Cutting-edge investment

Matt Smith in American Psycho which was partly funded through Kickstarter. Photo: Tristram Kenton
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Two events last week marked a pivotal moment in the relationship between crowdfunding platforms – online sites that solicit private donations for specific projects – and Britain’s theatre industry.

The opening of American Psycho, financed in part by a $150,000 (£92,000) appeal for funds on the US-based Kickstarter platform, at the Almeida Theatre and the announcement that the producers of a musical version of 1970s television series Happy Days had met their £250,000 fundraising target on British platform Seedrs, paving the way for a national tour in January, conspicuously thrust crowdfunding into the limelight.

[pullquote name="Deborah Curtis, House of Fairytales"]It’s going to be a crucial part of arts development, a really useful way of addressing need in the arts world: we have a need, you can help us, and here’s how and what for[/pullquote]

Already well established in the US, crowdfunding has begun to establish itself in the UK with beneficial consequences for producers keen to create and promote new shows and for companies struggling to cope with the ever-tightening purse strings of public funding.

With industry website Crowdsourcing.org currently listing 2,522 platforms, recent research by Deloitte predicts that crowdfunding portals will raise a global total of £1.9 billion this year, more than double the amount raised in 2011. Created in 2009, Kickstarter began operating in the UK in October last year and has since raised £22.5 million – equivalent to £43 per minute – from almost 323,300 private backers for more than 1,500 projects.

With platforms typically taking 5% of the total amount raised and money processing companies such as Amazon Payments and Paypal also receiving a similar amount, for high-profile projects such as American Psycho –  a co-production with director Rupert Goold’s Headlong company and American producers Act 4 Entertainment – the benefits of crowdfunding extend beyond simply raising money, as producer Jesse Singer explains.

“By far the biggest benefit is PR and profile: the messaging, buzz and community you can build around a project. Early adopters have an emotional as well as financial investment in what you’re doing and that creates a very powerful audience for the project.”

Realising $154,929 (£94,450) – 103% of its target – from 1,421 backers over a 32-day campaign, with pledges of between $1 (61p) and $10,000 (£6,100) in return for ‘rewards’ such as exclusive T-shirts, signed memorabilia and cocktail party invites, has also produced material advantages for both the production and the producers, he adds.

“It meant our rehearsal period was much longer – a full seven weeks – than it would have been, we’ve been able to have a live band instead of pre-recorded music and it has allowed us to establish a relationship with the donors that we hope will continue into future projects.”

Cheryl Baker, Ben Freeman and Heidi Range in Happy Days which quickly met it's £250,000 target. Photo: Paul Coltas
Cheryl Baker, Ben Freeman and Heidi Range in Happy Days which quickly met it's £250,000 target. Photo: Paul Coltas

Operating on a smaller scale, the London-based Jackdaw theatre company raised £2,000 through UK platform Wefund for a centenary revival of Stanley Houghton’s Hindle Wakes with little more than the promise of complimentary tickets and a free glass of bubbly. Small beer in comparison to American Psycho and Happy Days, but, says producer Amy Clamp, crucial to the success of its £30,000-budgeted Finborough Theatre run in late 2012 and the company’s bank balance.

“Without it, we wouldn’t have broken even. On the scale of our project, profits can be rare, so all the money raised went towards making it happen. Some of our supporters were giving just £1 or £5, but every little helps and without it we would have lost money.”

Jackdaw’s experience is not unique. Earlier this year, Matthews Yard in Croydon raised £8,000 through Kickstarter to create the UK’s first crowdfunded theatre space, while Hackney’s Yard Theatre sourced £10,000 on the civic project-focused Spacehive platform to install insulation allowing it to extend its operations to run all year round.

Crowdfunding is also finding its way into education-led initiatives such as the Canning Town-based House of Fairy Tales, which asked for £50,000 over the summer on Kickstarter and received £60,000 to finance the first term of its art circus school for “children of all ages”.

Echoing Act 4’s Singer, co-founder Deborah Curtis says that aside from raising much-needed money, “the main benefit we got from it was consolidating awareness of what we’re doing and how we work. But the funds will enable us to do work in schools and to consolidate the ideas around the art circus in a way we wouldn’t have been able to do otherwise. And hopefully it will help attract investment from other sources.”

Considerably larger in ambition is the mooted West End musical adaptation of The Wind in the Willows, with a book by Julian Fellowes and an overall budget of £6.5 million. Producer Jamie Hendry has bypassed established platforms to sell directly to would-be angels, with the aim of raising £650,000. Offering a financial return for sums of between £1,000 and £5,000 – which, the publicity claims, “could see a return on investment of 60% over the first two years” – the proposition is more obviously financial.

Similarly, Happy Days, which sought £250,000 of a total budget of £600,000 on Seedrs, is offering a potential return of 25% to 355 investors, who have pledged an average of just under £710 apiece.

For House of Fairy Tales’ Curtis, crowdfunding is “very much part of the future”. She adds: “The really important part about it is that you’re doing joined-up thinking about your customer group – your audience – and you’re taking your ‘product’ direct to the market; that’s incredibly valuable for PR and marketing alone.

“It’s going to be a crucial part of arts development, a really useful way of addressing need in the arts world: we have a need, you can help us, and here’s how and what for.”