On a Friday evening in October, a lively group of 40 or so people gathered on the lower level of Manhattan’s Javits Center for a New York Comic Con panel. Matching red and black hats, t-shirts, and pins spattered the crowd. A petite brunette woman in the front row donned a temporary tattoo of Nicolas Cage’s bloody face on her left cheek. The volume of the applause at the start of the session belied their numbers.
The fans weren’t there to geek out over a treasured artist, author, or franchises like Harry Potter, Star Wars, or the Avengers. They were there to learn about a new, wholly original work from a creator half the people in the room might not have heard of before. The panel—one of the last in a long day of sessions—introduced a new project from Legion M, a two-year-old entertainment company focused on investing in original movies, TV shows, and other projects.
Legion M is crowdfunded by fans. It was formed in 2016 to take advantage of a new US Securities and Exchange Commission rule change that allowed regular people—not just the wealthy—to invest in startups. Founded by Paul Scanlan and Jeff Annison, who also created MobiTV to put TV shows on smartphones, Legion M wanted to give fans a say in the kinds of projects its entertainment company made. The idea was that, if people are emotionally and financially invested in Legion M, they’d be more likely to support its projects, even if it’s not making superhero movies, Eighties revivals, or TV reboots.
The company wasn’t interested in the prequels, sequels, or spinoffs that Hollywood was churning out. Not to say it would never do one, but it wanted to build fanbases around the original material that has become rarer on the big screen.
“To spread a virus, you need patient zero,” Scanlan told Quartz. “You need someone infected to walk through a crowded airport. If you have a lot of people doing that right out of the gate, then you have a better opportunity.”
It’s a strange analogy, but the virus is starting to spread. The last film Legion M invested in, Mandy, a low-budget revenge thriller from director Panos Cosmatos and starring Cage (hence the tattoo), was not your typical Hollywood fare. Yet, the genre film has brought in more than $1.1 million at the box office since its Sept. 14 US release. That’s a tremendous theatrical run for a movie without a major marketing campaign that was released online the same day it hit theaters, for rental or sale via iTunes and Amazon Video. Distributor RLJ Entertainment said it extended the film’s theatrical run and generated millions more from video-on-demand sales, Business Insider reported.
Legion M didn’t invest much in Mandy, which was produced by SpectreVision, XYZ Films, and Umedia, so that probably won’t translate into big returns for the company. But it serves as a case study for how Legion M can impact a film’s performance. Its members organized more than 60 meet ups at theaters across the country during the film’s opening night.
So far, Legion M has raised nearly $5 million from 10,000 investors, who contributed $500 on average, which the company can invest in projects like Mandy. It also has another 40,000 members who joined the community for free, and help scout films, give feedback on potential projects, and, most importantly, rally friends and family to support Legion M’s work. (The only difference between Legion M members and investors is that investors also own shares in the company.)
The company’s logo, the letter M with a bar over it, is the Roman numeral for 1 million, the number of investors it ultimately hopes to attract.
“The studios are very reluctant to put money into wholly original films these days because it needs to be underlying [intellectual property], it needs to be proven,” said Terri Lubaroff, chief operating officer at Legion M, at the Comic Con panel. “But if we have a million people behind the company and we say they’re going to support it, you can do original.”
Scanlan, who studied radio, TV, and film in college, and Annison, who started his career designing theme-park rides and toys, first entered the entertainment space in 1999 with MobiTV, a tech company that developed a way to bring live TV to mobile phones. For Legion M, they assembled a small, but scrappy crew, including Eric Lam, who worked with Annison and Scanlan at MobiTV, and others who had deeper ties in pop culture. Lubaroff, an entertainment lawyer and developer of TV and film, worked for Los Angeles’s landmark Meltdown Comics and consulted for tech companies that were getting into the entertainment business. Legion M’s head of development, David Baxter, had more than 20 years of experience developing TV shows and films. And the company has a stacked advisory board that includes Neon co-founder and Alamo Drafthouse chief Tim League, Lisa Taback, one of Hollywood’s top awards strategists, and Robot Chicken creator Stoopid Buddy Stoodios, which was one of Legion M’s founding advisors.
