Don't Hire Someone to Run Your Kickstarter Campaign: Or, Why Attitude is More Important than Aptitude
First of all, I want to start this post off by saying I have a tremendous amount of respect for Lucas McNelly. Not just because of the articles he's written for numerous websites, but also his A Year Without Rent project in which he traveled to work on indie films for free for a year, as well his free VODO film Blanc de Blanc (I haven't had a chance to see his other work yet). As someone who did my own year without rent, I feel an affinity for Lucas despite never having met him, and I think he's great for the indie film community. Lucas, this is not a personal attack on you by any means, and I'd love to get a beer with you at some point should we ever find ourselves in the same city or at the same festival. HOWEVER, I want to take this opportunity to talk about Lucas's criticisms of some Kickstarter campaigns -- mine included -- and how I believe attitude and criticism affects creativity and productivity. I'll also talk about the rise of the professional crowdfunding consultant. This is going to be a long, rambling post with a high risk of TL;DR -- don't say I didn't warn you.
Lately we've seen the rise of a cottage industry: Kickstarter consultants. People who get paid to help filmmakers and others run their crowdfunding campaigns. On some level I think this is missing the point of Kickstarter: a crowdfunding campaign is supposed to be about putting yourself out there, and the DIY aesthetic of most campaign videos is a testament to this. You're supposed to work hard on your campaign, you're supposed to come up with rewards, you're supposed to communicate with your backers, and you're supposed to "kick start" your creative career -- not a consultant. This is why, despite plenty of offers after my Kickstarter campaign to be a paid consultant for others, I turned every offer down and instead tried to write a bunch of free articles to help others.
In this new landscape, with crowdfunding consultants and managers out there, I suppose it makes sense that there would also spring up a plethora of blog posts deeming some campaigns good and others bad. These consultants need to prove their expertise and advertise their services, after all, and what better way to do that than to scrutinize other people's campaigns? Nevermind the fact that the entire point of Kickstarter's "all or nothing" structure is designed for some campaigns to fail. Maybe if you don't make your goal, you're supposed to go back to the drawing board. Maybe your project didn't have as much appeal as you thought, maybe you didn't get the rewards right, maybe you should've run an Indiegogo campaign without the "all or nothing" ultimatum. Failure is sometimes a good thing. Something to learn from. In fact, I started this site as a result of recognizing some failures.
But here we are. Campaigns are analyzed and deconstructed by people who weren't involved in any way, and then those same people try to ensure the success of other campaigns as hired guns. I became aware of this a little while ago when Lucas -- who, according to the footer of his latest article, "consults on Kickstarter campaigns for a living" -- wrote a post about my own Kickstarter campaign.
Criticism of my Manchild Kickstarter campaign
Lucas penned a post entitled Why the MAN-CHILD campaign isn't as good as you think, which is a pretty self-explanatory title. I found out about the post when I was a guest on an episode of the excellent film podcast Film Courage, which is also where he published the article. Lucas's main point in his post was that there was "nothing unique or innovative or even all that creative" about my campaign. Feel free to skip my refutations and go straight to the header "Seth Godin's campaign" below, as this bulleted list is kind of extraneous to my argument -- but I supposed I feel a need to set the record straight. Lucas's evaluation of my campaign as "nothing unique or innovative" completely ignored the following:
- The fact that I was doing a campaign very early, without a trailer or a frame of footage in the can, but just a script I wholly believed in (not unique, but uncommon).
- The challenge of making an entertaining campaign video without any footage and without anyone else in the video. Manchild was just a script with no one attached, so I couldn't do a fun group video like my favorite campaign video of all time, I am I (a more recent example is Neal Stephenson's awesome Clang campaign).
- The challenge of running a campaign 100% by yourself, without interns, assistants, PR people, cast, crew, consultants, or managers -- not to mention the fact that No Film School was still single-author at the time, and I kept up my daily blogging throughout. Oh, and also not to mention the fact that my script was participating in IFP's Emerging Narrative program (to which I recommend everyone apply next May), so I had dozens of in-person pitches during the campaign's final week... all of which was quite the time crunch.
- The $1/frame perk, which Lucas points out has been done before -- once -- by Lemonade Detroit, a crowdfunding campaign (not on Kickstarter) that I had backed in the past. I've been totally transparent that their campaign was the source of my concept. Since it's been done before, I suppose that does not make my approach unique, technically; however there have been 17,000 Kickstarter film campaigns and to my knowledge mine is the only one that did a$1/frame perk, along with the fact that no one (not even Lemonade) has ever to my knowledge said "everyone who donates any amount will get the unique frame that they made possible." I think this "side perk" could be a bigger deal than most people realize, and I'm really looking forward to sending these frames when the film is finished.
