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Lucas McNelly Survives His 'Year Without Rent'

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We first checked in with filmmaker Lucas McNelly last July, just four months into his project A Year Without Rent. For a year, McNelly has been acting as the indie film world's embedded journalist, traveling around the country and beyond and working for free on just about any project that would have him.

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His role as an embedded journalist means that he sometimes painted projects in a less than flattering light, which he thinks made some filmmakers reluctant to bring him on board. But after a year on the road, one of the biggest surprises for McNelly was how many indie filmmakers were unwilling to exploit his free labor and the publicity he would provide for their films.

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Photo Courtesy: Lucas McNelly
Lucas McNelly's Twitter profile image.

"I thought it would be a thing where I had five projects at any one time to choose from and then I had a lot of big gaps between projects. I think what that comes from is people are just nervous about bringing on an unknown element to their set. Or they're just not proactive in doing their media stuff- while they're filming."

His point about indie creators not being proactive is telling. McNelly believes that the conventional wisdom has promotion and publicity coming at after production, once the film moves toward festivals like Sundance where professional public relations firms get into the mix.

"I think a lot of filmmakers do not yet realize that you have to start that process from pre-production," McNelly said.

That sort of gap in the indie filmmaker's toolkit is a symptom of the times.

"We're all trying to figure out what the hell's going on," McNelly said. "There's a lot of really smart people doing a lot of really smart stuff. I can see it gelling all together... and I think we're closer than most people think to a sustainability model. I really do."

With sustainability-- the goal of having a creative career that can pay the bills and get the next project up and running, if not necessarily manufacture millionaires-- on the table, our conversation turned to a mutual obsession: Kickstarter. McNelly has funded multiple projects, including A Year Without Rent, on the site, and is currently aggregating and analyzing Kickstarter campaign data in order to see what makes them work. With this much Kickstarter on the brain, crowd funding burnout seems like it might be around the corner. Not so, said McNelly.

"I think that we have a fatigue-- have a feeling that there's more of a fatigue than there is. I've talked to filmmakers who don't know what it is. Who don't have a clue what Kickstarter is, let alone use it."

Even the current champ amongst successful Kickstarter campaigns (Double Fine Adventure) has just 61,655 backers at the time this was written. The upper limit for what's possible in crowd funding has not yet been discovered.

"How many people went to see Avatar in theaters?" McNelly asked.

As the indie ecosystem evolves we're liable to see named filmmakers jump into the crowd funding race, brinGing some star power to the ecosystem. McNelly thinks that Richard Linkletter should try crowd funding a scrapped Dazed and Confused sequel, or the second follow up to Before Sunrise. While that would likely bring more attention to this emerging alternate financing and distribution market, it would really solve the problems with money that indie filmmakers face.

As of now the "digital direct" models that are held up as exemplars are all trading on long standing careers.

"Everyone always talks about the Radiohead model for music," said McNelly. "It's not going to work for a band from Brooklyn who just joined up today over their love of skinny jeans. It's just not going to work for them because they're not [expletive deleted] Radiohead. What we haven't seen yet, is we haven't seen someone get successful without going through the system first. And I think that's what people forget about Radiohead and Ed Burns and Louis CK is that they went through the system and they had success in the system. Ed Burns plays himself on Entourage for [expletive deleted] sake. He's a big deal. We're still waiting for the first person to do that."

McNelly points to filmmakers Gregory Bayne and Gary King, each of whom has managed to raise tens of thousands of dollars on Kickstarter so far, as possible candidates for being the first to truly circumnavigate the system.

"Whoever it is," McNelly said, "that's the big thing we need to have happen."

Originally published on Turnstylenews.com, a digital information service surfacing emerging stories in news, entertainment, art and culture; powered by award-winning journalists.

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