When Jeronimo Mazarrasa wanted to turn his one-hour television documentary The Jungle Prescription into a feature film, he turned to kickstarter.com, the website that specializes in fund-raising for creative projects. Over the course of 60 days, he wooed fans, friends and special interest groups, and raised more than $53,000 from them over the internet.

The technique is called crowd-funding and beginning Monday, Toronto-based Hot Docs aims to cultivate a culture of crowd-funding in Canada with its own service. Hot Docs, the group that runs North America’s biggest documentary festival, is launching Doc Ignite, a site that will bring together Canadian documentary filmmakers with fans and others who might be able to put forward capital for their projects.

1st Doc Ignite project

How to Build a Time Machine, a documentary about self-professed time traveller John Titor, is the first project that will attempt to raise money through Hot Docs crowd-funding site Doc Ignite.

St. Catharines, Ont., filmmaker Jay Cheel is attempting to raise $25,000 through Doc Ignite over the next 45 days, in order to fund costumes, props, locations and actors and equipment for the shoot.

Hot Docs announced the project Monday.  

Titor claimed to be a time traveller from the year 2036 and who was sent to 1975 to retrieve an IBM 5100 computer. On his  return trip, Titor made an unauthorized stop in the year 2000 for "personal reasons" and shared information about the future with an online group of time travel enthusiasts. Cheel will investigate the John Titor story, including claims of a hoax, in How to Build a Time Machine.

Hot Docs plans to begin with a single project lasting 45 days, according to Elizabeth Radshaw, Hot Docs forum and market director. She estimates it could put forward up to six projects over the next year. Crowd-funding does not fund whole documentaries — instead filmmakers set a modest goal for a portion of the project — for example doing post-production, getting to a shooting location at a certain time to meet a window of opportunity in filming or lining up equipment to make a shoot successful.

"Essentially we are sourcing a crowd-funding site for Canadian filmmakers and we’re a platform where filmmakers will host their campaign and while the filmmakers reach out to their communities, we’ll be reaching out to our communities who care about our campaign goals," Radshaw told CBC News.

The Doc Ignite campaign might tap money from film fans, other filmmakers, public interest groups and others with an interest in seeing the film get made. Each contributor makes a pledge and the filmmakers in turn provide incentives — perhaps special access to screenings or a silkscreen poster or, for the more generous donors, an executive production credit.

Focus on Canadian docs

With Doc Ignite, Hot Docs hopes to focus the crowd-funding process on a few key Canadian filmmakers and to leverage Hot Docs’s own relationships with audiences and supporters to raise money. The success of a few key projects on kickstarter — including Within Every Woman, currently being shot in Korea by Toronto filmmaker Tiffany Hsiung — sparked plans for a higher-profile site for Canadian documentaries. Within Every Woman raised $56,000.


The Jungle Prescription focuses on ayahuasca, a visionary Amazonian brew of indigenous origin. (Jeronimo Mazarrasa/The Ayahuasca Project)

The Jungle Prescription  is a film by Mazarrasa, Mark Ellam and Robin McKenna about ayahuasca, a hallucinatory Amazonian brew of indigenous origin and about two doctors, one of them Dr. Gabor Maté in Vancouver, who are interested in its potential use to treat addictions in the West.  A one-hour version of the doc ran on CBC's Nature of Things in November 2011.

It had taken them 10 years to get that far, but the next stage of their project -- to turn it into a feature film is nearing the editing process because of finances raised through crowd-funding.

"You do make money but you have to work really hard to get it," says Mazarrasa, an expert in ayahuasca who worked with Canadian filmmakers Ellam and McKenna.

When the filmmaking team was raising money on kickstarter, they started with people they knew personally, but also reached out to groups involved in addiction issues or interested in traditional medicine.  Of the 690 people who gave, about 20 per cent gave small amounts — under $150.

T-shirts, music and a master class

The team conceived of incentives ranging from T-shirts and copies of the film to a specially created CD of traditional music, Mazarrasa's book on ayahuasca and a master class in filmmaking that brought the donor on site as the doc was shot. It took at least four hours a day for the 60 days they were featured on kickstarter, Mazarrasa said.

"You have to maintain the relationship and answer all the questions and…also spread the word, reach out to groups and organizations that might be interested," he said.

And the commitment is not over. As they work on the doc, the filmmakers use blogs, twitter and other web tools to keep donors interested. Then they will follow up with special screenings and DVDs of the finished documentary.

"The good thing is that what you have is contact with core funders. They are interested in your film and ready to be fans — you are building support for your program at the same time," he said, adding that their success on kickstarter encouraged them to begin another online fund-raising campaign.

'It used to be that filmmakers and audiences, the only time they got to hang out together was at Hot Docs. You make a film, it goes on TV and you never get to see who watches it' —Elizabeth Radshaw, Hot Docs

Radshaw says the relationship between filmmaker and audience is changing because of the internet, and because of websites like kickstarter and indiegogo.

"It is a really exciting place in that audiences are so much more connected into the process of filmmaking and story-telling," she said. "It used to be that filmmakers and audiences, the only time they got to hang out together was at Hot Docs. You make a film, it goes on TV and you never get to see who watches it." 

Radshaw said the shrinking opportunities to sell to broadcasters has hurt documentary film-making in Canada over the last few years.

"It’s not as easy has it has been," she says. "With the current broadcast climate, with the economic times that all of us are feeling...advertisers are pulling out, there are economic pressures on broadcasters. We also have the pressure on broadcasters to really drive ratings."

Kickstarter has been around for three years, and was a star at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, financing 17 movies in all, including four that were in competition. There are other crowd-funding sites out there -- among them French site touscoprod.ca, buzzbnk.com and rockethub.com — but nothing dedicated to documentary filmmaking as Doc Ignite will be.

The inaugural Doc Ignite project will be announced Feb. 13, then filmmakers can submit projects for considering once the site is live.