Usurping the Privilege Economy

Crowdfunding is not a defensive tactic; it's the offensive avant garde

Back in the spring of 2014, after successfully navigating my first crowdfunding campaign on Seed&Spark, I texted the following hyperbole to a friend:

[Crowdfunding] is an experience that will unite our generation as WWII did our grandparents. That sounds like something a kid who hasn’t been to war would say. But I mean that it’s the struggle of a new creative generation. And it’s important, not just because it fosters character and humility (which it does), but because it’s one of the most powerfully independent gestures one can make in the face of a consolidated enemy. Crowdfunding usurps the privilege economy completely. And that’s revolutionary, plain and simple.

I wrote this during a moment of acute triumph and relief (crowdfunding is like running for local office). But nearly two years later, my wild statement still feels honest. The system of top-down investment that has historically governed film financing favors those who already have access to capital, thus excluding the less privileged, and keeping content homogenous. Crowdfunding, conversely, is bottom-up financing: The crowd supports a project directly, regardless of its creators’ privilege, proving the viability of the story before an executive can claim there’s no audience to return his investment.

Now, some of you who you know me are saying to yourselves, isn’t James an upper-middle-class, straight, white guy from the suburbs? Doesn’t he benefit from the white privilege that the old-guard film financing system loves to reward?

Yes, totally.

However, the film that I helped crowdfund on Seed&Spark, you might agree, has many of the markers of the sort of civically-minded, non-white, non-commercial cinema Hollywood loves to stymie. “Before the Spring” is a proof-of-concept short that tells the story of a young couple in Egypt who, against their will, get drawn into the Arab Spring protests that eventually deposed Mubarak. The cast is Middle Eastern (there isn’t even a token white guy), and they speak entirely in Arabic.

And when the project started, way back in 2012, we hadn’t intended to crowdfund. Based on the strength of the screenplay, we shopped it around, and by early 2013, had attached a major producer whose credits included 300. But even with his track record, when the script circulated at the agencies, the response was uniform: This can’t be in Arabic, and if you want anyone in America to watch it, you’ll need to amplify the role social media played in the revolution; otherwise, no one is going to give a shit.

But our team gave a shit. My constant collaborator, Aaron Ramzi—an actor and producer on the project—is Iraqi-American, and for him the story was about standing up to tyranny. For producer Meriam Alrashid, the narrative wasn’t abstract and impersonal: many of her relatives still live in Cairo, and are still dealing daily with Mubarak’s ouster (a thrilling moment with major, unintended consequences.) For actor Sammy Sheik, who participated in the protests, our film was a commemoration of the bravery exhibited by those who’d risked their lives to stand up to the corrupt Central Security Agency.

And because we all gave a shit, we refused to heed the advice of an industry that only saw our film as a financial risk. So, in the spring of 2014, we mounted a crowdfunding campaign on Seed&Spark to prove that not only was there an audience for our story, but that before we’d even committed any footage to hard drives, they would vote with their dollars and support us.

It was a mental and emotional slog, but 30 days later we’d raised nearly $33,000. And by the end of the year, we’d shot our proof-of-concept. After a year of editing—and a day of reshoots—next month, “Before the Spring” premieres at Aspen Shortsfest. If we win (no pressure, Maggie!), we qualify for an Academy Award nomination in 2017 (where I hear they love stories about people of color!). More importantly, though, by virtue of having created this film with the support of the crowd, to quote my hyperbolic text, we’ve “usurped the privilege economy.” We didn’t ask permission; we just did.

Crowdfunding is not a defensive tactic of last resort. It’s the offensive avant garde. By crowdfunding, you prove to yourself—and whoever might support you later—that your ideas merit attention, and that people are eager to watch what you’ve created.

Photo by Max Silverman