In the ever-expanding arsenal of tools that low-budget filmmakers have at their disposal in this digital world, crowd funding has the unique distinction of being as annoying as it is exciting. Since successfully using Kickstarter.com to fund my fourth feature, Absentia, my newsfeed has been flooded with Kickstarter funding pleas from friends and acquaintances. It is so prevalent that my girlfriend accurately started referring to it as the "friendship tax."
As sites like Kickstarter and Indie Go-Go continue to grow in popularity, and more and more projects start knocking on the door for small donations, the importance of knowing how to properly use such sites becomes what will separate motivated, capable artists from the hordes of amateur wanna-be's whose projects won't ever make it off the ground, with or without your $10.
These sites don't work for you, after all. They exist to help you work for yourself, and if you're persistent, smart, and unobtrusive, they represent a wonderful avenue to secure funding for low or no-budget films, theatrical ventures, books, web series – basically anything you can come up with.
WHAT IS CROWD FUNDING?
If you're unfamiliar with the "crowd-funding website" concept, here's a basic structure. Sites like this are a collection of "Projects," which represent a spectrum of artistic disciplines vying for support from anyone and everyone who comes across them. Each project has to set a monetary goal for themselves, as well as a deadline by which they hope to have raised it.
"Backers" can read about the project, watch videos, and be rewarded with small "incentives" for their donations, which can usually be as low as $5. The site collects these payments through Paypal or Amazon.com, keeps a tally of the success like a pledge drive, and takes a small percentage if the project is successful in raising its money. Some, like Kickstarter, add the additional suspense of making it so that projects receive nothing at all if they fail to raise their goal by the deadline. Others, like Indie Go-Go, transfer all donations to the projects immediately, regardless of whether they reach the goal or not.
Small business ventures, theatre pieces, web series, feature films, books, comics, CD's – no artistic venture is out of bounds. If you spend a few minute browsing on Kickstarter, you'll see a diverse (if not overwhelming) collection of projects all vying for a little generosity. Some are doing well, others are not. Some are boasting 150% or more of their funding goal, with weeks to spare, while others are seeming to struggle to build up even a couple hundred bucks. It becomes clear, seeing the wide spectrum of success and failures, that it isn't so much the crowd-funding mechanism itself that gets these projects funded …it's how you use the website that determines your success.
When my producer Justin Gordon proposed we seek funding for my fourth feature Absentia on Kickstarter.com, I was very, very skeptical. First, I didn't want to think about putting a project up there for funding and then failing to raise the money. How embarrassing, right? And when I found out that you get nothing unless you meet your own stated financial goal, it suddenly smelled like a hoax. Why impose these conditions? What point did they serve? Did the website help you raise the money, or did you do it yourself? And if you did it yourself, wouldn't you rather try to offer people an opportunity to invest in a film for a potential return, instead of "donating" to a film for zero ownership on a website that seemed like a gimmick?[Editorial Note: At the time of this writing, it is actually illegal to do "crowd-investing," as the government is afraid that people who can least afford it will be swindled. Currently, you can only give a small handfull of people who are not wealthy the option to actually invest in your film, far too small an amount to fund a film. Crowdfunding, on the other hand, allows people to be a part of a film with donations, and, because there is no promise of financial return, there are no limitations on whom you or the site you use can approach. -J.H.]
The site was still in its BETA phase at the time we looked into it, which was early May of 2010. There were projects up there apparently securing significant amounts of money, while others could barely scrape together $100. It looked like a crapshoot. And browsing through the projects, I saw a pile of them that looked a lot like those incompetent, juvenile projects that rose up to take advantage of digital video when it emerged as an avenue to give the power of filmmaking to anyone, despite their worthiness. Here were those lame, know-nothing filmmakers again, peddling their incompetent projects, and this time they were asking for money.
I saw a few of them already had donations, and immediately thought "that film will never be made. You might as well burn that money." And then it occurred to me – what was to stop people from thinking the same thing if we posted Absentia on the site?
Worse, we had to "apply" for inclusion on the site. They didn't allow just anyone to put something up, which was actually a bit of a relief, but what if we were rejected? We had to decide on "prizes" for each monetary donation level, which Justin headed up. He did the legwork with the site and finally came back, said we were "approved," and suggested we go for it.
