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Adventures in crowdfunding

The perks and pitfalls of financing films via sites like Kickstarter and Indiegogo


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So you wanna make a movie?

Get in line.

Or more importantly, get online.

It's a brave new world out there when it comes to financing a film. At least for indie types, the all-or-nothing pitch session to a studio, distributor or wealthy investor is falling out of favor.

"I've been told by three different sources that the days of me going, pitching a concept and [Hollywood] saying, 'Sure, here you go, 300 grand, we'll take it' — that's gone, totally gone," says award-winning local filmmaker Pete Schuermann. So when it came time for 47-year-old Schuermann to look for the 300 grand he needed to fund Creep!, now in post-production, he turned to Kickstarter to raise more than $70,000.

In case you're unfamiliar with Kickstarter or its competitor, Indiegogo, they're currently the two major digital platforms for crowdfunding. In three years time at Kickstarter, the solicited masses have replied to pleas for help from amateur filmmakers to the likes of Colin Hanks and Mark Duplass, with nearly $350 million for more than 32,000 projects, both inside and well outside of film. Indiegogo doesn't disclose specific financial figures, but confirms that more than 100,000 campaigns have been created since 2008 and that millions of dollars are distributed globally, weekly.

In a posting titled "99% of All Filmmakers Should Crowd Fund," blogger and Tribeca Film Festival consultant Chris Dorr, calls it "part of a massive shift created by the rapid rise of social media that is radically redefining the relationship between the filmmaker and her audience." Average folks, he writes, are getting their names onto donor lists and gladhanding with the artists directly. They might receive signed DVDs, posters and the like for modest contributions, and even billing as associated producer for larger donations.

That is, if their chosen project makes it. Take a look further into Kickstarter's statistics page, and you'll notice less than a 50 percent success rate for campaigns.

As with a Groupon or LivingSocial deal, the "ask" must combine the right price, right time, right feel (or deal), and ultimately a worthwhile product. Which brings us to a look at how area film projects have fared in their respective crowdfunding campaigns. We've got three success stories and four failed efforts, plus a great deal of gut-instinct speculation on social psychology and the rules of the game.

Fight club

Of all the people who you'd think wouldn't need to crowdfund, how about someone who recently won an Oscar?

In February, Daniel Junge, a Denver-based Colorado College grad, took the Best Documentary Short title for Saving Face, a devastating film about acid attacks on women in Pakistan. But investors' money ran out during recent production of Fight Church, which examines the overlap of mixed martial arts and Christianity. So Junge and co-director Bryan Storkel found the $30,000 they needed to enter the editing room via 222 "backers" by early June on Kickstarter.

"We were stuck," says Storkel. "We were looking for more investors but hadn't found any yet ... so we thought Kickstarter was the perfect option."

Given that it did raise the needed funds, Kickstarter was indeed a great option for them. But neither would likely use the "p" word in retrospect.

"It's a full-time job to run a successful 'Kick' campaign," Storkel adds. "People think they can just throw their campaign up there and it'll take off like wildfire, but that's not the case."

On Kickstarter, you have to reach your goal to get any of the pledged money at all. Fight Church's 36-day campaign came down to a nerve-racking final 48 hours, before two complete strangers to the filmmakers each gave more than $2,500. Counter to that, Storkel says, 90 percent of their Kickstarter donations came via friends and family — and uncomfortably for conflict-of-interest concerns, some of the film's subjects — and only 10 percent from browsers on Kickstarter's page whom the directors didn't know personally.

Which begs the question: Why not just ask them for money directly and avoid Kickstarter's handling fee off the top?

"Because we could basically put the word out there that we needed money," he says. "We had several people contact us later saying, 'Hey, do you still need investors to finish it? How much are you looking for?' They wouldn't have known we needed money if we weren't on Kickstarter."

Plus there's something to be said for putting a third party between your outstretched hand and other people's wallets.

"I don't like having to ask my friends for money," Storkel says. "After this I realized that that's what I was doing basically, was begging. I could do this once, but if I did another one in six months or a year from now, it's going to start to get really old with my friends."

Junge cites a less emotional and more practical concern in a letter he posted on the Sundance Institute's website in late May.

"I've been very fortunate to get my previous films funded through a variety of angles — through ITVS's Open Call, through broadcasters like HBO, through Sundance Documentary Fund and other grants, and through [the] tried and true method of hitting up everyone I know for spare change," he writes. Junge goes on to explain that he's used a "middle way" philosophy in presenting his films in the past, which comes through even in Fight Church's taglines: "Can you really love your neighbor as yourself and then punch him in the face?"

"But what we've discovered is that this editorial approach is not necessarily what sells when crowd-funding," he continues. "We're as happy to get contributions from devout Christians and hardcore MMA fans as we are to take money from people who are unabashed critics of one or both of these cultures. But we don't want to skew our film, or our fundraising, to appeal to either of these very dedicated audiences. This leaves us to fish for money from lovers of documentary film — and this is the audience I feel has already 'tapped out' (pun intended) on Kickstarter."

