Joseph Beyer, Director of Digital Initiatives
Cora Olson and Jennifer Dubin formed Present Pictures to produce smartly-budgeted, cutting-edge content from select talent in today’s independent film industry. Their films have premiered at some of the world’s top festivals including Sundance, Toronto and Tribeca. Credits include The Babysitters, Good Dick, The Perfect Family and Future Weather. They enjoy experimenting with new models in finance, production and hybrid distribution.
Jen Dubin and Cora Olson admit they are adventurous producers. They are interested in ways technology can innovate their process of producing and distributing films. In 2008 they brought a romantic drama to Sundance Film Festival with a memorable title, Good Dick. Directed by Marianna Palka, the film was critically and enthusiastically noted as original and sophisticated. It starred Jason Ritter and Palka; both later became a part of the I Am I Kickstarter campaign.
After the Festival, Dubin and Olson took Good Dick on an independent and inventive theatrical rollout that was a combination of both traditional and grass roots in style – working with everyone from Landmark Theaters to college campuses to exhibit the film. During that time, they began to hear chatter from other Do It Yourselfers about a mysterious new method of raising funds for creative projects and it had an emerging name: crowdfunding.
“Our original idea with the campaign was to ask for more, but studying the results and talking with their investor, they finally settled on an ambitious but lower goal of raising $100k through users online.”
“We had done things differently with Good Dick and had such success doing it that we weren’t afraid of new ideas,” said Olson. “Crowdfunding was starting to become better known and understood, but it was still an emerging and somewhat innovative approach to financing. Our previous films had budgets that ranged from $2 million to as small as $200k and we’d been fortunate to work with private equity investors to fund those. Our colleague and mentor Peter Broderick encouraged us investigate crowdfunding for our projects, and it was something that looked intriguing to us. I Am I was a project we had been developing with Jocelyn Towne, who wrote the script and would direct and star. We had some terrific cast attached and we were sourcing equity, but were finding it difficult in the economic climate and given the limited appetite for small dramas from unproven directors. Still we really believed in this project, and in analyzing its merits, we began to see that crowdfunding might be just the right fit to get the ball rolling.”
The next step was sharing this idea with the team, which began as a series of casual conversations. The lynch pin came when Olson and Dubin sent Jocelyn Towne to a seminar at the Directors Guild in Los Angeles on crowdfunding–presented by Peter Broderick in August 2010. “Jocelyn came back from the seminar and said ‘Let’s do it.’ From that point on the whole idea took on new reality and we began planning in earnest,” said Dubin.
From then on, Towne poured into comparing the online platforms of indieGoGo and Kickstarter and began studying campaigns that were successful. She spent as much time as possible collecting data on campaigns, seeking research on what tools and communications they used and observing the creative tone they were maintaining online. In thinking about how to craft the strategy for I Am I, Towne analyzed what aspects of each campaign she personally responded to, giving great thought to what captured her attention and made her want to press the donate button as an audience member. The Cosmonaut and Blue Like Jazz and The Age of Stupid were model projects for us,” Olson comments.
Meanwhile, Olson and Dubin re-approached an equity investor who had expressed interest in the project with the idea of matching the funds raised online. “Our investor was a part of all the original conversations and was heavily involved in our financial plan and analyzing the campaign’s readiness,” Dubin added. Towne was enthusiastic about building an early fan base but given all of her research, she was cautious about setting the goal too high. “Originally, the idea with the campaign was to ask for $50,000 but after much discussion about the film’s budget, Olson and Dubin ultimately pushed the group to go for the gold and set the goal at $100,000, an amount at which, with matched funds, would allow them to proceed to production.
With the investor on board, the team had to make a final decision on which platform they would use, “In the end we decided to use Kickstarter to run the campaign on because we felt that the urgency and psychology of the ‘All or Nothing’ model would put contributors at ease. If we didn’t meet our goal, no money would change hands,” Dubin said.
