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How to Crowdfund When You're Not Zach Braff or Spike Lee: The First Time Filmmakers Guide To A Brave New World

October 10, 2013

• Angela J, Aguayo

The Ritual Title Card

Crowd funding is the new rage in independent cinema for good reason. It is a smart way to build your audience and collect some of the funds for beginning or completing your production project. It is also one of the first efforts to put your film out there for feedback and give your networks a chance to grow outside personal and established connections. For all these reasons, crowd funding is marvelous! And there are the parts of the process that really suck.

If you want to read the general collective wisdom about crowd funding you can go here to read more. But if you want to know the down and dirty about crowd funding, the parts people will not say in polite company, stay right here. Generating interest about your own work in process and asking for money is not so fun. The process is not a giant crowding funding rainbow, even if you are a celebrity. Its nice when a campaign begins to take off and really starts to generate results but most of the process is just uncomfortable and requires a tolerance for repetition.

There are those tedious jobs such as generating contact lists and organizing them according to categories that can take hours upon hours. We worked with two lists, a core contributor list comprised of our closest allies that would most likely support the project. The core list was contacted 3 days before the campaign by email and asked to consider supporting a pre-campaign launch. We explained that they were our metaphorical money in the guitar case. Our second list of contacts was our broad list of friends and family. The most important thing about this list is whom you choose to leave off. Do not contact everyone you ever met. At this point in the party, most people are on “kickstarter” overload, which means this crowd funding phenomenon is growing and requests are increasing. Be conscious of the relationship you have with the person outside the request for a donation. Do you grade this person? Do they give you an annual review? Do you have a relationship outside of work? Do they have enough money to eat? You don’t want to ruin friendships or be too presumptuous by sending a funding request to someone you have not talked to in 10 years, unless there is extenuating circumstances. Remember to be broad thinking but not obnoxious. In this networked world of social connections, you need to build, take care of and cultivate your base. 

For a filmmaker early in their career and for most projects generally, your main support comes from friends and family, and from direct asks in general (personal e-mails, Facebook messages, phone calls and in-person reminders). This is a matter to seriously consider. How strong are your networks? Do they include people with the budget to give to projects like yours? This is a very important “being honest with yourself” moment that needs to happen before any crowd funding campaign is launched. It will help you assess how much money is targeted for fundraising. Many of the crowd funding platforms require at least 80% of your goal be reached to keep the raised funds. You want this kind of countdown pressure; it raises the stakes for you and the people on the fence about giving to your project. 

We contacted our core list three days before the official start of the campaign and did a social media strategy for the first few weeks, including a blog hop and a series of webisodes. This allowed our natural supporters, those who were not contacted directly by email, the opportunity to contribute with prompts on social media. This is the heartwarming part of the campaign where your friends from all corners line up to contribute and that old teacher from high school gives an extra large donation. It is in this moment that the whole idea of community art-making seems possible. Then we quickly hit a plateau about 14 days into the 45-day campaign. We had raised ⅓ of our goal with multiple supporters each day but we needed new energy. That is where our large contact list and the matching donor step in. 

It is smart to have two things set up in advance of a successful crowd funding campaign; you need a matching donor and a gap funder. The matching donor is a person willing to engage in some kind of matching event over the course of your campaign. We had a 10 day unlimited matching campaign because I was able to convince the donor that my networks would not likely produce an uncomfortable matching point. I needed money to make money and who doesn’t want to double their donation? It was a great success and most of our goal was reached during this event. I have seen campaigns with matching caps or brief time frames that might sit well with some donors. Finally, I strongly encourage a gap funder, a person who agrees to donate (very close to the deadline) the gap between the amount raised and the minimum to keep the funds or reach the overall goal. You must be honest with the gap funder about your expectation and what kind of commitment this might involve.       