Investing in films is risky business. Even at a major studio like Disney or Universal that has the best creatives at its disposal and decades of experience, one never really knows what will hit with audiences and what will flop. Investing in a months-old startup that invests in films is even risker. There’s no market for shares of private companies, so it’s difficult to cash out. Shareholders have to find buyers of their own, and trade or sell the stock through the electronic share platform Carta.
Terri Piñon, 42—the woman with the temporary tattoo—worried she’d been had when she first invested $100 in Legion M in June 2016, three months after the company was announced. She joined its members-only Facebook group to find she was the fifth member, after the company’s founding team.
“I was like, oh my god, I just got scammed,” she told Quartz. “I didn’t think it was real.” Piñon learned about Legion M through an ad on Facebook that offered the chance to own an entertainment company for a hundred bucks, the minimum investment. She had contributed to Kickstarter and other crowdfunding campaigns before, as well as a friend’s cookie company. She knew the risks of getting involved with early-stage startups.
“I wasn’t expecting much back,” said Piñon. ”More so than losing the money, I was disappointed because this sounded like a cool idea.”
Now, the Facebook group now has more than 8,400 members, and is one of the main ways Legion M staffers keep investors and members informed, live streaming updates from the founders at least once a month, sharing news about Legion M projects like the latest reviews for Mandy, and soliciting feedback on upcoming projects. Piñon has gotten so involved in Legion M that she was hired part time as its community ringleader—moderating its Facebook pages and website forum, and organizing meet ups with members who go to the movies together or attend events like New York Comic Con and the Sundance Film Festival.
“It’s very high risk, but potentially high reward if we’re one of those very few companies that can beat the odds and go on to change industry,” said Scanlan. “If we don’t, we’ll go out of business. That’s the way it works.”
What drew Piñon and other investors to the company, in spite of the risks, was the potential to influence the kinds of movies, TV shows, and other projects that are being made. Members help pick the projects that Legion M invests in.
The first film was a late-stage investment in Colossal, a wonky science-fiction movie from Neon that starred Anne Hathaway as a party girl whose inner demons inexplicably caused chaos in South Korea. It was chosen, in part, after members polled on Facebook said they wanted Legion M to make a sci-fi movie, Piñon said.
Legion M also has a members-only forum on its website where people can connect and share feedback on projects and ideas. It has a film scout program where approved members can rate and evaluate new and upcoming movies, and it shares movie trailers and log lines, which distill a film’s narrative into one or two sentences, to get feedback on which projects those scouts should focus on at festivals. It has a reading club where members can review TV and film scripts. And the company conducts regular “M-Pulse” surveys via Google Forms to get input on its projects, other upcoming titles, and its members interest in media overall.
“There was this excitement around this idea that fans could get in on the ground level and influence projects and even get a say in what sort of projects get made,” said another investor, Sreecharan Sankaranarayanan, 24, from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
The next few films Legion M invested in, Bad Samaritan, Field Guide to Evil, and Mandy, fit loosely into the horror genre that was also popular among members polled. Its upcoming project—the one announced at Comic Con—will be an American Western from director Tanya Wexler, called Girl With No Name, about the birth a gunslinger. It will be a comic book first, and then a movie. Most of the projects the company chooses are genre, or niche, titles like these.
“Legion M definitely has a brand,” Lubaroff, the chief operating officer, told Quartz in a phone interview. “We call it elevated genre, and to us that means anything that could be on a panel at comic con or at film festivals.”
All of the projects Legion M has invested in so far have been small and mid-sized, with budgets under $15 million, said Lubaroff. She wouldn’t reveal how much the company invested, but said Legion M is only financing very small pieces of projects right now.
