It is no secret that successfully crowdfunding a film takes a lot of time and dedication. Sometimes it even seems impossible.
But one of our Crowdfunder of the Week alumni, the women’s rights documentary Equal Means Equal, earned a whopping 158 percent of their Kickstarter funding goals last October. Impressed, we asked campaigner (and director) Kamala Lopez to break down, step by step, how they managed to pull that off.
Organizing for Equality
“You have to do a Kickstarter campaign.” How many times had I heard this? Pretty much every time I mentioned plans for Equal Means Equal, a documentary about the lack of gender equality in America today. I didn’t know much about Kickstarter except that it involved asking for money (which I’ll hazard a guess is anathema to most of you). But I couldn’t see my way out of it. There was no studio, mini-major, or even film fund getting behind this movie. Why? For precisely the reason I was determined to make it: In the final analysis, women really don’t matter much in America. What looks like equality, feels like equality and is generally understood to be equality for American women is, in function, fact and substance, not equality at all.
Women and their “issues” aren’t on the top of anybody’s idea of a great slate of films. If you are looking for a quick way to dissuade kids from entering the biz, an internship at a feminist production company (like mine, Heroica Films) is just the ticket. I didn’t have time or desire to try the regular channels in producing my no-holds-barred documentary analysis of discrimination against women. Hence the Kickstarter campaign for Equal Means Equal.
Obviously, everyone’s movie is different, so, caveat lector, our campaign is not your campaign. But here are some things you might want to try, and some things you might want to avoid.
Build a Mailing List.
Since 2009, when Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney (sponsor of the Equal Rights Amendment in the U.S. Congress) asked for my help raising awareness about the lack of legal equality for women under our constitution, I have travelled the country speaking, educating, making PSAs and building a list of allies: women’s organizations, the film community, colleagues and friends. My personal address book contains 6,000 people who know me, what I’m working on, and read my emails. Try to build up your lists with people who care. As our campaign diary proves, capitalizing on who you know is key in crowdfunding, as a lot of our eventual press coverage came our way through these contacts (though some significant press came through organic effort).
To broaden this base, from June through September 2013, I enlisted volunteers and friends to reach out to the 350 largest women’s organizations in the country and try to build a relationship prior to launching the Kickstarter campaign. The goal was to have the organizations agree to share content over Facebook and Twitter, and for us to have a direct contact with their webmistresses. Outreach was spotty at best because I had no money to pay anyone. It’s a good idea, but if I were to do it again, I’d find money to pay people.
Acquire Footage and Cut a Trailer.
Gini Sikes (writing partner and Equal Means Equal producer) and I worked on this throughout June and July. We had footage from rallies, conferences, my speaking events, and two formal shoots done in Washington DC (with money from family and friends). We threw in news footage and scripted a teaser laying out the premise of our film.
Budget the Project Tightly.
I enlisted friend Jeff Mueller to budget out the documentary. Originally it came in at almost a million. “I’m not Spike Lee or Zach Braff,” I thought, so I decided to break the movie into episodes for the purposes of budgeting. The first episode (to be shot in New York and at the U.N.) came in at about $120,000, and I had Jeff whittle it down twice more until we got it to $88,011. Kickstarter’s funding is an all-or-nothing proposition, so I wanted our budget as lean as possible without sacrificing quality.
At this point my husband, Joel Marshall, who has been working on this alongside me for four years, said, “If people don’t care enough to come up with 88K, you need to look at whether women want equal rights under the law or if it’s only important to you.” So I kept the budget at $87,011 (I had received a direct contribution of $1,000 from a mentor) for one episode of 10 or 12. Later, we decided to stick with the feature-length format, so setting $87,011 as our Kickstarter goal meant that we still have a long way to go, but it let us get started while continuing to source alternative funding.
One other thing: When a project has been funded, Kickstarter and Amazon Payments, their transaction system, each take five percent of your total. Also, fulfilling your rewards can cost a bit (in our case, $6,000) so this must be taken into account when you budget.
