If there’s one lesson I’ve learned as a young producer, it’s that money is in short supply and nigh impossible to secure. Indie productions like She Makes Comics do not have the multi-million budgets of studio projects, but like any film, they require some amount of money to produce and distribute. And it’s pretty hard to find financiers in a volatile economy and contracting industry.
In lieu of hunting down investors, crowdfunding has become an attractive option for raising money. The idea behind it is simple: you showcase a potential project to the world and interested consumers pledge money to help it get made. It’s like reverse-engineering a film, with a project finding its audience before it’s even produced. You don’t need a huge marketing budget when the bulk of your audience has already paid for the product, so many filmmakers can make their production budget and even turn a profit through crowdfunding.
But crowdfunding your film is not as easy as posting a project to Kickstarter and watching as the money rolls in. A guy looking to make potato salad may be able to raise $40,000+ through the Internet-fueled absurdity of his project, but a cursory look at the film and video section of Kickstarter shows nearly 37,000 projects. Accounting for those campaigns that have already ended, it’s still an incredible amount of competition for the hearts (and dollars) of potential backers. And sites like Kickstarter and IndieGoGo will only continue to see an increase in the number of projects as creators wise up to crowdfunding as a viable financing option.
That’s not to say that crowdfunding isn’t worth a try. My film raised $54,000 on Kickstarter, and there are hundreds if not thousands of other film projects, large and small, that have run successful campaigns. Crowdfunding works for a lot of creators.
So what makes a film project attractive to backers? How do you get the word out about your project and ensure success? From my experience, here’s how to best run attract backers and run a successful campaign.
Define your project.
Is your film a supernatural horror flick, or a stoner comedy? Backers want to know what they’re getting into, so be sure that your film has a solid pitch. It doesn’t matter what the genre(s) may be but rather that your film’s concept is well-defined. People will hesitate to support a film that straddles several genres and has a lot of experimental elements, and most Internet strangers will not be sympathetic towards a campaign to fund what is only touted as your “passion project.” Like any good script, your project needs a solid logline that defines what backers will get when they pledge. If you’re relying on an existing audience to fund your film, consider gearing your project towards existing “fandoms.” Horror, sci-fi/fantasy and other geek-oriented projects seem to do very well, as they often have large existing fanbases looking for the next big thing.
Aim low; dream big.
Hash out a budget for your film and make it as lean as possible. Can you make it on $20,000? $10,000? $5,000? Set that figure as your goal. Backers want to be sure that the money is being used efficiently and will be more willing to give if you set a conservative target. There’s always the possibility of exceeding that amount, at which point you may want to consider adding stretch goals (discussed a little later). On Kickstarter, if you set a $50,000 goal and make $10,000 by the end of the campaign, you’ll lose it all and be back at square one. But if you set a goal of $10,000 and make $50,000, you receive all of it. Other sites like IndieGoGo offer “flexible funding” options through which you keep whatever is pledged regardless of the goal amount, but on Kickstarter, it’s all or nothing.
Be sure to factor in Kickstarter and Amazon Payments’ fees when creating your film’s budget. Also include any costs to fulfill rewards, including production of rewards (like merchandise and DVDs) and shipping costs. These hidden costs of running a campaign can take a big chunk of the money you earn if you’re not careful.
Create the greatest video in the history of crowdfunding.
Okay, that might be tough, but it’s not too hard to make an impassioned plea to your backers that is engaging, informative, fun, and most of all – compelling. The Veronica Mars movie’s video is one great example of what a fun video can do to drum up interest for your film. While we don’t all have access to high-profile celebrities, there are numerous other ways to craft a video that will get your message across and get backers interested in your project. If you have existing footage, put together an amazing trailer from your best shots and scenes. If you haven’t done any filming yet, do a quick weekend shoot, ideally with your cast, to give backers an idea of your film. Shoot interviews with your cast and crew talking about what the project means to them and why it needs support. Regardless of what you choose to do, always be sure to include a clip of yourself talking about the film and your passion for it. Put a face to the project.
Tap your resources for interesting and unique rewards.
The most common rewards for film projects is a copy of the completed movie and some sort of “Thank You” in the credits. While your overall goal is to get your film into the hands of backers, consider offering up some unusual perks aside from the DVD or digital download. Hire a professional artist (or ask a talented friend) to create a logo and produce a line of merchandise: t-shirts, stickers, and other easily mass-produced items. Offer phone calls, Skype calls, or even home-cooked meals with the filmmakers, cast and crew. For a much higher price, you can offer walk-on roles and producer credits on the film.
