This past October, the crowdfunding platform Kickstarter reached its 1,000,000th individual backer since starting in 2009, with over $100,000,000 pledged to different projects in that time. Its peer IndieGoGo has helped raise money for over 50,000 campaigns since 2008. These crowdfunding platforms, combined with social media and other means of outreach, have become a powerful new model for funding a wide array of independent creative projects.
Flightpath caught up with two independent filmmakers who recently completed successful campaigns to glean their secrets. Jayce Bartok is an actor, screenwriter and director who’s appeared in projects from Spider-Man to The Station Agent and White Collar, and in January will show up in two features at Sundance. Jayce used IndieGoGo to raise over $20,000 to keep shooting Tiny Dancer, an indie drama he’s writing and directing. Award-winning documentary filmmaker Andrew Berends shot two films in Iraq that explore the conflict from the rarely-seen, ground-level view of Iraqis caught in the middle. He raised more than $16,000 on Kickstarter towards completing Delta Boys, about militants and oil in the Niger Delta.
Both were greatly empowered by their campaign experiences, but agreed there was no shortage of challenges.
Jayce Bartok: It was the hardest thing we’ve ever done. For those 60 days, it was just insane.
Andy Berends: Yeah. It’s awesome in a lot of respects, but I wouldn’t call it fun. For me, the first thing was you have to pretty much put aside your pride.
Andy: I had 184 backers but I probably directly contacted over 2,000 people, and indirectly maybe 3,000 – 4,000. For every backer, there’s probably 100 that ignored it and five that think I’m a jerk because I’ve been spamming them for a month straight.
Jayce: The first quarter of our campaign we were so far behind. Then we realized we have to email all of our contacts from A-Z. We had 15,000 contacts, and we emailed I would say at least 10,000 of them. That was what really drove it; once we started those personal emails, people started jumping on. But you’re right, you have to swallow your pride.
Andy: Which for me was a positive experience, because I err on the side of being too reserved and subtle. And that’s not how it works. That’s not how you sell your film, that’s not how you raise money. So it forced me out of my comfort zone.
Jayce: You need to be the total self-promoter and ask. It was an amazing experience for my wife and me. And for reconnecting with people. Maybe it’s been two or three years and you email someone, and all of a sudden they’re like, “Hey man, here’s $100.” But you can drive yourself crazy, because that guy down the block who’s like my best friend will not respond to my email.
Andy: As awesome as it is, it’s not free money at all. First of all, you have to have a project that people think is worthwhile. Second, you need to have a decent network of people who are willing to support you. And you have to do a lot of work. I worked hard to make my campaign and my video look good. I want people to say, he’s not just asking for free money. He’s put a lot of work into making this. You then have to be able to produce DVDs, t-shirts, all kinds of stuff. You’re a full-on production/distribution company.
I raised $16,000. If it was $10,000, I would say it’s just barely worth it for what’s going to be a month-and-a-half of work. But it’s not just the money, it’s the publicity on top of that. And then there’s no question that it’s worth it. And the experience was worth it. But it’s not free money.
Flightpath: How did you reach the point of deciding to go on these campaigns?
Andy: If I were just starting the production, I wouldn’t feel comfortable asking all these people for money if I didn’t know I’d be able to finish the film. But now that I’m finishing it, I know I’m going to be able to deliver. That’s part of why I was ready. But it was also: Everybody’s doing it now. If I’m going to do it, now’s the time.
Jayce: We’re in the exact opposite place [with our project]. We decided to do it because I’m tired of having friends who are like, “You made The Cake Eaters a long time ago, and I’ve made five $30,000 films since then.” And we were just like, “Oh man, we gotta do this.”
We had this giant fundraiser event planned, and IndieGoGo was our safety net for people who couldn’t attend it. And ironically, that event netted us like $2,000 and we had all these wealthy people there and some celebrities. And then the IndieGoGo campaign that went to all our broke-ass friends got us 20-some thousand. It started as almost an after-thought.
Flightpath: One early model for indie film-backing online was getting micro-investments, as opposed to a straight donation. What are the differences there?
Andy: Investment 99% of the time is just a pipe dream. This does away with the pretense that you’re going to see a return. I never felt comfortable asking for investors, because it’s very hard for independent documentaries to break even, let alone make money. This is more straightforward. And also, you don’t get $50 investments. That’s when you’re going around looking for someone to give you $5,000 – $10,000.
Jayce: It’s part of the shift where people are giving locally. You’re helping this person make a project happen that they passionately believe in, as opposed to trying to say, “You’re going to get a 120% return.” If I give Andy $50, he’s going to create something that I feel really connected to and that I’m a part of.
Flightpath: Jayce, you did a 60-day campaign. Andy, yours was 30. How did you choose the length, and how much did you plan in advance for sustaining it?
Jayce: We had no clue what was going to happen. The first half of our 60 days, we didn’t raise that much. It was scary, like we’re not going to make our goal. And what I found is that everyone loves a winning team. When you get close to your goal, everybody comes out of the woodwork to give you money. They want to be the one who pushes you over the top. In retrospect, I’d probably focus on 30 days, knowing the last 15 would be super-intense.
Andy: And also because, it’s a full-time job. Kickstarter actually pushes you towards 30 days. They feel that’s the most efficient bang for your buck. On a 60-day campaign, maybe I would have raised another $1000. The people who come in at the last minute would have just waited another month. In twice as much time, I wouldn’t have raised twice as much money, but I would have had to work just as hard for two months.
Jayce: I do believe what you put into it, you get out of it. But at the same time, I don’t believe we could raise any more money than we did. You only have a certain amount of contacts.