Write and Submit the Campaign, Focusing on the Project.
Working with our Director of Development, Gini and I began to formulate rewards and pull from our internal materials to write the Kickstarter text—a laborious process but essential to the overall presentation. Kickstarter itself has good tutorials on putting together a campaign. Also, getting Amazon Payments set up takes a long time—you will need to have a bank account that matches the project creator, and be able to provide all paperwork and tax ID information. Kickstarter does not work with non-profits, so you need a corporate or personal account. Don’t leave this to the last minute.
We submitted the project September 25, 2013, but received an email from Kickstarter the next day that our project, as written, had been rejected: “Our focus at Kickstarter is on exclusively creative projects, and the distinction between creative v.s. cause-based funding is important to us. If it’s possible to approach this through the scope of something finite and creatively based—for example, the film itself, rather than the cause—it could work.” We scrambled to rewrite the campaign, refocusing on the film instead its message, and resubmitted. It were approved on October 2nd, but lost a week in the process.
We couldn’t move the October 20 funding deadline because we wanted to fly to New York mid-November and be back before Thanksgiving, or we would lose all our subjects to the holidays. Kickstarter warns that once funded it can take up to two weeks for the money to be successfully transferred into your account, so we couldn’t risk taking any more time by extending the campaign to the customary 30 days. It was just going to be shorter than most campaigns.
Running the Campaign
October 2: Sent out an email to 50 close supporters telling them about the campaign and asking them to promote the project to their lists.
End of Day Total: $570 // Three backers
October 3: Wrote our first Kickstarter update.
End of Day Total: $2,735 // 15 backers
October 4: Wrote the second update about the interview subjects we were securing, and sent out the first mass email to 5,000 people, with a link to the trailer and page.
End of Day Total: $3,773 // 36 backers
October 5: Wrote the third update and started reaching out to blogs.
End of Day Total: $5,448 // 64 backers
October 6: My mentor (and successful Kickstarter-er) Zoe Nicholson cautioned me, “You can’t just sit back and think it’s going to work. You have to send out an email every day. No matter what. Get creative, send little graphs, photos, whatever connects. This is your baby now and you have to babysit the entire time.” She made me promise to commit to sending out consistent communication every day during the campaign. I promised nervously, anticipating the inevitable hate mail.
End of Day Total: $6,493 // 75 backers
October 7: Wrote the fourth update, titled “I Love Men,” about men who were supportive of the project and women’s rights. One person retracted their pledge completely; another doubled the amount of their pledge.
End of Day Total: $13,877 // 94 backers
October 8: MovieMaker singled us out as Crowdfunder of the Week. I stayed true to my promise to Zoe and sent out a second mass email, receiving several complaints from people who either already donated or just don’t want more emails (I remove them from the list.) Jeff Mueller wrote the fifth update about his mom.
I realized I couldn’t handle the logistics of running this campaign on my own, and decided to gamble the $1,000 I have on people power. Beverly Hsiao, a volunteer intern, helped me post an ad on Craigslist ($25) looking for interns, offering to pay $10 per hour and keep them hired until at least October 20th.
End of Day Total: $21,415 // 119 backers
October 9: We received a flurry of responses to our Craigslist ad and Beverly scheduled interviews with candidates. She also suggested we use memes in our marketing, and I start making them (You want to be making new images constantly.) The third mass email went out with our first meme (“Condescending Wonka”).
The sixth update was by Gini, an acknowledgement to two new donors at the Associate Producer level who found the project through Gini’s Columbia School of Journalism listserve. They also happened to be related to Alice Paul, original author of the Equal Rights Amendment.
End of Day Total: $29,630 // 165 backers
October 10: I hired six new interns who created an Instagram account and broadcasted about the film on multiple social media platforms. The Shriver Report, on the recommendation of staff at Maria Shriver’s A Woman’s Nation, featured an article I wrote on their front page. I did a radio interview on The Women’s Room Radio Show with Andrea Miller and Tammy Simkins. I sent out the fourth mass email and seventh update.
