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Funds from the Maddening Crowd

By Michael Galinsky

From Jonathan Goodman Levitt's <em>Follow the Leader</em>. Courtesy of Changeworx

Just a few years ago, a Kickstarter campaign was a strange, exotic scheme. However, with traditional funding streams drying up, doc filmmakers began experimenting with crowdfunding, and before we knew it, we all had Kickstarter fatigue. But the need for funding has only increased and the doc community has moved past fatigue into acceptance, and now we are entering the realm of warm embrace. With both Indiegogo and Kickstarter easing the way to work with fiscal sponsors, it becomes even more possible to raise significant sums. Filmmakers have also learned to use the social media aspects of crowdsourcing not only to gather money but also to corral and rally fans.

The growth trajectory and amounts raised are staggering. Of the nearly $300 million that has been raised on Kickstarter since it launched in 2009, $78 million has funded films, with a huge chunk of that money supporting documentaries. Clearly, this is not just a fad, but part of a full-scale paradigm shift in how films are funded, distributed and consumed. 

I wrote an article for Documentary a couple of years ago about a successful Kickstarter campaign that my partners and I ran in October and November 2009 for our film Battle for Brooklyn. We had stayed very much behind the scenes when we shot our film, as we didn't want it to be pegged as an "activist documentary." But as our story wound down, we saw that we could use a Kickstarter campaign as a way to both raise much-needed funds and start creating a connection with the target audience for our film: the activist community that we had documented, who wanted their story told. We did a lot of research and launched a successful campaign on both fronts. We raised $25,000 and connected with over 300 people, who have continued to help us get the word out about our film. 

Kickstarter has become a significant player in the documentary landscape in 2012, having served as the fundraising platform for 10 percent of the Sundance and SXSW slates and three of the documentaries on the Academy Award short list (Incident in New Baghdad, Battle for Brooklyn and The Loving Story). Kickstarter's raise-all-the money-or-you-get-nothing policy leads to very intense campaigns that require a great deal of upfront planning and execution. 

As an example, filmmaker Jonathan Goodman Levitt squeaked past his goal of $27,000 for his documentary Follow the Leader with just minutes to spare. As an early backer, I saw how hard he worked, sending daily updates and continuously building energy for his film. "I was very clear at the outset that this was about engaging the public first, partner-building second and fundraising third," he explains via e-mail. "So I knew I was making some decisions that favored the first goals at the cost of the third. But making these decisions before I knew how challenging the fundraising part would be was my first mistake. Specifically, the biggest blunder was scheduling two out-of-town events during the first week of the campaign.

"Like a lot of people, we turned to Kickstarter because we didn't have money," Levitt continues. "So while I cleared my schedule to focus on Kickstarter during the campaign's final week, up to that point I was working full time on other projects too. The majority of the work for me was writing to individuals, writing mass e-mails, calling friends and acquaintances, and more writing. I certainly wrote more than I slept in the final week and, in part as a result, a majority of our updates and press and new backers came in during the final week.

"Without a celebrity element, major fan base from past films, or a campaign focused on the release of an award-winning, already-released film, to raise more than $30,000 you have to be doing it full time, have great luck and/or know a lot of rich people who love you," Levitt maintains. "Ours was a reasonably modest campaign with a small team all working on other things during the month; maybe other people might feel that this much money isn't modest, but between paying our team and my time, raising $10,000 or $15,000 would have left us deeply under water, and without the funds to complete and launch a feature documentary that we needed.

"Having the dramatic end and last-minute success that we did was also great for building our outreach team-for attracting some more people to it throughout the campaign and after, but also for just making everyone involved bond, given the positive shared experience," Levitt reflects. "For those of us filmmakers who work with a micro team, if not completely alone, on the filmmaking itself, this is particularly important. You just can't go it all alone successfully on a release, and doing this campaign really brought us closer together and made everyone feel that we'd accomplished something significant and important together."

For filmmakers who aren't as interested in the all-or-nothing, high-stake nature of Kickstarter, Indiegogo can be a great tool. Filmmaker Dick Dahl went to Indiegogo for his doc/narrative hybrid, The Curio.

"My initial plan for funding The Curio involved going the whole festival route with my short version of the movie and attracting some attention along the way that might lead to investment in the feature," Dahl explains. "But when I was finished with the short, I wanted to get right to work on the feature. Crowdsourcing seemed like the obvious solution, especially as I felt comfortable with the idea of shooting the film on a DSLR and therefore optimistic that I could make the film super cheaply and at least raise enough money through a campaign for the production phase of the project. I knew that I'd be editing at least the first cut of the film myself and hopefully have time to save up money along the way for color correction, sound mix, etc. Crowdsourcing was also an attractive option for The Curio because it's such a personal film that it wasn't a good candidate for funding from targeted grants or interest groups.  

"I chose Indiegogo over Kickstarter mainly because Indiegogo had a partnership with my nonprofit fiscal sponsor, Fractured Atlas, that allowed me to offer tax-deductible donations to my donors," Dahl continues. "The fact that Indigogo isn't an all-or-nothing affair sealed the deal for me, as I knew I could still find a way to make the film if I only ended up raising $16,000 instead of my target of $17,500. As it is, I raised more than my goal and decided I could afford to shoot with the Canon C300 as opposed to the 5D, which has helped energize my mostly volunteer crew.

"While Indiegogo's partnership with Fractured Atlas has made it simple for crowdsourcers to use fiscal sponsorship, it's possible to work with a fiscal sponsor on Kickstarter as well," Dahl adds. "When we needed some distribution funds, we worked with our fiscal sponsor, MPI, to make it possible for funders to get a tax write-off.  Creators simply need to direct the funds from the campaign to their fiscal sponsor's bank account. As we were making our push near the end of the year, we felt like it really paid off. It may not be as important to the $20 and $30 donors, but people who might consider a larger pledge indicated to us that they were more willing to do it, knowing that their pledge was tax-deductible."

While crowdsourcing is often used to fund the production or post-production phase, it is increasingly being earmarked for distribution support. Rachel Grady and Heidi Ewing used Kickstarter to fund a robust distribution campaign for their Sundance hit Detropia. They were able to largely fund their film through grants, but they turned to Kickstarter to get it seen. "We were excited about the response to the film at festivals and wanted to get it in front of audiences," says Ewing. "We talked to some distributors but saw Kickstarter as a new model for us to get the film into theaters while remaining in control of our work. We're so happy it exists because it allows us to fund our efforts while also building a direct connection to our audience."

Like Levitt, Dahl and myself, Ewing and Grady make it clear that crowdsourcing is hard work. "Don't underestimate how hard it is to make a campaign successful," Ewing maintains. "It took 80 percent of our time. You work hard for it!"


Michael Galinsky is partners with Suki Hawley and David Bellinson in the award-winning production studio Rumur. They are currently working on a film about the connection between stress and pain.