Raising Half a Million by Crowd Funding

Carol Nahra
DOX Documentary Film Magazine
1 July 2008

Just how on earth do you raise half a million Euros for a documentary tackling one of the world’s most depressing subjects, without a single broadcaster or distributor? Ask Franny Armstrong: she did so by “crowd funding” – getting more than two hundred common investors to band together to fund her climate change doc The Age of Stupid.

Editorial Dependence

Franny Armstrong is delighted that more than a decade ago, every commissioning editor rejected her feature length documentary, McLibel, a David-and-Goliath story of how two British activists fought a libel action brought by McDonald’s. Broadcasters shied away from commissions for fear of antagonising the notoriously litigious corporation.

Instead, Armstrong made her film in a time-honoured tradition more familiar to is doc-makers than Brits: credit card, debt, minimal budget and a wing and a prayer. While this strategy lacked the creature comforts of a full commission, Armstrong did find she relished maintaining control of the film. “I came to realise at the end of it with McLibel, that doing in independently is so much better – for the editorial control, of course, but also for the distribution. Channel 4 also did a McLibel, a drama but our McLibel literally went a hundred times further in terms of viewers,” she says.

This time around, Armstrong was determined to maintain her independence, but try something new to bring in the funds. She also recognised that her film idea would have wide appeal, for she was determined to tackle the biggest threat facing all of us: climate change.

Armstrong has been interested in the subject most of her life and wrote her undergraduate thesis on it at the University of London, calling it “Is the human species suicidal?” Global activism is in her genes – her father Peter Armstrong is an ex-BBC world affairs journalist who went on to create oneworl.net as a way of allowing filmmakers from around the world to have their say about issues facing them, without the stranglehold of broadcasters.

Control of Distribution

Wanting to balance out her own reputation as a bit of a maverick filmmaker, Armstrong looked for a co-producer who would bring, more mainstream credibility to the project – and soon had on board prolific British doc producer John Battsek, who has steered a number of feature docs to the cinema including Live Forever and the Oscar-winning One Day in September.

“I heard John speak at an event. I loved his attitude,” Armstrong recalls. “He was saying ‘All I care about is the idea; I don’t care about anything else’. “ Armstrong found Battsek keen to try to move ahead without industry money. “I came with the position that I wanted to be completely independent for the distribution. And John’s position interestingly was that he had made quite a few documentaries in the past, but never made any money, ever. If you do make a hit film it just all gets sucked up by the distributors, or whatever. It just disappears. So we wanted to come up with a system which would solve both our problems, which is the distribution, but also if it makes money we want that money to go to the people who worked on it, and the people who believed in it.”

Getting Investors

Hiring a small venue in Soho, Armstrong screened McLibel for a group of extended friends and family, and then verbally pitched her idea for a climate change film. One hundred people soon signed up, each buying 100 ‘shares’ for GPB 500 (EUR 634). They since have raised nearly GBP 430,000 (EUR 545,000) from investors (and a few outright donations) with the money steadily coming in over the three and a half years it has taken to make he film. They are only twenty thousand pounds short of the full budget.

Armstrong has found the entire fundraising effort to be surprisingly smooth. “It was easy to get. It came in gradually – we didn’t get a big whoosh at the beginning. But we also have this fantastic support network,” she enthuses. “For example, I wanted to go away and work on a script, so I sent out an email to our list – ‘Has anyone got a country cottage I could borrow?’ Got five offers, ended up in a lovely little place. Because they’re all willing ourselves on, it’s like having a great support team. It doesn’t feel at all lonely, which on my other films I have.”

Investing Process

The investing process is straightforward and outlined in detail on the film’s website www.ageofstupid.net. Vetted by lawyers, the site is careful to explain that there is no guarantee investors will see any return on their investment. (The site also chronicles in great detail the making of the film.)

After the initial finding round, investors, either acting individually or in syndicates, contribute a minimum of GBP 2,500 (EUR 3,170) in exchange for a credit and a 0.125% of the profits. Armstrong expects to be able to begin paying money back to investors once the film makes a net profit of GBP 2 million. The 231 investors are wide-ranging in location (including New Zealand, Denmark and Bermuda) and background. The biggest single investment was for GPB 30,000 (EUR 38,000), purchased by a woman and her godchildren. Several are from the doc community, including Alex Graham, head of Wall to Wall, whose donation page on the film’s website says why he chose to support it:

“I’m not even sure what I think about climate change. But I do know that the range of opinion and debate in the media is getting narrower, and we need people like Franny and Lizzie (Gillet, producer – ed.) and we need movies like this. So this is less an investment in the future and more in the future of dissent.”

The Film

Dubbed, rather awkwardly, a “drama-documentary-animation hybrid”, The Age of Stupid acclaimed British actor Pete Postlethwaite as an old main living in the devastated world of 2055. Facing the camera he presses buttons on a transparent screen, calling up an enormous range of “archive” footage from 2007, wondering why the world didn’t do more to stop climate change when it was still possible.

As Postlethwaite sorts through a dizzying array of clips showing the effects of climate change worldwide – and how the media reported it, with little effect – a number of additional documentary storylines show the human side of the issue. One follows an entrepreneur in India as he launches a budget airline. His tale, according to Armstrong, demonstrates how the best intentions can still be extremely damaging to the climate: “He genuinely wants to eradicate poverty and thinks the best way to do that is to open up in India so everyone can interact,” she says. “So he is starting up this airline with the aim of eradicating poverty. We thought this was a really interesting example. Nobody is causing climate change because we want to: we’re all going about our little lives doing what we want to do.” Indeed by Armstrong’s own rueful admission, in the making of The Age of Stupid the film crew racked up 105 tonnes of carbon emissions, filming in India, Nigeria, the United States, France, the UK and Iraq.

Getting Exposure

That number is likely to grow, as Armstrong gets ready for the film to screen at festivals worldwide, and prepares to begin discussions with the distributors and broadcasters she has thus far kept at arm’s length – an industry screening has been arranged for Sunny Side of the Docs.

In February, Franny and her team hosted a last fundraising push on Second Life, screening clips from the film and answering questions. While it didn’t lead to any direct investments, it did attract a small worldwide audience, and a decent amount of publicity, British writer and filmmaker Rajesh Thind “attended”, joining Second Life for the first time: “I think Franny has consistently innovated with how she funds, distributes and targets her films,” he says. “She’s using grass-roots techniques to deal with grassroots issues in a way that is both courageous and visionary.”

In the months ahead, Armstrong will continue to push to bring widespread exposure to the film – hopefully yielding returns for her small army of investors, but more importantly raising global awareness of the need to take steps now to save the planet which is all too clearly crumbling around us.