It makes sense doesn’t it? Word of mouth doesn’t travel without a personal network of supporters, however small. For some reason, there is a misconception that free money just rolls in when a crowdfunding initiative is launched, despite the fact that there are many, many case studies available online (for FREE) from people who ran successful campaigns and report that it was very difficult work. Widening the audience is one benefit of a campaign, but you have to start from somewhere in order to widen out.
In a short clip I did with Film Courage, I talk about why crowdfunding may not be for everyone and the limitations one will encounter if not very active online.
An aspect of a crowdfunding campaign that isn’t as apparent as money, is building up a sizable contact list of engaged supporters. I can’t tell you how crucial this is not just to the one project, but to ALL of your future as a filmmaker. Developing and maintaining a database of personal contact details is invaluable because they have given permission (and expressed an interest in) for future communication from you. This list should be guarded with your life and not relinquished to any third party! It shows the trust people have put in your talent and in you as a person, a trust difficult to gain that can easily be destroyed. This list should never been taken lightly or sold/given away for short term gain (besides, it goes against CAN SPAM Act regulations unless each recipient has been given clear and conspicuous notice that his or her e-mail address will be shared with third parties for marketing purposes. Who would agree to that?).
While there are certainly companies and individuals asking to be hired to crowdfund for artists, I think skipping over the crucial step of putting in the personal work it takes to gain trust is missing by employing this tactic exclusively. Social media channels are truly a gift and an opportunity we have been given to get closer to our audience, to have a deeper and more personal connection through our work. It breeds loyalty, instead of disposability. Also, the ability to know that our work touches people and matters to people can keep you going when it seems the world is full of rejection or self doubt. Gathering a team to help is advisable (in all aspects of filmmaking), but allowing only the team (or worse, an uninvolved 3rd party) to have contact with your supporters is a mistake.
It is time that artists come to terms with the fact that the age of the bubble (where creation takes place only in private) has come to an end. The audience wants to feel close to the art and its creator. This isn’t new really, fan clubs have existed for decades, but now that closeness comes in Tweets, Facebook posts, blog posts, podcasts, videos, Pinterest boards etc. and the ability to have a dialog directly. Make an effort personally to reach out to your audience, even get to know them by name, and you will see that effort come back to you in artistically, financially and personally beneficial ways.
I edited this piece and it was published on the Sundance Artist Services blog and The Film Collaborative blog. I am reposting it here because I think this film is the first and only one so far to eschew the typical Sundance offers, have the courage to know what distribution path is best for it and launch into the market straight after the festival. Also, I hope it serves as informative and inspirational to all who read this blog. My great respect goes to truly empowered filmmakers James Swirsky and Lisanne Pajot.
written by Bryan Glick, with assistance from Orly Ravid and Sheri Candler
Indie Game: The Movie has quickly developed a name not just as a must-see documentary, but also as a film pioneer in the world of distribution. Recently, I had a Skype chat with Co-directors James Swirsky and Lisanne Pajot . The documentary darlings talked about their indie film and its truly indie journey to audiences.
Swirsky and Pajot did corporate commercial work together for five years and that eventually blossomed into doing their first feature. “We thought it would take one year, but it ended up taking two. I can’t imagine working another way, we have a wonderful overlapping and complimentary skill set, ” said Pajot. “We both edited this film, we both shot this film. It creates this really fluid organic way of working. It’s kind of the result of 5 or 6 years of working together. I don’t think you could get a two person team doing an independent film working like we did on day one. It’s stressful at times but the benefits are absolutely fantastic, ” said Swirsky.
According to Swirsky, Kickstarter covered 40% of the budget. “We used it to ‘kickstart’, we asked for $15000 on our first campaign which we knew would not make the film, but it really got things going. The rest of the budget was us, personal savings.” The team used Kickstarter twice; the first in 2010 asking for $15,000 and ended up with $23,341 with 297 backers. On the second campaign in 2011, they asked for $35,000 and raised $71,335 with 1,559 backers.
