Show Me the Money

Onirs film I Am, which explores issues of identity, is said to be India biggest crowdfunded film
Have an idea, but no cash? Try crowdfunding, the next big thing for entrepreneurs

It started with the plate down the pews or the hat passed around by street performers. Speak to a crowd, impress them with your passion, convince them of your motives, persuade them of a likely windfall, and the money clinks into your piggybank. With technology multiplying the crowds ad infinitum, shouldn't raising money from so many become easier? Welcome to the world of crowdfunding, which uses the time-tested principles of fund-raising, enhanced by the internet.

Filmmaker Onir most recently reaped the benefits of crowdfunding. He used social networking sites to raise a third of the money for his Rs 3-crore budget film I Am, releasing this Friday. He says, "As a filmmaker, you are told by studios that people aren't interested in your themes. I hate to sulk that no one is helping to make my film. I can't panic. I need to find ways." This "Dreamseller" (as he calls himself on Facebook) put up a pitch on Twitter and Facebook explaining the movie in May 2009, and within a month and a half he'd raised enough money, from 400 individuals in 35 cities from Mumbai to Boston, Chennai to Nigeria to start shooting. The amount varied from Rs 1,000 to more than Rs 1 lakh. The list of co-producers and co-owners of I Am scrolls long, as every contributor is recognised. People also donated their talent and time from cooking lunches to driving cars to setting up shots. Onir says, "For many, it was the first time on the sets, it wasn't always easy for us, but their energy brought something to the film."

This multi-starrer with Manisha Koirala, Juhi Chawla, Rahul Bose and Nandita Das explores issues of identity through four different stories. I Am Abhimanyu, which grapples with child abuse, found many sympathisers. Onir, who spends two-three hours on social networking sites every day, says he was moved by a young boy who sent a cheque of Rs1,500 from his pocket money, with a note that he had been a silent victim and had never confessed it before.

Crowdfunding made this boy a part of I Am. If the arts once depended on royal patronage, crowdfunding democratises that process by giving power to the people and relying on the wisdom of the crowd. While Europe and the US have witnessed a slew of crowdfunded projects over the last couple of years, I Am is said to be one of India's first and biggest crowd-sourced films. However, smaller projects across India using the goodwill and philanthropy of wanderers on the Web have reached fruition.

Many have used Kickstarter, a two-year-old New York-based company that has become the largest funding platform for creative projects in the world. An ABC report this month reported that 5, 00,000 people have pledged over $50 million to various start-ups in art, dance, film, music, games, comics, journalism etc. through Kickstarter. It works on the formula of "All or Nothing" funding, meaning that every project must be fully funded before its time expires or no money changes hands. As of now, all project-starters must be US-based, but Kickstarter promises that it will allow international project creators in the future. The projects themselves can be located anywhere and so can people who pledge.

Eureka India's Ready to Read Educational English DVD series, which provides English-Tamil bilingual lessons, was recently crowdfunded through Kickstarter. They exceeded their goal of $4,000 by $249, by the closing date. Kirsten Anderson, a Clinton Fellow who was working for Aid India to improve English language curriculum for primary schoolchildren last year, explains why she chose the unconventional platform. "There is little money for multi-media projects like this. Grants and foundations want to fund schools, kids, and programs. They don't want to fund a multimedia teaching aid. The problem is we can't teach our kids without teaching aids!" Since March 2010, with the money from Kickstarter, they have written scripts, trained actors and filmed and edited most of the 12 episodes of the Ready to Read DVD series, which will feature skits teaching phonics and songs.

While Anderson loved the Kickstarter experience, she still veers towards caution. "It helped me share my ideas and get my message out. I think it (crowdfunding) has potential for small projects in India, but I'd question big NGOs that attempt to use it for more traditional projects unless there is accountability, monitoring and evaluation systems built in," she says.

If children in some schools in Tamil Nadu are learning "H for Horse", thanks to crowdfunding, the frogs of the Western Ghats might find posterity through it as well. Matthew Halley, a wildlife biologist and teacher from Newark, US, hopes to create a field guide on amphibian diversity in the Western Ghats, home to 150 species of amphibians, with over 70 per cent of them being "endemic". "That means that they exist nowhere else on earth," says Halley, who in 2009 lived on an organic spice plantation near Madikeri, Karnataka. With researchers Anurag and Sujata Goel (of the Worldwide Association for the Preservation and Restoration of Ecological Diversity), he discovered new populations of two critically endangered frog species, by combing the jungles at night with torchlight and hat.

The book, he says, will combine art and science in a way that inspires a general audience to become interested in the fate of wildlife and natural spaces. It will also provide a resource for conservationists to consult when designing initiatives. With only 12 days (on April 18) on the ticker, Halley has raised $1,397 of the total $5,000 project goal.

With the deadline a week away (April 30) and the coffers still hungry, Halley voices a few reservations on crowdfunding. "I have not reached my $5,000 goal yet so I am hesitant to say that this platform is the perfect solution. I am still optimistic that the deadline will inspire many people to contribute," he says.

Ishu Krishna's Arranged to Settle, a film about an Indian American woman caught between a love and arranged marriage, however, succeeded in raking in the moolah. US-based Krishna has reached $3,010 and still counting of her $2,554 goal with three weeks still remaining to deadline. This movie and music director says, "Raising money is always the hardest part of making a film. Films are traditionally known to be a bad investment. Convincing investors that your film is a good investment, while still telling them they could lose their entire investment is hard." Instead, she cashed in on the sentiments of the crowd through dogged perseverance. She mailed someone every day with names beginning with a different letter of the alphabet, explaining that Kickstarter was an all-or-nothing funding source. She adds,

"I did this every day until I met my goal around letter H. Then I changed my pitch to, 'I have reached my goal to pay for my insurance, however, I am trying to raise $100k, every $10 counts, and that's only a cost of one lunch for you.'" She might be over her budget but, "The biggest drawback are the fees I have to pay Kickstarter and Amazon," she says.

While Kickstarter has aided India-based projects, local crowdfunding companies are entering the fray as well. Springboard Ventures, with the Hong Kong-based Grow VC (an international networking website for early stage funding), facilitates start-ups and entrepreneurs from the funding stage to best business practices. Satish Kataria, managing director, Springboard Ventures, which started last July, says, "In India, it's not easy for start-ups to get money. We need to bring more people into the ecosystem. We found that Grow VC's crowdfunding platform could be one such way." While 80 per cent of their start-ups are technology-based, they are looking at social enterprises and creative fields as well.

Onir, best known for My Brother Nikhil, also hopes to give crowdfunding a formal structure. Even with 5,000-plus friends on Facebook, "Onir Anticlockfilms" sees the need for a larger platform. "The idea is to formulate a way to maintain the open spirit of crowdfunding, while making it larger and reaching a bigger section of the public."

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