Phil Holbrook wants to make movies like Christopher Nolan, the filmmaker behind "The Dark Knight" and the Oscar-nominated "Inception." Nolan, a Hollywood heavyweight, regularly commands budgets in excess of $150 million. Holbrook, 36, was recently laid off and lives in Brainerd, Minn.
But he's very persuasive.
Last summer, he asked complete strangers from all over the world -- via the fast-growing website Kickstarter -- to give him $15,000 to make his first feature-length film. While that amount of money could barely pay for Leonardo DiCaprio's makeup on the set of "Inception," it's a windfall to an indie filmmaker.
Holbrook got his money and made his thriller -- in Brainerd, no less.
Like him, thousands of fledgling artists are turning to Kickstarter as an alternative to the all-too-common black hole of personal debt. In less than two years, the Brooklyn-based site has become a game changer in the world of microfinanced art. It is home to a vast network of Web surfers willing to fork over small amounts of money -- as little as $1 -- to help fund filmmakers, musicians and even more esoteric artists, such as vegan chefs and a competitive lock picker (that guy got $87,000).
It's called crowdfunding. In 2010, donors gave $27.6 million to almost 4,000 projects via Kickstarter.
Today, more than $1 million is flowing through the site each week. Minnesotans are among those who've benefited from Kickstarter's tidal wave of popularity.
"I have a wife and two kids that rely on me to put food on the table," Holbrook said. "I'm not a big fan of going into a huge amount of debt for a movie, especially in today's indie film market."
Kickstarter's co-founders are Yancey Strickler, Perry Chen and Charles Adler. They brought the site online in April 2009 with a clear intent: Cut out the middleman and let artists and funders find each other directly on the Web.
"Early on when we were launching, people asked 'Why do you think this will work during the economic apocalypse?'" Strickler said by phone from New York. "The answer is: People are generous."
In December, a Chicago man set a record on Kickstarter when his design for a wristwatch strap meant to hold the latest iPod Nano became the site's most successful project. He raised almost $1 million.
While the site provides artists a platform to gather money, it's all or nothing. After stating a desired amount, each artist then sets a time limit to raise the funds (up to 90 days). If they don't reach the goal, the money is returned and the artist gets nothing. About 45 percent of projects meet their goal.
The website's utilitarian design makes it easy for potential backers to navigate new and old projects, each filed under well-defined categories (music, food, comics, etc.). There's no tax write-off for contributors (unless the artist has nonprofit status). And donors get no ownership stake. Same goes for Kickstarter, though it does take a 5 percent cut of each successful campaign, with another 3 to 5 percent going to Amazon.com, the site's payment processor.
From Germany, with love
Holbrook described his film "Tilt" as a thriller about a father who will do anything to protect his daughter after tragedy strikes their family in Brainerd. Holbrook treated his Kickstarter campaign like a full-time job, canvassing for pledges using Twitter and Facebook. After reaching his $15,000 goal, he spent the money on a nine-day shoot in September. As filming progressed he sent frequent updates to his backers, a tactic Kickstarter smiles upon. Holbrook said all but a handful of his contributors were strangers.
"It's a lot of pressure," Holbrook said. "I didn't want to let any of these people down."
So who's backing these projects? Holbrook's network of supporters reaches as far away as Germany. Marcella Selbach is an elementary school teacher who lives just outside of Cologne. Like a mini-Harvey Weinstein, she's backed more than a dozen films on Kickstarter, giving between $20 and $300 to each.
"I get to be a tiny part of the project," Selbach said by phone. "Even after the campaigns are finished you get updates and pictures from the set."
Artists offer incentives to would-be backers, often in the form of the finished DVD or album. Sometimes they get creative. Selbach once got a homemade apple pie.
The site's second-biggest all-time donor, who has contributed to more than 330 projects, is a mystery man from Rochester, Minn. Strickler (who's No. 1) said Kickstarter tried to give the man an award for being its most prolific backer, but he declined: "He said the projects themselves are more important than him and he would just rather continue to pledge the way he was, which I thought was pretty awesome."
While artists aren't bound by contract to finish their projects, Strickler said there is very little chicanery on Kickstarter. Hoodwinking a would-be investor is just bad business. "If you screw those people, your career is done," Strickler said.
Locally made, and financed
In the vibrant Twin Cities music scene, Kickstarter is empowering established artists who want to forgo traditional record labels. In October, indie rock stalwarts Halloween, Alaska raised $5,000 to help pay for studio time as it finished its fourth album.
"It's one more aspect that we can control," said lead singer James Diers.
Indie folk singer Haley Bonar already has recorded songs for her next album, "Golder," but needs money to cover the cost of touring as she promotes it. On Feb. 11, she uploaded a charming video on Kickstarter stating her case. After notifying her Facebook followers, Bonar had raised $5,000 by week's end.
Her goal is to have $8,000 by April. "It's not anything luxurious, just money to pay my band and Motel 6 rooms," she said.
Sound mixing, color and pizza
Cinematographer Jeremy Wilker said his crew on the film "Triumph67" didn't plan on using Kickstarter. But when money ran out and there was still sound and color editing to complete, the website saved the day. They raised just under $12,000 in November.
On a recent Wednesday night, the crew wrapped the final day of reshoots at a cast member's Minneapolis home. The movie -- about a Palestinian-American man coming to terms with his brother's death -- isn't filled with special effects or expensive actors. But the professional sound mixing and color grading would have meant more credit-card debt.
"Everything is so expensive in the film world," director Dan Tanz said.
As they finished the reshoots late into the night, the filmmakers pondered what they would have done had the Kickstarter funds fell through. In the meantime, they ordered a pizza to feed the small crew working that night.
"We can afford it," co-producer Mohannad Ghawanmeh joked. "We raised $12,000."
Tom Horgen • 612-673-7909
• Follow him on Twitter: @tomhorgen