News Column

Crowdfunding the Arts in the Corridor

July 6, 2014

By Diana Nollen, The Gazette, Cedar Rapids, Iowa

July 06--CROWDFUNDING IS THE NEW BLACK -- the trending way for visionaries to land their projects in the black.

It's also one of the hottest tickets for funding artistic endeavors small and large, at home and abroad.

Sites such as Kickstarter and Indiegogo offer digital platforms for quickly raising the kind of cash needed to open FilmScene 1, an art house cinema in downtown Iowa City, last fall. New campaigns are underway to renovate the outdoor stage on the Brucemore estate in Cedar Rapids and to finance an indie film project in Los Angeles by Cedar Rapids native Bradley Fowler.

"It's becoming a growing pattern for creatives of all types, whether they're making a movie or building a product or trying to open a new venue," said Andrew Sherburne of Iowa City, FilmScene's co-founder and associate director.

"It's just becoming more and more common. It started more on the East and West coasts and has now moved into the Midwest. It's something that you see all over the place now."

On a much larger scale, actor LeVar Burton's movement to spread the former PBS "Reading Rainbow" library to digital platforms, electronic devices and classrooms across the country has raised five times its $1 million goal. The campaign closed this week as "one of Kickstarter's Top 5 projects of all time."

Crowdfunding is so popular, announced in May that the term is being added to its collegiate dictionary this year, along with other pop culture-meets-technology words such as "selfie," "hashtag" and "steampunk":

"crowdfunding (n., 2006): the practice of soliciting financial contributions from a large number of people especially from the online community."

Websites host fund-drive pages typically for not-for-profits, charities, small businesses and innovators' causes, allowing interested parties all over the world to donate any amount of money online toward any given project's goal.

Some campaigns are all-or-nothing, where refunds are issued if the goal isn't met, and others offer flexibility for keeping the dollars given. Administrative fees and return-on-the-dollar vary with the plans.

Most require donor incentive "rewards," ranging from bumper stickers to meet-and-greets.


All-or-nothing fell short for the Marion Arts Festival, which tried to crowdfund four $1,000 scholarships for graduating metro-area seniors. Running three weeks before the mid-May festival and one week after, just $605 was raised -- and ultimately refunded.

"We will try again next year, in case we were just doing it wrong, or it takes more than one campaign to catch on," festival director Deb Bailey said.

The Hardacre Preservation Association used an Indiegogo flexible plan to raise $20,500 toward renovation of the historic theater in downtown Tipton. The Indiegogo goal had been $60,500 but, when rolled into other donations, $114,000 was raised to save the venue that opened as an opera house in 1916.

Northeast Iowa Resource Conservation and Development Inc. has launched its own crowdfunding website for the arts,, to accept donations for three projects requesting $5,000 each.

The initiative lasts through July to finance the Puppet Project, creating three giant puppets to appear in Northeast Iowa parades; Nisse on the Trail sculptures along the Trout Run Trail in Decorah; and the Creativity Center: Artisan Cafe and Courtyard, bringing culinary arts to the after-school fine arts program in Guttenberg.

If successful, the website will be used to fund more projects each year, to further the arts in a seven-county region.


The most wildly successful local campaign was FilmScene's Make a Scene all-or-nothing venture that sought to raise $75,000 in 35 days last August and September. It actually raised $91,000.

Founders Circle members pledged nearly half of the $200,000 startup funds needed to bring a movie theater to a renovated 1860s building at 118 E. College St. in Iowa City. An Indiegogo campaign raised the rest, which was funneled into cafe and digital cinema and sound equipment, with a bit leftover for startup operating expenses.

FilmScene 1 -- the first of two such cinemas planned for downtown Iowa City -- opened full time Dec. 6 and has been "going really well," Sherburne said.

The theater features 67 seats salvaged from the former Hancher building, sofa and soft seating indoors and a rooftop patio where films also can be screened.

"May was our strongest month ever," he said. "We've had over 15,000 admissions in six months, which is well ahead of what we forecast. In the month of June, we (showed) 27 feature films over 30 days.

"That's pretty ambitious, but there's so many good movies out there. Our mission is to present them as an art form and to present engaging and entertaining films to this community."