The hard work, dedication, and talent paid off. Indie Game: The Movie was selected to premiere in the World Documentary Competition section at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival winning Pajot and Swirsky the World Cinema Documentary Film Editing Award . “[Sundance] speaks to the independent spirit. It’s kind of the best fit, the dream fit for the film. Just being a filmmaker you want to premiere your film at Sundance. That’s where you hear about your heroes,” noted Swirsky. “Never before in our entire careers have we felt so incredibly supported…They know how to treat you right and not just logistics, it’s more ‘we want to help you with this project and help you next time.’ It was overwhelming because we’ve never had that. We’ve just never been exposed that,” interjected Pajot
They hired a sales agent upon their acceptance into Sundance and the film generated tons of buzz before it arrived at the festival resulting in a sales frenzy. The filmmakers wanted a simultaneous worldwide digital release, but theatrical distributors weren’t willing to give up digital rights so they opted for a self release. “There were a lot of offers, they approached us to purchase various rights. We felt we needed to get it out fairly quickly and in the digital way. A lot of the deals we turned down were in a little more of the traditional route. None of them ended up being a great fit,” said Pajot.
Several people were stunned when this indie doc about indie videogame developers opted to sell their film for remake rights to Scott Rudin and HBO. Pajot explained, “He saw the trailer and reached out a week or so before Sundance. That was sort of out of left field because it wasn’t something we were pursuing.” Swirsky added, “They optioned to potentially turn the concept into a TV show about game development…As a person who watches stuff on TV, I want this to exist. I want to see what these guys do with it.” The deal still left the door open for a more typical theatrical release. However that was only the start of their plan.
“We had spoken to Gary Hustwit (Helvetica). We sort of have an understanding of how he organized his own tours. We had to make our decision whether that was something we wanted to utilize. Five days after Sundance, we decided we would and were on the road 2 weeks after… Before Sundance this was how we envisioned rolling out…[We looked at] Kevin Smith and Louis C.K. and what they’re doing. We are not those guys and we don’t have that audience, but knowing core audience is out there, doing this made sense,” said Swirsky.
They proceeded to go on a multi-city promotional tour starting with seven dates and so far they have had 15 special events screenings of which 13 were sold out! This is separate from 37 theaters across Canada doing a one night only event. They also settled on a small theatrical release in NYC and LA. When talking about the theaters and booking, they said theaters saw the sellout screenings and that prompted interest despite the fact that the film was in digital release. They accomplish all of this with a thrifty mindset. “P&A was not a budgetary item we put aside and if an investment was required, we would dip into pre orders. We didn’t put aside a marketing budget for it,” said Swirsky. Regarding the pre order revenue, they sold a cool $150,000 in DVD pre-orders in the lead up to release of the film. From this money, they funded their theatrical tour.
While the theatrical release was small, it generated solid enough numbers to get held over in multiple cities and provided for vital word of mouth that will ultimately make the film profitable. The grosses were only reported for their opening weekend, but they continued to pack the houses in later weeks.”I don’t look back at the box office. The tour was more profitable than the theatrical…They both have the benefits, having theatrical it gets a broader audience. It was more a commercial thing than box office,” said Swirsky. “We are still getting inquiries from theaters. They still want to book it despite the fact it’s out there digitally,” said Pajot. ”We had this sort of hype machine happening. We didn’t put out advertising. Everything was through our mailing that started with the 300 on our first Kickstarter and through Twitter,” said Swirsky. Now the team has over 20,000 people on their mailing list and over 10,000 Twitter followers. In order to keep this word of mouth and enthusiasm going, the filmmakers released 88 minutes of exclusive content – most of which didn’t make the final cut – to their funders, took creative suggestions from their online forum and sent out updates on the games the subjects of their film were developing over the course of the two years the film was in production.
Following the success the film has enjoyed in various settings, Indie Game: The Movie premiered on three different digital distribution platforms. If you were to try and guess what they were though, you would most likely only get one right. While, it is available on the standard iTunes, the other two means of access are much more experimental and particularly appropriate for this doc.
It is only the second film to be distributed by VHX as a direct DRM-free download courtesy of their,‘VHX For Artists‘ platform. Finally, this film is reaching gamers directly through Steam which is a video game distribution platform run by Valve. This sterling doc is also only the second film to be sold through the video game service, where it was able to be pre-ordered for $8.99 as opposed to the $9.99 it costs across all platforms. This is perhaps the perfect example of the changing landscape of independent film distribution. Every film has a potential niche and most of these can arguably be reached more effectively through means outside the standard distribution model. Why should a fan of couponing have to go through hundreds of films on Netflix before even finding out a documentary about couponing exists, when it could be promoted on a couponing website?
