The Independent Filmmaker’s Guide on How *Not* to Do Kickstarter

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Mark Kitchell

Mark Kitchell is best known for “Berkeley in the Sixties,” one of the defining documentaries about the protest movements that shook America during the 1960s. He produced, directed and wrote the film, led a huge archival research effort as well as a successful distribution campaign. In the twenty years since that film, he has worked in non-fiction television, made films for hire, taught at UC Santa Cruz, done various freelance production work and developed “A Fierce Green Fire.” The film has been in production since 2008.

Approaching the fine-cut phase of “A Fierce Green Fire” we got a grant from Sundance Documentary Fund, and realized it would cover only the editor’s salary. So we decided to augment the grant with a Kickstarter campaign. Yancey Strickler, the founder of Kickstarter, made a presentation to us grantees at the Sundance Film Festival.

I was suspicious based on my years of grassroots fundraising for “Berkeley in the Sixties.” Crowdfunding over the internet struck me as magical thinking—too easy. But I could see others having success and it suited our needs. I had put off fundraising from individuals. This seemed like our last chance, and an exciting new way to go about it. But when we mounted a Kickstarter campaign we ran into problems and had to abort. Here are my top lessons.

1. Don’t aim high. Although I didn’t think we could raise $50,000 in 50 days, the people working with me did—and it proved to be entirely too ambitious. We made it to $6,000 before we pulled the plug. It’s best to aim lower—you can keep the overage.

2. It’s no substitute for the hard work of fundraising. I think success depends entirely on how good a job you do of mobilizing your supporters. You need a robust contact database and you need to blast them repeatedly. It’s not enough to set up a beautiful campaign and let the world come to you. We tried both a new school and old school approach, sort of an A/B test between social media and a hard-driving grassroots campaign. Outreach using social media didn’t work, at least for fundraising on a short schedule. Almost all our pledges came from people we knew.

3. Clear the decks and prepare well. It’s a mistake to run a Kickstarter campaign when you’re in the thick of working on your film. It’s pretty consuming and you need to be very well-prepared. In our case we postponed the start of fine-cutting and spent a few weeks preparing, but it wasn’t enough. The social media campaign wasn’t really there.

Our contact database was thrown together. We only got off one email blast. There wasn’t enough time to develop relationships with environmental groups, get them on board. By the time the campaign ran into trouble, I was deep in editing and scripting, unable to do a rescue job. My advice is to find the time to prepare well and don’t do anything else during the campaign.

4. Social media is too soft an approach. The head of our Kickstarter team came up with a brilliant startegy—what I called “twitter bait”—short bites from our interviews, with a head and tail, intriguing stories and ideas meant to pique the interest of bloggers and influencers. We released one per day and messaged the social media sphere, hoping that word would spread and people would come to our site and pledge.

Sad to say, it didn’t work. I have to conclude that it’s too soft and indirect an approach. I don’t know how many in the social media sphere responded; we pulled the plug before the strategy had a chance to really play out. But I wouldn’t devote our resources to such an approach again. It simply takes too long and the appeal is too soft.

My experience is you have to push, push, push—send emails and follow up with phone calls. Make it personal. Get people to commit. Asking for money is much harder than building awareness and interest.

5. It’s ill-suited to big films. I think there are real problems using Kickstarter to raise production funding. The amounts we’re trying to raise are too big. Our schedules are too long; the payoff can take years. A colleague was telling me about a project that raised $23,000 on Indie Go-Go, apparently a record; the reason for their success, he said, was people thought they were donating to the cause the film is about rather than the film itself.

His assessment of financing production via crowdfunding is, “That dog don’t bark.” I’m inclined to agree, despite the exceptions. I think Kickstarter is better suited to the later stages of a film, when you’re ready to roll it out. I noticed that “Granito” had success raising $35,000 for an Oscar campaign. If your audience knows the film is done and believes it is good, I think they’re more likely to help.

6. Kickstarter as a marketing tool. We had two objects on our campaign: fundraising; but also building awareness, starting outreach a year in advance of releasing the film. Building a contact database and creating a community are two essentials of any outreach and engagement strategy. The trailer we put together has proved useful for more than Kickstarter. So has contacting environmental organizations – out of it has come an article in NRDC’s magazine On Earth and we continue to build those relationships.

7. Not all is lost if you don’t succeed. We were able to go back to the people who pledged and ask them to write a check instead. So far about ten out of fifty people have. One of them came through with a much bigger contribution, because he knew we were in need.

I’ve found that some people prefer the old method of writing a check and getting a tax-deduction, while for others anything more than a few clicks is getting to be too much trouble. However, the follow-up email we sent out was far more than explaining what went wrong. We spread news about progress on other fronts, asked for help with outreach and made a final appeal for funding, announced that the film will be coming next year and got a pretty good buzz going.

I’m not sure what to think of Kickstarter. Part of me wonders if it’s a fad whose value is diminishing as more and more people use it. Part of me thinks we just need to do it better and smarter. Mostly it looks like a case of “Plus ça change, plus c’est la meme chose.” Fundraising will always be hard, there’s no easy shortcut. It’s interesting doing it in a new way and there are definitely advantages. But it’s not magic.

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