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The Sundance Film Festival has always been as much about the business of making and distributing movies as the art of movies. This year at Sundance, the business buzz is Kickstarter. In the three years it's been around, the crowd funding website has become a critical tool for film projects.

NPR's Elizabeth Blair reports.

ELIZABETH BLAIR, BYLINE: Kickstarter is used by artists in every discipline but film is its biggest category. And, as one Kickstarter employee put it, filmmakers are natural hustlers. Just check out the videos they make to get you to give them money. There's the you-get-stuff pitch.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: We have all kinds of cool rewards, like a special limited edition to trophy, a poster made just for us by the...

BLAIR: There's the humorous, feel-sorry-for-us pitch.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Matthew and Nathan did all this while living in Harlem, by the way. They survived two shootings.

(SOUNDBITE OF GUNSHOTS)

BLAIR: There's the pitch from people who you'd think already have the money, like Whoopi Goldberg.

WHOOPI GOLDBERG: And I know it seems odd that I would be asking for help on this, but as it turns out, it's a bigger thing than I thought it was.

BLAIR: And those campaigns are successful. Goldberg raised over $73,000 for a documentary about the comedian Moms Mabley. The documentary "Detropia" was recently short-listed for an Oscar.

According to Kickstarter, over $100 million have been pledged to films on the site.

Keri Putnam is executive director of the Sundance Institute.

KERI PUTNAM: We quickly began to realize that this was something really capturing people's attention, and excitement and allowing people to feel connected to creative endeavors in a way that was really sort of transformational.

BLAIR: When Sundance supports a film, it's highlighted on a special page on Kickstarter.

PUTNAM: They can make more money from Kickstarter as they can through a Sundance grant.

BLAIR: Sometimes a lot more, especially if it's an artist with a track record, like Charlie Kaufman who wrote the movies "Being John Malkovich" and "Adaptation." He and the animation company Starburn Industries ran a Kickstarter campaign.

(SOUNDBITE OF AD)

ANNOUNCER: We want to make "Anomalisa" without the interference of the typical big studio process.

BLAIR: They raised over $400,000.

Yancey Strickler, co-founder of Kickstarter, says Kaufman and the animators are the kind of artists who use the site because Hollywood isn't working for them.

YANCEY STRICKLER: They're always butting up against a system that has different ideas about how art should work. But yet, they have huge fan bases and here they're able to go directly to those audiences and make something, you know, the way they wanted to.

BLAIR: And cultivating that fan base is turning out to be another major benefit for film-makers who run successful Kickstarter campaigns. Not only do they raise cash, they also raise awareness that could result in a bigger audience for their films once they're released. The people who pledge are called backers.

Filmmaker Audrey Ewell is premiering a documentary at this year's Sundance Festival. She says Kickstarter calls the effort a campaign for a reason.

AUDREY EWELL: These are the people who are becoming the community that's going to support you so it's important to involve them and to send out frequent updates and to write back to people who write back to you, and to send everybody a thank you note and to encourage everybody to reach out for you on your behalf.

BLAIR: She raised more than $23,000 from hundreds of backers.

Elizabeth Blair, NPR News.

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