Legion M may be fan-owned, but great art isn’t made by committee. Members help guide Legion M’s five full-time staffers, who ultimately pick the projects. They don’t always see eye to eye with members or investors.
“I’m sure not everybody will love a Western, but that’s okay because you have other stuff that we’re going to be doing that they can love,” said Lubaroff, adding that she didn’t think Mandy was up her alley when she first heard about it. “The whole point of the company is to have a diversified slate that can appeal to all different types of people, but still brings in a level of creativity and originality that may not necessarily be seen on such a wide scale.”
The legion is pretty mixed, according to Scanlan. Overall, members lean slightly more male, the bulk are between the ages of 25-45, and are mostly located in the US, with clusters in cities like New York and Los Angeles. Some are parents who bought shares for themselves and their children. And many appear to work in creative or entertainment fields themselves.
The company draws a line when feedback gets in the way of creatives actually being creative. Fans don’t get a say over the storylines or creative elements. Directors like Wexler on Girl With No Name and Cosmatos on Mandy are told they have Legion M at their disposal if they want input on something like the movie trailer or casting, but they make the final calls.
Last July, Legion M hosted an event at the famed TCL Chinese Theater IMAX in Los Angeles in which comic-book legend Stan Lee was imprinted in cement—a rite of passage for Hollywood elites that is usually shut out to fans. Not everyone at Legion M was on board.
“There was a lot of backlash about that,” said Sankaranarayanan, who said members on the Facebook group expressed concern that Legion M was throwing its money away on the event. “The idea there was, you’re collecting money from this many people you should have some responsibility and all of that.”
Scanlan and Annison at Legion M explained their thinking on Facebook Live. The event would help Legion M gain exposure, and corporate sponsors and fans who bought tickets to the afterparty would offset the cost of the event.
“You have no idea what associating Legion M with Stan Lee meant for the company and for the fans,” said Sankaranarayanan.
Legion M has scrapped plans in other cases where investors didn’t agree. Scanlan said the company considered giving away shares as a marketing ploy: “We had enough pushback on it that we elected not to do it.”
After two and a half years, Legion M isn’t making a profit and doesn’t expect to in the next year. The company—which is hoping to raise up to $2.5 million in a fourth round of funding, if and when it receives SEC approval—posted a $1.1 million loss during the first half of 2018, 25% more than the same period last year, mostly due to the higher cost of promoting Bad Samaritan compared to 2017’s Colossal and additional employees.
Sankaranarayanan knows he may never again see the $140 he invested in Legion M—roughly two months worth of groceries for him.
“I honestly don’t care,” he said. “It’s already been a good journey.” The Carnegie Mellon graduate student, who’s studying to get his PhD in computer science, said he “wouldn’t have gotten this opportunity unless, you know, 30 years down the line I had enough money to actually become an accredited investor.”
Likewise, Piñon, who works at a medical laboratory in New Jersey by day, said she was floored when she saw her name listed in the credits of Mandy, as Legion M’s “Community Ring Leader,” during a screening at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival, which she attended with Legion M. The experience checked off a “bucket list item” for her, she said.
Legion M has been more than a financial investment for them. Like fans of franchises such as Star Trek or The Walking Dead, Legion M members go to screenings and events together, and even swap gifts during the winter holidays. Some are creatives, who use Legion M to promote their own works or partner up with other members. At New York Comic Con, when the videographer who was supposed to film Legion M’s panel caught the flu, an investor who was in town from Florida stepped in at the last minute to record the event for those who couldn’t be there in person. The company’s most active shareholders feel as though they’re part of the business.
“It’s cool to see a business grow,” said Piñon. “We might not be entrepreneurs ourselves but we have that same interest to grow something together.”
Correction (2:30pm EST): An earlier version of this story said Lubaroff consulted for tech companies before getting into the entertainment business. She consulted for companies that were getting into the entertainment business.