Seed&Spark: The Crowdfunding Site Every Filmmaker Should Know
Emily Best was producing the Ibsen play Hedda Gabler in New York when she noticed something a little disturbing. The strong, independent, women she was meeting in the theatre world weren’t the same women she was seeing represented in media.
“I was like, ‘Hold on a second, how come I haven’t actually seen anyone I really admire onscreen? They’re all 30-year-old women whose only answer to their problems is the right guy.”
This was in 2010, before issues of media inequality were hashtag-catapulted into the zeitgeist. Emily became even more acutely aware of these issues when she produced her first feature film, Like the Water, which was shot by women filmmakers with dynamic female characters at the center of the story. Emily decided to take action, to promote the kind of change she wanted to see in the world.
She conceived the idea for Seed&Spark, a film-focused crowdfunding platform with an emphasis on career sustainability. Five years after the company’s first financing, Seed&Spark boasts the highest success rate of any crowdfunding platform, has an online streaming service compatible with Apple TV and Roku devices, and has announced a drive that gives filmmakers the opportunity to have the Duplass brothers produce their film. To Emily, crowdfunding isn’t about making money, it’s about finding an audience. Money might make a film, but audiences create change.
Emily didn’t always described herself as a feminist. She spent a lot of her early career running restaurants with no activist goals. When she joined the New York Theatre community, and eventually the film industry, she found a gender inequality that she couldn’t ignore. That was only the beginning.
“Initially it was about gender, because that was what I was experiencing. But then it was like, man, if this is bad for white women, you should see how bad it is for literally everyone else… Women are fifty percent of the population and they consider us a niche in this business. If we’re a niche, think about what they consider any other group.”
As far as Emily is concerned, marginalization hurts the film industry on two deep levels. It limits the ability of talented artists to get their work seen, and it therefore hurts audiences who miss out on great work. This isn’t a revolutionary concept, but it’s integral to understanding the Seed&Spark philosophy. What’s good for the artist is good for the audience, and vice versa.
“It made me realize that there was a fundamental problem in the business that is systemic. It’s deeply entrenched, and the Internet was providing piecemeal opportunities to solve it, but nothing that was, I felt, addressing the core problems of artist sustainability and also diversity. That’s what got me started.”
Initially, Emily only saw the site as a crowdfunding platform, “To help creators to build crowds and learn from crowds.” Just giving creators the tools to succeed on their own terms would be a step forward.
That meant providing data, something Emily speaks about with the same gusto as she does inequality. She has a real problem with the lack of data streaming services offer their content creators. How can a filmmaker learn about their audience if they don’t know who that audience is?
With the help of a developer buddy, Emily created a wireframe (a framework for the website) of Seed&Spark and took it to Sundance. While she talked to everyone she could about her idea, she paid special attention to creators who had crowdfunded their work. What were their challenges? What did they need? She developed the website from there, but found a snag with financiers.
“I got told by financiers that I was unfocused, that I should pick one problem to work on. I’m proud to say that we’re one of the only companies still standing out of that list that were around in 2012.”
At first glance, Seed&Spark does seem unfocused. Tackling an indie-film market with an activist and an emphasis on data and career sustainability is a lot to communicate for one website. To Emily, though, it couldn’t be more simple. Seed&Spark is about giving filmmakers the resources to succeed that they aren’t currently getting. You do that, and everything else falls into place.
“To filmmakers, our focus is their sustainability, and their ability to build sustainable careers no matter who you are, by giving them tools and options instead of roadblocks at every stage.”
Step one to sustainability, Emily and her team realized, was education. Noticing the same crowdfunding questions over and over again from filmmakers, the Seed&Spark team set out to teach filmmakers about the universal truths of crowdfunding success. The results spoke for themselves.
“We put out the education program and our crowdfunding success rate jumped twenty percent.”
Emily took Seed&Spark on a 55-city road tour with an education program called “Crowdfunding to Build Independence.” She wanted to meet filmmakers on their own turf, and built a steady user base of filmmakers not only enthusiastic about the website, but also equipped to succeed on it.
The website, though, needed some work. Emily had hired out a company for the first version of the site that she describes as, “crap.” Seed&Spark had a growing community and, after hiring an in-house tech team whodid a ground-up rebuild of the website in 2015, was ready to grow with it.
The Audience Crowd
“What we care about is the crowd. The funding is great, but it should be a bonus byproduct of building a great, sustainable, long term actual relationship with a crowd.”
Crowd data is important to Seed&Spark because when you know you’re crowd, you have leverage. Low-budget projects have always had a hard time gathering this data, hamstringing filmmakers from choosing the right platform for their work. Seed&Spark wants to change that.
