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Five ways to fund film in the age of downloads

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Downloading of movies, music and other digital media has the entertainment industry in an uproar. All of a sudden, they're afraid those multimillion dollar budgets aren't going to be recouped, and they have families to feed! Okay, they have coke habits to feed, but same difference, right?

Despite a few indies here and there that have managed to see the bright side of downloads, you have entertainment moguls trying to rewrite the law so they can cut off the Internet service of anyone they suspect of downloading, and maybe throw them in jail to boot. Clearly, this is like curing a sore throat by cutting it (see, doesn't hurt anymore!) -- and the kind of enforcement that would be required to curtail downloading would make the war on drugs look like Sunday picnic.

But making movies is an expensive proposition, and they've got to be funded somehow (if we're going to continue to have movies, anyway). So here are five suggestions on how to do that.

Patronage: Hey, some of the great works of art throughout history were created under a patronage system. It's a classic whose time has returned (maybe). If you aren't familiar with the concept, some filthy rich guy (say, Bill Gates) is fascinated with, say, the Napoleonic wars. So he goes out and hires Zack Snyder to make the best Napoleon movie ever, starring Tom Cruise (he's the right height, anyway) and then he releases it to the masses. The peasants (that's you and me) love it, and we thank Gates by not coming for him with torches and pitchforks, making everyone is happy.

Sure, it means a few super-rich assholes get to decide what art gets made. But that's pretty much how it works now, anyway, with the added influence of the "wisdom of crowds" that makes crap like Transformers 2 so wildly successful. In other words, could it really be worse?

Crowd-sourcing funding: Speaking of the "wisdom of crowds," the same Internet that allows downloading of films illegally also allows would-be producers to take their pitch directly to you, the people. Then everyone who thinks your costume-drama epic about the sex lives of fruit sounds like a great idea can contribute $5 directly to the cause. And blammo, before you know it you've raised the necessary funds to make the movie and have a thank-you list that bloats your credit sequence to the better part of an hour (good thing digital is cheap). It's like the inverse form of patronage. Think it's implausible? This guy has been soliciting funds via a website and Twitter and has raised around $25,000 so far for his impending zombie film, The Invasion of the Not Quite Dead.

Government funding: Another variation on patronage: How about good ol' Uncle Sam funding some movies? It happens in other countries all the time -- and supposedly, this is the greatest country in the world. Yes, the idea probably makes conservatives' heads threaten to explode, but typically it's done to create cinema that reflects the national character. So the French make lots of movies where everyone drinks wine and smokes cigarettes constantly and sleep around a lot. Us? Nothing but big-budget action movies and rah-rah love letters to American military might. Even conservatives (hell, especially conservatives) can get behind that. Go America!

Exploitation reborn: Perhaps it's time for a return to the glory days of late '70s and early '80s grindhouse and exploitation fare. Made for super cheap, usually to launder money from some group of low-level gangsters' shady/illegal enterprises and shown in theaters that were the absolute dregs, this movement produced some of the best-worst movies of all time.

Since at least some people have shown they're still willing to go out and see a movie, despite DVDs, downloads and home theaters -- or because of them, in the case of cult movies that find an audience via DVD/download and then go on to successful midnight runs -- this could stimulate a whole new kind of cheap, scary-ass theater boom, and produce some more god-awful awesome movies. Now, who has some shady profits they need to launder? Medical marijuana, anyone?

Open-source development: Not just a new way of funding movies, but a whole new way of making them. What if filmmakers took a page from the software development community? Basically, you just set it up online, rely on volunteer efforts for the individual pieces and a few hardcore heroes to pull it all together and create something hopefully awesome. Sound design done by a metalhead in South Dakota, CGI by three brothers in Malaysia, acted in front of a green-screen by a a community theater troupe in Des Moines, Iowa and directed by a film student from New Jersey. Why not? I say if it's good enough to produce great software such as Linux and Audacity, it's good enough to make a cheesy sci-fi movie.

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