Pre-Planning is exceptionally important for successful crowdfunding. (Script Supervisor Gaby Chavez featured in photo.).
The first steps toward the success or failure of your crowd-funding project are going to be decided by two things: your financial goal, and how long you give yourself to reach it. Setting a goal too high, at least on Kickstarter, is nothing short of a gamble. If you make your goal you're set, and there's no limit after that point – you can continue collecting money as long as your timeline lasts. But if you fall short, you get nothing and the money is returned to everyone. While your initial donors didn't lose any cash, the confidence in your project goes way down and, in my opinion, returning to your donors with an outstretched hand again later is classless.
You'll notice most of the film projects on these sites seem to be asking for anything between $10,000 and $25,000. I know a filmmaker who shot the moon, trying to raise $75,000 on the site in a single month. It was a terrible embarrassment for everyone involved when the project pulled in less than 9% of that goal. (Most crowdfunding sites are ideal for microbudget projects, but very difficult for pulling off higher budget films.)
It's important to strategize this stage of the fundraising journey (and make no mistake, it is a long, long journey) carefully. First, who will be reaching out for funds? Is it just you? Is it your production team? Do you have a cast yet?
Have everyone count how many friends they have on Facebook. This is critical to the success of a project. If you have 500 friends, and your cast collectively represents another, say, 4500 Facebook connections, you're looking at roughly 5000 individuals who will be exposed to your crowd-funding site. Let's say you think can convince half of them to donate, and that the average donation will be $20 or so. That puts you at $10,000 right there. Use this to try to calculate how many people you'll be exposed to, and how many you realistically think will help you. If you've got a social network of 100 people and you're the only person advancing the fundraising goals, set the goal as low as you can. If you have an actor in your cast with 4,000 friends or Twitter followers, adjust accordingly.
With Absentia, we set our goal at 15k, despite a last minute discussion about whether 10 would be more realistic. We set our deadline at June 6th, giving us a month to raise the money if we wanted it to be available before production began on June 21st.
THE VIDEO IS THE THING
Our initial few days/hours on Kickstarter were underwhelming to say the least. There was some money, from relatives and family who knew what we were doing. We calculated how much we'd have to raise on a daily basis to meet our goal. It was daunting. The regret kicked in – why hadn't we asked for 10k instead of 15? Discussions turned away from actually raising the money and toward how we could cover the difference if we came up short, just to make sure we were to keep whatever donations we were lucky enough to get.
The site allows for a video to play on your home page, and ours was the "teaser trailer" we'd filmed a few weeks earlier. This was true of a lot of the projects on Kickstarter, and it didn't seem like it was generating any interest. After all, we'd already circulated our little teaser trailer to everyone we knew weeks ago … attaching it to the Kickstarter page meant that whoever we were sending this to was already getting a rerun.
The idea became to create a personal video to put up there, to explain what we were doing and why. This is hardly a unique idea on Kickstarter, but the quality of these "welcome videos" run the spectrum from awful to engaging. The bigger idea behind it was to try to create a video that was about our efforts at Kickstarter, but that also worked on its own right – something that could be enjoyed, reposted, and even go viral on its own merits.
We needed something that would entertain people, so that even if they weren't necessarily interested in donating, they'd be entertained enough to want to repost it. One night after work, my girlfriend (and Absentia actress) Courtney Bell operated my JVC camera to film a personal welcome video. We didn't have a concept or a script. We only wanted to be funny, engaging, and self deprecating, as this whole Kickstarter thing still seemed fishy in my mind.
We figured it was better to appeal to people for the lowest possible donation amount, five dollars, than to try to ask for more. After all, our friends were all broke, just like us! If I wouldn't donate $100 to a Kickstarter project, why should I ask anyone else to? Five bucks, on the other hand …
It was that thinking that led to this first "welcome" video for our Kickstarter page.
THE FIVE DRIVE
The video was a hit. People liked it, whether they donated or not. I put it up on Facebook, and there was a noticeable spike in donations. We checked the donor list at Kickstarter (a great and useful feature of the site) and realized that the recent donors were in fact people from my Facebook list. Some even commented on the link, saying "fine, you win" and "okay, that was worth $5." The lightbulb went off.
My social network wasn't going to get us to the goal, not even close. But there were eight of us in the cast and crew, and each of us had hundreds of Facebook friends and family members who believe in us. None of us felt comfortable just panhandling for donations, but we realized we felt very comfortable asking if we felt we EARNED the money.
