Working the Crowd: How Indie Crowdfunding Campaigns Have Evolved, and Some Savvy Ways to Keep Up

Why this film? Why you? Why now?

Each arm of your crowdfunding campaign—from video, to narrative, to rewards, to backer updates—must work to build the connection between yourself, your film’s subject matter and your target audience. But most of all, it should address those three questions.

To help you give your best answers to those questions, and to get your campaign ready to launch, let’s break down some recent changes to the crowdfunding landscape and how to adapt to them.

Running A Crowdfunding Campaign Isn’t Newsworthy—You and Your Film’s Subject Are

We’re surrounded by different fundraising campaigns hosted on a variety of different platforms, for charitable causes and creative ones, in return for rewards, perks, equity, or the fuzzy feeling you get when you’re a patron for a day. So, it’s important to note that we’re now familiar with that concept. The fact that you’re running a Kickstarter campaign is not press-worthy on its own. You’re going to need another angle.

Target non-film specific press as much as possible. When reaching out to press, research who’ll be most passionate about your project. Identify blogs, press outlets, and specific journalists. Who’s covered your previous work, or that of the cast and crew of your film? Which writers are moved by the issues your film is dealing with?

Think about your immediate network. Do you have friends who blog consistently or have large social media followings? Don’t skip the smaller outlets. Small, focused blogs usually have dedicated followers. Pro tip: If you’re from a small or medium-sized town, hit up your hometown newspaper.

When contacting journalists, personalize your outreach to each publication. They might not read a generic press release, but if you pitch it personally, they’re more likely to respond. What do you like about their writing or topics they’ve covered recently? Why did you think they’d be interested in your campaign? You might be better off pitching five journalists personally than pitching 20 with a press release. 

Email Is King, And Facebook’s Important, Too

With all that said about press, email is the most effective way of communicating with and convincing backers, and will generate the most revenue for your project. In the past year, 33 percent of pledges to film campaigns on Kickstarter have come from a direct URL—the kind you would include in the text of an email—rather than through a third party referrer. If you’ve got someone’s email address, send them an email. Simple!

Before you launch, you’ll want to make sure you’ve built a database with all your contacts uploaded to it so you can keep track of who you’ve contacted and how they’ve responded. 

Contact your list a week or two before the launch of your campaign to tell them it’s coming up. Once it’s launched, announce the launch to everyone you know. Ask them to share it with their networks—the non-creepy way of asking people indirectly to back your campaign.

Use mail merge or a marketing tool like Mailchimp to ensure that everyone has a personal greeting, and write personalized notes for the backers-in-waiting who have the capacity to really change the game on your campaign, either through their financial backing or their capacity to influence. Writing these emails is a hard thing to do. So, make it friendly and honest; an invitation (to come aboard an exciting project) rather than an ask.

Second only to a direct URL, 21 percent of pledges to film campaigns in the past year have come via Facebook, which is far ahead of Twitter (3 percent) and Instagram (2 percent). If you have limited resources, then cut your cloth accordingly.

If you already have significant followers on one platform rather than another then it makes sense to double down rather than start from scratch. Regardless, keep these average figures in mind as you make your choices.

On Crowd Nine: Moviemaker Danny Madden’s SXSW award-winning 2018 short “Krista” was financed by one of Ornana Films’ many successful crowdfunding campaigns. Photograph courtesy of House Special

 Rewards: Stay On The Right Side Of Your Distributor & SAG-AFTRA

When you’re putting your rewards together, bear these stats in mind: $25 is the most common pledge on Kickstarter. $100 is the tier that generates the most money.

While it’s important to build rewards that feel meaningful and tempting at those two levels, if you’re making a feature film and you have aspirations for a theatrical release, it’s important to offer rewards that don’t create problems for you down the line, either with a potential distributor or with a union. 

Around $25 is a great level to give backers access to your finished film, but avoid offering “a download.” Instead, use language like “online access,” which will give you some flexibility in how you deliver that reward, and will insure you against disappointed backers. 

You might also want to think twice before offering a hard copy of the finished film, like a DVD or Blu-ray. If you ultimately have a distributor, creation of hard copies may not be in your control. And if you don’t use a distributor, you might not want to be committed to the time and expense of creating and mailing all of those disc packages. 

You’ll have to give an estimation of when your rewards will be delivered. By offering a conservative estimate that gives you plenty of time to overcome unexpected hurdles, you’ll prevent your backers from getting upset. 

