In a digital age, where doors are slowly opening for independent filmmakers, Riot Cinema Collective has stormed in and kicked them off their hinges. This year will see the Spanish collective’s first feature film, The Cosmonaut, released on the same day in cinemas, on television and free to view on the internet. The project, which has broken records in crowdfunding, is set to change how audiences interact with filmmakers. Nicolás Alcalá, the sci-fi film’s director, and his collaborators Bruno Teixidor and Carola Rodríguez, are founders of the collective.
It was while studying a visual communication degree at university four years ago that a bored Alcalá decided to drop out to form a production company with his friends. As well as picking up commissions for advertisements and documentaries, the collective decided to embark on an ambitious project that would harness not only the power of social media, but change the way filmmakers interact with their audiences. For Alcalá it made complete sense to plan to make a film that would be made available for free download at the same time as it hit cinema screens. “We’ve always been connected to the internet and followed projects online,” he says from his Madrid office. “We discovered crowdfunding three years ago and thought it was a great way, not only to fund a film, but to create a community. We decided that connecting with people was the way to make movies.”
Although the final edit is still in the raw stages, The Cosmonaut has already amassed thousands of fans who have paid to get the project off the ground. It’s a community that began to grow the day Riot Cinema Collective launched its own crowdfunding site. “When we started there were no such sites in Spain. There were two in the US – Kickstarter and IndieGoGo – but at the time neither was available for international projects, so we decided to launch our own site.
A week before we went live, IndieGoGo contacted us, but it was too late,” Alcalá explains. In fact, being independent of the mainstream crowdfunding sites was a bonus: the traditional sites allow only a short window of opportunity in which to raise money, whereas the collective’s online store has been open for two years now. A donation of just two euros allows a fan to become a ‘producer’, for which they receive a film credit and a welcome pack that includes a certificate, a badge and two stickers, as well as entry into a draw to win a cosmonaut suit. Those living in Spain can become a producer by text for just one euro. There’s also merchandise for sale: badges, stickers and a range of T-shirts, all bearing the film’s trademark hummingbird logo.
The store also offers investment opportunities starting at 100 euros. Investors enter into a contract with Riot Cinema Collective and receive a share in future profits. “People love the hummingbird,” says Alcalá. “Wearing the merchandise has become a way of showing their support. People tell us about running into other people wearing badges or T-shirts. They feel they are part of a community.” The collective is part of a new breed of independent filmmakers who know that in order to work in the way they choose, they need to think commercially. Alcalá believes art and commerce go hand in hand. “It doesn’t matter if you’re the greatest artist of the century. If you don’t know how to sell yourself you’re lost.
For me it [the commercial side] is a pain in the ass, but it goes with the work.” And he’s certain of the benefits. “Whether you have one thousand, 50 thousand or 100 thousand followers, you have a career and you can make things for them. That’s awesome.” The collective is still counting the donations received following the release of the latest trailer, but Alcalá says that, so far, the amount raised from crowdfunding is between 280,000 and 300,000 euros. The collective has signed contracts with 3,500 ‘producers’, who have donated anything from two euros upwards, while 600 ‘investors’ have each sunk between 100 and 50,000 euros into the project. Most of those who have given money are complete strangers.
Go to The Cosmonaut’s website and you can download the script and read the business plan, which details every stage of the project; from its inception to its distribution. In the often arcane world of filmmaking, this movie is an open book. Again, it’s all part of the plan. “We love being transparent. It allows people to get to know us and have confidence in what we’re doing; then they will invest in us.” Alcalá says he knows that many filmmakers are completely thrown by this approach, but for him it makes perfect sense. “When you’re transparent there is very little space for criticism. Every time something unexpected happened on the project, people understood why; they became committed to the project and began to trust us. That’s the best relationship you can have with your audience.The filmmakers don’t like it but for us it’s great.”
The original plan was conventional: to appeal for 30,000 euros through crowdfunding and shoot a short film. The collective soon realised, however, that their short could become a feature. “We were young – only 21, 22 – and we thought it would be an adventure. Once we decided it needed to be a feature we thought we’d take as long as we needed and make it public; make it bigger.” The film will be distributed under a Creative Commons licence, which extends the copyright allowing, in specific cases, the free distribution, duplication and modification of the original work.