As they are going into uncharted territory, both Pajot and Swirsky avoided making any bold predictions.”It’s just wait and see. It’s an experiment because we’re the first movie on Steam. We’re really interested to look at and talk about in the future. I don’t want to make predictions…I do think documentary lends itself to that kind of marketing though. We’re trying to not just be niche but there is power in that core audience. They are very easy to find online,” said Swirsky.
Just because they are pursuing a bold strategy doesn’t mean they were any less cost conscious. “The VHX stuff, it was a collaboration, so there were no huge costs. Basically subtitles, a little publicity costs from Von Murphy PR and Strategy PR who helped us with theatrical. Those guys made sense to bring on,” said Pajot. “A lot of our costs were taken up by volunteers. If they help us do subtitles, they can have a ticket event, a screening in their country,” added Swirsky.
They also note that a large amount of their profit has been in pre-orders. 10,000 people have pre-ordered one of their three DVD options priced at $9.99, $24.99 and a special edition DVD for $69.99 tied with digital. While the film focused on a select few indie game developers, they interviewed 20 different developers and the additional footage is part of the Special Edition DVD/Blu-Ray. That might explain why it’s their highest seller.
All this doesn’t mean that any of the dozens of other options are no longer usable. Quite the contrary, they have also taken advantage of the Sundance Artist Services affiliations to go on a number of more traditional digital sites. Increased views of a film even if on non traditional platforms can mean increased web searches and awareness and could be used to drive up sales on mainstay platforms.
The real winner though is ultimately the audience. For the majority of the world that doesn’t go to Sundance or Cannes each year, this is how they can discover small films that were made with them in mind. The HBO deal aside, this is bound to be one incredibly profitable documentary that introduces a whole new crowd to quality art-house cinema. “We are still booking community screenings. If people want to book, they can contact us…We are thinking maybe we might do another shorter tour at some point,” said Pajot.
Here’s to the independent film spirit, alive and well.
I’m doing research to help someone start a crowdfunding campaign on Kickstarter. We have a few months of planning before we launch which gives us a good amount of time to figure out all of the strategy and logistics involved. I have said many times that a successful campaign starts with proper research on what has worked for others, assessing your advantages in this now crowded donation centric landscape and figuring out how to motivate people to choose your project to back.
My friend asked me if Kickstarter was the best platform to choose and I have to say that I’ve seen many more successful film related campaigns succeed there than on Indiegogo. I love all of the people who run Indiegogo and I think their service is sound, but the all or nothing makes a difference for donors in particular. It encourages motivation and momentum because if you don’t hit your goal, you lose it all. Those who pledge to you don’t want to see that happen. It also lessens risk for the donor because the goal you have chosen is what is needed for the project to move forward. If you only raise some of the money, but less than you really need, where does the money go? With Indiegogo, you can keep whatever you raise, but if you need $5,000 and only raised $500, what will be done with that money? The risk is further lessened because if you don’t make the goal, no money is taken for the pledge if the project is on Kickstarter.
We are trying to determine what to ask for, budget wise. Should we try and raise the whole amount we really need or should we raise in stages and complete different sections of the project one at a time? I am sure this is a question that comes up a lot in the planning stages. Here are things I am considering in order to determine this.
1)Full budget breakdown of minimally what we need. No one is going to put us in business. What people don’t want to hear in a pitch is “I need equipment, actors, crew, locations, post production services, festival fees, marketing and distribution costs.” What the hell have you done so far? With no resources at your disposal, you don’t look very professional and no one wants to put you in business. We have to say what we have already accomplished, what resources we have and what else we need to move forward. Transparency goes a long way in getting people to invest in your work.
2)Analysis of the kind of help we will have. We must make up a list of our ardent supporters. The shorter and weaker this list is, the less we will be able to raise. Since most crowdfunding initiatives depend on the internet to reach donors, your list of online supporters must be full of active social media users who are connected to you. If you don’t use social media very often and you don’t have a strong base of support, the amount you can realistically raise is going to be small. Are there those who have managed it somehow, becoming much more proficient at online relationship building while in the middle of a campaign? Maybe, but who needs the extra burden of getting up to speed on technology and building relationships while under the gun of a funding deadline. Not exactly the best of circumstances to be in for raising money.
