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Kickstart your flick

Oma & Bella (which premieres tonight!) and Iron Sky are two films at the Berlinale this year that were the result of the crowd-funding sensation. What's taken Germany so long to catch on?

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American film projects have raised millions of dollars on public fundraising platforms like Kickstarter. Now, despite cultural reluctance, industry suspicion and a slow market début in Germany, crowd-funding hits the Berlinale.

The intimate portrait of two elderly Jewish women in Berlin premieres tomorrow at  this year’s Berlinale. Adept with humor, powerful stories, and a deep fondness for good food, Oma & Bella represents the new era of crowd-funding at it’s most indie.

In only two years time, 27-year-old Berlin native Alexa Karolinski has achieved the dream of every aspiring young filmmaker: she took a subject close to her heart and turned it into an indie feature film poised to receive international attention and acclaim.

Oma & Bella tells the story of Karolinski’s Jewish grandmother and her best friend, Bella. Karolinski grew up eating the two women’s homemade dishes and listening to recollections awakened by handed-down recipes, learning of their childhoods in Poland and Lithuania, of the war, of their experiences in the Nazi camps and their lifelong friendship in postwar Berlin.

The documentary, which premieres at this year’s Berlinale, was shot on a budget of approximately $50,000, nearly every penny of which was raised through online crowd-funding – a 21st-century fairy tale for the digital generation.

Two years ago, having chosen the subject for her graduation film at New York’s School of Visual Arts, Karolinski returned to Berlin in the summer of 2010 for the shoot with equipment borrowed from the university.

Six weeks later she flew back to New York with some 90 hours of film and started editing. “I edited for a year, and then I realised I needed money for things like a composer, colour correction, the sound mix, and applying to film festivals,” says Karolinski.

“I tried all these American grants, but I didn’t get them – they just dismissed it as ‘another Holocaust film’. I thought of applying to Medienboard in Germany, but experts told me that as an unknown filmmaker, with no German backing, with no German university behind me, with basically no distribution plan beyond ‘I’m going to apply to festivals’, it was going to be really, really tough, if not impossible.”

That’s when she got the idea of crowd-funding the money necessary to complete her film.

Crowd-funding the dream

Familiar with the concept from studying in the US, where crowd-funding has become an integral part of the independent filmmaking scene, she decided to launch a Kickstarter campaign.

The largest of many similar crowd-funding platforms, Kickstarter allows users to present a project – these range from producing a film or album, to designing a commercial product or founding a start-up – and solicit the public to donate money in exchange for gifts to reach a specific target (for Oma & Bella, gifts ranged from a cookie recipe for a €10 donation to an executive producer’s credit and a custom short film for €5000 plus).

Since its inception in April 2009, over 11,000 projects have reached or exceeded their target amount, and of the $100 million donated in total, $32 million were pledged for film projects.

Karolinski edited a teaser of her film to present her project, set a six-week period to raise her target and contacted friends with extensive Facebook networks, asking them to advertise her campaign on their profiles.

“They all posted it, and then this crazy thing happened: the Kickstarter link on Facebook got nearly 5000 ‘likes’ – it must have been reposted a lot, because I don’t know 5000 people! Kickstarter was just so insane – I pledged $18,000 and within two weeks I had double the amount!”

The success of her campaign attracted the attention of the German media, with articles appearing in Die Welt and Berliner Morgenpost and Karolinski being invited to present her project on a talkshow on the Einsfestival TV channel broadcasted by ARD.

“I was sitting in a studio next to Anke Engelke, the comedian. She ate my grandmother’s cookie and promoted the Kickstarter. It was really awesome.”

When the campaign ended on October 23, 2011, 519 backers had donated $44,905. Finally able to complete her film, she finished a rough cut in time to apply to the Berlinale in mid-November. A month later, the reply letter arrived: Oma & Bella had been selected to premiere in the section, Culinary Cinema.

“This is like the actual ending of my film. The Berlinale was my dream! My grandmother and Bella went through this and now they’re going to be walking the red carpet in Berlin with their granddaughter for a film about them and be applauded. This is why I made the film.”

Crowd-funded films at the Berlinale

Oma & Bella is not the first crowd-funded film to feature at the Berlinale. This year, Timo Vuorensola’s Iron Sky was also partially crowd-funded (and crowd-written). An early example was Matt Porterfield’s Putty Hill, which premiered at the 2010 Forum and raised half its $40,000 budget through Kickstarter.

Although the crowd-funded entries multiplied in the following two years, they’ve been almost exclusively American.

At this year’s festival, the only German director besides Karolinski to crowd-fund an independent production was Marten Persiel, whose This Ain’t California is part of the German film section Perspektive this year.

Even then, the crowd-funding campaign differed significantly from the US success model.

According to Michael Schöbel and Ronald Vietz, the producers of the film, crowd-funding was used more out of ideological than financial reasons: “It only made up five percent of our budget. Our film is about skaters in the GDR, so we have a very clear target audience, which we wanted to involve and make a part of the project.”

“That’s the benefit of crowd-funding – the amounts raised in Germany are still too insignificant to make it an effective money-raising tool. Germans are too suspicious for that; they always think someone’s lining their pockets with their donations.”

