Nonprofit films represent at the Oscars
Controversial tweets and racist sock puppets aside, one notable takeaway from the 2013 Oscars is the winner of the award for Best Documentary Short, Inocente. This win represents a major achievement for the nonprofit arts sector, as the film was produced by Shine Global, a 501(c)(3), and largely funded by 294 individual donors on a successful Kickstarter campaign. (In fact, it's the first Kickstarter-backed movie to ever win an Academy Award.) Nonprofit endeavors in other artistic mediums have achieved high recognition for a long while now - think Lincoln Center or Roundabout Theatre Company at the Tonys. In an industry dominated by commercialism, it's a big win that Inocente took home Oscar gold and hopefully a sign of things to come.
For a little context, Inocente tells the story of an undocumented immigrant living in San Diego. Inocente may only be 15 years old and homeless, but she is also a talented painter. This documentary is an inspiring film about a brave young artist and an important look at the issues of immigration and homelessness in America. It's available for download from iTunes and the film also helps promote the work of A Reason To Survive (ARTS), a nonprofit organization that is "dedicated to providing, supporting, and advocating for arts programs that heal, inspire, and empower youth facing adversity."
It's not that nonprofit funding for films is a recent breakthrough. What's new is the acclaim that these projects now receive outside of art house movie theaters and indie film festivals. For example, before getting picked up by The Weinstein Company for commercial distribution, The Bully Project was one of Fractured Atlas' fiscally sponsored projects. This documentary has gone on to receive widespread praise - getting written up in national media - and made a significant contribution to the worldwide dialogue on bullying in schools. (We now sponsor the nonprofit Bully Project Outreach Campaign, which is on course to screen the documentary for as many as 1 million students in 2013.)
And while documentaries may seem the most suited to raising funds this way - cause-based fundraising can be an easier sell for individual donors and foundations - narrative fiction projects have also found success operating as nonprofits. Grant funding from Cinereach made possible the critically-acclaimed film Beasts of the Southern Wild, nominated for four Academy Awards this year.
There are a few reasons why producing outside of the commercial Hollywood machine would be an attractive option for enterprising filmmakers, which entertainment attorney John Garon explores in his book The Independent Filmmaker's Law and Business Guide (Amazon). Obviously, many indie filmmakers go their own route for complete creative control over the project. Garon adds that "Another selling point of nonprofit investment in independent filmmaking is that the donors' return on investment is guaranteed." (You can find a great excerpt from Garon's book here.) In other words, individuals contributing to a nonprofit indie film get a tax deduction as their reward and filmmakers are not beholden to the invisible hand of greed and turning a profit for their investors.
In our 2012 fiscal year alone, Fractured Atlas' sponsored film projects raised almost $2.3 million in contributed revenue, so we're talking about a big opportunity for filmmakers that many are already taking advantage of. The larger point is that nonprofit funding for films helps lower the barrier for entry to the field. Adding more voices to the mix, voices that are diverse and unafraid of failure, is a good thing for any creative industry. Congrats to Sean & Andrea Fine (the filmmakers) and Shine Global for their awesome victory with Inocente. Their win validates the efforts of other nonprofit filmmakers - showing that their endeavors will not go unnoticed and that they can really compete with for-profit studio projects for both accolades and audiences.