3)Analysis of our organizational ties. We have made some organizational ties during the course of development on this project, which is a documentary. Now, we must bear in mind that most organizations are perpetually looking for funding so we won’t be asking them to pledge funds. But we would like to encourage them to tell their members about the campaign. The easier we can make this for them to do, the more likely they will. It could be in an email blast, a post for their website on what the project is and why they would be interested in it, a link of our Kickstarter page on their Facebook wall and Twitter account, maybe a quote from their Executive Director about why they endorse the project or find it worthwhile. Something that is minimally taxing to them but could help us in a big way.
4)Listing our assets and perk levels. What will we be able to create as far as content and as far as perks to attract donors and give them to pass around? Ideas that spread win, so says Seth Godin. I think the idea behind the film is very powerful and will resonate with people as long as they 1)become aware of it 2)feel motivated to share it. So we need some good video to explain what we are doing and how someone can help us. But not just ONE piece, many pieces because often you have to touch someone many times with your message before it sinks in, before you can entice them to put in that card number and email address, before they decide “yes, I think I would like to become invested in this.” We have evolved beyond just one pitch video where you look someone in the eye and ask for money, now we have to regularly keep them up to date on how the campaign going, both in email and in video. It’s like having a Youtube channel, you can’t only have your trailer on it. Once someone has seen it, why go back?
Also, some people are motivated by perks. What perks will we offer that won’t cost us money from the budget we need to do the thing we are raising the money for and still satisfy the modern human need for “transaction”? And the levels of transaction? Personally I am not motivated by the perks in a crowdfunding effort, but I understand some people are and offering prized tokens to our audience is a consideration.
5)Listing the strangers. This one will come last but is quite important. I know all of you reading this have been hit up on a near daily basis by crowdfunding campaigns from your filmmaker friends…and their friends. We have to move out of the immediate circle of friends and family and organizations that know us and into the uncharted territory of strangers. About how many targeted strangers can we reach? This is where knowing your audience characteristics comes in because if you don’t have a clue, where in the world (literally!) will you start? Remember that crowdfunding isn’t just about raising money, it is equally about building an audience for our work. Backers provide encouragement, support, and public validation too. The first impression we are making to strangers is going to be this campaign and starting relationships by asking for money is really not cool. We must present differently to this group, we can’t have the same message used for friends and acquaintances. It may also be that this group is mainly reached through the core supporters so we need to arm them with the knowledge on how to help us widen the circle.
6)Time frame of the campaign. I wanted to make this a list of 5, but this is an important consideration that didn’t fit anywhere else. When should we launch and for how long should we run? I think Christmas and tax time are not good times to launch a fundraising effort. So now that leaves January (when those holiday bills start rolling in? maybe not), February and March for us. I need to see if there are any “events” or days of special significance we might tie the campaign to in order to make it particularly relevant during this time. We might not find anything. Also, I do subscribe to the idea the shorter the campaign, the more successful because momentum and enthusiasm slows down the longer it goes on. I’ve seen it on long campaigns and I know this about human nature. We will run a short campaign.
All of these factors determine what is realistic to ask for. There is no exact science on this, no tool (yet) you can run your numbers through and come up with the ideal funding goal. We’re still working through these so ideas and experience that would help us is appreciated.
Obviously, crowdfunding has become a very hot topic in the indie film world as a way to raise money for projects. I have seen more campaigns fail than succeed so I am always on the lookout for secrets to success. Who else can share that information but the ones who have done it? Director Dan Mirvish (Omaha-The Movie, Open House and co founder of the Slamdance Film Festival) generously agreed to share some secrets with me about his campaign. Dan has some great tips on what makes a campaign successful and he was able to raise over $14K for his film Between Us.
The film is based on the hit Off-Broadway play of the same name that premiered at Manhattan Theatre Club in 2004 with a screenplay adapted by original playwright Joe Hortua and Dan. He spent some time talking to other filmmakers who had run campaigns both on Kickstarter and on Indiegogo and he chose to use Kickstarter because he was impressed by the amount of publicity they were getting, most notably from Time Magazine where they were named one of the 50 Best Inventions of 2010 and he thought more people outside of the independent film community might be familiar with Kickstarter which might help with getting financial backing from investors too.