- The fact that my rewards, which Lucas called "boring perks," are almost entirely digital, which means that I haven't had to spend a substantial portion of the funds on making posters, t-shirts, and other physical schwag that are costly (both money and time-wise) to create and ship. Therefore more of the money raised is available for the actual production of the film itself... which is what this is all about, after all. This may not be something that an outsider can see immediately, but it is something that was very carefully thought out and for a campaign that "isn't very good," in his words, it's been tremendously helpful. Except for the requisite Kickstarter and Amazon fees, every single dollar raised is in the bank.
- Knowing your audience is a big part of it. Kickstarter is a community of creative people. No Film School is a community of creative people. Despite not having a team and not having any resources to make my campaign video, I managed to film something by myself in my back yard that spoke to creatives, by putting two of myself in the video and casting one of them as the voice inside all of our heads that is our own inner hater. Lucas wrote, "this is a movie about basketball, and there's really nothing in the perks that reflects that." But that was also carefully thought out, because I wasn't primarily reaching out to basketball fans -- a lot more people know me as a filmmaker than as a basketball fan/player. I can't tell you how many backers watched the video and told me about their own version of that inner hater, and how many people identified with the quandary of wanting to make creative things but being badgered into unproductiveness by "that guy" (or gal). Have there been other Kickstarter campaign videos that featured two of the project's creator, much less one that's a universally-recognizable obstacle to creativity? Not to my knowledge. Besides which, we were able to reach the basketball community as well.
- It's not always about raising the most money you can. Lucas used the Facebook-likes-to-number-of-backers ratio -- a dubious metric at best -- to suggest that I could've raised more money. I shared some very civil thoughts on that in the comments, but considering I made my goal on the very last day of the campaign, that's a questionable conceit -- along with the fact that the amount of money you raise is only part of the point of a campaign. You want fans of your work to still like you when the campaign is over, and if you badger them constantly (which a very small minority of No Film Schoolers already felt was the case) and try to squeeze every last dime out of your backers, this won't be the case. Your Kickstarter backers are your champions going forward, as they already took an almost unfathomably generous step of giving you money to pursue your dream, with no financial stake themselves beyond a DVD or similar reward. Don't milk them to try to get a slightly larger number.
Okay, I'm done defending myself (even though it's several months later, I guess I felt a need to do so). My point in writing this post is not to talk about whether or not I ran a "very good" Kickstarter campaign, but rather to use the aforementioned criticism of crowdfunding campaigns to talk about an attitude that I see frequently in creative communities. An attitude that I find to be counterproductive, and an attitude that I find goes along sometimes with expertise (real or claimed). But since I've already written about myself too much, let's use someone else's campaign for reference.
Seth Godin's campaign
In case you haven’t heard, marketing “guru” Seth Godin launched a Kickstarter campaign for his upcoming book. It raised $40,000 in 3 hours... [Godin's] first foray into Kickstarter is so bland, so middle of the road, so behind the curve, almost shockingly so. The perks are boilerplate. The video is dull. The text is a bunch of gibberish about proving to a publisher that Kickstarter is viable (intelligent people still question this?). Even the engagement metrics are below average. If you launched this campaign, no one would say you were a genius. No one would care.
The first thing that struck me as strange was that Lucas didn't actually link directly to Godin's Kickstarter campaign anywhere in his post. This might just be a simple oversight, so I won't comment on that. But since Lucas's post about Godin's campaign seemed to share plenty in common with his post about mine -- namely, that he's describing highly successful campaigns as "mediocre" (Godin's) or saying a campaign "isn't very good" (mine) -- I found myself wondering, "what's the point?"
From Godin himself:
Kickstarter appears to be a great way to find fans for your work. You put up a great video clip and a story and wait for people who will love it to find you. But that’s not what happens. What happens is that people who ALREADY have a tribe, like Amanda Palmer, use Kickstarter to organize and activate that tribe. Kickstarter is the last step, not the first one.