He concludes by urging fellow filmmakers to strongly "consider their film's editorial viewpoint (or lack thereof) and how that affects their ability to get dedicated audiences to fork out money early on."

It's a message that may or may not have helped four other regional campaigns that failed to launch.

Monster mash

Another partially faith-based project with edgy overtones, Harmless treats pornography like a demon spirit intent on destroying a family. Though the film clearly comes down on the side of righteousness, the phrase "Christian horror film about porn" contains three words with great potential for audience alienation. It raised only $586 toward a modest $12,500 crowdfunding goal.

Many other factors could have contributed to its failed campaign, and we still wouldn't know much more even if director Rich Praytor had returned messages for comment. But as Storkel says about Fight Church's uphill battle, "If you have a project where you're making film about children with some disease you're trying to cure and make awareness for, that's a likeable project that someone's going to feel good about giving to." Neither his nor Praytor's religion-referencing flick contains that philanthropic feel-good factor.

Nor do two other local projects attempting to tap into zombie subculture. At a time when AMC's The Walking Dead has inspired weekly viewing events at Brewer's Republic, neither Recursion or Everywhen could sink their teeth into local financing.

The former, a sci-fi effort set in 2024, would follow a "race of networked zombies" accidently spawned by a "genetic upgrade" turned "organic computer virus." On Kickstarter, it raised only a little over $8,000 toward a $125,000 goal — even with a slick trailer that promises professional-grade special effects and the all-powerful selling tool of T&A. (Again, no comment from co-producer David Hartkop of Pueblo's Solar Roast Coffee.)

As for Everywhen, 24-year-old commercial filmmaker James Fenczik of Colorado Springs-based Fenz Films saw it generate around 2 percent of a $98,700 Kickstarter goal. The project, which Fenczik says he'll continue to work toward, is envisioned as a television series that would launch with a pilot episode revolving around time travel that enables two protagonists to assist George Washington in chopping down a mutated, zombie-raising cherry tree.

Fenczik says the lofty goal was based on practical numbers, after he and friends in the industry "broke down every aspect of the script," from actors to props to items they knew they could get donated. "With $98,000, we'd be able to do the bare minimum but still add a little extra production value," he says.

He chose Kickstarter over Indiegogo — which rivals Kickstarter by alluringly allowing one to keep whatever is raised, versus meeting an all-or-nothing goal — because he "wouldn't want to get money from everybody and then not be able to make something that we told people we'd make or that we wouldn't be happy with. I'd either want to do it well, or not do it."

Post-campaign, he's bluntly honest. "I'm not sure what I learned," he says, other than the fact that "asking people for money is hard ... and I didn't know how to go about doing it."

But he brings up one point: Because of the availability of relatively cheap, high-quality cameras as well as "special effects and CG programs that anyone can buy and learn," it's becoming easier and easier to make entry-level independent films. What's a good thing for the art form also "makes it very hard to get any money," he says, "because so many people can do it now, that it kind of floods the amount of people trying to get money for it."

Says Storkel, "I think people will get tired of giving to these projects. I had people tell me, 'I have 10 or 15 friends that have already asked me to give to their project, and I just can't.'

"I think the majority of the money will still need to be raised from single investors or larger investors. I don't think that a filmmaker who wants to make this a career will turn to Kickstarter frequently for funding. I think it's a one- or a two-time thing, and then they're going to have to start looking for funding elsewhere for their next film."

New paradigm

Which isn't to say it can't be done, for now. Enter a real-life monster story that recently scared up the necessary support.

Like Junge and Storkel with Fight Church, Schuermann says the majority of Creep!'s benefactors were friends and family. Many attended a Kickstarter launch party at the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center in mid-March, meeting a few of the film's lead actors and taking pictures in front of its iconic "carpet monster," re-created in the image of the one in the notoriously bad 1964 film, The Creeping Terror.

"It showed more the charitable nature and defined the line between, 'Hey, help us out because we really want to do this,' versus this as a business venture," he says. "I think people were more willing to just say, 'Sure, I'll help you out,' rather than us having to offer them a percentage on the back end, which was fascinating to me."

Creep!'s team set its $65,000 goal largely based on "the environment we're in — this town, this community." Even then, Schuermann describes experiencing the same fraying of sanity as Junge and Storkel, with Creep!'s campaign needing a heroic last-minute effort to push it up to, and over, goal.

"With Kickstarter, the pressure is on," he says. "If we didn't stoke the fire, activity would die down — you have to constantly work it ... The whole making-your-goal thing is nerve-racking. I'd warn everybody to get ready for that."

Which raises the question perhaps in the more sneaky of minds: If it were a reasonable dollar amount, couldn't a filmmaker shuffle some of his or her own money into a soon-to-close crowdfunding campaign to secure the rest of the pledges?