The campaign lasted only 30 days. It seemed just long enough to raise the money he needed, the goal was $10K, without completely nagging all of his supporters. One thing he does regret is not having a pitch video at the start of the campaign. Dan and I spoke often during the run of the campaign and I urged him to get a video up when I saw there wasn’t one in the early days.“Thirty days is not a lot of time if you only think to post a video in the second week. We really only had two weeks where we had a strong video up. I don’t know if it ultimately it would have made a huge difference early on, but it did make a difference in the latter part,“ Dan said.
He gave some thought into what the video should show. “It was a real challenge in making the video because it wasn’t a film we had any footage of , there wasn’t a short film it was based on, and I don’t act very well on camera or come across sincerely because most of my other projects have been very wacky and this is a departure from that. It is really important that the video is compatible with the tone of the film. For me, I had to make a video where you hear my voice, but you don’t see me talking. There were still pictures of me, much more sincere (laughs). So it had to be creative and show my talents at filmmaking. If you are selling yourself as a filmmaker and the first thing people see is this Kickstarter video, that video had better be good. I looked at a lot of videos before I made mine and I thought ‘oh my god if I have to look at one more pasty faced filmmaker asking for money, I’m going to throw up!’ Some are done well, but a lot are not and I was thinking ‘wait, this is a filmmaker and he can’t even shoot a good promo video?’ A good piece of advice, that I did not do and struggled with, is try to come up with the video BEFORE you start the campaign.”
The whole of this interview will be available starting Jan 1 in Microfilmmaker Magazine. Here are a few highlights:
-a tip for using Facebook; “set [the campaign] up as an event, invite friends to the ‘event,’ and then it is possible to send updates to everyone invited, even if they don’t initially respond.”
-a tip for choosing perks; “I offered an imdb credit at the $25 level. For those in the industry, having an imdb credit, even a thank you, is valuable.” Plus, it costs nothing but time to fulfill.
-a tip on how to look at the campaign; ” The campaign wasn’t just about raising the money on Kickstarter, it was about the momentum. It wasn’t just the individual amounts we raised, but leveraging that into much bigger investments.”
-a tip about the timing for the Kickstarter launch; “I knew that I wanted the campaign to be finished about the time that other filmmakers would start hearing about being accepted to the major festivals [Sundance, Slamdance and Berlin] and many of them would be using Kickstarter to raise funds to travel to the festivals. I wanted to be out before that rush hit.”
-a tip on continuing to raise money after the campaign is finished; ““About 2 minutes before the end of the deadline, I edited the text proposal on my Kickstarter page and told people that if they missed the deadline, there are still ways you can contribute financially. After the campaign ends, you can’t edit the page anymore even though the page stays up.”
Check out the whole of the article next Saturday.
I am prompted to write this post because I have been hit up many times lately about supporting, advising or donating to various crowdfunding initiatives. Don’t get me wrong, it isn’t quite a complaint because I have been known to support many campaigns by doing any one of these things (ask anyone else offering their advice if they have done any of these things by the way, the answer could surprise you). I do get frustrated by the ones who contact me because they have embarked without thinking through the strategy or they are very close to the time limit and very far from their goal. I thought it might be helpful to list out some ways to fail in this endeavor so you can be sure to avoid these mistakes.
1) You do not already a have a support network online. This is a biggie. I know you’re thinking Sheri, how can I already have an audience and supporters of my work when I haven’t raised the money yet to do my work? Do you have a personal identity built up? Does anyone actually know who you are yet? There are many ways to do this, starting with sharing your knowledge and experiences with people and championing others as much or more than you do yourself. This identity building takes time and should be started well in advance of asking for favors. If you don’t have a strong support network of friends, colleagues and people who enjoy the work you do, do not introduce yourself and your project by asking for money.
2) Your goal is unrealistic. At the moment, the highest amount I personally have seen raised is $30K. That was for a feature and mostly used on principal photography. Most of the other projects I have seen find success are raising under $10K. Crowdfunding is meant to get your project started, get your project finished or be used for something clearly defined like a festival run or your own screening tour. It is not going to be your only source of financing for your feature film. In time, as your audience grows, this could change for you. Unless you have the base of fans mentioned in #1, try raising $5k and see how you do.
