Crowd-Funding a Crowd Pleaser: The Feature Future of ‘Cleaning Up’

Crowd-funding sites like Kickstarter or Indiegogo have become a trendy way for filmmakers to generate cash and interest in their projects. Famous writers, directors, and actors, as well as those just starting their cinematic careers, often look for public support to assist with production costs for their independent films, many of them shorts (often defined as a film with a running time of less than 40 minutes). In 2011, for example, one-time university pals Sian Heder (writer/director of award-winning short, Mother) and Zachary Quinto (probably best known as Spock in the J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek reboot) turned to Kickstarter to fund their cinematic co-venture, the 13-minute Dog Eat Dog. Kickstarter requires a project to achieve its funding goal before the money is released. Dog Eat Dog had little trouble reaching its target of $7,500 during its month-long campaign — its 307 backers donated more than $30,000.

Of course, Quinto’s fan base undoubtedly helped promote the campaign and get the film made. Perks like autographed DVDs and scripts or a personalized thank-you video may have encouraged fans to donate at the $1,000 or $2,500 level, but even a $15 pledge provided donors with early access to a download of the finished film.

This summer, Quinto’s Star Trek: Into Darkness nemesis Benedict Cumberbatch lent his name and talent to a film being produced by long-time friend Adam Ackland and written and directed by first-time filmmaker Patrick V (PNuT) Monroe, in whose talent the actor firmly believes. As soon as Cumberbatch fans found out about Little Favour and the Indiegogo funding campaign, they quickly donated £86,240, more than three times the project’s production-funding goal of £25,000. Unlike Kickstarter, Indiegogo allows participants to receive any amount donated, but the overwhelming generosity of fan donors seemed to astound the Little Favour filmmakers. They posted a video in which Cumberbatch personally thanked donors and assured them that every cent would be used to make the film bigger and better. During filming and editing, Ackland and Monroe tweeted news and teaser photos, yet another way to thank those who donated from £10 to £5,000.

Crowd funding through sites like Kickstarter and Indiegogo often rely on a personal promise — from a well-known actor, writer, director, or producer — that the film will be made and worth donors’ investment. The film is, however, an intangible at this stage, a vision awaiting form and substance.

Thomas and Simon Guerrier are taking a different approach to funding their feature. They offer a tangible product — an award-winning short film — to show audiences what they have done, to entice them to want more, and to help ensure that “more” will become available soon.

Nothing Sells Like Success

In March 2012, I first interviewed the Guerrier brothers after the US premiere of their short film, Cleaning Up. (Interestingly enough, this indie also has a Cumberbatch connection, as well as an even stronger link to ever-popular television series Doctor Who: star Mark Gatiss is co-creator of the BBC’s Sherlock, starring Cumberbatch, and also plays Mycroft Holmes; furthermore, Gatiss has written several Who scripts.) In addition to Gatiss, another famous actor with a Who connection, Louise Jameson (the Doctor’s companion, Leela), starred in Cleaning Up, a tale of death and deception intertwining the worlds of a hit man (Gatiss) and his new landlady (Jameson).

As a short, Cleaning Up was named Best Thriller at the Aesthetica Short Film Festival 2011 and Film of the Year at Shortcutz London 2012 – not bad for the Guerriers’ first film, although they have been making award-winning documentaries since 2008. Most recently, their collaboration resulted in two more short films, The Plotters, shortlisted by Virgin Media Shorts 2012 and currently playing in more than 200 cinemas around the UK, and Wizard, a Hat Trick “Short and Funnies” 2013 finalist. Like Cleaning Up, these films incorporate the Guerriers’ trademark quirky humor and intriguing characters, whether audiences are drawn into a historic meeting with Guy Fawkes or an office visit with modern-day Merlin. The problem with these short films is that they are indeed short — 15 minutes or less — and their stories beg to be told in a longer format.

Louise Jameson in Cleaning Up

Cleaning Up is about to remedy that problem — with the assistance of its fans as well as partner Big Finish Productions, well known to Doctor Who fans for its many audio stories furthering the adventures of the Doctor and his companions. However, Big Finish stories go far beyond the Whoniverse with series like Sherlock Holmes, Blake’s 7, Dark Shadows, Stargate, Highlander, and Judge Dredd. Since 1998, it has produced more than a thousand hours of audio drama. Cleaning Up The Movie will be Big Finish’s first venture into feature-length filmmaking, a logical expansion considering that the short was the first time the production company’s co-funded any film.

The funding campaign for Cleaning Up officially began July 23 on the Big Finish website. Fans of the Guerriers’ work or Cleaning Up in particular not only have the opportunity to own the entertaining short but to explore the filmmakers’ world. For £1.99 (approximately US$3), the Rookie option provides the film only. The more elaborate £4.99 (approximately US$7.50) Hitman package includes the film, an alternate “first cut” with commentary by writer Simon Guerrier and director Thomas Guerrier, a behind-the-scenes film, an images gallery, the soundtrack, and scripts. All profits from film sales will help fund Cleaning Up The Movie.