Why not make one of these little videos for each member of our team? We could release the videos every few days, and we assumed we could expect a similar "spike" in donations from the social network of whoever starred in that particular video. AND, we surmised, people who were reluctant to donate might concede $5 by the end of the process IF WE SIMPLY ENTERTAINED THEM THROUGHOUT.
This, it turned out, shined a spotlight on the secret of successfully using sites like Kickstarter. You need to work them and it's a full time job. We practically turned "The Five Drive" into a web series. We were constantly in production on new "PSA's" to get us to our goal. We wanted each one to be personalized to the actor who was featured, so that their best and most familiar personality traits would shine through and ingratiate our project to their friends and families.
We began to get more creative with our prizes, incorporating special "limited time" prizes into each video. It was my job to direct and edit the videos, and then the job of whoever was featured to personally send the link to each of their Facebook friends. After all, people could miss a status update … but if we sent it as a personal message, complete with a personalized plea from each cast member, people couldn't ignore it.
The strategy was immediately successful. Each video coincided with a significant spike in donations, and people started writing to us about how much they enjoyed the little PSA's, whether they donated or not. The "Five Drive" became a source of regular entertainment, not a nagging plea for money. As long as entertaining remained our priority, the money seemed to just come.
EARN THE MONEY
I can't recommend this strategy enough. In actively engaging your audience on a regular basis, you avoid the incredibly intrusive and annoying tendency people have to put up a project and continually plaster their friends FB pages or emails with requests for money. For a few days this is evidence of passion … but after two weeks, this has long worn out its welcome.
If you're presenting NEW material, though, people are receptive. If they're entertained, they'll be more likely not only to eventually donate, but to repost the links on their own pages to a whole new group of people.
In these videos, it's not only important to keep it entertaining, but it also serves to demonstrate that you know what you're doing with a camera and an editing system. There's credibility at stake here – if you make a video that clearly shows you have a lot to learn about filmmaking, why the hell should anybody give you money to go botch a film? We found that a mix of humor, self-effacement, and sincerity seemed to be the magic combination for our videos, but the best thing you can do is make sure they represent your competence and personality. After all, those are the things that'll make you films a success as well.
Also, if you're utilizing your cast and crew to be the focus of these regular updates or videos, you're targeting an entirely different social network with each release. This made it so that even after my particular social network had been targeted with my video, they could still (and would still) enjoy seeing the videos of the other members of the project even after they'd paid their "friendship tax."
They enjoyed this so much, it turned out, that people increased the amount of their pledges (another nifty feature on Kickstarter) as more PSA's were released or new prizes were added. People started commenting on our posts saying things like "I love this series," which made it official – we had a captive audience, and it was working.
We passed our 15k goal with a week to spare, and the money STILL kept coming in. We started getting contacted by larger donors, some of which were NOT in our social networks but who noticed the activity on the site. Because we had surpassed our goal, and because the videos we made were competent and entertaining, people were able to have confidence that we meant business and were capable of producing the movie. Suddenly, the prizes like "Associate Producer Credit" (listed at $1500) became appealing, and to our shock we sold four credits at that price.
We were contacted by crew members who wanted to work on the film, a few of which we hired, and one of which ended up being our production sound recorder. As projects tip the scales to "Successfully Funded," this is the part of the process where they can attract donors who honestly do randomly find projects on the site without being part of the social networks of the artists themselves. We suddenly had donors show up not from Facebook or Twitter, but from Kickstarter itself – people with money who had watched us surpass our goal, seen that we knew what we were doing, and believed that our production of Absentia was imminent.
Our final days of The Five Drive saw some exciting activity as we rounded the 20k mark and showed no signs of slowing. We finished the drive raising just short of 25k, 154% of the goal we'd set for ourselves. It had only taken one month.
Find ways to actively engage your audience in ways that tie in with the theme of your film throughout your campaign. (Amy Mills featured applying effects makeup to Morgan Brown.)
It wasn't long before it seemed like two dozen of my friends had their own Kickstarter projects in the pipeline. Kickstarter gained national attention when a digital technologies project called Diaspora raised almost $200,000 and was featured in Newsweek (they'd initially been seeking 10k). The word came down that the site had gotten pickier about what they listed. I started hearing from friends and acquaintances whose projects were rejected for listing on Kickstarter.