3) You do not know who your audience is. In addition to that base of supporters, you will also need to reach those most interested in the kind of story you are telling. Many filmmakers just keep their campaigns limited to targeting other filmmakers. Folks, I don’t know any filmmakers NOT looking for money to fund their projects. While they may love and support you, you must venture out of that pool to find alternate sources for donation. I was asked whether I felt that crowfunding had reached its peak yet. Hardly! Ask any average joe on the street what crowdfunding is and you’ll get a blank stare. These are the guys you need to hit up, the ones who aren”t completely burned out by being bombarded by appeals and who might enjoy what you are doing.
4) Your campaign length is too long. Kickstarter has advised that the most successful campaigns are the shortest. Why? Because you and everyone else you know gets exhausted fundraising for 90 days. The campaign starts off strong (you hope) but somewhere around the 30 day mark it wanes big time! The momentum stalls, people get tired of shilling for you, you get tired of shilling too. Set the goal for 30 days maximum and work it nonstop during that time. Hint: that doesn’t mean your only communication is donation appeals. A reminder or two a day will suffice. The rest of the time, tell us about what you have planned for the project, comment on other conversations, share some useful links. Don’t be a complete pest!
5) Just offer tshirts and DVDs as perks. Nothing meaningful or imaginative. While I usually do not donate based on the perks, but on how well I know the people and how much I believe they can carry off the project, many people are all about the perks. If you are offering the same run of the mill stuff that can be purchased way cheaper at Walmart than at your minimum donation level, you need to think from the greedy donor perspective. I can get tshirts for $5 and a DVD of a film I have actually heard of far cheaper than a donation at the $50 mark. Get creative on what you can give donors that they will actually like, need, and most importantly, talk about. Are you a great cook? Can you do cool magic tricks? Are you a poet (I’m looking at you John Trigonis)? What can you offer your donors that is special to them and won’t cost you much if any money to manufacture?
Anyone else have some mistakes to add? Advice from those in the trenches is always appreciated.
Ask any filmmaker who has run a successful campaign and he will tell you it was a full time job to get those funds. It is a crusade to exert your goal continuously and strenuously, basically you are bothering and cajoling everyone you know to help get to the goal. You must be committed to doing that to be successful.
Statistically, the shorter the campaign deadline, the faster the funding comes. I know this sounds unlikely, but if you drag out the process beyond 90 days, interest seriously wanes even from those benefitting from the funds. It is just not possible to keep momentum going for a long length of time. Keep it tight and focused.
Remember, Kickstarter’s policy is all or nothing. If you don’t raise your goal amount in the time allotted, you get none of the money pledged. Indiegogo allows you to keep what you raise, but if you raise it in a specified amount of time, there is a rebate on their fees.
My latest article for Microfilmmaker Magazine dropped today. Here is a little excerpt:
The latest buzzword sweeping the microbudget filmmaking, indeed all of indie filmmaking, is crowdfunding. Crowdfunding describes the process of aggregating small amounts of money from many people to help fund projects. This money comes in the form of donations, not investment, so it will not be repaid. However, most of the crowdfunding sites do offer the ability to provide a donor with a perk for his/her donation. Perks vary in range andW are dependent on the amount of donation made. There are many donation sites available to the microbudget filmmaker and I will be covering three of the most well known over the course of the next few months. The first is Kickstarter.
Kickstarter officially went live in April 2009. The platform is not exclusively for film endeavors. Many creative projects can be funded on the site; everything from comic books, video games, and unique apparel to theater and music events and help with expenses for educational trips. While my requests for an interview with the founders was declined, I did manage to find an interview on Lance Weiler’s brilliant site The Workbook Project with one of the founders, Yancey Strickler. Essentially the way Kickstarter works is that you set a funding goal and a deadline by which the goal must be reached. If you do not reach the goal by the date, all funding is cancelled. So, when you pledge a donation, you are not actually charged anything unless the goal is reached. “It might seem harsh that you can be a dollar short and not get any of the money, but people who raise funds normally would tell you that it serves as a nice motivator. It is a way to protect yourself really because it encourages you to raise your funds before you start a project rather than getting a little bit of money and starting a project, but not having the funds to finish it,” said Strickler.
Story continues on the Microfilmmaker Magazine site.