We had an unexpected benefit of our campaign; it was a great opportunity to explore with our potential audience(s) and how we might reach them. I thought I knew who my audience was but making the trailer, sending out the pitch video as well as the webisodes helped us experiment with interested audience, story angles and identify patterns of reception. We targeted women in university education, professional bloggers and the wedding industry. This gave us information about how to craft the story for the larger project, possibilities for branding and grassroots marketing.

Finally, make this crowd funding process work for you by turning it into an opportunity to leverage visibility outside your personal social networks. More than getting people to join Facebook or Twitter, how do you add to the on going public conversation about your topic or the process of filmmaking? I see more and more filmmakers writing blogs, advice and how-to articles about the process of filmmaking as they are crowd funding. Writer Alisa Valdes, in the middle of her own crowd funding campaign to take her short stories to the screen, wrote an article on Latina representation in Hollywood and the new television show Devious Maids. The article received a lot of traction for her project and generated new financial backers. Our project was featured as one of Indiewire’s projects of the day and helped to bring some industry visibility for our documentary.

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Fundraising Tactics

So if you are new to crowd funding, here are a few things to consider:

1.Cultivate your networks…now and before pre-production! People need to know who you are and want to follow you as a filmmaker. Websites, social media, a portfolio of work, start collecting interested parties and make your work available.

2. Think about a longish campaign (45 days) with dedicated segments: 1) launch, 2)matching event, and 3) final dash. There was a breather between segments, allowing our social networks to get a break from our public relations and for us to gather ourselves from what felt like juggling multiple jobs. We felt uncomfortable about posting everyday and the fatigue that might cause. During the active parts of our campaign we posted once a day to thank our newest backers and that post consistently prompted more donations.

3. Choose your direct contacts carefully. Direct message is putting someone on the spot. I felt ok contacting everyone once, my core people twice but that was it. Acquiring my matching donor and gap funder required a very persuasive phone call.

4. Teasing the audience with extras (video, pics, memes, etc). We started a tumblr blog, Girl I love you but…that provided a bit of humor about our film. We also launched webisodes that comprised of our throw away material from the larger documentary project. We focused on speaking about issues around the documentary. We wanted to engage with the audience on multiple levels and not just requests for financial backing. 

5. Find a matching contributor, run that campaign for at least one week (at least)

6. Find a 'gap' funder, who will come in and get you to a green light or final goal

7. Have a sense of humor, not a sense of desperation…humble and excited

8. Explore and find your audience, people who are not your friends already

9. Leverage the campaign into visibility outside your social networks*

10. Choose a fundraising platform that works for you.

What everyone wants is that magical thing to happen. When your project finds a force pulling it into communities outside your direct contact, tapping into some great cosmic unspoken force and suddenly you have exceeded your campaign goal. That is often the exception to the rule. The real question of crowd funding is how do filmmakers successfully tap into backers outside their direct networks?  The bottom line is crowd funding is not a sustainable model, unless your networks are rich or you grow the kind of extended networks willing to give their hard earned cash, over and over again. There is no real discussion about how one can potentially fatigue their networks with requests to support or how networks can be limited.

All this has lead me to realize that the new filmmaker-publicist-fundraiser of the 21st century needs to start generating an audience for their work that is connected by social media and cumulatively growing. In the environment where there is a severe lack of value place in arts funding, the horizon for the survival of many artistic practices may rest in the few dollars the average person can spare to support the media of their choosing. If this model continues, the new contemporary independent film audience begins much like the life of our modern day politicians and other entrepreneurs, first with a close network of believers, which grows into resource rich supporters beyond personal connections. As my dear friend, who grew up in the culture of Washington, DC reminded me at the end of our crowd funding campaign, “those early requests for funds to get a candidate’s campaign off the ground, really do stress the personal relationships”...and so will the constant request for donations for the next film and the next. 

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Angela J, Aguayo

Angela J. Aguayo is an Assistant Professor of Cinema and Digital Culture at Southern Illinois University. She is a writer, director and producer and is currently producing her first feature length documentary, The Ritual. The Ritual was made my an all fem

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