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Crowdfunding a Transmedia Phenomenon: Director Nicolás Alcalá on The Cosmonaut

With all the discussion about the future of Kickstarter in recent weeks, it may be appropriate that a film that began its campaign at the beginning of the crowdfunding movement is finally coming out this Saturday. The Cosmonaut — a Spanish-made English-language film directed by Nicolás Alcalá and produced by Carola Rodriguez and Bruno Teixidor — raised over €300,000 from 5,000 contributors. It was the first crowdfunded film in Spain and helped pave the way for the foundation of Lánzanos, Spain’s Kickstarter equivalent.

The Cosmonaut will be available to watch for free on Saturday on the film’s website; the DVD, theatrical screenings, and other day-and-date release methods will be released as well. Some of the project’s 36 webisodes, not part of the feature film, are already live and others will be available for purchase this weekend. In addition, the entire film is in the Creative Commons, allowing viewers to re-edit and remix Alcalá’s material.

Filmmaker: Crowdfunding’s no longer a new phenomenon, but when you started it was — and you were able to execute a very successful campaign without the use of Kickstarter or Indiegogo, the biggest names in the English-speaking world. How well does crowdfunding work in Spain? How does Lánzanos compare to American crowdfunding models?

Alcalá: When we started, Kickstarter was recently opened, as well as Indiegogo, and they didn’t allow projects from abroad. There weren’t any platforms in Spain until two years later (they were born because people started to talk about crowdfunding due to our project). So we decided to make our own crowdfunding site. We set up a site with a store where we sold merchandise and offered people the opportunity of becoming investors too (with a percentage of future revenues) because in Spain it is not as regulated as in the U.S. We kept the crowdfunding campaign going for two years, with high and low peaks and crucial moments like the one when a Russian co-producer backed off with $160,000. We asked our community for help (with the collaboration of Lánzanos, but it redirected to our own website) and raised $190,000 in three days.

The long term was important for our project because we were asking for a really high amount (more than a million dollars) without being . . . well, Zach Braff. We had to raise a huge community from scratch.

Filmmaker: So how did you go about finding contributors and collecting donations?

Alcalá: We started contacting bloggers and influencers and just showing them the project in a very humble way. And they loved it and started to spread the word. From there, it jumped to online media and then printed media and TV. Since we were the first [crowdfunded] project in Spain, and because of many other factors, the thing exploded.

We offered the opportunity of contributing from $3 or investing higher amounts, but always giving something in return. And in the meantime, we also made the project transmedia and completely re-imagined how distribution should work.

Filmmaker: I want to come back to that, but first can you tell me more about your experience when that equity investor pulled out just before shooting and you had to double your money in a couple of days. It’s interesting not only because you raised so much so quickly, but because it came late in your campaign when you might think your investors were already tapped out. What was that week like? How did you find so many contributors so quickly?

Alcalá: That’s why I always say this: the crowdfunding part I’m more interested in is the crowd, not the funding. If you have a community of loyal fans that feel they are part of your project money will eventually come. That’s what happened. Those guys said “my film” instead “a film,” so when we asked them to help us . . . they did all the work. It was a crazy week because we were, actually, traveling to the shooting in Latvia. We found out about our huge success when we landed.

Filmmaker: Up until this recent activity around projects like Veronica Mars, 300,000 euros was one of the largest crowdfunding campaigns ever. Can you tell me your average donation per contributor? How were able to get both that number and the total contributions so high?

Alcalá: We’ve had 4,000 producers (with an average of more than $10) and 600 investors, on which the lowest amount was $100 (minimum pledge) and the highest $100,000 (from a brand). How we managed to do it, I have no idea. Well, I guess it was a combination of:

  • A LOT of hard work.
  • Passion and transparency: we shared everything, from the screenplay to the shooting through streaming. Good and bad things that happened, and people were part of the process.
  • A story beyond a film. I always say we’ve made two films: one about a Soviet cosmonaut who gets lost in space, and another about three kids pursuing their dream of making a film . . . and succeeding, but serializing the story during four years.
  • A beautiful design and a good idea to start with.
  • Luck

Filmmaker: Did you really have a streaming camera on set throughout production? Did that make you more aware of your contributors, of the ticking clock?

Alcalá: We streamed an hour of the shooting every day. There were people asking questions about the setting of lights or the production design, teachers stopping their classes to watch us with their students. It was fantastic. We’ve always been aware of our audience walking along with us, but that didn’t put pressure on us; on the contrary, it was beautiful sharing every step with them.

Filmmaker: There’s obviously been a lot of coverage about the fundraising, but what was the shoot itself like?

Alcalá: [Jean-Pierre] Melville once said that your first film should be made out of your own blood. That was definitely what happened to us. It has been the most difficult challenge of our lives. It has been painful and exhausting and dirty some times. But I wouldn’t change one second of the last four years of my life.

What kept us going was that we were shooting beautiful images and that we were making our wildest dreams come true. It’s understandable that it was difficult. For your first film, you usually go Kevin Smith-style: four actors, two locations, something you know about.

