'A Swarm of Angels' crowdsourcing film production

Can open source methodology be applied to film production? Yes, says UK filmmaker and author, Matt Hanson, whose own project, 'A Swarm of Angels', is attempting to "crowdsource" the funding, production, and distribution of a $1.9+ million dollar movie.
Written by Steve O'Hear, Contributor
A Swarm Of Angels
Can open source methodology be applied to film production? Yes, says UK filmmaker and author, Matt Hanson, whose own project, 'A Swarm of Angels', is attempting to "crowdsource" the funding, production, and distribution of a $1.9+ million dollar movie.

And he's not alone; supporters include free culture advocate, Cory Doctorow, the cult comic writer, Warren Ellis, and film producer, Tommy Pallotta -- along with over 900 'angels' who have paid £25 (approx $47) each to join the project. In return for their investment, 'angels' get to have a say on all aspects of the creative process, access exclusive content, and in some cases even become part of the film crew. As the project progresses, the aim is to recruit 50,000 'angels' (hence the million-plus dollar budget). The finished movie will be released under a Creative Commons license so that it can be shared and remixed freely.

It's certainly ambitious stuff, but will it work? I caught up with Matt (via email and Skype) to find out more.

Who is behind the project? Tell us a little bit about yourself...

It used to take me ten minutes to tell people what I did, then my girlfriend came up with 'film futurist', which sums it up nicely. Previously I created the 'onedotzero' digital film festival, which became the world's largest event celebrating cutting-edge moving image. Back in 96 when I came up with the idea there wasn't enough digital video so I quickly became a commissioner and producer.

For the last few years, I've written books on the future of film. With my interest in the social web, I decided to bypass short films as a director (having already produced many), and invent a radical new process for the digital filmmaker. All so I could make my first feature film.

Although I'm driving the project, I've enlisted a number of advisers including Cory Doctorow, who's very supportive as an advocate of free culture; Warren Ellis, the cult comic writer, who's got an interest in creator-led content; and, Tommy Pallotta, whose another pioneering digital filmmaker and produced A Scanner Darkly recently.

Of course we now have a community of nearly a 1000 global members, who span a range of backgrounds and professional expertise. And this is just the development phase...

What are you trying to accomplish?

In short: radically reinvent film. We're making a £1 million feature film and going to give it away to over a 1 million people using a global community of members. Our membership target is an eventual target of 50,000 and we are well on our way without trailers or scripts (but these are coming together through member involvement).

It's time User Generated Content grew up, and A Swarm of Angels is a new type of participative media acting as bridge between that and traditional media creation (Cinema 2.0 if you like). We're building a new type of entertainment and cultural production community.

Essentially it's a beta to create a blueprint for how large scale cultural works can be produced and given away under a Creative Commons license. We want A Swarm of Angels to be the standard bearer and model for a bunch of worldwide communities like this.

How involved are the community in the actual creative process, rather than just financing the project? Briefly explain the mechanism you have in place to actually "crowdsource" a film's production.

We're an open movie - borrowing the principals of the open source movement - with a benevolent dictator (that's me) guiding the process, but contributors being promoted in a meritocratic fashion as part of that. As a member of the Swarm you have different levels of participation open to you. You can vote on key creative decisions (like the one taking place right now), get involved in scriptwriting, making music, modelling etc. We're just preparing for a 'gather' of video from members as part of the accompanying documentary, and to make some teaser trailers.

We'll also be recruiting the film crew as much as possible from the membership. Film is usually such a closed community, a difficult industry to break into. By joining the Swarm you immediately get an entry into it without competing with hordes of others.

I love the idea of everybody becoming an angel investor or shareholder in the movie. Do you think you'll reach your goal of 1.9+ million dollars, and what do investors get in return?

It's eminently achievable. The funding is more of a subscription model than a shareholding. For £25, the price of a couple of DVDs, you get to be more than just a film fan, you get to influence and 'greenlight' a film. You also get a bunch of media and downloads along the way. Our project is about a Return on Entertainment, rather than a Return on Investment. If it's about a capital return then that interferes with creative decisions, and the fact we want to give it away, and let people remix it. My emphasis is on creating a model for cinema that can produce more distinctive creative work rather than being boxed into commercial genres in order that it make its money back. Someone said A Swarm of Angels is a litmus test for post-Capitalist open business models. They're right.

If the film makes a profit, who benefits?

Our initial project is non-profit distributing. That's not to say it won't make a profit, but we don't have to worry so much about it, as the subscribers fund the actual process -- it's a much more efficient way of doing it, and getting value as a member. The Swarm had a vote on this, and decided to roll any profits into the next production. The idea is we become a self-sustaining entertainment community with an unprecedented amount of freedom over the films we create.

Will the film be any good? Isn't it better to have one director, one writer etc. (too many cooks spoil the broth)?

This is a common misnomer. After all film is our most collaborative medium. This isn't a free-for-all, contributions get filtered. I actually get more control as a director in the process, and members as 'film fans' get an amazing opportunity to be involved and greenlight key decisions. My film isn't at the mercy of the whims of a one powerful production executive or a marketing department -- as such this can become the perfect way to create more distinctive 'art house' cinema.
What's your view on MySpace's 'MyMovie mashup' film collaboration project?

Being brutally honest the 'MyMovie mashup' is like giving an old lady a bit of rouge to doll her up. Whereas the Swarm are into more radical surgery. I wish them well but they haven't done their homework. They weirdly launched it in a very Media 1.0 way: press release and a party.

We softlaunched last Summer, deliberately refusing offline, traditional promotion so as to engage in a conversation online, building credibility through blogs and our community.Scratch the veneer and 'mymovie mashup' is actually a very traditional feature film with tacked on social elements such as a competition. A Swarm of Angels is for those who prefer Amores Perros to American Idol. Our project is about creating cutting-edge content, and an innovative feature film. All we have to do is please our members rather than a faceless global demographic.

Anything else you'd like to add?

Here's my big pitch... If you're sick of being sold 'product' by mainstream media, and are serious about the power of the web and social networks to create cultural change then you need to become a member of the project. A Swarm of Angels is a revolutionary process to create the future of film. Join, and you can make it happen. 

Thanks Matt for taking time out to do an interview.

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