Thirty days ago, on September 23 at 8:04am, my creative partner Ryan Carmichael and I launched an ambitious $100,000 Kickstarter campaign to fund his feature directorial effort – a philosophical hip hop musical love story called But Not For Me. We knew our goal was substantial (and the research made it clear the odds against us were…stacked) – but after six weeks of thorough preparation and planning, we felt confident enough to jump in. As confident as a skydiver who knows her parachute would open – no guarantee, but you’ve prepared, so there’s not much else you can do.
With less than two weeks to go in the campaign, I wanted to share the top three things I’ve learned thus far:
1) Preparation Matters – But Getting Dollars Isn’t Like Getting Views
Last summer I made a film called This Is My Body and released it online. On the first day it was viewed over 3,000 times – crashing through my total view goal for the film – and we were off to the races. Since its release last July, it’s been viewed over 630,000 times, has been featured on MSNBC, and yielded a Facebook group of over 7,000 people.
Before releasing the film, I did extensive planning – pre-arranging social media posts, building lists of people to help spread the film, reaching out to organizations working on issues the film addressed – that was directly responsible for the film’s success. The hard work, detailed planning, and extensive outreach enabled me to go from having a previous film that was viewed about 2,000 times to having a new film that has been viewed hundreds of times more thanks overwhelmingly to people watching and sharing the film on the sites that I reached out to.
When approaching the Kickstarter campaign, I believed the same strategy could work – planning, outreach, and sharing. And what I realized is it does, but it also doesn’t. Without the planning we did, the press we’ve generated, and the near 1,000 shares of the project on Facebook, we wouldn’t have raised as much as we have. But donations are not like views. You can get a short video in front of someone and get them to watch much easier than you can get a Kickstarter campaign in front of them and get them to donate. Crowdfunding has been around long enough that some people ignore a campaign as soon as they see it, knowing they won’t give. And crowdfunding is new enough and esoteric enough, that a lot of people don’t understand how it works. And one thing that’s true in all endeavors that require you to get others to do something: the harder it is to do – or better yet, the more it’s not exceedingly easy to do – the fewer people are going to do it.
Organizations are also much less likely to share a fundraising campaign than they are a video. I positioned This Is My Body as something I was offering to the organizations I contacted to use however they wanted to advance their causes. But no matter how hard we positioned the But Not For Me campaign as offering something – even by not asking for donations, but just to spread the word about the campaign – organizations consistently responded with interest in the project, but not willingness to share it. They want to see it, but won’t or can’t help get it made.
That feels like a common theme of this campaign: people want to see the work we’re doing, but they’re not that interested in helping make the creation of that work possible if it costs them even a $1. People watch the video, and many share the page (the amount of video views we’ve had is very close to the total number of times the project has been shared), but they won’t pitch in. Times are tough, everyone is running a crowdfunding campaign these days, people view the whole thing as giving you something they think you should earn on your own – whatever the reason, the going has been tough and has not been at all like getting people to watch my previous film. If there is a way to get around this, I think it lies in finding a way to give people something: photos, videos, access, etc. We did that – maybe not enough – but I can’t think of another way around the “views are easy, donations aren’t” problem.
2) Donations Will Come From You and Your Network
Another challenge that further complicates lesson number one is that overwhelmingly our contributions have come from within our network. Ryan, the writer/director, me, the producer, and Maria Vermeulen, the lead actress, have worked nonstop on the campaign and most of the donations have come from our networks – but about 80% of the backers are from Ryan’s network. People can sense that Ryan’s investment in the project is different than ours and his network has stepped up to show him support. When doing research before launching the campaign, I read that 1% of people who see a Kickstarter campaign will contribute to it. So based on our goal and the average donation amount, we were able to calculate how many eyeballs we needed to get the campaign in front of to reach our goal. I don’t think we’ve reached that target number – but I also don’t think we’ve been capturing 1% of the non-Ryan’s network people that have been seeing the campaign either.
