Saturday, February 9, 2013

Thoughts on creating Kickstarter success

Over the past couple of months I have been closely involved in two successful Kickstarter campaigns. Recently Kickstarter has become like blood to the independent filmmaker, and knowing how to run a good campaign seems about as important to a low budget film producer as knowing how to create a budget. In fact, I have multiple other projects in the works, all of which will require some support from Kickstarter. The problem is, you don't want to become a Network Marketing guy, alienating all your friends and family by begging for their support. Then again, for most of us, when someone has a cool project, we don't mind forking up $25 or $35 to help support it.

Facing East: The first project was for development money for a film that I've had in the works for a while, Facing East. We have some talent attached and need to complete our fundraising by the end of the year or else we'll lose that talent. We needed to raise $65,000 to pay for some rewrites and to finance our fundraising.

An Honest Liar: I'm co-producing a documentary called, An Honest Liar: The Amazing Randi Story, about magician and professional skeptic James Randi. It's being directed by my long time friend Tyler Measom and Justin Weinstein. We needed to raise some Kickstarter money for post-production. As of this writing An Honest Liar still has a week to go and we're 125% funded. We were just named IndieWire's project of the month of January. An Honest Liar still has six days to go as of this moment... please make a contribution.

So, here are my thoughts:

• Kickstarter vs. Indie-Gogo: I definitely prefer Kickstarter for multiple reasons. Mainly, I like that it's all or nothing. Most people need the motivation that this provides. It helps them feel responsible for your success. It helps them participate in the goal. Facing East is also set up on Fractured Atlas, which is another great option. You need to be able to be not-for-profit in some way, but those who contribute gets a full tax deduction of their donation. Because there's no deadline, however, it's hard to motivate people the way Kickstarter does.

Your Goal: Knowing how much, or how little financing to ask for is critical, but also should really be based on what you realistically need. For Facing East we asked for $65,000, because it's what we needed, and it was a risky amount. While we felt fairly certain we could hit that mark, we only did thanks to the generosity of three amazing individuals who each contributed $10,000. If it weren't for them, we wouldn't have come close. As for An Honest Liar, $150,000 seemed like a huge amount, but we tore through that amount in under two weeks. If you reach your goal, the momentum dies pretty quickly. We could really use a lot more than $150k, so maybe we should've asked for 250k in the first place... but it's hard to know if such a high number is just a pipe-dream. Above everything, you HAVE to reach your goal! If you don't it would be hard to fund your project beyond a failed Kickstarter except with your own money.

The Hook: What makes people want to support your movie, is the same thing that will make audiences want to see your movie (and Buyers want to buy your movie). If it doesn't have a hook, or some kind of crowd appeal, you should rethink your project... or be sure to set your goal low enough that it can be reached without going viral beyond your family and friends.

Facing East is based on a well loved play by Carol Lynn Pearson that deals with Mormons and Gays. It's a very powerful play, and has special appeal to anyone who is or has gay loved ones who have had to come out in religious homes. Consequently there was a huge following of the play, and of the film in its development state. We were able to tap into that market, and several organizations (Affirmation: Gay and Lesbian Mormons and Mormons Building Bridges) supported it. Our director is also a popular Broadway actor with a devoted following, so it also went viral among the New York theater crowd.

An Honest Liar has a huge following due to James Randi's devoted following. Tapping into his various niche groups was fairly easy. He has a huge following in the Skeptic and magic crowds, plus he has followings in the gay community. We were also publicly supported by such luminaries as Alice Cooper and Mythbuster Adam Savage, who signed things to give away as rewards and made short pitches for the campaign.

Unique Rewards: Both our campaigns had some unique rewards. Because both had people involved with their own fan bases we catered to them. An Honest Liar is giving out books and rare vintage posters signed by James Randi, as well as things like an Alice Cooper DVD signed by both Alice and Randi. With Facing East we took advantage of our director Will Swenson's Broadway celebrity status. For $5,000 Will would serenade you publicly (you pick the song, he picks the venue), and for $3,000 Will's wife, Tony winner Audra McDonald, would call you on your birthday and sing Happy Birthday to you. No one sponsered at this level, BUT all of our publicity and press led with it. They were great rewards to talk and write about. Headlines would read: Want to have 5 time Tony winner Audra McDonald sing to you? So that worked out to be great publicity, with no commitment afterward.

