Fan-funded disruptor Legion M is coming for Hollywood
As any indie filmmaker will attest, marketing is hard. In 2017, it’s easier than ever to plan, produce and fund your movie, but finding an audience? Still tough. What if there were a way to make this final puzzle piece a little simpler? Paul Scanlan and Jeff Annison have created a solution to that very problem: Legion M.
The concept is nothing short of genius. Legion M is a production company, a movie studio, and a multimedia entertainment company, but all funded by fans – and with fans comes your audience.
We first heard about Legion M exactly a year ago, when they launched their audacious initial crowdfunding campaign aiming to raise a million bucks to seed a “fan-owned movie studio.” Based on draconian financial laws, a studio owned by fans just hadn’t been possible in the U.S until exactly that point. In response, Hollywood heavyweights spit feathers over the intrepidity of the venture or just sulked in the corner, pissed that they didn’t have the idea first.
While the concept of a production studio owned by the people isn’t exactly unique – the BBC have been operating on that exact premise in the UK since 1927 – such enterprises are usually non-profit, with the fan-investors never seeing anything back for their support. In the UK, it’s actually a criminal offense to own a television and not chip in for your “license fee.” With Legion M, fan-investors may not actually be hurling their capital into a bottomless pit, as there’s a real chance they may see a return on their investment – eventually.
However, the potential financial rewards aren’t really the main appeal for Legion M’s three thousand fan-investors. What really turns these film buffs on is the chance for a say in the filmmaking process.
Legion M becomes super-powered via its crowdsourced community. At the very active private Facebook group and on the Legion M website forums, fan-investors are consulted about the many ideas the board is considering. Although major strategic decisions are still left up to the founders, from a marketing perspective the Legion M community is already a valuable resource. By crowdsourcing responses to future campaigns, the community can help Legion M avoid expensive promotional mistakes. To all intents and purposes, fan-investors act as a highly engaged, super-responsive focus group.
As Carlzen Balagot, Legion M early investor and CalTech research assistant and freelance photographer, told us in an email interview, “As fans, we have input now. We used to just be on the sidelines. We are funding Hollywood, and I’m sure ‘our’ involvement and knowledge are to be exercised and applied in how these films are presented to the public.”
James Riederer, a fellow early investor, discovered Legion M while reading the LA Times in 2016. He spoke with us via email from “a small town with just one comic book store.” His hopes are high for both the future of Legion M and cinema itself, stating, “I really believe Legion M can make change and bring back the glory days of Hollywood, making film inventive and fun again.”
Something that the Legion M founders excel at is transparency, with every effort going into keeping their fan-investors in the loop. They host regular live stream updates chatting about news and business developments, each session ending with an open floor for questions. These chats go a long way in making community members feel supported and, most importantly, included in the brand they are helping to build.
Thomas Coppola, a retiree and early Legion M investor, happened upon their WeFunder profile and was impressed by their lean approach to a large proposition. When speaking with us in February, he stated he “likes the more-or-less transparent approach.”
Although currently limited in size, the community is already powerful. Legion M’s previous marketing campaigns have followed a symbiotic approach; rather than dry-sell Legion M from behind a table at Comic Con, the small team thought outside the box. They conceived an immersive “happening” for the convention which became known as the Pitch Elevator. 400 entries, one giant prop, and a whole load of social media chatter later, their concept became one of the most buzzworthy experiences at the Stan Lee Comic Con.
Following the enthusiastic community reaction to the concept, the Legion M board decided the Pitch Elevator concept might work well as a TV show and pitched it to Legendary Entertainment. If it does go into production, the Pitch Elevator show would not only provide a valuable platform for talented people with little access to industry contacts and resources, but it could also act as a large scale advertisement for Legion M. Advertisers usually pay millions of dollars for that amount of airtime, but Legion M would actually be getting paid for their collaboration. These synergistic projects are key to the lean development strategy of the Legion M brand, whose methods can sound so meta that you could easily confuse them with a Mitchell Hurwitz script.