Creative Commons is a hotly-contested issue among many creatives, but not so for Alcalá, who is perfectly comfortable with the concept, having worked with Creative Commons licences for several years. “Things have changed,” he says. “Nobody pays on the internet. We knew that it would be difficult to get traditional distribution because we were nobodies, so we created a new model that works for independents.” By summer 2011, crowdfunding had yielded 120,000 euros, with a private investor pledging a further 120,000 euros; enough to shoot the feature. Filming was planned to take place in Latvia over eight weeks in June and July last year. Just a week before the team were ready to go, however, disaster struck: the private investor pulled out, leaving them 120,000 euros short, and with airline tickets already bought and kit shipped off to Latvia.
The team drew upon the support base they’d built up over the previous year. “We launched a ‘Save the Cosmonaut’ campaign and in three days raised more than 130,000 euros; the highest crowdfunding record ever. It was unbelievable, it saved the film,” says Alcalá. More than 600 people from all over the world responded to the campaign, breaking all records for crowdfunding. The Cosmonaut was shot on one Canon EOS-1D and 5D MkIIs. Although Alcalá shoots all his advertising work on DSLRs, he thought it was going to be risky to make an entire film with them, but he is pleased with the results. “The film looks great,” he says. “It was an amazing experience using them – they are so handy and cheap. We were rushing all the time, so having three cameras meant we could shoot three different angles at the same time; plus, they are great for shooting in very small spaces.”
I question Alcalá’s decision to release The Cosmonaut on the internet, DVD, cinema and television, all on the same day. “You say ‘Why?’ I say ‘Why not?’” he replies cheerfully. “Right now the audience has the tools and the technology to watch films where and how they want to. In the past that was something the distributors decided. The audience would watch a film in a cinema, wait six months before they could buy it on DVD then eventually watch it on TV. Now it’s the people who decide when, where and how.” Alcalá sees no sense in fighting the shift in audience expectations. “If people don’t want to pay to watch a film they won’t, whether that’s legal or not. So we decided to adapt the distribution to the way in which people do watch films. It’s better if the film is legally free to download on the internet and at the best possible quality because, if you like the film, you’re going to talk about it. The internet is the biggest distribution platform ever, so potentially you could have millions of people watching your film and talking about it. If just one per cent of those people like the film and want to commit, they’ll buy the DVD or the merchandise.”
This ties in with Alcalá’s belief that it’s not enough to give the audience a film; you must offer them an experience. It’s at the heart of his plans for The Cosmonaut. Having explained his reasoning to both television and film distributors, he’s experienced less negativity than expected, but plenty of scepticism. “We thought they’d send a couple of guys round to break our legs, but they were so scared that they were willing to listen.” He knows this doesn’t mean he will receive the financial backing he wants but says the feedback has helped. “Our model makes it almost impossible to sell,” he admits. “They [distributors] know it’s the way forward, but they just can’t do it. We need to convince people to make it work for them. If we can’t do that then we’ll rent movie theatres, because we know we have the audience. We could see that people thought that it sounded cool but imagined it would be a crappy film that would only work on the internet. Now they watch the trailer and realise it’s a film that can compete in Berlin or Cannes.”
He remains confident despite the knockbacks. “It’s scary to be the first to support it, but the distribution people know we have a good film. So, when we get an email from SXSW or Berlin, the rest will follow.” He believes that in the future his model and the traditional route will converge and take lessons from each other. “For those films that lie between the indie market and Hollywood, it’s going to be hard to get the funding,” he says. “Hollywood won’t need to use crowdfunding, but it will use the internet to get crowds to build communities, while independent filmmakers will use this method to get their films made.” He sees even more competition in the future. “It’s going to be quite difficult because lots of talented people will have the chance to make a film. It’s a really exciting time for all of us: the industry, the filmmakers and the audience too.” Another area of contention is the Creative Commons copyright licence, which many assume, incorrectly, is a replacement of copyright. “All our work is licensed under Creative Commons; we’ve been doing it the past five or six years. Copyright was created 300 years ago for a specific reason, when distribution was limited and that was the right thing to do. Now digital copies are free and easily distributed, so it makes no sense to hold on to the rights in this way. Creative Commons doesn’t mean you lose your rights, you still have them. You’re telling people that some of those rights are reserved, and you can still get money for your work. I think at some point Creative Commons will be seen as normal.”