The creative team that would lead and run the Kickstarter campaign was complete and in constant collaboration about the plan for almost 3 months before launching online. “It worked organically, we just approached all ideas together and collaborated on the decisions,” said Olson. They exchanged articles, data, research. They made lists of tasks for readiness and planned for their most famous creative stroke of genius – a Pitch Video that had nothing to do with the film itself.
“The Pitch Video” is any campaign’s central identity; it’s beating and living heart. It’s the most prominent feature on any Kickstarter campaign page and is the most direct and fast way to connect with potential donors. The video is always featured as a graphic component of promotional links like Facebook or Blog posts so it will be seen more times than any other material the campaign develops outside their Kickstarter page itself.
“We all realized soon in our planning that this voice had to, must, come from our Director. They were the person behind this thing and people needed to connect to a human being, someone with an idea and a mission – that was Jocelyn and it made all the difference,” Olson explained. “Jocelyn was rightfully the creative force; she conceived the tone and voice we would use for everything,” Dubin added.
Towne had created a concept for a single-take camera move that would act to introduce users to her, the creative team behind the film and showcase her cast (all while she narrated her intents and purposes by choosing Kickstarter to try and fund it). Dubin and Olson were tasked with producing it as the first major creative deliverable of their plan. ”It all came together fairly easily once the script was written,” Olson said. “The plan was to keep it simple. We called up Andre Lascaris,” who was set to be the film’s DP, “and asked him if he wouldn’t mind joining us for an evening to shoot the video.” Lascaris agreed. “Jocelyn gathered the cast and we agreed on a night.” Towne directed and shot the video in a matter of hours. “We had our intern handle the post process, which took one day.” The team moved on to the next steps of planning: Rewards.
It’s all based on honor, and it works. Kickstarter does not monitor fulfillment or take responsibility for rewards. Again, Strickler adds “It’s pretty simple, the people that support you will be made up of a lot of important people you know, and if you’d burn them on their rewards there’s real social consequence for that and it’s why it just doesn’t happen.” (You can watch our keynote video with Yancey Strickler here after studying this keynote.)
At the launch of the I Am I campaign, the creative team (now a hive-mind working together) finalized 14 rewards ranging from $1 all the way to $10,000 per gift. “We structured rewards which we hoped were original and fun,” said Dubin. Rewards can also have limits to how many can be received in any one category. Here’s what they launched with on November 30, 2010 and how many Backers they eventually had at each level:
|Amount||Reward||Number of Backers|
|$700||Limited Reward (5)||2 / 3 Remaining|
|$3,000||Limited Reward (5)||0 / 5 Remaining|
|$5,000||Limited Reward (8)||0 / 8 Remaining|
|$8,000||Limited Reward (3)||0 / 3 Remaining|
|$10,000||Limited Reward (5)||3 / 2 Remaining|
Once a reward is launched on Kickstarter and at least 1 person selects it, you can no longer update or change that reward in any way.
You can however add rewards during the campaign. In an attempt to spark mid-campaign interest, I Am I did add one NEW reward during the campaign and it eventually attracted 16 Backers.
|Amount||Reward||Number of Backers|
After the campaign, Olson spent a great deal of time running statistical analysis on the numbers. “Our two most active levels were $20 and $100, and we later learned that that is true of many Kickstarter campaigns,” she said.
The reward at $20 was a final DVD copy of the final film. Some filmmakers may have shied away from sharing a copy of the film, but Dubin and Olson saw no risk because they could control when the DVD shipped out to the backers. “We figured we could either purchase DVDs at cost from a distributor down the road to send to our backers, or with the blessing of that distributor, create a limited edition DVD,” said Dubin. “It was a great reward, if you wanted to support the film what better way than to get a copy of it when it was finished.”
