When Kannada filmmaker Pawan Kumar decided to make a no-star, no-masala feature film, finding investors proved to be a herculean task. He had a brainwave. Why not turn to the audience? The 30-year-old protégé of Kannada cinema stalwart Yograj Bhat reached out on his blog, which, thanks to his debut Lifeu Ishtene, had a formidable following.
Project Lucia, as the campaign came to be called, raked in its target of Rs 50 lakh in 27 days. “But people still wanted to give money,” recalls Kumar. The amount pledged crossed a crore, but Kumar refused the excess. On 20 July, Lucia will be the first Kannada film to have a world premiere at the London Indian film Festival — Europe’s venue for Indian indie cinema.
Kumar’s is one of the best examples of a successful crowdfunding campaign in India. Though by no means a novel idea — Shyam Benegal’s Manthan was funded with Rs 2 each contributions from the 5,00,000 farmers of the Gujarat Cooperative Milk Federation in the wake of the White Revolution — getting money from anonymous cyber buddies is no mean feat. “We don’t have much venture capitalist backing in India. Campaigners — filmmakers, musicians, photographers — have to start with friends and family and constantly engage the audiences online,” explains Priyanka Agarwal, CEO of Wishberry, India’s premier crowdfunding website. Kumar reached out to a substantial audience that was disconnected from regular Kannada cinema. Nearly 110 people backed him even though he revealed no details of the script. Even now, the only thing known is that the film deals with an insomniac’s drug-fueled adventures.
Publicity, like money, is crowd sourced. Kumar attests to the utility of word-of-mouth: “Strangers worldwide circulated the trailer online, and the festival picked it up.”
However, cracking crowdfunding is no cakewalk. A depressing number of promising campaigns fall by the wayside. Filmmaker Abhay Kumar’s campaign for his undercover, experimental documentary Placebo, backed by Anurag Kashyap, “failed spectacularly” on Wishberry. This failure could be symptomatic of the strained relationship some campaigners share with such platforms. Though Wishberry, launched in 2009, provides much logistic support, it also charges 10 percent of the money earned from the campaign. “If your campaign fails, they take 20 percent,” says Abhay.
Pawan Srivastava, whose offbeat film on migrant identity in Bihar, Naya Pata, was made on a crowdfunded budget of Rs 8 lakh, says Wishberry would have made him work as much, used his own network and then taken a cut. “So, I reached out to my contacts online on my own.”
Another way to crowdfund is more conventional: equity-based capital. But, filmmaker Onir’s campaign for his film I Am ran into trouble because of the notorious tax component slapped on equity funding. Most campaigns, such as Naya Pata, go for reward-based crowd funding with no monetary returns, but tokens such as DVDs and invites to special screenings. “In India, you cannot legally reach out to more than 50 people at once to sell your product. There is tax on money received, on interest, on dividends,” says Agarwal. Onir ended up paying nearly 47 percent of the Rs 1 crore he raised through crowdfunding and equity funding in taxes.
Crowdfunding in India is complicated. Unpredictable crowd sentiment, taxes, a non-internet-literate market, pose problems aplenty. But, there is one uncontested advantage — creative freedom. Lucia and I Am would not be possible had their makers relied on industry investors. Audiences connect emotionally with uncompromised content, explains Sridhar Rangayan, director of Kashish, India’s largest LGBT film festival, which took to partial crowdfunding last year, gaining overwhelming audience response. Kumar repeatedly told his audience that “Lucia is your film”. That they are the co-producers. And producing is not where audience involvement ends. They have to watch the movie too. The very farmers who helped Benegal churn out his Manthan went in droves to theatres, making it a hit and setting a precedent.