On its release, The Cosmonaut can be distributed for non-commercial purposes for free using the Creative Commons licence BY-NC-SA [Attribution Non-Commercial Share Alike]. Alcalá explains his reasoning. “If you watch with your friends and you like it, that’s good for us; you might pay us to make the next film. If you’re a movie theatre and you want to charge for people to see it, then you need to pay us like everyone else. We’re still selling the film but using the internet to distribute it to reach as many people as possible all over the world. You can no longer charge for viewing. You can charge for things that are unique, physical or an experience, but not for watching. For us it feels right.”
The licence also gives people the right to remix the material; a prospect that Alcalá welcomes. “It’s frightening for many directors, but you’re not going to make a better film if you keep it for yourself. There are lots of really creative people doing great things that can be inspired by your work. Some guys designed posters that were great, so we decided to use them as the official posters. In the end it’s about being human, and being human is about being creative and sharing. We’re creating something that spreads and gets bigger. For us it’s beautiful, useful and we can still make money.”
All 800 hours of raw footage will be uploaded for anyone to re-edit as they please. Is he ever scared of losing control of his film? “This was never a collaborative project. We need to have one vision behind the project, and that’s my vision as a director. But if there are hundreds of people creating things around the project, that’s great. People are smart enough to recognise the original work and understand what isn’t original. It’s the same with a remake; it could be terrible but it doesn’t matter, because the original is still the same. That’s what creativity is all about.” The project has also received a grant of 100,000 euros from the Instituto de la Cinematografía y de las Artes Audiovisuales (ICAA) [Institute of Cinematography and Audiovisual Arts] for its transmedia element. This is a whole series of add-ons that stem from Alcalá’s belief that audiences are willing to pay for unique content and experiences. It’s what he calls “connecting the dots”.
On set Alcalá put together a separate transmedia team that would step in after scenes were complete and shoot new material with the actors. This footage will complement the film and be available as webisodes. A short film entitled The Moon Files, that tracks the cosmonaut character when he loses communication with Earth, will also be shown as part of a weekend dedicated to the film. Other products include a video game, a DVD for film schools explaining the whole production process and even a poetry book inspired by the story, written by Alcalá. “It’s not about a film any more,” he says. “It’s about making the experience longer. It’s what happens with a TV series.Following an HBO series is like watching a 50-hour film, and that’s the idea.”
Riot Cinema Collective has gained celebrity for its courageous approach; both in the filmmaking and digital worlds. “A lot of people have written to tell us they’ve been inspired by us,” says Alcalá. “Over the past two and a half years we’ve spoken at 200 conferences. Our project is being taught at university level; theses are being written about us. We were just students ourselves a couple of years ago, so that’s a great feeling. We have nothing to lose and everything to win. If it works we’ll have more money, a bigger community and that audience will be committed to the next film.” A sum of 60,000 euros is needed for the remaining stages: post-production, distribution and buying the song rights. Alcalá’s got a team of 30 people working on the film who have deferred their salaries until the film is finished. He’s now looking for a post-production studio to do the same. The film will première in early summer this year, with plans for parties in Madrid and Barcelona that will link up with its online première, so that fans of The Cosmonaut can connect all over the world.
After all this does Alcalá still think of himself as a filmmaker? “Personally, I consider myself an artist, but I like working as a producer. It’s useful to understand both sides.” He says that ultimately he’s a storyteller. “I like stories. It doesn’t matter whether it’s a screenplay, an advertisement, a film or transmedia. Even with this project, we’ve been creating two stories: one is the film, the other is the story of three kids achieving their dreams; and we’ve been telling that every day via the social networks. We still need to tell people about what we’re doing and get them to engage with us. When people give us money it’s not just about the film, it’s about our story.”
© Eleanor O’Kane 2012