When moviemaker Jennifer Fox (“Flying: Confessions of a Free Woman”) completed her latest project—the documentary My Reincarnation, about a Tibetan Buddhism Master and his Western-born son—a last-minute funding emergency left her with a dilemma not many moviemakers face: Though her film was already finished and had even begun screening at festivals, she had no money to pay off the debt the film had accumulated or arrange for its theatrical distribution.
To raise the necessary completion funds, Fox turned to crowdfunding, which utilizes social networking for moviemakers interested in seeking backing for their projects. My Reincarnation’s Kickstarter campaign became one of the crowdfunding Website’s biggest success stories, earning 300 percent more than its original $50,000 goal and becoming one of the highest-earning finished films in Kickstarter’s history.
My Reincarnation will soon be exposed to its widest audience yet when it makes its TV debut; tomorrow, June 21st, Fox’s film will kick off the 25th season of the acclaimed PBS documentary series “POV.” American television’s longest-running independent documentary series, “POV” is the winner of a Special Emmy for Excellence in Television Documentary Filmmaking, two IDA awards for Best Continuing Series and the NALIP award for Corporate Commitment to Diversity. With its intimate yet epic tale of spiritual struggle, My Reincarnation fits right in with “POV”‘s film slate this season, which features a range of thought-provoking, personalized stories of national and global significance, among them Pamela Yates’s Granito: How to Nail a Dictator and Michael Collins’ Give Up Tomorrow.
MovieMaker had a chance to chat with Fox about the long process of making My Reincarnation and her experience with crowdfunding. For more information about the film, visit myreincarnationfilm.com; more on “POV,” including descriptions of the films in this year’s lineup, can be found at www.pbs.org/pov/.
Kyle Rupprecht (MM): Could you talk a little about how My Reincarnation came to be?
Jennifer Fox (JF): My Reincarnation is a very special project. I began to shoot it in 1989 at age 29, when I was on sabbatical from filmmaking after completing my first film, Beirut: The Last Home Movie, shot during the war in Lebanon. Despite the film’s success, I was so burnt out after that six-year filmmaking journey that I wasn’t sure I ever wanted to make another film again. So I took an informal job as a secretary traveling with my Buddhist teacher, the high Tibetan Master Chögyal Namkhai Norbu. Being around Rinpoche was so unique that I couldn’t help but think that I should film him. So I brought one of the first small format Hi8 video cameras and began to record his private life as we traveled from place to place. I had no idea what I would do with the footage. At the same time, Rinpoche introduced me to his family and his son, Yeshi, then only 18 years old, whom I also began to film.
MM: You shot the documentary over a 20-year period. What accounted for such a long filming process?
JF: When I started filming in 1989, it was common knowledge that Namkhai Norbu’s son Yeshi was the reincarnation of his father’s uncle, a famous master who died at the hands of the Chinese. Knowing this, I immediately started to imagine a father-son story where the son would wake up and recognize his reincarnation, then return to Tibet and be enthroned in the monastery waiting for him. But when I told Yeshi of my filmmaking dream back in ’89, he said I should forget it. He wanted nothing to do with this legacy. He was only 18 years old, playing in a rock band and studying at the University. Nevertheless, I continued filming for years. But nothing happened, and eventually I stopped traveling with Namkhai Norbu, put the footage aside and made other films. But I couldn’t walk away entirely. Periodically I returned to record Rinpoche and Yeshi. A decade and a half went by, and I was still filming my teacher, still waiting for a story to appear. Slowly, I began to hear word that Yeshi’s life was changing. He was flooded by visions of his past life. That was the first time I knew I had a film, and it was already 18 years into shooting!
MM: At what stage during the making of My Reincarnation did you decide to utilize crowdfunding? Why did it seem an appropriate project for this method?
JF: My Reincarnation was technically finished and already showing at festivals, but the actual costs of post-production and securing the music rights hadn’t been paid off yet. We were waiting for one of my co-producing partners to send us their promised $100,000 contribution to the budget. Finally, through no fault of their own, they came to me and said they couldn’t raise the funds due to the shifting funding landscape in their country. I suddenly had this enormous debt for a project that was already screening around the world. I didn’t know what to do. It’s common knowledge that you can’t fund a film backwards. To get [as] far [as we had], we had already sold off most of the major TV [rights] and had exhausted the foundation, investment and donor possibilities. Crowdfunding was the only hope I had. It was either that or bankruptcy. Believe me, I was scared to death we wouldn’t succeed.
