consistently beaten, their fans have a fellowship of hope in the face of constant suffering. About once a generation they put together a winning team. Don’t tell the Cubs fans, but that’s just barely enough to sustain them through their long droughts. All the while they endure constant comparisons to the dominant Yankees.

The Yankees are the team of “New York, New York” and “Empire State of Mind,” the fantasy of New York as the perfect background to one’s own terribly impressive biography, the city that thrills you, that you love because it gratifies you in return, and that makes you swagger a little just because you know your way around it. The Mets are the team of Billy Joel’s “New York State of Mind.” Why do you love it? “I don’t have any reasons/ I’ve left them all behind.” It’s the fondness an old, bickering couple still has for one another.

Enter the hipsters, the huddled masses who washed ashore clutching iPhones and wrapped in duvet covers. Remaking the fabric of many places in Brooklyn and Queens since the last time the Mets won it all, they chose the outer boroughs instead of “the city,” so naturally they’re choosing the Mets. To them the Mets are the team of the grinding hunt for rent in the city that makes you weary. You see them at Citi Field: groups of three or four soft-spoken guys with beards and Mets caps, having some guy time while their girlfriends are elsewhere watching Dance. Even if a part of their hearts will always be loyal to the team they grew up with, and even if they dreamed of a loft in Tribeca before they realized that a one-bedroom in Crown Heights was actually “a better fit,” they can’t help falling for the Mets, or they have no substance at all.

A detail of the New York Times/Facebook baseball map.

A detail of the New York Times/Facebook baseball map

How do I know? True confessions, don’t judge me. I grew up loving the Philadelphia Phillies. My fondest childhood memories are of the team of Schmidt and Carlton, Bowa and Boone, Maddox and especially Greg “The Bull” Luzinski. My mother’s half-Polish, and my father was fond of Polish jokes; he was prone to gruff comments, any time someone hit a double to left-center, about how anyone but Luzinski would have caught that ball, and how the Phillies would never win with “that polack” in left field. I don’t know what the Freudian term is for the satisfaction you get from your mother’s people being redeemed every time a lifetime .276 hitter smacks a homerun, but I had a persistent case of it.

Then there was Tug McGraw, a screwball-thrower who was on the Mets championship team in ’69, before moving to the Phillies mid-’70s, who must have been bitter about the breakup, because his hatred of the Mets was well-known. Tug was so lovable – He famously answered the question of whether he preferred astroturf or real grass by saying, “I don’t know, I never smoked astroturf,” and who doesn’t love an intoxicated baseball player?* – you rooted for him to get his revenge.

More importantly, I only realized when the Facebook map came out, I grew up in a very particular baseball microclimate, a suburb of Trenton. We were in the outer ring of people who read The Inquirer and watched Philadelphia news, and were divided between Yankees and Phillies, with the Mets a distant third. Yankee fans were either Italian-Americans or people who’d moved south from New York or North Jersey, and I found them intolerably arrogant. Mets fans I had a cause to dislike in an active way since we were division rivals, but I saw something of myself in them: Teams who a. resented the Yankees, b. had chips on our shoulders about the unglamorous geographical center of gravity we each revolved around, and c. were more than a bit surprised when we did win. Phillies and Mets fans are just a chromosome apart. Like Serbs and Croats, how could we possibly not get along?

Citi Field during Mets game has the best vibes of any big crowd in New York. Chill, well-informed, and generous, but with just a hint of that impatient Long Island attitude. It’s rather white, but that’s who’s still watching baseball, as Mets fan Chris Rock explains. I know there’s a hint of disdain, in the diehard Mets fans’ hearts, for the fair weather friends who tune in for the post-season on those rare years when they’re in the running. It’s natural, like the usher at a church exasperated by the bad manners of a swollen congregation on Christmas, but I hope they’ll save a little of the happiness for us too.

*I guess I’m a fair weather fan myself, since I’ve honestly spent more time this summer talking about this animated documentary by James Blagden about Doc Ellis than I have talking about any one Mets game. “High as a Georgia pine,” that guy was when he pitched a no-hitter, on LSD!

“What happened to yesterday?!”

Laugh It Up

I saw a very unusual play called “Laugh It Up, Stare It Down,” by screenwriter-playwright Alan Hruska, at Cherry Lane Theater this week.

It’s about the love between two eccentric savants, a currency trader and an anthropologist. Its reviews are all over the place. “If an existentialist philosopher ever attempted a light romantic comedy, it might sound a little like…” says one, by a writer who was obviously taken enough to agree to hand over some fodder for the poster. “Quaintly absurdist,” says another.

Jayce Bartok and Katya Campbell in “Laugh It Up, Stare It Down" till October 10th.

Jayce Bartok and Katya Campbell in “Laugh It Up, Stare It Down” till October 10th.

Others had a more critical take, but handled it with kid loves anyway, as in, “Perhaps [it] does not fully answer the question of the attainability of ecstatic love but I am not sure that was the point,” while others were more pointed: “I wanted to read the play to see if there was some glaring bit of information that would, upon resurfacing, pull the play together into a work that made sense.”

I too went euphemistic when I called it “unusual.” “Difficult” may have been better, though “odd” says it best – the shortest, most Anglo word, as usual, getting to the point the quickest. Like the reviewers, I guess I liked this play despite itself.

Hruska is best known as the writer and director of films, and “Laugh It Up, Stare It Down” takes place over the course of a marriage, a scale that few playwrights would ever choose. It both raises your expectations and opens a trap door under any feelings for this couple that start to accumulate in your mind.

Yet it’s crystal clear, even after the first scene, that that’s really not what the writer’s going for. Feelings, I mean. Every character in “Laugh It Up, Stare It Down” has instant access to his intentions, and nearly instant insight into the others’ as well. It’s 90 minutes of dialogue practically devoid of subtext, which suddenly all made sense to me in the second of three acts when the trader (Jayce Bartok) unexpectedly gets cross-examined about whether he’s having an affair by his wife the anthropologist (Katya Campbell). Now someone was trying to conceal something, and it felt like theater instead of an out-of-body experience.

Then it went back to its break-neck journey to the land of odd surprises, including some poetic flourishes. It’s the kind of play that makes you cheer for the cast more than anything, as in: Wow, this is a difficult premise, and it was built to implode, but they’re going for every scene, and I’m actually enjoying myself.

Does it “work”? Sure, if you’re inclined to see it for what it is: experimental theater hidden in plain sight.