This is where you should call in some favors. Is one of your cast members relatively well-known? Leverage their fame through perks: signed autographs, Twitter follows, personalized greetings, whatever s/he may be willing to contribute. Do you have friends or family (or friends of family) who are notable in the industry? Ask them to contribute signed copies of their films, Skype chats, and other fairly “mild” rewards (don’t ask for things that would cost them too much money or time, unless they are feeling generous).
Start out with around 10 solid rewards, and add the more unique (and expensive) ones later on in the campaign. Unveiling additional rewards each week will renew attention and boost interest in your project.
For She Makes Comics, we asked some of our friends in the comics industry to help us out with rewards. We offered a chance for a backer to get their comic script read by a professional editor; we gave one backer a voucher worth several hundred dollars to a cosplay and corset maker; we offered the original art commissioned for the film, drawn by popular artists. While we paid up front for many of these rewards, you may be surprised by what your network would be willing to offer you on the cheap or even free.
Get the pot going with your own cash.
Nothing will make a backer hesitate more than seeing $0 and 0 backers in the first few days of the campaign. Start things off by putting a bit of your own money into the pot, or better yet, asking family and friends to donate to get things started. If your first few backers see that 6 people have already pledged $250, it’s more likely that they will think the project viable and dig into their pockets. In crowdfunding, you do have to spend money to make money.
Plan out a 30-day PR extravaganza.
While a lot of projects are found simply through browsing Kickstarter and IndieGoGo, your best bet in finding an audience is by getting some press in the early and final days of your project. Start out by making a list of news outlets (film sites, crowdfunding-specific sites, blogs, etc.) that you think would publish a press release or an article on your film. Send dozens of inquiries in the first hours of the campaign. Do the same in the final days of the campaign to remind your press contacts of the looming deadline. Often, a campaign will start off with a flurry of attention (and pledges), then drop off in the middle, and kick back up towards the end. The urgency of needing to make a goal by a certain deadline will often appeal to news outlets otherwise hesitant to post about your project. Be persistent, offer to do interviews (or have your talent do interviews if they are notable actors), and get as much exposure as you can. If you have press contacts, this is the time to ask for a favor.
Social media is a vital tool for crowdfunding, which gets most of its interest from denizens of the Internet. Set up Twitter and Facebook pages for your project. Have your cast and crew tweet the link. Ask friends to throw you a share or a re-tweet. Politely tweet (only once) a famous person who may have an interest in your project and ask if they can retweet your link. Do not spam anyone’s account, and don’t just ask random celebrities. William Shatner probably won’t retweet your low-budget horror project, but Eli Roth might. Identify notable Twitterati who often retweet their followers’ projects; there are many folks happy to signal boost when asked politely.
Offer stretch goals when you’ve reached 90-95% of your target.
It may look presumptuous to offer stretch goals at the very beginning of your campaign, but start planning for them even before you launch your project. When you’re nearing your target goal, unveil your first stretch goal. For example, if your initial target is $10,000, offer a stretch goal at $15,000 that would make every DVD into a special edition with commentary, deleted scenes, and making-of featurettes. For She Makes Comics, one of our stretch goals was an accompanying mini-documentary about a particularly notable woman in comics history. Of course, you must factor any additional work into your budget, but you can often offer very enticing stretch goal rewards for reasonably low additional costs.
Get on Kickstarter’s radar.
If you’re using Kickstarter, contact the staff and ask about being featured as a “staff pick of the day” and in Kickstarter’s weekly email newsletter. She Makes Comics actually saw the majority of its pledges referred from the newsletter, where our film was featured in the first week of the campaign. Every little bit of exposure helps!
Offer to join up with similar projects for cross-promotion.
Identify some projects that are similar to yours and ask if the creator is interested in cross-promotion: you send out a backer update advertising their project, and they do the same for yours. Backers are often looking for similar projects to support, so if a project they’re passionate about suggests they take a look at your film, they just might throw some money your way.
If at first you don’t succeed, wait a little bit, and try again.
If your first campaign fails, it doesn’t necessarily mean that crowdfunding won’t work for the project. Sometimes, unfortunate combinations of timing and luck result in failed campaigns. Take a few weeks or months to fine-tune your campaign, create a new video, call in favors from your contacts, and relaunch later. Learn from your mistakes. Not every project that fails initially will succeed the second time around, but it is usually worthwhile to give it another shot. I’ve supported campaigns that failed their first time only to exceed their goal upon a second attempt.
I hope that this primer proves helpful for those thinking of going the crowdfunding route. Running a Kickstarter campaign is definitely not a cakewalk, but it was a thrilling and rewarding experience for me that ultimately resulted in our documentary making its budget, and then some. It requires a great deal of planning beforehand, so be sure you have a solid strategy before you launch your campaign.
If you have specific questions that haven’t been addressed in this post, feel free to drop me a line. I’m happy to help other filmmakers in this brave new world of film financing!