Can Crowds Fund Anything?

No, but Netflix can. Our streaming overlords buy themselves some Orson Welles.

Movies need money. They can win hearts, minds and lay the ground for thousands of little websites like this one to talk about them, but ultimately they need someone with bags of cash behind the scenes. Netflix, proud owner of one thousand hours of original content among other things, just dumped some of their cash bags on a movie called The Other Side of the Wind. It was filmed by Orson Welles in the early ’70s, stared Susan Strasberg, John Huston and Peter Bogdanovich, and was never fully edited or released to a general audience.

Welles’ movie had been initially funded by a mysterious Spanish producer (rumored to be Andrés Vicente Gómez) who, in turn, embezzled the money. It was then funded by Mehdi Bushehri, brother of the Iranian Shah, whose assets were seized after the Shah was overthrown in the Iranian Revolution. Then, in 1999, Showtime agreed to pay to finish up the thing. It took, however, until 2014 for a cabal of producers, that included Bogdanovich, to finally able to get their hands on the 1,083 reels that Welles shot from the cold, dead hands of his heirs, after most of them had died. But, by then, the only executive at Showtime who remembered the project had retired. Bogdanovich, at the time, took that news in stride: “I think it would amuse Orson to have the fans able to contribute to the completion of the film,” he told the New York Times after launching a campaign on Indiegogo to get Welles fans drop the needed cash. They only needed two million dollars. Then they only needed one million dollars after outside investors promised to double the amount raised. The people gave them $406,605. The people then wanted their money back.

Zac Braff’s ‘Wish I Was Here’ was one of the few features to be successfully crowdfunded. Promising “commemorative terry cloth robes . . . just like Orson used to wear on the set,” paled in comparison to the force of a director who was both beloved and alive.

Back in the early noughties, crowdfunding presented itself as an obvious vehicle for funding film. Unlike most novels or paintings, movies are almost always collaborative projects; there’s a reason why a small crowd always swarms the stage to collect a Best Picture Oscar. And the notion behind turning to the vox populi instead of old and risk-adverse producers strikes an earnest chord in our liberal-valued democracy. Give the people what they want. But the track record of platforms like Indiegogo and Kickstarter has been spotty.

Neither of Kickstarter’s two highest-profile success, Zac Braff’s Wish I Was Here (2014) and Rob Thomas’ Veronica Mars (2014) were incredibly forward looking: the second vanity project of a network TV star and a two-hour reboot of a canceled television show. Ditto Indiegogo’s most-well funded film, Super Troopers 2, which is still in production. And both Wish I Was Here and Veronica Mars were flops at the box office, validating whatever Hollywood studios didn’t lay down dough in the first place. While crowdfunding has found some success funding smaller scale indies, both Dear White People (2014) and A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (2014) were able to use Indiegogo to raise around $50,000 each, more recent and larger scale efforts have failed to financially interest enough of their niche audiences. A campaign to adapt the video game Dragon’s Lair into a movie raised only half of its goal back in 2015 and that same year critical pariah Uwe Boll went on an infamous rampage after failing to get funding for a third movie in his Rampage series.

An even more recent report on the failure of crowdfunding platforms came earlier this year from the video game world. Back in January, we reported on what we felt was an interesting way of utilizing Kickstarter’s proclivity for nostalgia: a group of video game designers assembled by Frances Ford Coppola turned to Kickstarter to fund the development costs of adapting Apocalypse Now! into an immersive RPG. We were excited. “Optimistically, the project will prove that it’s less a question of rival storytelling mediums being incompatible then one of believing in and genuinely caring for the integrity of your story’s vision,” our own Meg Shields wrote. It raised $172,503 out of a $900,000 goal. The designers quickly shut down the project, writing:

We made a mistake. We forgot that many of you have been disappointed by overreaching games and overreaching promises. We had stopped paying attention to the Kickstarter world.

Since then, they have raised over half of their development costs from an investment by Malibu Road Pictures LLC. Elsewhere, Indiegogo projects are viewed with the skepticism of requests from Nigerian princes. “Indiegogo scam or viral marketing stunt?,” reads a headline on The Daily Dot from last year.

On the other hand, a company like Netflix makes perfect sense. Not attached to things like box office returns, Netflix has pursued a countless number of remakes or unoriginal original material aimed at the kind of niche audiences who would pay money to fund a Veronica Mars movie but who were not numerous enough for it make any moviegoing sense after 2010. In that fabric, throwing Orson Welles’ unreleased work appeals to another version of the same audience.

Lou Lumenick, writing for the New York Post, suggested that the inability to conventionally secure funding for The Other Side of the Wind could be traced to what might well be a potentially poor product. “The fact is that with the possible exception of Chimes at Midnight, Welles’ work as a director after his last studio film… is considerably less than genius-level,” Lumenick wrote at the time. Welles’ Don Quixote, which was also incomplete at the time of his death, was panned when Jesús Franco stitched together Welles’ footage into a complete film in 1992. “Welles [had]…a tendency in his post-studio period of walking away from projects he thought weren’t going well,” Lumenick concluded. A very rough cut of the movie had been shopped around in the early ’90s to the likes of Oliver Stone, George Lucas, and Steven Spielberg, all of whom turned down the offer to finance finishing it up after viewing it.

But that’s Netflix’s problem now. Not yours.