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Sundance's distribution Kickstarter is a noble idea hamstrung by terrible backer rewards

Help Sundance movies get distribution, in exchange for... Spotify playlists?

sundance unrest

Sundance Institute, the nonprofit behind the annual Sundance Film Festival, has come up with a new way to support young filmmakers who don’t want to sell the rights to their movies to major distributors.

It’s a Kickstarter. That’s not a terrible idea; in fact it’s pretty noble to step up to the plate for filmmakers who don’t have the same name recognition that Sundance itself has, especially when they might find it impossible to host a fundraiser themselves.

Sundance is starting the project with two films that were critical favorites at this year’s festival: 28-year-old Jennifer Brea’s debut documentary Unrest, and former internet supercut wiz Kogonada’s first feature, Columbus. They hope to raise $150,000 in 31 days, with the funds going to the filmmakers so that they can “pioneer a creative marketing and distribution strategy in which they own the rights and receive all revenue from their films.” More specifically, the money will go toward “theatrical booking, advertising (social, print, radio) and publicity, creative marketing (poster design, trailer, website, etc.), and post production (subtitles, music, film deliverables).”

Like any Kickstarter, this one lists rewards for each level of investment in the project, and Sundance makes the logical assumption that anyone backing this campaign is interested in film. Makes sense! But somewhere along the line, they decided that anyone who was going to back this campaign would also necessarily be the thirstiest film nerd imaginable, eager to lick up crumbs from the reputable organization. The page lists prizes such as (emphasis theirs): “an exclusive Sundance Spotify playlist curated by our Film Music Program team,” “early access to a high-level, immersive case study on Columbus and Unrest’s distribution and marketing experience,” and “feedback on your script or play from our Feature Film, Episodic, or Theatre Program.”

That last one is available in exchange for a contribution of $1,000 or more. So struggling artists, why don’t you donate at least $1,000 to another struggling artist and someone will talk to you briefly about your struggles with art?

Pledging $15 or more is called a Dope contribution, and as a reward, Sundance has listed: “We’re thrilled to tag you in an official tweet from the Sundance Institute Twitter account.” Pledging $500 or more is a Fun Home contribution, and for that amount you can come to the Sundance office and drink coffee with some of the staff. For $7,500, Sundance director John Cooper will make you a piece of macramé art for your home. The prizes aren’t just bad, they’re pretty condescending.

But there are a lot of people in the world who would drop between $10 and $50 on a promising-looking movie in exchange for something normal and cool, like a T-shirt or a ticket to an early screening. I might. Why not? Sundance’s mistake here is all too common in crowdfunding — making the assumption that the only people you’re talking to are die-hard fans who will shell out for the tiniest brush with the thing they love. And then trying to squeeze way too much money out of those people in exchange for stuff that’s pretty useless.

While basically everyone loves movies, and plenty of people enjoy supporting artists, nobody alive is going to pay for a Spotify playlist.