They planned their rewards as carefully as they had planned the campaign and estimated the cost to fulfill each one (materials/time/postage/etc). They tried to be both creative with the offerings and budget conscious with the planned method of fulfilling them to maximize their return on the investments. Their $100 level contained a limited-edition tee-shirt; ordering them after the campaign and shipping the entire reward all at once was one way they planned to save as much as possible on costs.
They organized their planned outreach to their social networks and fans carefully.
“We were fierce with preparing who and when we’d ask people for help,” Dubin continued. “Jocelyn prepared the hardest and wrote hundreds of personal messages she would send when the campaign started.” The hard work paid off and finally they all felt ready to launch. All their plans and materials and ideas were ready – including one that proved crucial.
“From the get-go, we were working with an artist and a web-builder to create our official website for I Am I. We needed a place where people could learn about the film and stay in touch with us after the Kickstarter campaign was over,” said Dubin. The idea behind the website was to be more than just a press kit for the film, but a destination for people who were not only interested in our project, but also filmmakers who could use the site as a resource. Well before the campaign, Towne launched an interview series on the site called “You Never Forget Your First Time,” where she sat down with established filmmakers and interviewed them about their first film.
All of the key creative team had a plan of what to do when they launched. “We had no idea what to expect during the campaign, except that it would be a lot of work, especially for Jocelyn,” says Olson. “All we could do was try to be prepared.” The ideas they had for promotion had been kicked around and refined over many months. Listening to them speak as a team about their experiences only reinforces how detailed an approach they took to preparing.
November 30, 2010 and the team pressed the button to launch. Their Pitch Video was quickly and enthusiastically embraced as original, charming and super viral – people started hopping into the campaign with contributions and unexpected promotion followed. Dubin and Olson said during the campaign, they estimate the link to their Kickstarter page and video was shared or posted on Facebook 1,500+ times – resulting in an unknown aggregate impact of impressions that likely exceeded 100,000.
Screenshot of Jen Dubin’s Twitter stream.
They executed their energies as planned. “Jocelyn was constantly and personally writing people for help in promoting our campaign and then also writing personally to Backers as they came in to thank them,” she added. “I’m sure she wrote back to 75% of them as all this was happening,” said Dubin.
Studying the results ex-post-facto of their outcome, the rewards they offered between $3,000 and $8,000 didn’t connect with any Backers at all. The surprise at these highest levels was that one spark early in the campaign was an anonymous unknown Backer who gave $10,000 (their highest reward) in the first 72 hours. “We were floored, we tried everything to figure out who this person was, but the truth was they were someone outside our circle who just discovered the project,” Olson noted.
They eventually had three Backers at the $10,000 level, one of which ultimately did not come through when Kickstarter went to collect the funds. The other two will receive private hosted screenings by the creative team. They stay in touch still on the progress of the film’s development.
The most interesting element to other producers might be that their $100 level included an “Associate Producer” credit. Lots of Backers noted that having a film credit was a big deal to them, “Some of our Backers were able to visit the set and many offered to help in some way. Even though we now have 226 Associate Producers on the film, everyone understands that these credits don’t translate into any creative control or equity in the film financially. No one has contacted us with demands or notes. We felt it was ok in this scenario to offer a carefully- defined end crawl Associate Producer credit as a reward and didn’t see it as a dangerous proposition,” added Dubin.
Some of the “Associate Producers” offered extraordinary and free benefits to the creative team, “One of our Backers volunteered to build an iPhone App for our film! It tracks our progress and now gives people a way to connect on their mobile phones with I Am I. Another Backer offered us their fleet of professionally trained Chihuahuas if they could be of any use to us,” Olson remembered, smiling.
They were featured by Filmmaker Magazine’s blog, indieWIRE, msn.com, and CNN.com media outlets. Press interest throughout the campaign was routed to the team through their website or through personal channels the creative team had. It all worked very on-demand and organically without media cost to the production.