Legion M have taken their agile Silicon Valley way of doing business to Hollywood. Film and TV production is flabbier than ever, which was reported in the fantastic Nick Bilton-Vanity Fair piece published earlier this year. Production turns out to be a wasteful process, full of often unnecessary elements, which is shouting from the rooftops for disruption. While tech companies may be interested in preserving the film medium, they generally don’t let their emotions interfere with the bottom line. Case in point: both the Amazon and Netflix streaming platforms started producing their own content when the Hollywood asking price for content became too high.
After speaking with Paul Scanlan, we can’t help but feel the Legion M ship will be steered with similar skill. With a mere five members of full-time staff, they are lean, flexible and ready to diversify. With the ability to make decisions quickly, they already have the upper hand over the hierarchical Hollywood studio system, where it can take years just to greenlight a project.
Thunder Levin, a writer and director living in Los Angeles best known for the infamous Sharknado series. After reading about Legion M in Variety, he thought it “sounded like a fascinating concept if they could actually pull it off.” He believes “the feature film business has become fairly moribund in the past decade or so as the studios’ corporate overlords become more and more risk-averse. If a movie isn’t a sequel, prequel, reboot, or adaptation, it just doesn’t get made. Because Legion M’s business model would sort of ‘pre-vet’ movie ideas, it seemed they’d have more freedom to pursue original material, because they’d already know if movie fans were behind it.”
Levin believes one of the magic ingredients of the Legion M team “is that, while they’re all seasoned professionals, they’re also fans. They haven’t lost their love of movies and they still geek out. Most of the film people I know don’t even go to the movies anymore.”
Kristen Anderson Grubb, yoga instructor and active member of the Legion M community, agrees with this analysis. “The industry is getting stuck in a loop of the same people making the same movies. Legion M can produce new original material by unknowns – actually growing the industry.” Kristen also acted as a Pitch Elevator judge and went behind the scenes on Legion M’s original content series Icons (filmed in 3D for use on VR headsets) in which Kevin Smith interviewed Stan Lee. Her early involvement with core projects shows the inclusivity of the community and opportunities for fan-investors to be part of the process.
Whitney Worthen is a journalist, sound specialist, and movie blogger. Living in Indiana, she felt geographically isolated from the movie business and was looking for a way back into the system after graduating from film school years before. She saw a Facebook advert for Legion M and invested, reflecting that “Legion M’s ability to talk to and interact with fans will give them better insight into what the audience wants.”
Much has been made in the press about the pitching process for Paul Scanlan and Jeff Annison’s previous venture, MobiTV. The dynamic duo became the laughingstock of Hollywood, with one studio executive stating “you’re crazy if you think people are going to watch movies from their phones,” according to Scanlan. The studios, slow to understand the mobile revolution, eventually did sign up with MobiTV. Paul Scanlan observed further that, with Legion M, Hollywood has been a lot more accepting and even encouraging of the project. This could be based on the now-proven track record of the Emmy-winning directors (Paul Scanlan and Jeff Annison), or it could be down to high-profile early adopters such as Seth Green, Alamo Drafthouse, Guillermo del Toro, and Stan Lee. The climate is very different now, with Hollywood insiders aware the time has come for major disruption.
Paul and Jeff are known in the industry for tapping into the zeitgeist and sticking their necks out for what they think is going to be the future of entertainment. So far, their results speak for themselves. With the world decentralizing, and media audiences wanting more power over what they consume, Legion M could be the bridge between today’s legacy studio system and what technology may offer us in the future. By heavily investing their plans in the virtual and augmented reality markets, Legion M mean to future-proof their business model for tomorrow’s marketplace and beyond.
In the end, Legion M hopes to find a million investors – which, if they are successful, will be a much more difficult community to manage than their current 3000. The cash and minds of a million fans could usher in a new era of entertainment. Regardless whether they pull that off, the Legion M concept is a major disruptor in the content revolution.
Thanks to everyone who agreed to be interviewed for this piece.
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