Exactly. So what if someone who has spent a lot of time building an audience -- days, weeks, months, years, maybe even decades -- capitalizes on those relationships with a video or campaign that isn't (in your own judgement) stellar? Kickstarter campaigns are about making something other than the campaign itself. If someone runs a "mediocre" Kickstarter campaign and receives funding to make something terrific, I'd rather have that than a great Kickstarter campaign that resulted in a mediocre creation. And that's why Godin's campaign is so successful so far -- it's not his video, which is basically just him talking to the camera in front of a bookshelf -- it's all the work he's put in up until now. Amanda Palmer's campaign video is great, but her success at raising over a million dollars is also a result of everything she's done to build an audience (as singer for The Dresden Dolls and Evelyn Evelyn) before the campaign even began. Not to mention she does things like let fans draw on her naked body (NSFW link) at shows. She has put in a lot of work and now she's being rewarded for it. This is how it should be.
Lucas says he hasn't read Godin's books. I have, and I even blogged about one here, as I think indie filmmakers need to be able to think like marketers if we're going to have a sustainable career in this business. I also previously talked about Godin's switch from traditional to self-publishing, and what that shift could mean for filmmakers. I'm a fan of Godin's, and that's why I backed his campaign. If the video was more inspiring, if the rewards were better structured, perhaps I would've sprung for a higher backer level. But first and foremost is the fact that I was already a member of Godin's "tribe," which is what Godin calls a group of fans.
So what's really going on here? In both Godin's and my case, Lucas is saying "their campaign isn't very good, but they already have an audience." True. Kickstarter is not a miracle... there are no miracles. The secret is... there is no secret. We have worked for years to get to this point and that's why our campaigns did well. While one can certainly come out of nowhere and do great with a campaign for an appealing gadget or a terrifically entertaining video pitch, for the most part it's helpful to think of Kickstarter campaigns like anything else in life: years and years of hard work in conjunction with an idea are going to yield better results than an idea alone.
Which brings me to the title of this post, which is something I said on my 90-minute Vimeo panel with Brian Newman (though I was just repeating a line that I heard elsewhere): that attitude is more important than aptitude. Would you rather work with a so-called expert who tells everyone else what they're doing wrong, or would you rather work with friends who wholly believe in your project and are willing to do anything to help get it made? This is who I think should be on your Kickstarter team: people who believe in you and are ready to help with sweat equity. There are plenty of articles in this world and plenty of previous campaigns to research, which to me precludes the need to hire an expert helping hand. Here's a good place to start your research. Don't hire an expert to run your crowdfunding campaign -- work hard on your idea, inspire others, look at previously successful campaigns, and get your friends to help. On our panel, Brian (who is an expert on film financing) suggested the same thing -- "don't pay someone to run your Kickstarter campaign."
Attitude versus aptitude on a film set
Kickstarter campaigns are not films, however. They take place primarily on the internet and are just a precursor to the actual production. So I'm not saying attitude is more important than aptitude in every case, especially not on a film set. Let's take the Sundance-winning film Beasts of the Southern Wild (which opens in NY and LA this week, and more cities in the weeks to come) as an example. It's a wonderful, magical, emotional, triumphant film, and I can't recommend it highly enough.
In a Q&A following the screening I attended, producers Josh Penn and Michael Gottwald talked about their experience shooting for 50 days in the Louisana summer, with a cast of nonprofessional actors, children, and animals -- much of which was on the water. This is exactly what any expert in the movie business would tell you not to do. It was the first feature for the producers, it was the first feature for director Benh Zeitlin, and it was the first feature for most of the crew members (many of whom had never worked on a film before).
In trying to capture creative lightning in a bottle, Josh noted that while they brought down roughly 100 friends to live in Louisana, they also "tried to have at least one person who knew what they were doing in each department." An experienced line producer, A.D., and production designer... without these things the shoot could've been an unmitigated disaster (not to mention the fact that a real life unmitigated disaster, the largest oil spill in human history, happened on the first day of their shoot, five miles away). So I don't want to sound idealistic by saying "attitude trumps aptitude in every situation." However, would Beasts have gotten made if everyone on the crew wasn't up for an adventure? If on the set you replaced the motivated individuals who believed in the project with union crewmembers grumbling about missing second meal, would the film still exude the same creative spirit? If the producers had hired professional actors from New York instead of local citizens, would the film feel as authentic to New Orleans? Sometimes the answer is not to hire an expert. Embrace the indie.
Beasts is a great example of a film in which attitude almost certainly affected creativity. They made the judgement call that interest, motivation, and attitude were more important than expertise, experience, and aptitude -- for many of their positions. When it comes to who you're bringing on board your crowdfunding effort, I believe this same judgement call applies: attitude is more important than aptitude.
Have any of you worked with a crowdfunding consultant? Have you run a campaign with your friends? What about working on a film set -- what have your experiences been in terms of crewmembers' attitudes and how that affected the production?