Is Crowdfunding the Documentary Industry's Cure for Austerity?

08/11/2012 13:21 GMT | Updated 08/01/2013 10:12 GMT

With Kickstarter's UK launch, is this the moment when crowdfunding goes mainstream?

Kickstarter and other crowdfunding platforms have been the hot topic in film funding circles for the last couple of years. We at Sheffield Doc/Fest think they can also offer a viable alternative to the funding cuts arts organisations are currently facing. Crowdfunding can be a sustainable third way between dependence on public funding and corporate funding.

Crowdfunding is being talked about a lot as the hot new way to finance creative projects such as films, books, games, technology, working on the principle that a large number of individuals will come together to support and fund projects that they really care about.

Raising money from a large group of generous people isn't new - the Medici and their friends in Florence sustained the art market a few hundred years back, Dickens hawked his writing around to get small contributions from benefactors, many war memorials in British villages were raised by the combined small donations of the local community. What is new is the online infrastructure whereby thousands of people can easily ask for contributions and provide a trustworthy system of rewards and safe giving.

The world's most succesful crowdfunding platform, Kickstarter, just launched in the UK. The creative industries here will be hoping that it will be as successful as in the US, where over 32000 successful projects have raised a total of nearly $350m, making it one of the country's biggest arts funders. This included 15 projects raising over $1m, making Kickstarter a serious player in arts funding comparable to most public and private foundations.

We're currently trying to raise $25000 for our festival on another major international crowdfunding platform, IndieGoGo . The platform you use for raising the money doesn't really matter because it's about the work you put into it. It is a huge undertaking to run a crowdfunding campaign - a massive amount of effort, writing hundreds of personal emails, requiring arts organisation fundraisers to be imaginative business entrepreneurs rather than artistic cultural fundraisers.

We've been writing to the documentary community and trying to persuade them that together we can support each others' connections and networking. Supporting our Super Connector Fund is a way to do this. Documentary in general is a popular artform on crowdfunding platforms. Since Kickstarter launched in 2009, 2236 documentary projects have been successful hitting their target on Kickstarter - these 2236 documentaries have raised $38 million through an average 222 pledges for each campaign. Some especially successful crowdfunded documentaries have been AI Wei Wei - Never Sorry by Alison Klayman and My Reincarnation by Jennifer Fox.

In both cases, and in other successful projects (see below), crowdfunding works when donors feel motivated by a cause and a connection to the film, filmmakers or film organisation - see examples below. It's not about the 'quality' of the film or project, it's about a connection.

Current examples, many on the Doc/Fest curated Kickstarter page :

The Yes Men Are Revolting - raised $68,000 in just over a week - motivates political film fans, and includes rewards of being a subversive activist just like them

Ragtag Needs Robots - True False Film festival are Crowdfunding for their local Cinema's digital upgrade, and with 3 days to go surpassed their target of $80,000 - motivates by connecting donors to a community and fleapit cinema.

The Sheffield Doc/Fest SuperConnector campaign - has 9 days to go and currently at $7500 with another $17,500 to raise - motivates by making festival-goers give something back to an organisation that has helped them in the past

The Dark Matter of Love - on UK Kickstarter. Sarah McCarthy and Grace Hughes-Hallett just launched a crowdfunding campaign for their new documentary -they've set a target of £20,000 and have raised about £5,000 so far. This motivates by combining science and human interest

Project WildThing - motivates by being a good cause - getting urban children out more in nature. £4300 raised so far.

• Dirty White Gold is a new UK activist film advocating for fairer cotton trading practices, funding on a smaller UK-based platform, Sponsume. Funding here, it motivates by making givers feel like activists really changing things in the world, and making a political statement through their funding choice.