While it may be tempting to offer speaking parts or walk-on extra roles to backers, SAG-AFTRA may end up blocking your ability to do that depending on the scale of your production. Before you offer those opportunities as rewards, check with the union.

Make The Case For Your Film, And Claim Creative Independence While You Do It 

A Kickstarter campaign is a proactive choice for creative independence. Canadian director, writer, and photographer Bruce LaBruce told Dazed about the freedom that crowdfunding his projects, including last year’s The Misandrists, has provided: 

“I feel like I can’t wait two years to make a film, so I just decided to make one with no budget and finance it. It was great because I wrote it in December and January and filmed it in April. Also, you don’t have the restrictions you have when money people are looking over your shoulder. You can tackle much more controversial and provocative issues. You can feature, for example, explicit sex.” 

In addition to the creative freedom you build yourself—you only have to fulfill the rewards you choose to offer—every dollar of your film project paid for through Kickstarter adds value to that supplied by equity partners, if you go that route. 

A successful crowdfunding campaign makes the case for the film in the first place. If you can convince 500 to 1,000 people to back a project at fundraising stage, then there’s certainly a wider audience there. In Women & Hollywood, producer of Netflix original Joan Didion: The Center Will Not Hold Mary Recine described using their campaign as part marketing campaign, part courthouse argument in support of Joan’s popularity: 

“We knew we had something valuable — a film about a fierce and iconic writer made by her nephew, who had his own following. We knew that ultimately we needed a marketing campaign that highlighted Joan’s appeal to several generations of readers and viewers as much as we needed a fundraising campaign.” 

Running a successful campaign exposes your project to the industry at large. The Joan Didion: The Center Will Not Hold team have credited their Kickstarter campaign with contributing to their case to Netflix. Added producer Anabelle Dunne in Women & Hollywood: 

“We’d had positive feedback from the backers, along with some incredible press highlighting Joan’s cultural relevance. It was exactly the sort of thing that a large scale distributor like Netflix responds to. While we knew that the money raised from Kickstarter would never be able to fully finance the film, it was an instrumental tool in partnering to become a Netflix Original.” 

Use It Once, And Do It Again

A well-run crowdfunding campaign can both build a deep connection with your audience and grow your community from project to project. 

Ornana Films have run four Kickstarter campaigns, including the SXSW 2018-winning short “Krista,” and its forthcoming feature-length follow-up. They’re also collaborators on the many projects run by actor/writer-director Jim Cummings, who has five campaigns under his belt, including one that birthed Thunder Road, the SXSW-winning feature based on the Sundance-winning short of the same name. (Read Jim’s article on producing here.) Following Jim on Twitter is a must for any emerging moviemaker. 

Filmmaker Michael Beach Nichols started with the community he found through his two campaigns for his feature Flex is Kings to leverage a new audience for a very different film when he was fundraising for Welcome to Leith—and then again for Susanne Bartsch: On Top. 

“When we were strategizing our Welcome to Leith campaign, we were aware that the subject matter of the films couldn’t be more different. But in building the new campaign, we were able to use our track record with Flex is Kings as proof that we could finish a film and get it in front of people. 

“We found we’d tapped into a new group of backers. Our community had expanded and there was more diversity among the people that were paying attention to our work. It gave us the green light to continue telling stories that interested us, rather than feeling pigeonholed into making one type of film. That gave us a lot of confidence in launching the Susanne Bartsch: On Top campaign with our partners Anthony&Alex. We knew we’d have some small overlap with previous supporters, but were thrilled to watch as our audience expanded even more.” 

This group of indie moviemakers is using the platform to raise relatively modest amounts of money to keep its audience engaged and growing from one creative project to the next. Their most recent Kickstarter effort was for their Short to Features Lab, a residential retreat designed to incubate and support 10 short moviemakers and their 10 new feature films. 

What’s Your Story? 

Crowdfunding embodies what’s special about making films: connecting with people through story. And that story isn’t just the one you’re telling on screen. It’s the one you’re telling about your creative process—how you got the idea for your film, the exchange that inspired you, the article you read, how you’ve involved your community in what you’re doing, and why the way you make your film sets you and your project apart from the rest. As for the right crowdfunding strategy… well, that’s how you’ll write the first chapter in the story of your next development success. MM 

Featured image illustration courtesy of Shutterstock. This article appears in MovieMaker‘s 2019 Complete Guide to Making Movies, on stands November 6, 2018.

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