Filmmakers: are you paying attention to the marketplace? Kellie Ann Benz says that’s the secret behind the success of Indie Game: The Movie


It’s all changed. The game of funding features. You know it, I know it and if you’re anything like me, you’re wondering how this change affects you, the creative person.

Here’s the good news: the movie you want to make is yours to make now.

Here’s the unpopular news: you’re going to work a lot harder to get your film made.

Back to the good news: you’ll own it.

Crappy news again: you’ll have learn how to be a producer too.

Ending on the positive: you might get rich.

The world of movies is all a giggly-goo over the recent crowd-funding success of the feature version of Veronica Mars. Their star-based crowdfunding holy-crap-a-looza netted (at last count) over $4 million dollars – that’s $2 million more than they asked for. And they still have (at last count) 11 days to go.

So yeah. It’s all changed.

You’re saying to yourself, so what, now this too? So Louis CK sold out his comedy show online, so Charlie Kaufman raised $200,000 more than he wanted for his animation project. So what? These people are well-known, well-established Hollywood/New York mucky mucks who should be able to succeed at crowdfunding and I’m just a trying-and-failing Canuck filmmaker with a good idea and an audience I can count on two hands, one if you exclude my cousins from northern Ontario. So, so what?

If you haven’t already heard the story of Indie Game: The Movie, let me be the first to introduce you.

“We spend a lot of time thinking about fonts.” This is Lisanne Pajot, one brain of the two that make up the Winnipeg-based Indie Game: The Movie team, the other brain is James Swirsky.

Never heard of them? Here’s your so what.

James and Lisanne cut their teeth the typical way filmmakers do: corporate video, marketing and advertising. They write/shoot/edit/post it all themselves from their home base of Winnipeg, Manitoba. They do various projects, some self-directed, some contracted.

One of the shorts they produced for New Media Manitoba Business Showcase was about a hometown indie game developer, Alec Holowka of Infinite Ammo. See the short that inspired it all below.

Making the short and attending the 2009 Game Developers Conference gave these two enterprising Winnipeggers an idea.

It should be said that they didn’t ask for much – not like the bigwigs raking in hundreds of thousands to thousands of millions – no, James and Lisanne kept their ask reasonable.

You can see here that the tiny ask of $15,000 went well over their request to a surprising $23,341 from less than 300 people which meant James and Lisanne were in production on their first feature documentary. Not to mention, by keeping it small they now had 300 in-the-know audience members invested in their idea for a film.

This isn’t the surprising point, and when you ask James and Lisanne they’ll say something like, “We thought we could do it all but weren’t sure how, so it was a giant learning curve.” Which is what James told me when we talked last month less than a year since the movie’s release, and two years into James and Lisanne spending a lot of time thinking about fonts.

Here’s why.

The surprising part of Indie Game: The Movie was that instead of making the crowdfunded film and selling it to a distributor, which is the traditional route, they distributed the film themselves.

Seeing that they had a small but loyal audience, they went out for another ask to Kickstarter, this time with a rough cut and some proof of their puddin’ – they requested $35,000 and got $71,335 from an audience of 1,596 people.

It was evident to them that they have a loyal audience which wanted the movie more than most distributors would understand. So they stopped trying to convince those who might not get the allure and went straight to the audience who wanted their film.

Indie Game: The Movie – made by two nerds from Winnipeg – opened theatrically in NY, LA, Seattle, San Francisco and Toronto. Prior to this self-release, Adobe sponsored a 15 city in-person tour of the film that James and Lisanne co-ordinated themselves. Then they sold it online via iTunes and Steam – the go-to game site – until they finally released it on their own website where YOU can stop reading this article right now and watch the film for only $9.99.

For those of you still in this article, here’s the insight that’ll make the impatient ones curse their trigger finger.

It seems to me that the key ingredient in this perfection pie seems to be paying attention.

Lisanne and James didn’t blow their wad with a $60,000 ask: they started small and honoured that small core by using what they were given to deliver a significant step forward in production.

The filmmakers I see making tactical errors in crowdfunding are ones who aren’t paying attention to the marketplace – like those asking for more than $25,000 to shoot an indie feature with no recognizable names in the cast, then asking for more to do post production.

James and Lisanne took baby steps that started with a short film and began with small expectations which were reachable and marketable. You might be a very talented writer or an undiscovered director, but assuming that the audience should want your masterwork is a recipe for disaster.

If you were the seller of the most delicious grapefruit in the world, you wouldn’t just put up a sign declaring ‘good grapefruit’ then price it out of the market, would you? No, you’d offer samples as proof and keep your price equitable to the marketplace to build a loyal fan base.

James Swirsky and Lisanne Pajot offer the kind of well-thought-out approach that most filmmakers are looking to emulate today. The self-release style is a new step towards the gate-keeper-free independence that all filmmakers crave. It is important to note in their success, however, just how close they kept their ears to the murmurs of their audiences’ wishes.

Their success has become such a sensation in the indie film world that instead of fielding the many questions that the still get asked, they’ve put their experiences into a case study for all to read.

Does this mean they’re finally ready to take on a new project?

“Now we know the steps needed,” James told me recently.

“We’re still stymied by the lack of hours in a day,” Lisanne explained. “But we know the process so much better now. We know where to put our energy and where not to.”

This is their way of saying yes, they’ve started work on their next project.

Hoping that their core audience grows with their next project, they’re working away on a new documentary that will engage their current audience and cross with a new audience.

So, I had to ask, are you conjuring up ideas that meet the needs of your established audience?

“Content wise, we lean towards what draws us personally and since we know our audience now we believe they’ll come with us to the next project,” Lisanne said, adding, “It’s market focused but not at the expense of the creative.”

And will they do it the same way again?

“We still don’t know if this is how we make everything we make. The second project will be the deciding factor on that question,” James revealed.

One thing’s for certain: these two are happily Winnipeg-based and for the time being have no reason to update that status.

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