“It was alive! Yes. All that hard work was now being tested. We got really excited by the fast response: Jocelyn’s video idea was connecting just the way we hoped. Kickstarter blogged about us, people started Tweeting, we were pushing and nudging all our networks for help. You can’t ever be shy; we posted on fansites of our actors. Blogs, Facebook Pages, we just kept plowing to get the word out any way we could think of,” Dubin said.
As part of calculating their ability to raise $100,000 from an online community originally, they analyzed the Twitter and Facebook impact of their cast and asked them to round out the promotions. Simon Helberg and Jason Ritter and Marianna Palka were all active online. “Simon had 40,000 plus Twitter followers when we started, Jason had 10,000 plus. They all came through for us and promoted us the whole way. We couldn’t have done it without them,” said Olson.
Cora Olson and
Simon Helberg working the social networks.
Olson and Dubin reached out to their own company mailing list and their personal facebook communities with ‘cut and pastable’ draft messages to make it easy, simple and quick for their friends and followers to help spread the word.
They never issued a traditional press release or hired a publicist, although long connections in the industry had given them contacts and colleagues in the PR business that gave them advice and help along the way. They had very little overhead cost in preparing the campaign for launch outside the considerable time they put into it.
The roller coaster was just beginning. In spite of the interest and organic promotions that were happening around them, about halfway through the campaign, the momentum started to slow.
“We launched at the end of November and knew we’d be completing our run after the holidays. That was by design, we were betting that the spirit of the season might put people in a more giving mood,” Dubin continued. “We anticipated a slow down on the contributions the week between Christmas and New Years, but hoped that by extending through the first week of January when people were back at work and at their computers, we’d pick up steam and pull through.” Olson concurred. “When the holiday slow down actually did happen, it was gut-wrenching. It definitely worried us, we started thinking more aggressively about how to promote – we talked about adding new rewards and other ways to keep building momentum. It was a tough week.”
They were all completely dedicated to the Kickstarter campaign at this point: Dubin, Olson, Towne, and Helberg. It was an all-consuming project. “For a while I refreshed my phone every 10 minutes and we had another Backer,” said Dubin. “It was addictive and I started being connected nonstop to the progress of the campaign itself. When that started flat lining it was really emotional,” she remembered.
Instead of giving up, the down swing was motivational in their efforts. The Kickstarter All-or-Nothing Concept approached reality. “We just kept the effort up, if not doubled it in creative problem solving. Jocelyn kept sharing updates on Kickstarter. We never hesitated to send messages, ask for help, or keep people informed of how we were doing. We tried to be a respectful kind of relentless,” said Olson. They both noted over and over how essential Director Towne’s and the Cast’s efforts were to any they made themselves. It paid off for the entire team.
In the final week of the campaign the momentous wave of efforts culminated in that final push. They passed their goal mark of $100,00 to be successful with on January 6, 2011. The campaign would eventually be 111% funded by 902 Backers who gave $111,965. This became a mathematical average of $124 donated, per person.
Their financier matched it with $100k and they started shooting in Los Angeles on May 17th. The team wrapped production on June 16th and is currently editing.
It has now been seven months since their campaign ended and almost a full year since they conceived it. They continue to feel the echoes of what they did. “Our Backers are an active part of the film right now, and will be in the future when it premieres for audiences,” said Olson. “We have this connection because of the campaign with so many people and this deserving project was able to prove itself worthy of an audience even before we made it.”
The ending total was $111,965. 8 Backers dropped out on collection, which decreased the pledges by $10,200. The campaign paid $5,599 in fees to Kickstarter and $3,166 in fees to the backend-transactional partner Amazon. Their eventual net financial gain was $93,000. Their net creative gains cannot be estimated and are still in progress. Sundance.org thanks them for their generosity and candor in sharing their experiences to other Institute alumni.
Although the I Am I campaign took place before we announced and began our collaboration with Kickstarter, they not only agreed to contribute to our Beta site, they enthusiastically shared their experiences with you all for the price of a spaghetti lunch (#ArtistServices Style).
If you’d like to thank them too, you can reach them by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org