When Ariel Nasr walks down the red carpet this Sunday at the Oscars, the 153 people who gave his nominated film its last financial push will be smiling.
Nasr is the producer of Buzkashi Boys, a narrative short film shot entirely on location in Afghanistan, nominated in the Best Live Action Short category.
It's one of many films that have recently found financial saviours in a very untraditional place: strangers who learned about it on the internet and gave money.
In fact, it was 153 investments, totaling $27,410, generated on the crowd-funding site Kickstarter that helped Nasr finish his film. Another campaign, which raised more than $10,000, also helped pay for its stars to travel from Kabul to Hollywood for the award show.
"When it turned out that we needed some extra money, it seemed like the perfect thing because we could ask people for help to finish the film, which is more satisfying than say, asking for money to write the proposal for the film," the Montreal-based filmmaker said.
"As a fundraising tool, it's better publicity than publicity because people don't just hear about the film, they become part of the film."
Musician Nikola Ragusa on successful crowd funding:
"It's not just put your video, put an email and that's the end of it. You have to put concise paragraphs of where the money is going, what's it going to do. If you miss one single element — it's almost a formula — you lose people who could fund you. Video is the biggest thing. They say 78 per cent of people who put [up] a video get fully funded, so 78 per cent is a good percentage. . ."
Crowd funding helps generate funds for projects ranging from movies to books to apps. It works by asking people to make a financial contribution to a project in exchange for a reward if the fundraising goal is reached.
In Nasr's case, those rewards started with a mention on the film's website and "our eternal gratitude" for a $10 investment. They ranged up to an array of goodies and a "once in a lifetime opportunity" to travel to Afghanistan and visit the "fabled Buddhas bombed by the Taliban, and the legendary lakes of Band-e-Amir, nestled in stunning mountain scenery," in return for a $10,000 investment.
"It took us a long time to come up with all our rewards," Nasr said. "None of us had ever worked with Kickstarter before, but a friend of a friend had.... We came up with a list of rewards we thought were good. We put a trailer on the site, and the response was good."
'As a fundraising tool, it's better publicity than publicity because people don't just hear about the film, they become part of the film." —Filmmaker Ariel Nasr
Kickstarter is just one of dozens of crowd-funding sites that have emerged to help people fund their own projects online.
It is also the largest. It started less than four years ago and already 3.4 million people have pledged almost half a billion dollars to the projects of dreamers and professionals alike.
Gabriella Coleman, a lecturer at McGill University who specalizes in digital activism, said one of the reasons crowd funding has exploded in popularity is that it can tap into an artist's fan base and give those people their own portion of the project.
It's also become attractive because it helps fund projects that may have no chance obtaining funding institutionally.
"The advantages are getting a small pool of money quickly – most successful projects are funded in the $1,000 to $9,000 range – and connecting to a community that is really, really vitally interested in that project," she said.
But there are pitfalls as well. When you write a grant, it takes time, but when you're done, all you have to do is wait for an answer.
Crowd funding requires constant attention and continuous publicity during the so-called pitching period. On Kickstarter, that can mean up to 60 days of ensuring your project remains active on social media and gets the attention of potential funders.
Delivering the project can also be a challenge, Coleman said.
"The interesting thing with Kickstarter is it's not a store — stuff has not been made," she said. "In the making of or the implementation of the project, it can fail in certain ways."
One famous project that came face-to-face with controversy was started by musician Amanda Palmer. She tried to bypass big record labels and went directly to her fans to help fund a new solo album. She found huge support in crowd funding and exceeded her $100,000 goal by more than $1 million.
But, when she tried to crowdsource musicians for her tour, asking them to play for free, she ignited a firestorm in the industry and was accused of exploitation.
The importance of trust
"Trust is huge at every step of the way," Coleman said. "One of the fascinating things is that Kickstarter says, 'Look, we can't guarantee on whether the project will deliver on what they say.' But it still works remarkably well."
Montreal-based musician Nikola Ragusa teamed up with two other musicians he met on Twitter and used the crowd-funding site Indiegogo to raise $3,330 to record an album.
He likened the experience to running a political campaign in terms of the investment of time and self-promotion needed to run a successful crowd-funding project.
"Everyday, I was busy. I'd invest two or three hours a day just talking to people online, talking to people everywhere," he said, adding that he also handed out cards directing people to the crowd-funding page.
"You learn a lot. It's pretty amazing."