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The Seed&Spark Blog

The Price of Participation

June 11, 2013

• Joyce Wu

Someone once told me that if you’re looking for money, you should ask for advice and if you’re looking for advice, you should ask for money.  It’s the sort of vulgar, hardboiled adage that could only have been dreamed up in Silicon Valley or Hollywood, where ambition and moxie get you a lot further than good manners and modesty.

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Joyce Q&A Style            *Photo by Chris Anthony Diaz 

But a few years ago, I made the decision to be shameless.  I spent so much of my life mired in self-doubt, too timid to seek out opportunities, embarrassed at the notion of “networking,” and afraid to death of self-promotion.  Gradually, through the years, I saw a lot of people succeed not because they were more talented (though I’m sure many of them were) but because they had the nerve to go out and make it happen for themselves.  I decided that I could fail because I wasn’t talented enough but I refused to fail because I was too embarrassed to put myself out there.

So when an opportunity arose, I asked for advice and I found myself in the office of a man who was an alumnus of the small college where I studied abroad my junior year of undergrad.  He had devoted much of his life to philanthropic work and was honored with three very impressive letters at the end of his name for his contributions to the British Empire.   I cornered him at an alumni event and he agreed to meet with me.

I gave him the business proposal for my film but he told me he didn’t know anything about the movie industry so he was afraid he couldn’t be of much help.  Film didn’t interest him and he wasn’t really sure what he could do for me.  So it was abundantly clear he wouldn’t finance my film but I didn’t want to leave without at least getting some advice.   I wanted to know more about what compelled people like him to become patrons of the arts.  He may not have been a cinephile but he contributed a great deal to the opera and ballet.

I asked him what was attractive to him about donating to performing arts organizations.  He replied, “Well, it’s being a member of the family.  It’s the price of participation.”  It was astonishing that this octogenarian put his finger on exactly what so-called “disrupters” in the tech and film world have been championing like it’s a brand-new, recently discovered concept: participation.

Crowdfunding sites like Seed&Spark are game changers because they’re radicalizing the notion of who gets to participate in funding the arts.  But as filmmakers, we still have a lot of work to do in informing and recruiting our audiences and helping them understand that they don’t have to be a captain of industry or Commander of the British Empire to be a funder.

A few months ago, I showed a ten-minute teaser for my feature “The Real Mikado” at CAAMfest, an Asian American film festival in San Francisco.  It screened with several other short films with similar themes about identity and representation.  At every single screening, during the Q & A, someone from the audience would express their frustration that there aren’t more films with Asian American characters.  I would respond with a shameless plug for my Seed&Spark campaign, which I had launched to coincide with the festival.  Framing my film in the context of a larger issue was a call to action.  Want to see more movies with Asian Americans?  Then put your money where your mouth is.

But it’s still a struggle for people to make that connection or to understand how their small donation could change anything. Most people still don’t see themselves as micro-financiers of films.   As filmmakers, we need to do everything we can to empower them so they do.  And once we have them on board, we need to do everything we can to justify their trust in us. 

The cliché “There’s no such thing as a free lunch,” goes both way when it comes to crowdfunded films.  If you’re a filmmaker taking someone’s money, you have to deliver what you promised.  Funders will begin to sour to the idea of donating if the films never get made or take forever to finish.  They will have an even harder time following the already tenuous thread between their contribution and an actual film.

On the other side, funders have to understand that they can complain about how films nowadays are so poorly made and formulaic or they can support a filmmaker trying to do something else by “voting with their dollars.” It’s the price of participation.  Filmmakers, there are plenty of people out there who are willing to pay that price.  Just don’t be afraid to ask.

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Joyce Wu

Joyce Wu grew up outside of Detroit. Her short films have screened at festivals around the world. She was awarded a full-tuition scholarship from New York University's prestigious graduate film program, where she completed her course work and is in p

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