Technically, no. Logistically, yes. Though the filmmaker couldn't do it from his or her own account (tied through Amazon to Kickstarter), he or she could, say, get a small loan and hand it off to a trusted friend to pledge.

Would Kickstarter care about the crowdfunding conniving?

"They don't want it to become a money-laundering process — they want to keep their rules in place," speculates Schuermann. "But you'd imagine they'd want people to succeed in their goals so they can take their percentage."

The percentage that crowdfunding platforms take off the top — 5 percent in Kickstarter's case, and in Indiegogo's case, 4 percent if you reach your goal and 9 percent if you don't — is understandable and obviously not a deterrent to filmmakers. What they make in the end is still free money to them.

"Finding the money for a significant budget like ours had to come from the private sector," says Schuermann. "Now, if I can show a track record with Creep! — like, it makes its money back [and more] — then the likelihood of some investor or some distribution channels coming through and saying, 'Let us give you a loan on your next project,' goes up."

He believes studios are less apt to be involved in projects until a filmmaker has a product to show, which runs counter to old convention: "They're quickly learning, thanks to YouTube and social media routes, that you make your first film and it finds its audience on its own, and then you start pumping some money into it — they want to see a track record. So we're seeing a reverse of what used to happen, certainly in the independent realm."

As we reported in "Guns, Germ and Blue Steel," Sept. 5, that's certainly the case for the locally based The Chronicles of Rick Roll, literally built out of viral Internet memes and reportedly beginning filming in 2013 with a $35 million budget.

"I think this is creating a new paradigm for people to say, 'Hey, I think you've got something here, go with it' because it's going to find its audience. But Hollywood is not going to be the one bankrolling that ...

"The business is extremely shrewd, they don't have to take any chances now. Product is flying at them left and right, in most cases for free. They're not going to pony up anything," says Schuermann.

As compared to someone with a good finished product, he says, the guy coming to a film company empty-handed is like a guy standing in a bar looking desperate. "No girl is going to go home with him."

Public perception

But one girl who offers a whole different view of crowdfunding is 24-year-old Menschen filmmaker Sarah Lotfi.

Not only is her second war movie a short feature, distinguishing it with a much smaller budget relatively, but she chose Indiegogo as her platform, as it allowed her the extra benefit of using a fiscal sponsor, Fractured Atlas, allied with Indiegogo.

"That allowed all of our donations to be tax-deductible," she explains, "which was our big selling point."

Fractured Atlas takes a fixed 6 percent off the top, regardless of whether the goal is met or not, but Lotfi feels it's totally worth it to stand out from the multitude of Kickstarter campaigns. Though she used Kickstarter last year for another short project, Waking Eyes, and successfully raised $225 more than her $1,200 goal, she opted to do three separate campaigns for Menschen — donor fatigue be damned.

Having broken the project into pre-production, production and post-production needs, she stair-stepped her way from a dismal $845 raised of a $9,350 goal, to a respectable $5,484 raised of a $9,658 goal and finally a successful $6,945 raised past a goal of only $5,585.

"One of the challenges we had is finding a way to make it new and attractive at each stage so it's consciously on people's minds," she says. "Yes, there's always a risk when you do a number of campaigns ... but at the same time, we were asking for so much less, so we had a potential to raise the same amount, if not more, because we broke it up into smaller, manageable amounts."

Lotfi believes that would-be donors pay attention to the percentage that's raised before deciding to help out or not. "If you already have 50 percent of $5,000," she says, "people are like, 'Wow, they're really going somewhere, and my $50 is going to get them a little farther.'

"It's about perception and your audience, and also about what you have to show for your project. So much about it is presentation."

As such, Lotfi made a new pitch video for each campaign leg, sharing everything from demo footage to crew interviews, behind-the-scenes takes, a pyrotechnics featurette, a finished trailer and direct appeals from her and her producer on how the money would be spent.

"It's about your voice, what you're able to do and what you want to do — so you're proving yourself. It's very much like the elevator pitch you'd do to a studio executive if you were to go to L.A., but now you're doing it for the cyber community."

But the effort can't stop there.

"Facebook and Twitter are essential, especially if you want people to see that you're going the extra mile," she says. "When you approach your network, it's not like you can just start your crowdfunding campaign and hope people will find it ... you have to promote it and promote it and promote it."

Lack of promotion could indeed be one shortcoming of the failed 50 percent on Kickstarter, but short of a monumental study into donor habits and human behavior, we'll likely never know what sunk seemingly brilliant projects.

Last year, former Indy writer Adam Leech got close to halfway toward a $38,013 goal to realize his hobo nickel documentary journey, A Nickel and a Nail. Sadly, he didn't get to keep a nickel of the $15,226 pledged because it was on Kickstarter, not Indiegogo. The project had heart, but that's the cliché about much of what fails in Hollywood — and by that extension, now on crowdfunding sites.

Maybe the village has largely supplanted the studio exec for indie film, but still, it takes a willing village.

Backed vs. busted

How seven area film efforts fared in crowdfunding attempts


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