Most funding campaigns rely on a brief textual description of a project to encourage donations. The Guerriers and Big Finish, however, produced a short video to explain how a film is developed and to clarify exactly what they need to make a feature. The well-made YouTube video, released simultaneously with the Big Finish film site, not only teases Cleaning Up as a potential feature but is entertaining in its own right; it furthermore illustrates the filmmakers’ skill, which should appeal to audiences deciding whether to buy the short film in order to assist in making a longer version.

Guerrier explained that the brothers chose this approach to crowd funding “because we had the option available. We could apply for film funding or go the [typical] crowd-funding route or even sell the film though a site like VHX, but we’d be up against some fierce competition. There’s always an element of risk in doing this kind of thing, and the only solution is to try and come up with a way of making the project unique from all the others out there. Every time Cleaning Up screened at a film festival someone always asked us if the Big Finish in the credits was the same Big Finish who do the audios. They’ve got the audience, the reputation, and the technology to make [funding a feature] happen, so it was a no brainer [to approach Big Finish]. It also means we can do it on our own terms. We’re not asking for donations or support. We’re selling a short film, the profits of which are going into developing the feature.” When the feature is ready for production, Big Finish will be “the main production company, though we’ll need to partner with larger film companies later down the line once we’re at the production finance and distribution stages.”

“When we first started on Cleaning Up. we applied for short film funding, which we didn’t get [because] we were first-time filmmakers and wanted to make a high-concept film, so naturally [funding agencies] were skeptical. In the end we decided to fund it ourselves but ran out of money by the time we hit post-production. Simon had done a lot of work for Big Finish, so we showed them a cut of the film, and they said yes immediately.” History repeated when the Guerriers decided to expand their initial story into a feature, but Thomas joked that having Big Finish immediately approve their concept was a bit “annoying really, as we spent ages on our pitch, and they took one look and said yes before we’d done anything.”

Unlike the filmmakers of the previously mentioned Dog Eat Dog or Little Favour, the Guerriers seek development instead of production funds. “Development” includes everything from establishing a shooting script to locking in casting. This phase may seem to be much simpler and straightforward than actually making the film, but Thomas reminded me of the “old gag about preproduction being the single most difficult and challenging part of filmmaking. Then, of course, you go into production, which, by the way, is the single most difficult and challenging part of filmmaking. Then there’s post-production, which is actually the single most difficult and challenging part of filmmaking. And then there’s distribution…”

Development only sounds deceptively easy at first “because, say, you want to make a film for two million dollars; well, that’s a lot of money. So instead you ask for thirty thousand dollars for development so you can get a final draft script and key cast and crew on board. That’s a lot less money to ask for, so it appears to be much easier to get. But the reality is that’s what everyone else is thinking as well. So you have a huge number of filmmakers asking for development money and significantly fewer asking for production money. For example, Film Four, the biggest UK film funder after the BFI [British Film Institute], have 12 million pounds a year to spend on development funding, and they get on average 200 applications a week.”

To ensure that Cleaning Up can survive in a marketplace crowded with ideas to become a feature, the Guerriers plan to “bypass that whole stage. We will have to approach film financiers eventually, but when we are ready to do that, it’ll be along the lines of ‘Here’s the script, the cast, crew, budget and schedule. We can start shooting tomorrow, and you’ll have a finished film by such and such a date.’ It is by no means as simple and easy as that, of course, but it does give us a distinct advantage.”

Mark Gatiss in Cleaning Up

The Future Feature

Successful fundraising by selling the short film will give the Guerriers the opportunity to work on the feature full time, “which is what we’ve been wanting to do for ages, and will make a huge difference in moving the project forward.” Fans of the short, which can be considered a pilot of sorts for the new project, can look forward to an even more polished feature. According to Thomas, “filmmaking is one big puzzle, and a lot of what ends up on screen is a result of problem solving. Every decision in the short was made on it being 15 minutes long. The moment you expand that to, say, 90 minutes, you realize a lot of the little details are only there because they came about from needing to fix something.”

“For instance, there is a visual gag with a mobile phone in the short where characters send each other photos. The only reason it’s there is because the scene where [the photos] first appear has no dialogue and is a pivotal scene in the story. There is so much information we need to get across to the audience that we had to come up with neat visual gags to make [the scene] work. When you’re expanding the story, you realize the only reason that gag is there was to fix a particular problem in a scene in the short. You don’t need to copy and paste it into the movie. In fact, you probably shouldn’t. The short is stuffed full of things like that that need to be properly thought about. That said, the movie will have the same heart and soul, the same tone and feel.”

Will the feature also have the same cast? “We’d love them all to be in it. They were all extremely generous with their time, and getting the film made would be the best way to return the favor. There are parts for all!”

Crowd funding, whether through traditional donations or the Guerriers’ approach of selling the short in order to develop the feature, is a one-time opportunity for filmmakers to realize their creative vision with the assistance of their potential audience. As Cleaning Up went on sale, Thomas hoped that his and Simon’s award-winning short film will also win over those who can help make the feature a reality. “We’re aware you can only get away with this kind of [funding] once, so it’s all about making it a success.”