We also printed up T-Shirts for Facing East which were popular. After they were printed my fellow producer, Emily Pearson, and I posed in them and the photo went semi-viral. I'm pretty sure we'll be able to sell them on our website for added benefit.

The best reward were amazing leather and wooden beverage coasters that An Honest Liar director Justin Weinstein made. As he was describing them I was very dubious, but once I saw them I was converted. People have gone significantly gaga over them.

The important thing is to not offer too much at low reward levels that need mailing. For Facing East we considered doing one of those rubber bracelet things at the $10 level, but it would've required mailing out over 300 of them... and for An Honest Liar we considered a button, but we currently have 2,500 supporters, and counting.

The best rewards you can give are digital downloads of the film. They essentially cost you nothing (apart from having a digital version and a location to post where people can download from) and they're more popular than DVDs normally anyway.

Graphic Design: It's important that it looks good. I spent a lot of time to make Facing East look good, but then Justin, whose graphic design skills far outweigh my own, hit it out of the park with the An Honest Liar page. Spend a lot of time looking at other Kickstarter pages, and plagiarize from the best. (It should be noted that both of these pages were inspired by The National Film Society's great graphics of the campaign for their Awesome Asian Bad Guys campaign).

• Publicity: We were blessed with great publicity. For Facing East my normal publicist sent out a press release I did for free. If you don't have a friend who's in the publicity business you'll have to pay for it. For An Honest Liar Tyler and Justin hired an awesome company called Film Presence, who seem to have really helped to elevate the status of the campaign. They've worked as a sort of all in one, spreading word through Facebook, Twitter, etc. and consulting on the Kickstarter campaigne and spreading the word.

I didn't know that IndieWire's Project of the Day was something you could nominate yourself for (If you're chosen as Project of the Day, then you can be voted as Project of the Week, then Project of the Month). If I did I would've done it for Facing East. That's what a group like Film Presence can get for you. Follow this LINK to submit your own project.

• Updates: Definitely follow Kickstarter's suggestion to make updates for your supporters. Make them engaging and interesting. I have supported several different campaigns, and I admit, I don't always read the updates that are sent to me, but I think most do.

• Video: Kickstarter stresses the importance of your video. They suggest you keep it short, like around three minutes. Both of the videos I used are longer. I think our Facing East video is a bit too boring. Not fast paced enough. But it's sincere. I really like what Tyler and Justin did with theirs. Both of the videos highlighted the various "Name Players" involved in the project. The important thing is to not look like a chump, someone who feels like he/she deserves the support. It's important to be humble. Since we're talking about making movies, it's also important to look like you know how to make a movie. Having a good sense of humor is important too. Our Facing East video was watched all the way through only about 32% of the time, An Honest Liar video was watched about 45% even though it's longer. I don't know what that proves, but those are the stats.

• A Few Final Issues: Make sure your Kickstarter account is set to your business account. I set up Facing East with my personal account because I didn't have our business account information (not thinking anything of it). After our successful campaign I transferred all the funds to our business account, but I received a 1099 tax document to myself for $70,000. Now my accountant is going to have to jump through some hoops to make that not look like personal income.

Remember that Kickstarter and Amazon (which handles the money transfer through Amazon Payments) both take a percentage. I think it adds up to about 8%. Also remember that some people will sign up to support you, then once you finish the campaign, the charge won't go through... they may have entered an old credit card number, or they can even cancel the charge. We lost about ten out of 350 contributions for Facing East, which equalled about $200.

Conclusion: I believe Kickstarter will continue to be a necessary tool for independent filmmakers for a long time to come. For one of my past films, Daylight Savings, we used Kickstarter as the initial release of the film. We funded a national tour through the platform distributing the film exclusively to those who supported the campaign. This unique approach is an example of the creative approaches to Kickstarter that people can make that will allow projects to rise above the others. Director Dave Boyle and Daylight Savings was featured significantly in an article in the print version of Filmmaker Magazine because of this original distribution model.

Goh Nakamura and Yea-Ming Chen in Dave Boyle's Daylight Savings
I encourage you to extend the creativity and need for expression that got you into film in the first place to your next Kickstarter campaign.