We shot a period Russian film, in three different countries, during 13 weeks, in a foreign language with technicians from five countries . . . with a tenth of the budget of a normal film. And not only did we manage to finish it, but we also shot 34 additional webisodes (200 additional minutes of content) that have the same quality as the film, so it was basically like making three films at the same time for about half a million dollars.

Filmmaker: Speaking of the webisodes, can you tell me about the transmedia components of the project? Some are already past but others will be rolling out now?

Alcalá: During history you…. had to create things determined by a patron that existed, not because it was the best way to tell a story but because physical restrictions: a CD has 12 songs because that was what a CD could fit. A book is 200 pages because more is difficult to print. A series episode lasts 45 minutes because you need three five-minute advertising stops. And so on.

But now, with the current technology, you can tell your story in every media, in multiple screens and the exact way you want.

We have created a whole universe with many entry points that will make complete narrative sense if you watch all the content but that can also stand for itself in every piece.

There are going to be 34 webisodes around the film, expanding the story universe, telling you things about the characters, about the historical context, the things that remain unexplained in the film . . . and going through different genres and formats. There has also been a Fiction created in Facebook with eleven profiles of the film’s characters interacting to each other for several weeks in people’s walls and then compiled on our website and finally a book with pictures and thoughts of the characters that include a poetry book in the form of the cosmonaut’s diary once he lands on earth.

It’s much more than a film, it’s a whole universe. My idea is that when you finished watching the whole thing you have a sense of having watched a traditional film. A narrative linear one, even though the transmedia project or the films is nothing like that.

Everything will go live May 18 on our website: http://cosmonautexperience.com

Filmmaker: Your distribution plan seems fairly multivalent. Can you talk about that, why you chose the platforms and price points you did and what you hope to accomplish with it now that the film’s finally coming out?

Alcalá: The plan is very basic: let’s give it to the audience . . . the way the audience wants it. Distributors and exhibitors seem to have forgotten that golden premise that “the consumer is always right.” How do you fight piracy? Giving people the film the way they want it and letting them choose where, how, and when. Even how much.

The Cosmonaut is going to be released on the first multi-screen day & date: same day in movie theaters, DVD/USB, TV, and the Internet.

On the Internet it’s going to be in HD and for free. Why? Because running against the wind is stupid. We believe in building a sustainable model based in trust and engagement. That way the film will offer you the opportunity to “Pay What You Want.”

If you like it, pay what you like, or what you can afford. If it’s more than $6, then it will grant you access to our cosmonaut community: the K Progamme, with 20 of the 34 webisodes that are not for free on the website, additional content, behind the scenes, a private newsletter, the soundtracks of the film.

We believe in added value, so that you are not paying for content scarcity (which doesn’t exist anymore with the Internet) but for something else: a special edition DVD, a t-shirt, or a screening with something that makes it unique.

Our DVD will be filled with content and we will edit the film in a USB key with the shape of The Cosmonaut’s spaceship. A rare collector item, numbered, limited and signed.

And the film screenings? We will premiere it officially to kickstart the film (we’ve sold more than 1,200 tickets already, with a whole experience included: transmedia pieces, wardrobe of the film, a Q&A, free pizza…). After that, anyone, in any part of the world, will be able to organize one screening of their own and share profits with us (50%).

People can also demand it, so if you see there are 400 people willing to watch the film in your city you will have a pretty accurate idea of how many people will attend the projection. We will put you in contact with them and . . . voilà. We will have micro distributors all over the world (there are more than 40 screening petitions already, in 12 countries).

And since the film is online, why not take advantage of the power of the networks? It will be licensed under Creative Commons, which means you will be able to copy it, exhibit it, and even remix it as long as there are no commercial purposes involved. And if there are (say you want to project the film and charge for the tickets and popcorn, or you want to sell the DVD in your country or screen it on TV with ads or even make an alternative cut which is a hit and you want to sell it), it’s as easy as sharing them with us and you too can benefit from our film.

Why did we decided to do it this way? Well, because it’s the natural way to do it. Because this is how the new world works. Because the client is always right. Because this is how we would like to watch films and be willing to pay for them.

Filmmaker: How did your network from the crowdfunding influence this distribution plan?

Alcalá: We built it at the same time. We gave conferences and talked to them and to the industry and little by little we managed to build a whole new model that worked for us. Having a community of people behind has empowered us to have negotiation power and be able to say no to the ways of the industry and negotiate with them on our own terms, which is pretty epic if you think about it, given we were only three kids willing to make a film with no connections in the industry whatsoever.

Filmmaker: So what was the best thing about making The Cosmonaut?

Alcalá: Making your first film: win.

Making the first film you had on your mind and succeeding: double win.

Making it with complete (and I mean it) creative freedom. Not a single producer/distributor/investor up my ass telling me what and what not to do (which sometimes can be not so good, but I’m glad I had the chance of experiencing it, since very few directors have the chance to make mistakes by themselves and make choices): epic win.

I have made it with 5,000 new friends I made along the way that were there for me in the good and bad moments and that will be there for my next film: awesome level of win.

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