To SIFF and beyond! Kickstarter's changing the local film game

First-time filmmakers are harnessing the power of the crowd to get them moving down the road.
Crosscut archive image.

Big Joy is a film about poet and filmmaker James Broughton.

First-time filmmakers are harnessing the power of the crowd to get them moving down the road.

When Seattle journalists Sarah Stuteville and her husband Alex Stonehill met Sam “Barzan” Malkandi, he hugged them. "You guys smell like Seattle," he said. "It makes me miss it so much.”

It was 2010 and Stuteville and Stonehill were traveling to Iraq on an international reporting project. [Full disclosure: Stuteville is a professor of the author at University of Washington.] The entrepreneurial journalists, who started The Seattle Globalist, were there to report on other stories, but they made an extra stop to meet Malkandi after they heard his tale. Barzan, who immigrated to Kirkland from Iraq in 1998, had been what Stuteville calls a model immigrant. But in 2003, his name appeared on the 9/11 Commission Report and he was deported, leaving his family and life behind. 

“As soon as I met him,” Stuteville said, “he was this open, warm, charming, charismatic guy, the furthest from your mind from what you'd think of someone accused of terrorism. He was like a dad from Kirkland. He was lonely, he missed home and missed Seattle.” 

What was supposed to be two days of their trip turned into a week and a half. Stuteville and Stonehill were recording the whole time. 

When the couple returned to the U.S. they realized they had a lot of work to do to turn their footage into a feature film, and they needed money to do it, so they turned to Kickstarter.

Users of Kickstarter, an online fundraising platform for independent creative projects, donated $100 million to film projects between 2009 and 2013. The only caveat to funding this way is that, if a project doesn't raise its goal amount, all the money it did raise must be returned. But Stuteville and Stonehill did it, raising $8,800 for “Barzan’s” post-production with the help of 117 backers in three weeks.

“Kickstarter is not easy money,” Stuteville says. “You still have to work for it.” For campaigns to be successful, she advises, it is paramount to have a “slick shareable short video that people will watch all the way through and want to share with people.” 

For the past 37 years, SIFF has become a tradition, a fixture in Seattle and the film community. In more recent years, SIFF and the filmmakers who create its films have had a silent funder. Untold people have contributed their money to Kickstarter, creating a new breed of independent entrepreneurial filmmakers. 

Brad Wilke, a feature film programmer for SIFF, said resources like Kickstarter are the cutting edge of creativity for funding independent American film. 

“Here’s the thing,” Wilke explains, “almost every film these days gets some of their funding from Kickstarter.”

So SIFF is embracing it. This year, their Catalyst panels will include a talk called “Kickass Kickstarters: Recipes for Success.”

And with these funding resources, people are being more creative. Wilke said he’s seeing riskier subject matter and innovative filming styles. ("Worm," playing at SIFF this year, was filmed entirely on a GoPro camera strapped to the actor.) 

These new styles of filming “open up the creative floodgate for more people to say 'Hey, maybe my idea isn't that crazy,’” Wilke says.

With Kickstarter funding, Stuteville and Stonehill turned their footage into a film. “Barzan,” which premiered at the Sarasota Film Festival last month, is an official selection at SIFF this year.

And “Barzan” isn’t the only SIFF film to look to its audience for funding this year. “Big Joy: The Adventures of James Broughton,” a film chronicling the life of poet and filmmaker James Broughton, ran two separate successful Kickstarter campaigns, bringing in a total of $36,880. 

Vashon Island resident, Stephen Silha met poet and filmmaker James Broughton when they shared a cabin at a radical faerie gathering — a fiercely independent counter-culture movement that uses spirituality to reexamine queer identities. He wanted to write a book about Broughton, but realized that to honor the artist, he should make a film — something he’d never done before. 

His friend, Eric Slade, agreed to work on the project with him if Silha could find a way to raise the money. So, in addition to grants, Silha turned to Kickstarter, Indiegogo and then Kickstarter again. He’s even planning a third Kickstarter to help fund the film’s distribution. 

During their first Kickstarter campaign, Silha knew almost all of the contributors, but by their second campaign — with increased visibility from being featured on Kickstarter’s main page — they knew less than half of donors. 

“It's like a political campaign,” Silha said. “You have to have at least one person getting up every day saying ‘What can I do to make sure this campaign succeeds?’”

"Big Joy" premiered at South by Southwest in Austin, Texas, but SIFF is its first Washington screening. 

Silha reached his 60s while working on the film. “I got to start a new career in a way,” he said. It’s a career he may continue in the future, but for now he’s focusing on making sure more people see "Big Joy."

If you go:

"Barzan" will screen Sunday, June 2 at 12:30 p.m., at the Kirkland Performance Center in Kirkland. For tickets and more information click here

"Big Joy" will screen May 31 at 6 p.m. at SIFF Cinema Uptown and on June 1 at 1:30 p.m. at AMC Pacific Place 11. For tickets and more information click here

The SIFF Catalyst Panel will be at 9 a.m. on June 1 at the SIFF Film Center. For tickets and more information click here



Please support independent local news for all.

We rely on donations from readers like you to sustain Crosscut's in-depth reporting on issues critical to the PNW.


About the Authors & Contributors