Sherburne, also a documentary filmmaker, was familiar with crowdfunding, so it seemed a natural way to reach potential donors.

"As a young arts organization, we're trying to be creative in how we reach our audience. It's a good way to make a splash, as well as to raise money to do what we needed to do," he said.

FilmScene leaders did their homework, and with meticulous planning, decided Indiegogo's "all-or-nothing" option was the way to go.

"The simple truth is that we needed it all," Sherburne said. "That was just an honest way to speak with our patrons and people that were going to help us reach our goal -- to say, 'Look, this is what it takes to open a cinema downtown, and we have to do it together.'

"It helps people work toward a common goal when they feel they can have more influence in helping you reach that goal. When it's an all-or-nothing campaign, people really seem to buy into that and want to share it with their friends and make sure everyone knows how important it is to reach that goal."


Brucemore staff members are counting on that.

They liked "the idea of fundraising in a very personal way, friend to friend, peer to peer, sharing the idea with somebody who agrees with you, and passing the word through social media," said David Janssen, Brucemore's executive director.

On July 1, it launched a monthlong Indiegogo campaign to raise money to make improvements to the estate's outdoor stage area. Deemed the Peggy Boyle Whitworth Amphitheater Improvement Project, updates will be made to the permanent, multipurpose stage built in 2007, as well as to the backstage area and electrical systems.

"This is coming at a time when we suffered a loss last year in Peggy Whitworth's passing," Janssen said. "She was the founding director of Brucemore and really was the genesis of the idea of opening up the site to the arts. We saw the need and certainly the desire within the staff and trustees and all the people who were part of the Brucemore family to honor her legacy in some tangible way."

The work coincides with next year's 20th anniversary of the Classics at Brucemore, which Whitworth co-founded. Since then, the outdoor stage has been used for operas, children's plays and other events in the natural amphitheater near the duck pond and a majestic backdrop of soaring pine trees.

The overall project goal is $20,000, raising half through Indiegogo with the other half through outside sources.

"Crowdfunding was appropriate for this particular project," Janssen said. "I don't think it's necessarily appropriate for every kind of fundraising we do or other non-profits do. But for this in particular, we wanted to be a word-of-mouth, grass-roots-rallying kind of a movement. Our success will depend on the passion of the community and the people involved with it ... .

"This approach is more personal. It allows us to reach people who were here or were impacted by (Whitworth) in terms of a regional museum. Over the decades, as people have fanned out, it is the quickest and most efficient way for us to spread the word."


Bradley Fowler, a 2000 graduate of Kennedy High School in Cedar Rapids and a 2005 graduate of the University of Northern Iowa in Cedar Falls, is using Indiegogo to help finance his "Love. Meet. Hope" film project in Los Angeles.

Frustrated by the difficulty of raising funds outside the major studio/action picture arena, he and his business partners are in the midst of shooting a web series featuring 10 film shorts. The episodes eventually will be tied together by an overarching story, creating a movie for the indie circuit and perhaps a limited theatrical run Fowler would like to bring to Eastern Iowa.

Each vignette will have different directors and crews for what is essentially a marriage of romanticism and fantasy. Using two-day shoots, it's easier for producers to find actors and crews able to make run-out commitments.

Fowler said the movie likely will cost about $40,000. He hopes to wrap filming by the end of December and get the mixing and editing done in time for the festival season, which starts around February.

To reach that goal, he and his partners seek to raise $18,000 by July 19 via Indiegogo. They chose a flexible funding plan, in which they will receive all the funds donated, even if they don't reach their target.

"Every dollar will make a difference," they say at

"The Internet and the age of digital are both a blessing and a curse," Fowler said in a phone interview from a family trip to Disneyland. "It's giving us an opportunity to fight back and give the public something that's different from your typical 'save the cat' story that every single TV show and every single movie is based on.

"But unfortunately, funding-wise, because of the digital age, there's so many (moviemakers) out there who haven't studied any writing, they haven't studied any acting. They're flooding the market with terrible products, and so it makes it harder and harder to get good work out there. It's a double-edged sword, really."


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