A few people got in touch for advice based on our campaign, which they viewed as very successful. Someone else wondered if we would put up another project, and the answer was a definitive "no." The thing about these campaigns, because they target your social network, is that you really only get one shot at them. Choose your project wisely, because once that pool is exhausted, that's that. People will resent you coming to them again for money. Choose your project and timing as carefully as possible, because there's really only one bullet in the crowd-funding chamber, and once you pull that trigger you don't get another shot.
As we moved into post-production, a producer (who had joined the project after the days of the Five Drive) suggested putting it up on Indie Go-Go to try to raise finishing funds. The core group of us were unanimously against this idea, as we'd already exhausted our social networks and felt that attempting to double dip in this way was not only rude, it was doomed.
He couldn't be dissuaded, and we allowed him to post the project with the understanding that not one of the people involved in The Five Drive would ever use their social networks to support it. He put $125 of his own dollars into the Indie Go-Go project to get the ball moving. As I write this, months later, $125 is all the project ever received, proving my feelings that it isn't the website themselves that attract funding, but how you engage your own social network. We did not engage it one bit for Indie Go-Go, and we did not raise one single dollar.
If you're considering crowd-funding, be ready to work the system and hang onto your hats – it's a suspenseful ride, and while the rewards can be great, the anxiety is brutal. Here are, ultimately, what I think are essential realities you should consider for crowd-funding:
Make sure you have a terrific project. You only get one shot at asking your friends and relatives for a handout, so don't blow it on a bad script.
Set your goals and timelines realistically. Anything above $20,000 is going to be a serious struggle, so make that decision carefully. Remember that , if you're using Kickstarter, the site doesn't stop you from raising more than your goal, but it will penalize you for not meeting it. Set it low and aim to be that project that gets 300% funded, rather than the one who aims high and fails.
Put thought into your prizes. Have something appealing at all levels of donation, even at $5 or $10. Understand that people might want to help but can't afford your $50 Special Thanks credit. Make the site appealing and usable by people of ALL financial levels, and pepper in some fun, "limited time" a-la-carte prizes throughout your drive. When asking for money, ask for the LOWEST POSSIBLE AMOUNT that the site allows. This adds up, and people who want to do more will do so without being prodded.
DO NOT list your project on more than one site, especially not simultaneously. Every dollar counts, and if you're "hedging your bets" on Kickstarter and Indie Go-Go you're shooting yourself in both feet. You want each and ever dollar going to one central site, and you don't want to confuse your social network or appear greedy. Some people list their projects on Indie Go-Go after a failed (or even successful) Kickstarter run. This is, more often than not, classless and ineffective.
MAKE IT A FULL-TIME JOB. Set daily goals. You can't put these projects into the world and cross your fingers, you need to work daily to push the boulder up the mountain. If you're not willing to do this, or think you can just put it up to "see how it goes," walk away. You're blowing your one shot at crowd-funding.
ENTERTAIN YOUR DONORS CONSTANTLY. Make a terrific, competent, sincere but entertaining video presentation. Keep generating new material. These projects (and the constant pleas for money) get old REALLY fast – after about 24 hours, in fact. Keep it fresh, and make your goal to entertain people for a solid month – if you do that, the money will come on its own and people will enjoy your fund-raising drive, not just block your Facebook postings on the third day (like I have to admit I've done to projects that began to really irritate me).
Utilize your entire cast/crew. This is a team effort, and you'll find that the people who want to support you personally will have done so within a few days. What do you do for the rest of the month? If you make it about each member of your team, and target their networks, your chances of success improve dramatically.
Anyone who is starting a project can feel free to contact me with questions about this process, and what we did to make Absentia work. (There's a contact option at my website: mikeflanaganfilm.com).
Ultimately, this is a revolutionary fundraising tool that can make it possible for projects to exist that otherwise might never have found their support. But it's a tool, not a solution, and everything hinges on how you use it.
Mike Flanagan is an award-winning writer, director and editor of four feature films, including the critically acclaimed horror film ABSENTIA. Based in Los Angeles, Mike has also worked as a professional television editor for over a decade, helming programming for Discovery, Bravo, A&E, and other networks. He is currently in pre-production on his fifth feature film, OCULUS, a feature version of his award-winning short.