At the time of writing, two further American crowd-funded films have been confirmed for this year’s Berlinale: Ira Sachs’ Keep the Lights On in Panorama and David Zellner’s Kid-Thing in Forum (see our interview, www.exberliner.com).

Sachs is an established, award-winning filmmaker who’s worked with names like Pierce Brosnan and Rachel McAdams. Nevertheless, acquiring funds for an intimate, autobiographical portrait of a gay relationship through traditional channels proved difficult, and it was only the $26,630 collected through Kickstarter that enabled him to green-light a project so close to his heart.

The Zellner Bros. ran a Kickstarter campaign as an experiment rather than a necessity and now, having raised $10,000 in a mere two weeks, regret not making the most of it:

“We did our campaign a little over a year ago. It hadn’t been tested a whole lot – it wasn’t clear how much you could raise – so we weren’t very ambitious. If we were to do it again, we would be less conservative. It was a great source of funding.”

German scepticism

Yet 20 kilometres away from Berlinale’s ground zero, Postdamer Platz, Professor Dieter Wiedemann, president of the Hochschule für Film und Fernsehen (HFF) in Potsdam, says he would never suggest crowd-funding to students as a means of financing their films.

“I am not convinced by its viability as a financing tool, at least not in Germany,” he says. “Culture has always been paid for in Germany, and the mentality of contributing to culture doesn’t exist. The traditional financing routes are far more effective and safe.”

These traditional routes include soliciting money from various funds such as the Medienboard, organising co-productions with public as well as private TV channels and seeking support from commercial entities.

Such avenues, however, are far more accessible to filmmakers backed by an institution of such prestige as the HFF or by an established production company versed in the arduous and highly competitive application processes.

Professor Peter Badel, who lectures on cinematography at the HFF, shares his colleague’s scepticism. He cites the example of Sergej Moya’s “porNEOgraphic” film Hotel Desire – which secured €170,000 in 80 days through its own website – as an exception.

“Moya is a popular actor; he’s been in Tatort and a few films. However, for someone to attempt it without the level of popularity and media presence… It’s simply too time-consuming for such a negligible chance of success.”

In other words, it’s no surprise then that Stromberg – Der Film, an adaptation of the German version of The Office, was able to raise €1 million through its corporate-backed crowd-funding campaign, but upstart filmmakers without comparable PR muscle are out of their weight class, or so German sceptics would suggest.

Interestingly, these prejudices reflect those expressed in the US media when crowd-funding emerged in the American filmmaking scene.

In an article written in July 2010, journalist Anthony Kaufman argued that generally, the low potential of a crowd-funding campaign wasn’t worth the time and effort it required, that few could generate the publicity necessary, and that overall, a significant paradigm shift was necessary before such campaigns would become profitable.

In a second article a year later, Kaufman retracted his initial scepticism in the face of the enormous success film campaigns enjoyed on crowd-funding platforms in the interim. Can the same be expected in Germany?

Ripe for the picking

That’s the opinion of Wolfgang Gumpelmaier, a consultant for social media and crowd-funding. “America has always been a few years ahead in all things internet-related. Crowd-funding platforms have existed a lot longer there – German platforms only started a little over a year ago.”

The number of German filmmakers using crowd-funding is still very small, but with increasing media attention, ever more are turning to the method, particularly in the independent scene.

“Crowdfunding only makes sense for those who are able to adapt to the digital age,” argues Gumpelmaier. “You must be more transparent, impart a little of your personality, accept a certain level of risk and, most importantly, you need to know how to market yourself.

For most, this necessary rethinking hasn’t occurred yet.” So far, the most successful indie crowd-funding campaign on a German platform has been the Bar25 documentary, which successfully raised €26,991 on Inkubato, a Berlin-based crowd-funding platform and Germany’s third biggest after Startnext and MySherpas.

Just as Oma & Bella benefited from its direct appeal to the Jewish community, Bar25 – Der Film banked on the mass of disciples that had flooded the club’s gates over the years.

As argued by Porterfield, “It’s all about communication with your target audience, crowds of often nameless entities that might be interested in supporting culture. I don’t see why filmmakers don’t use it in Germany. It seems to me that it’s gonna catch on.”

In fact, German filmmakers would be strongly advised to catch on quickly. When Porterfield started his campaign for Putty Hill in late 2009, Kickstarter was only a few months old, and his experience was very similar to Karolinski’s – the campaign generated significant media interest and raised double the $10,000 target.

After its premiere at the Berlinale, the film was featured in several international film festivals and was a widespread critical triumph. By the time of his campaign for his next film I Used To Be Darker ($42,394 raised) last July, the situation had already changed significantly.

“For film in the States, crowd-funding could experience a backlash, because there are so many people using it now. A lot of the ways we were able to publicise our campaign for Putty Hill were unavailable to us this time around, as media outlets have become inundated with people asking to promote their projects.”

“We did it twice, and I wouldn’t do it again – it’s a lot of work and takes too much energy away from other places.” By now the Baltimore director’s made a name for himself and with an established network and budgets up in the six figures, the benefit of a crowd-funding campaign is significantly reduced.

Ironically, Kickstarter’s still-limited popularity in Germany could well be a godsend for today’s local aspiring filmmakers on the prowl for finances – the market is likely there for the taking, but who knows for how long.