I haven’t done the numbers, but my sense is that we’re not reaching that 1% and I’m not entirely sure why. Maybe the 1% figure was wrong to begin with. Maybe it doesn’t apply to film projects. Whatever the reason, the tweets we’ve had from Spike Lee and people with hundreds of thousands of followers, the articles written in newspapers and on blogs, the distinctions of IndieWire Project of the Day and Project of the Week, and the emails sent to hundreds of people on our behalf have yielded maybe two dozen contributions. If anything, the most likely outcome of getting a campaign in front of people outside of your network is that some of those people will share your campaign – and either that continues, and your campaign gets shared over and over with no significant increase in pledges – or maybe eventually it does reach a tipping point and 1% of some amount of non-network people start pledging. Bottom line: calculate your goal based on your immediate network (family and friends and Facebook friends, where nearly all of our contributions have come from) and don’t waste time working to get Retweets. They feel good, but I don’t think they do much to bring in more donations. Concentrate on your network and then put in effort to expand your network.
3) Prepare For Your Plan to Fall Apart
Preparation is essential. If you don’t plan, don’t even bother to launch a campaign. It’ll be embarrassing and potentially insulting to the people who you’re asking to part with their hard earned money. But be further prepared for your preparation to fall apart.
It’s hard to get too detailed about this as our campaign is still underway, but let me just say that a number of the tenants of our campaign – including the choice to use the Kickstarter platform – were predicted on specific commitments (people involved, networks we could access, resources at our disposal) that fell apart in the week or two after we launched our campaign. We had a solid game plan, lots of content, and tons of passion, so we trucked on, but as we neared and passed the midway point of the campaign and our momentum had totally stopped, we realized how much we were suffering from the promises that were broken, the introductions that weren’t being made, the shares that weren’t happening, the networks that weren’t being pitched to, and as a result the contributions that weren’t coming in.
It might be impossible to prevent things outside of your control from going bad, but you should try to plan for the possibility. Evaluate what you have (your experiences and past successes, your public profile, team members, the size of your social media network, wealthy friends and family, personal access to the media, school and work networks, etc.) as pieces of the puzzle when determining how much you should attempt to raise (clearly the amount needed to complete your project should be a major factor), but also ask yourself if your goal would still be possible if you removed one or more of the resources at your disposal. If not, if the goal becomes completely impossible (which I think for the most part ours did when our plans fell apart), then consider a lower goal amount in preparation of the worst case scenario and once you reach your goal keep hustling to raise even more. There are downsides to this strategy, but from my current vantage point, I wish I would have listened more to the feeling in my gut that was telling me not to rely so much on the potential of others and to base our expectations more on the people and resources solidly at our disposal.
I’m a big believer in hard work eventually, painfully, slowly, frustratingly yielding positive results. But I’ve learned through this process that when it comes to raising money via a crowdfunding platform, I don’t think that’s true. Hard work doesn’t equal success, not even a marginal amount if the platform is all or nothing. The people you know, the people you can get to, the resources you and they have, and their willingness to help will determine much more so the amount you raise than the hard work you put in. Hard work is necessary to activate those resources, but hard work won’t replace those resources if you don’t have them. So be honest when deciding on your goal, evaluate your resources and what can be done with them and without some of them, and plan as much as you can – especially for when your plans will fall apart.
After a ton of work, ups and downs, disasters and some exciting opportunities, a 48 hour round trip drive from New York to Ann Arbor, MI, and more fun and passion than I’ve experienced working on a project in a long time, we have 10 days left to raise approximately $70,000. Unlikely, yes, but as we keep on keeping on, I like to think of that number differently: we’ve raised $30,000 in 30 days from 225 people amidst unrelenting odds, selfish onlookers, failed plans, and painful rejection. That’s an accomplishment, even if we don’t walk away with that money. Because now we know there are at least 225 people who care about us and the work we’re doing – and that counts for something. That outweighs the indifference. That’s more valuable to us. This movie will get made. And we’ll get the money needed somehow. To make those 225 people (and more) proud of their investment in us and our dreams.
(Note: Kickstarter is all or nothing, so if you don’t reach your stated goal, you don’t collect any pledges)
***Writer/Director/Producer Jason Stefaniak is a thesis student in the NYU Graduate Film program.
Photo Credit: But Not For Me