03/31/2015 11:44 EDT

Crowdfunding Can 'Kickstart' Your Idea, But It Helps If You're Already Popular

Andreas Rentz via Getty Images
BERLIN, GERMANY - FEBRUARY 10: Actor James Franco attends the 'Every Thing Will Be Fine' press conference during the 65th Berlinale International Film Festival at Grand Hyatt Hotel on February 10, 2015 in Berlin, Germany. (Photo by Andreas Rentz/Getty Images)

In Adam Cohen’s basement are two coffins, a Colonel Mustard costume, and an S.S. uniform among other questionable items. No, Cohen does not like to play dress-up. These items are from his sketch comedy pilot “Wasted Youth” — a project he personally funded. At a time when sites such as Kickstarter or Indiegogo are becoming standard fare for young artists, Cohen stands out by passing on them.

While many turn to the tool to receive funding for their projects, “I see what I did as an investment in me as a writer,” says Cohen.

Crowdfunding allows artists to receive funding via donation from the public, instead of the government or big-name production companies. The best known crowdfunding website, Kickstarter, first launched back in 2009 and entered the Canadian market in 2013. In 2014 alone, Kickstarter brought 22,252 projects to fruition, and 3.3. million people from almost every country donated over half a billion dollars. As Kickstarter points out, that’s $1,000 pledged per minute.

But as crowdfunding evolves, it’s becoming a big business — and one that, so far, favours those who already have fans or friends online. That has made many wonder whether crowdfunding is really a tool to bring new ideas to life — or little more than a new financing strategy for established artists and institutions.

Adam Cohen in a costume from his YouTube project "Religious Tindr." Cohen has eschewed crowdfunding because "the benefits just weren't outweighed by the costs."

Numerous Kickstarter competitors have begun to appear on the stage. Two years ago, John and Hank Green, the brothers behind successful the YouTube channel VlogBrothers, created Subbable, a crowdfunding platform for fans to financially help their favourite YouTube content creators. This year, the site was purchased by San Francisco-based crowdfunding platform Patreon. The combining of the two forces is expected to earn them $25 million from fans in 2015, double the profits the companies saw in 2014.

However, Vlogbrothers has access to 2.5 million subscribers. Although this is a luxury others do not necessarily have, the brothers have used their influence to lend a helping hand to lesser known content creators. This sort of collaboration between popular content creators and those new on the scene could prove to be another way projects on the platform find success.

The Actors Fund found similar success with a pre-conceived fanbase when it turned to Kickstarter to crowdfund the concert performance of “Bombshell,” a fictional musical created within NBC’s now cancelled “Smash.” Although the intention of crowdfunding was initially to create an opportunity for the underground artist, it’s now used to more effect by those with an already established fanbase.

Kickstarter started really making waves when loyal fans of the TV show “Veronica Mars” raised $5.7 million for the a movie adaptation that went on to be released in 2014. The crowdfunding project received 91,585 backers who together well surpassed the projected $2 million that show creator Rob Thomas set for the project. The result? Fans of abruptly ended shows like “Pushing Daisies” begged for the chance to pay for an ending that gave them closure.

Comedy group “The Broken Lizard” turned to Indiegogo just last week to crowdfund a sequel to “Super Troopers,” their 2001 cult classic. Thanks to the small but loyal fanbase, the group was able to crowdfund over $2 million on day one of the campaign.

Even James Franco used the funding platform Indiegogo two years ago to make a film adaptation of “Palo Alto,” his collection of short stories He raised $327,929 of his $500,000 goal, though that didn’t prevent the film’s 2013 release. “Scrubs” actor Zach Braff, however, raised $3.1 million to make his film “Wish I Was Here” — the project’s goal had been $2 million. “You would think [they] would have other avenues,” said Cohen. “[But] the thing about Kickstarter is, you’re putting an idea out there and [if] there is enough demand, then why not?”

“Wasted Youth” director Matthew Gorman doesn’t have a problem with celebrities using crowdfunding. He believes the goal of an aspiring filmmaker is to get to the level of successful, established directors. But seeing well-known directors use crowdfunding discourages aspiring artists, he says.

“When you hear about Oscar-nominated or winning filmmakers using crowdfunding because no one believes in their idea enough to give them the budget, it takes away from the illusion of success,” Gorman says.

Michael Coady, the executive director of We Make Movies Canada, helps indie filmmakers find funding for a living. The company itself was funded through a Kickstarter campaign. “Even Brad Pitt doesn’t get an immediate green light for every project that he wants to produce,” Coady said.

Putting your project on Kickstarter or platforms like it doesn’t ensure success. Not every project that uses crowdfunding meets its target. Some get close, some raise half, and some don’t get far at all.

Kendall Almerico, a crowdfunding expert and the CEO of ClickStartMe, says that people think crowdfunding is an easy way to make money, but it’s not. “It takes hard work, and a ton of marketing and promotion to be successful,” Almerico says.

The animated opening credits to "Wasted Youth," which Cohen says is currently in post-production.

A crowdfunding campaign requires consistent management even as you work to create the product you’re crowdfunding.

“I don’t think that you can rush if you want to maximize what you’re going to get out of it,” Cohen says. He didn’t use crowdfunding because he felt that, since the “Wasted Youth” team didn’t have someone managing a crowdfunding campaign, it would divert attention from the project.

Cohen got into the film industry through friends who put him in touch with a mutual friend. The friend was working on a web series titled Found Viral, and welcomed Cohen aboard. “I had a job I never should have had given my experience. I got my feet wet in pretty much every aspect of filmmaking,” Cohen said. Later, when the director of Found Viral relocated to London, Ont., to work on the film Tapped, he invited Cohen to join the team.

When he began to create his own project, Cohen didn’t want to give anything away by writing down the ideas or revealing the pilot’s endgame. “The benefits just weren’t outweighed by the costs,” he said.

Currently, “Wasted Youth” is slowly but surely making its way through post-production.

“I’m a firm believer that in comedy, and especially sketch comedy,” Cohen says of the project. “The writing and the performances are the bread and butter, and whatever you can bake into it from a production value standpoint is all gravy.” Wasted Youth is currently slated for release in fall of 2015.

One potential problem with crowdfunding is that there is no way of tracking the proceeds after a project gets its backing. Crowdfunding websites have no supervision, so there is nothing to stop project creators from pocketing the money, Gorman says. “Overall crowdfunding is a good idea, but like most good ideas it can and has been exploited by some,” he said.

And even in crowdfunding, money isn’t everything — the product matters too. A shrewd marketing tactic or plan can boost you, Cohen says, but if what you make is not good, it’s not going to make a difference.

“If you don’t know what you’re doing with your money when you get it, that’s not going to be a sound recipe for success,” he says.

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