“We built partnerships with cable, VOD, Google, Amazon, and some others. We started realizing that most filmmakers think they know what they want, but they don’t know why they want to be on which platform… How do you know that’s the right platform for your particular audience? We built in a bunch of tools that allow filmmakers to gather that data from their crowdfunding, so they can make smart decisions about using digital platforms and distribution.”
In the age of streaming, however, it’s difficult for even big-budget producers to get accurate streaming data from their projects. Streaming services hoard their data as leverage against the big studios. In streaming, filmmakers have lost the leverage to use their audience to generate future success. This recent shift has changed the Seed&Spark approach to streaming.
“Then we realized that there’s a big hiccup in that. Those digital platforms provide absolutely no real-time data that helps filmmakers improve their sales channels like any other startup or entrepreneur has available to them. This is a huge problem that nobody is talking about and it makes me insane… It’s a really precarious place the business is in.”
If your movie is doing really really well on a streaming service, you’re a valuable content creator only you don’t know it. You might keep selling your work to that streaming service for pennies on the dollar because you have no idea it’s worth more. On a macro level, that’s a scary idea. That’s why Seed & Spark created a streaming service that not only provides transparent data, but encourages crowds to support the work they want to see.
“That is data that you own that nobody can take from you. It’s data that you can take to your investors and say, ‘This is what I know about my audience.’ You can take this data to a new distributor who finances things and say, ‘Look, I have this relationship with my audience.’ That makes your IP more valuable.”
Seed&Spark has had a beta streaming service for six months, but recently announced their Apple TV and Roku apps to bring the service to brand new screens. For subscribers, the app functions as a highly-curated collection of films from all kinds of different creators. Every month, you can pick a project to receive funding, which is where half of Seed&Spark’s subscriber revenue goes.
“Fund what you want to watch now, and fund what you want to watch next.”
The audience isn’t the only crowd Seed & Spark sees value in.
The Filmmaking Crowd
When audiences can empower filmmakers, filmmakers create the kinds of work that reflects their audiences, creating the kind of diversity the industry currently lacks. More than 80 percent of Seed&Spark projects have women in one of the Writer/Director/Producer roles. More than 50 percent have LGBT and people of color in key roles. When they have trouble reaching out to a particular group, as they currently are with getting writers of color onto the platform, they double down their outreach efforts. The outreach isn’t always about demographics, though. After the election, Emily and the Seed&Spark team found a new challenge that needed addressing.
“We were hearing from so many creators after the election that they couldn’t possibly ask people for money people for money because they felt that people needed to be giving to the Southern Poverty Law Center and the ACLU. One way to really overthrow the power of the artistic community is to make them feel like they can’t make their work. So, we got together with 40 organizations and brands to put together hundreds of perks to encourage filmmakers to get their work made in the first hundred days of the Donald Trump presidency. We greenlit 106 projects during that time.”
Emily’s enthusiasm reaches a fever pitch when she talks about the projects that have been funded on the website. It takes her a second to pick out which projects she has a particular affinity for, but she eventually lands on a few.
“There’s a documentary being made about Lady Parts Justice stand-up comedy. It’s a movie about a traveling stand up show getting people excited about reproductive rights and comedy and it’s really special… There’s an amazing project that’s streaming on Seed&Spark right now called ‘Hey You, It’s Me,” which is a series about a woman pursuing a career in entrepreneurship and gets to a place in her career where everybody thinks it’s okay to offer her free relationship advice and the hijinks around that.”
Emily is very excited about all of the different types of projects that get funded on Seed&Spark. The Internet offers opportunities for creators to reach beyond the limitations of traditional shorts, features, music videos. Seed&Spark users haven’t disappointed.
“There were these four students at Brown that made a music video-album hybrid called “Sober Octaves.” These four African American college students making just a beautiful thing for the world.”
As has been the case since the very beginning, though, Emily loves seeing brand new perspectives get the audiences they deserve.
“There’s a really interesting documentary called, “Black Beach White Beach: A Tale of Two Beaches,” about a motorcycle meetup that happens every year that’s segregated… It’s an African American filmmaker who loves motorcycles and would go to this event. It’s something I’d never heard of and never would have heard of.”
That last sentiment is the mantra that keeps Emily going. There are stories out there, we don’t know what they are or who they will come from, but it’s up to audiences and creators alike to help them see the light of day. The current iteration of Seed&Spark is a start, but if its history as any indication, there’s a lot more coming. Emily can’t disclose any of that right now, but she has a crucial piece of advice for filmmakers looking to tell their story.
“Let go of this idea that you have to wait around to be picked. Use all of the tools that are available to you to build a direct connection with your audience. That direct connection can turn into funding, whether it’s directly from the audience with crowdfunding or, you can go directly to a distributor or financier and say, ‘I know this audience. I communicate with them. They can’t wait to see what’s next, because they told me.’ You do that enough times, and you don’t have to come to Hollywood, Hollywood will come to you.”