We learned that for your project, this is a giant PR campaign with the added perk that you’re getting money. But you want to make your goal. You want to show that this is successful. With IndieGoGo we knew we could keep the money no matter what. But there was an incredible amount of pressure when we were so far under-performing, that we were like, “Oh my God, we’re spamming everybody and they’re going to know that we failed.” We were definitely sweating it.
Flightpath: What about the psychology of choosing the all-or-nothing model, as Andy did, versus the take-what-you-raise platform, like Jayce. I’d argue that all-or-nothing creates a bigger incentive to donate.
Andy: Absolutely. And it’s also a bigger incentive on me to make sure I hit the goal. Once you click “launch campaign,” the countdown is on, and your pride is on the line. The incentive is there to make sure I hit the goal. And some people looking at it would say, “He hasn’t reached his goal, I better kick in some money.”
Flightpath: Jayce, you were blogging for MovieMaker, and you made a lot of down-homey videos with your wife and your intern. What was the social media outreach strategy?
Jayce: We tried to listen to what IndieGoGo told us, that your video has to resonate with people personally. We sat on our stoop with our son and made a video and put the trailer at the end. We tried to keep in touch with videos.
We were very strategic about social networking. Besides personal emailing and posting every day on Facebook, we went on a limb and tried to get anyone who was vaguely famous to tweet or retweet. I had worked with Kevin Smith on Cop Out. I emailed him and didn’t hear anything, and then someone at MovieMaker said, “Hey, did Kevin’s tweet help you guys?” I was like, “What?” I looked and four days earlier, he’d tweeted, “Help Jayce Bartok’s movie.” And he’s got 1.5 million followers.
We were going to get MovieMaker subscriptions to give away to a certain donor level, and they said, “In return, will you blog about your crowdfunding experience for us?” And ironically, my blogging has been way more beneficial to our campaign.
Andy: You get analytics on your campaign. Unquestionably, Facebook is by far how I reached the most people. Through my personal page, plus I set up a page for the film. I also set up an event, so that I could invite all my friends on Facebook. And there’s a Facebook group that friends of mine set up while I was detained in Nigeria making the film, with almost 1,000 members. Of my 184 backers, 69 clicked through from Facebook. Almost half of the people, and 26% of the dollars.
I had this other awesome stuff. Sundance has a curated Kickstarter page, so I was on their page. Stranger than Fiction has a page. Rooftop Films has a page. Barely any donations came through that. But I was able to leverage that and say I was endorsed by all these organizations. The endorsement is huge. Sundance sent one tweet for me. And it helps. But for me, it was Facebook and personal messaging. Getting other people to post on their wall is how it really starts to build momentum.
Jayce: I am super-impressed, because my wife and I were partners in this, but you did it by yourself. I don’t really understand social media. She’ll be like, “Go email Kevin Smith.” And I was like, “Okay,” scared shitless. I couldn’t really coordinate all that on my own. I was really in charge of the personal emails. I did all those 15,000 contacts. I just wrote them one-by-one with a couple of personal sentences and then the cut-and-paste part, and my fingers were going to fall off. That was the most effective.
Flightpath: Beyond the money, how much awareness did this spread about your projects, and how does that create a foundation for the rest of the film’s life cycle? What starts now?
Jayce: Because we still need to go raise $75,000 more, we have all these statistics now and all these backers. Instead of floating out these bullshit business plans, where we’re going to take the movie to Sundance and sell it and get this rate of return, we can say we have 1,000 dedicated followers, and that equals this number right off the bat. We’re using this audience that we built and trying to leverage that to raise the rest of the money and apply for grants.
Andy: For me, I’ve actually sold more DVDs than I probably would have if I’d waited until I finished and sent an email to my friends. Nobody’s going to buy the DVD for $30. But with the campaign, I’ve sold 42 DVDs for $30. I’ve sold 45 digital downloads at $15. So essentially, distribution has already begun.
This experience has been realizing that if I’m not going to sell it, there’s nobody else out there trying to sell my work, and that’s what I need to work on. That’s why this campaign was such a good thing for me. Because it’s freaking hard. And you do see your friends unsubscribing from your emails, and it’s devastating. There are moments of panic where I feel awful, like I’m going to raise this money, but am I going to lose friends over it?
This is something that independent filmmakers have to learn. You can’t just be a filmmaker anymore. You have to be a filmmaker, a distributor, a fund raiser, a graphic designer. It’s hard, but it’s empowering.
Flightpath: How empowering is this for you guys and your projects, emotionally and creatively?
Jayce: Hugely empowering. And morally, you owe these people who are your backers and supporting you, so you have to finish this, you have to carry on and see the journey through. You can’t be like, “That famous person never wanted to be in it, so it’s just sitting on my desk now.”
Andy: From every single person, it’s a vote of confidence, and now I have to live up to it. The thing about independent filmmaking is it’s lonely sometimes. You take a lot on by yourself. And to have the personal support from individuals feels very good. It makes me realize that we’re all indie filmmakers, but we’re all working together to make our independent projects, which I love.
Flightpath: Finally, what advice would you give people starting their own campaigns?
Jayce: Plan, plan, plan. For every dollar you get, you have to earn that dollar. You have to go out there and earn that money. You really have to think about it, plan and persist. Swallow that pride and figure out how to ask people to support you.
Andy: Chris at the Sundance Institute said to me, “Don’t be shy.” That’s the piece of advice I personally needed the most. I agree, swallow your pride. But you have to have a good project. Otherwise, don’t do it. Have something you believe in that’s worthy. And then swallow your pride and don’t be shy.