For many aspiring screenwriters and filmmakers, the thought of production induces anxiety. The idea of long days, an array of crew positions and technical nomenclature, and an overly nuts-and-bolts process to a create form is enough to keep any writer away from set forever.
But for many more, the thought of self-producing and self-financing feels like an increasingly attractive alternative to the traditional model. Rather than place the future of your story in the hands of others, what if you simply made your film yourself?
While empowering, this is also a daunting decision. Where do you find the money? How much does something like this cost anyway? How do I make my money back once I’m done? How does crowdfunding work again?
Enter Emily Best and Seed&Spark. Seed&Spark is an entertainment platform built to increase diversity and inclusion by fixing the broken business model that keeps creators from making a sustainable living. Unlike other crowdfunding platforms, they have a strong emphasis on education and helping filmmakers discover who their audience is. They have combined subscription streaming and crowdfunding so creators and users can find what they want to watch now and fund what they want to watch next.
Tom Dever of The Script Lab had the opportunity to sit down with Emily recently for an overview and update on Seed&Spark’s happenings.
What brought this about and how did Seed&Spark get its start?
In 2011, there were three things that happened in rapid succession. As a direct reaction to the financial crisis of 2007-2008, Kickstarter and IndieGoGo had launched and crowdfunding was starting to proliferate among artists. Artists sort of being like, “Well, fuck. Our patrons are gone so we have to go to the fans.” That was the first thing.
Number two—Canon put a full-frame sensor in the 5D and made digital production cheap forever and everybody else had to chase them after that because you had affordable high-quality image capture in the digital space.
And lastly, Netflix went digital that year. So the landscape shifted monumentally in this two-year period.
But you didn’t start in film or do film school or anything like that, right?
No, I started producing theater which is like the least same thing that has the same name ever. Theater is all on the rehearsal. But I feel like that lack of background was oddly an advantage when I decided to make a feature. I was in my late 20s I was living in New York City, sensibly a lot of movies are made about that woman but I didn’t see any of those movies about the power of female friendships, of women working and creating amazing things together, those stories had always been reserved for men.
So when I produced my first film with a group of incredible women creators it was a direct reaction to not seeing myself represented in any meaningful way. But then I started asking questions in the distribution phase because I didn’t have any preconceived notions about how it was supposed to go. And when I really learned about how films were getting financed and distributed I was like wait, seriously? Everybody just has to like wait to get picked and that’s the plan? Why is this called “independent” film?
It’s funny you mention the pre-conceived notions because a lot of people think they know how the process works or still believe in this very traditional model of someone simply taking your idea and running and that’s all that has to happen.
The thing I really care about is shifting the power into the hands of the creator. And independent filmmakers have been kept behind by being told: “you’re an artist, you shouldn’t have to do the business stuff.” And when an artist thinks they shouldn’t have to do the “business stuff,” you create a system where they have to be dependent.
With the crowdfunding, we really focus on education and everything that leads up to being able to create a successful crowdfunding campaign. And then leveraging the tools of successful crowdfunding all the way through the distribution process such that your next film is easier to make and the one after that is easier to make and so on and so forth.
Do you see yourselves as consultants as much as a funding platform?
When you submit to crowdfunding on Seed&Spark, we give you personalized feedback on your campaign to make sure that you’re actually set up for success. And we’re not afraid to say where you are right now and your audience building process if you’re not ready to raise the amount of money that you’re asking for. Here are the things that you can do to get ready. But the biggest mistake I see in crowdfunding is that filmmakers think the crowd and the funding come from the platform and that is never the case.
In order for people to be successful at crowdfunding, they have to know all of the things they need out of it. And we want them to be able to leverage the incredibly hard work of crowdfunding for so much more than just money for this one project. It’s really about audience for this project and many more after that.
It feels as much about taking ownership of your projects and your own success as much as anything.