End of Day Total: $34,219 // 211 backers
October 11: All updates were now going out through both Kickstarter (to those who had already pledged to the project) and my address book, and all updates/posts/memes were cross-posted on our website, Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, Instagram, my personal pages, all producers’ personal pages, and many of the top 50 supporters promoting it on their pages. Five interns focused exclusively on intense social media outreach. One was shifted to help Gini research subjects and start pre-interviews.
End of Day Total: $41,166 // 239 backers
October 12: Patricia Arquette retweeted us and Courtney Cox shared our posts. I did a phone interview with Bitch Media. The fifth article on the project came out in Psychology Today. Today’s update was from new Associate Producer Susan Sattel, a 70-year-old feminist who put $5,000 on a credit card to help get the movie made.
End of Day Total: $44,343 // 274 backers
October 13: A short mass email and update—it was Sunday.
End of Day Total: $45,622 // 294 backers
October 14: With six days left, we seemed to have leveled off around the halfway mark and I didn’t see how we were going to make it. Nonetheless, I sent a targeted email to the heads of all state Women’s Commissions; I had been the Keynote Speaker at their conference in July and they had seemed excited about promoting Equal Means Equal. I got a mixed response, as usual. Some complained—God forbid someone contacts Women’s Commissions about a project directly addressing women’s issues— but others were excited to share the news.
Bitch Media posted my interview. By now, enough people were disgruntled about receiving daily emails from me that I had to address this head-on: “I know you’re getting a lot of emails from me and I’m sorry about that, but this is really important—and not just to me. Women need equal rights.”
End of Day Total: $46,952 // 336 backers
October 15: The day it all changed. I was feeling resigned, so my husband and I took a walk. When we left the house, we had about $48,000. We had the Kickstarter app on our phones, and 10 minutes into the walk, I checked it out of habit. It said $68,000. Joel reloaded the page, and it was now at over $70,000.
We had gone viral—the best-case scenario; one that, admittedly, involves a lot of luck. Upworthy.com had posted our trailer. Later we learned (via an email from Joseph Lamour, a curator at Upworthy) that 454,000 people viewed our project on their site. Campaign statistics revealed that Upworthy ended up being responsible for 24.91% of our final tally.
End of Day Total: $75,554 // 922 backers
October 16: We realized we would make our goal and should maximize the support coming our way, as the amount we’re asking for was less than 10 percent of our real full budget. I discussed with Jeff how much more funding we might need to do an additional week shoot through the Southern States. He came back with a new stretch goal of $138,530. While our eighth article came out on PolicyMic.com, I put out an update: “We Did It. We Made It. You Made It Happen.”
End of Day Total: $107,280 // 1,914 backers // 123% Funded
October 17: I did a second radio interview with Matt Horn, and we held our first Twitter chat.
End of Day Total: $116,371 // 2,179 backers // 133% Funded
October 18: Interns created the “Selfie Project” on Instagram, encouraging people to post pictures of themselves with our Equal Means Equal logo.
End of Day Total: $129,470 // 2,279 backers // 148% Funded
October 19: With one day left to go, we lost all power at our house: no internet, no phone, no lights, no way to do another thing until the campaign ends.
End of Day Total: $133,738 // 2,344 backers // 153% Funded
October 20: The campaign came to an unexpectedly peaceful end.
End of Project Total: $136,933 // 2402 backers // 158% Funded
On Tuesday, October 22, we sent out one last “Thank you” mass email and update, and with that, pre-production began in earnest on Equal Means Equal. You can still watch the trailer and read all the text, updates, rewards, etc. on their Kickstarter page. MM
This article originally appeared in MovieMaker issue 107 (Winter 2014), on newsstands now. Equal Means Equal was moviemaker.com’s Crowdfunder of the Week on October 8, 2013. Illustration by Jesse Gonzalez with further graphics by Kamala Lopez and Beth Soderberg.