MM: Of the different crowdfunding Websites, why did you choose Kickstarter?
JF: When I began our Kickstarter campaign, I honestly had only heard of Kickstarter. I had donated to a friend’s Kickstarter efforts and was surprised at how much I enjoyed being a small patron for their art, but I never thought I would do it myself. Once I was forced to launch our Kickstarter campaign, I learned about [the crowdfunding Website] IndieGoGo and wondered if I had chosen the wrong platform. IndieGoGo has the seeming advantage that you don’t have to make your stated monetary goal to keep the funds, whereas with Kickstarter, if you don’t make your goal in the time allotted, the funds revert back to the patrons and you are left with nothing. Even though we had set our initial Kickstarter goal at much less than we needed—only $50,000—I was still terrified that we wouldn’t make it in the ninety-day clock we set. In fact, we ended up raising that in 45 days and three times that amount—$150,000—in 90 days. But when you are doing it, you have no idea what will happen.
What I saw working with Kickstarter is that the patrons really rally when they know the clock is ticking and you won’t get any money if you don’t hit your announced target. This psychological pressure helps you fundraise. In the end, I was very happy that I used Kickstarter. The site itself is very well laid out and user-friendly. The updates it sends for you are good. From what I’ve seen so far, I think it is the best site around. Of course, new sites are sprouting up every day, so you should check carefully [to find] which one is best for your project.
MM: Could you briefly describe how you used Kickstarter to generate funding for your project?
JF: I was so scared about crowdfunding that I was positive I couldn’t do it alone. I built a team of three other women whom I knew well to help me. One of my team members had run her own successful Kickstarter campaign previously. I had no money, so I offered them a percentage of whatever we raised. The word “campaign” was key to us, and we approached it with an overall plan. We discussed how it would start and how we would keep rolling out new facets over time. This included building email lists, adding new incentives and creating regular new videos for our Website, Facebook and Twitter that could be linked with our updates on Kickstarter.
We saw our campaign as having three initiatives: The [crowdfunding] campaign, seeking out and approaching larger private donors to become producers and setting up “Sneak Preview Benefit Screenings” in key locations. The screenings were crucial to us, because we had a unique problem: We were fundraising for a film that was technically finished but that no one had seen. We hypothesized that people might need to see the finished film to give it money. In the end, the [screenings] at festivals also helped on this account.
MM: Now that the film is a bona fide Kickstarter success, do you think you’d utilize crowd funding again in the future? What’s next on the horizon for you?
JF: Absolutely. I learned a lot from our Kickstarter campaign and actually ended up enjoying the process and seeing how it can be a real benefit to a project. You are not just raising money, you are actually building a network of supporters who have a stake in the film doing well in the world. So crowdfunding actually rolls right into your film’s distribution. Of course, I have been thinking about whether I can use it on my next film, which is a fiction feature based on a true story about a very hot issue. But we may have to keep the story secret [going] forward, sadly making it impossible to use the crowdfunding methods.
MM: What’s the best piece of advice you’d give to an indie moviemaker currently seeking crowdfunding for their latest film? What are some of the benefits? Any drawbacks?
JF: Crowdfunding is a real J-O-B. No one can prepare you for the amount of work a Kickstarter campaign involves. Don’t start your campaign until you make the time and mental space and have enough pressure on yourself (meaning financial need) to do so. No one fundraises because they have nothing else to do. It is the same advice I give to young documentary filmmakers when they ask me if they should make their new film. I always say, “If you can walk away from an idea, do so immediately, because making films is too hard.” Same with crowdfunding. If you have any other means to raise money, do so, because it will be easier. Likewise, every film is not right for this method of fundraising. You have to evaluate your project carefully by different criteria than broadcasters or distributors [use to] evaluate potential films.
Crowdfunding definitely works best when a clear audience can be identified for the project, classically called “niche audiences.” These audiences are perfect for Web-based projects, because [on the Internet you can] ostensibly identify and reach out to every person with similar interests around the world. Niche audiences tend to be very devoted to their subject and therefore passionate about wanting to see a film about their issue, subject, pastime or obsession. Then the challenge is how to reach that niche audience and speak to them with enough authority that they will want to participate financially.