I just want to find out what other money-making profession singularly relies on getting picked besides maybe sports. What I would ask anyone is, “Do you want to wait to be picked? Is that what stands between you and doing what you want? Or do you want to do it badly enough that you’re willing to learn to do a lot of other things?” If you’re spending more time courting an agent than you are writing and making your stuff, I think you’re doing it wrong.
Shifting the responsibility or thinking someone can cover your inadequacies also seems like it would hurt you as a creator.
An agent will say they are looking for self-generators. The way to get an agent is to make a lot of cool shit. But in order to make cool shit, you have to make a lot of shitty shit first. The chances that the very first thing you write is worthy of putting in front of a manager when you probably only get one shot with them, is crazy.
Aside from putting in the time, what are common objections people have to doing it on their own and how do you get them to work past that?
As creators, you have to build partnerships. If you have great material, you can find people to work on it in this field. You know films don’t get made alone so you’re going to have to learn to be collaborative. When you find those collaborators, these could be people you work with for the rest of your life. Scorsese met his editor, Thelma Schoonmaker, on his first feature. And they’ve worked together now for over fifty years.
Seeing this opportunity of learning together and growing together is really exciting. I literally did not know how to make a film and the first thing I produced was a feature. That was because I found a producer who would mentor me. I had a friend in film school who taught me the basics of line producing and how to put a schedule together. It is so easy to learn especially these days in the era of YouTube. I’m not saying that makes it easy to do, obviously.
Funny you mention YouTube because I think having so many platforms now is kind of a blessing and a curse. On one hand, you have so many different options with the streaming platforms and Amazon and YouTube and SnapChat. But on the other hand, how do you stand out enough to really make a career out of this?
You have to know your audience. If you do not know your audience, you’re just guessing. You’re back to waiting to be picked. If you develop a relationship with your audience, over time you will know where they are and you will know what they want to watch because you know them.
For writers, it comes back to this idea of just get off your ass and take control of your own material. And I realize that requires you to dig into the cultural preconceptions we have about what an artist’s life looks like. And a lot of those preconceptions are pre-Internet or even pre-telephone that the industry has not fully assimilated. If you want to build an actual career in entertainment, you will have to become an entertainment business person.
All of these creators you see are really successful people are also shrewd business people. They have worked incredibly hard incrementally. For instance, do you have a film in your mind that is Stanley Kubrick’s breakout film?
Personally, I’d say The Killing but mainstream most people would probably say 2001: A Space Odyssey.
That’s right. Well, he made six features before, but we never really acknowledge that stuff. That sort of effortless mythology is what drives a lot of people.
The notion that it only takes fifteen years to be an overnight success?
This is going to sound mean, but why does anyone deserve to be an overnight success? Why shouldn’t you have to work really fucking hard? And that feeds into us being told that if we’re just special enough, we’ll get picked and we won’t have to do any work. But those people don’t exist.
Not to go on a separate diatribe, but that was my biggest issue with La La Land. It feeds this idea that the worst thing that can happen to someone is they don’t become rich and famous. And you need to buy into this system or institution that will make that happen for you.
Seed&Spark in some ways is a grand experiment about if we can build a studio whose core capacity is not ownership of the IP and control of the data but where the creators retain ownership of the IP and have open, transparent access to their data. And what we do is help facilitate the conversations, which mean creators and their audiences can build value and relationships that way. Where the value really is ultimately in the community. And the reason the community’s there is because the creators are respected and we’ll die on this hill because we are all ourselves filmmakers.
So what’s up ahead? What is the future for Seed&Spark?
Our subscribers are growing and that’s ultimately where we’ll make the majority of our revenue but right now we’re sharing a majority of the subscriber revenue with the filmmakers whose material is getting watched. We want to build a model where we make money when our filmmakers make money and not the other way around. What we’ve been doing to sustain ourselves is build partnerships with brands and production companies that want access to this incredible community that’s been built through the education program across the country because they want to diversify their development pipelines. That’s a healthy way for us to scale a business that’s in alignment from a values perspective. It’s additive for creators, its additive for us, it’s additive for audiences.
Tom Dever writes for The Script Lab.