August 6, 2015

Is Your Crowdfunding Budget Too Small? Take Notes from 'The Bill Nye Film' on Kickstarter

Good, fast, cheap. The saying goes, you can only have two of these qualifiers when making an independent film.

Most of us will choose cheap and good. DIY filmmakers embrace the idea that spending ungodly amounts of time to handcraft a film on no money is part of the package. The price, among other things, is that the process is very slow. But in this day of crowdfunding, could we actually keep our films independent and finish them with a real budget? That's what the filmmakers behind The Bill Nye Film Kickstarter project are advocating, and why their attempt to set a new Kickstarter record is something we should all watch closely.

In the documentary world, under-budgeting is particularly rampant. While documentarians routinely make films with very marginal piggy banks, the industry standard (i.e. according to people in the industry other than filmmakers) is that a doc cannot be made for under $100,000. I have heard grant funders utter phrases like, I won't even look at a film if the budget is under $100k. It tells me these people don't know what they are doing. And it's true. Well, sort of. Let's be honest, you can make a film for less. But will it be as good? Will it go as far? And most importantly, will I have the stamina to make a second film this way? And anyway, what's the alternative?

After finishing their first documentary The Immortalists, a successful doc about scientists bent on reversing the aging process, filmmakers Jason Sussberg and David Alvarado decided they needed a real budget, and that it should all be raised on Kickstarter. Why? Jason and David explained it to No Film School this way:

We believe in the Kickstarter model. The audience for this film are Bill Nye fans. They are wonderful, nerdy, smart people who really want to see a Bill Nye documentary. We have a rare opportunity to build a relationship with thousands of filmgoers from the beginning of production. And even the fans who don't back the project on Kickstarter are aware and excited about the film. How cool is that? When the film comes years from now, we already have a critical mass of eager film fans that have been with us since day one.

I'd be curious to hear feedback from other filmmakers on their Kickstarter projects. Until recently, the average film project on Kickstarter, for example, would set a goal somewhere between $10-15k. For example, I finished a successful Kickstarter campaign for my doc Brave New Wild back in 2011 in that ballpark. I was excited just to have succeeded. However, since the rest of our offline fundraising was less successful, I spent the next four years painstakingly finishing the film on pennies. (I was very lucky that my Kickstarter backers happened to be the most patient people on the face of the planet, since after four years of updates, Kickstarter DVDs are finally rolling out.) But what if I had attempted to raise our entire budget on Kickstarter?

It's both a great proposition and a scary one. Nobody wants to fail in all-or-nothing campaign because you've set the goal too high. Something is better than nothing, right? While every film is different, and we won't all have an international icon like Bill Nye the Science Guy behind us, it is worth it for every filmmaker to consider what it could mean for a film, and a career, to require a full budget to come out of a Kickstarter campaign. If successful, I'm told the Bill Nye Film could be the biggest documentary budget raised to date — with their goal at $650,000. And it would most likely be the first doc with a complete budget of this size raised on the platform. What's the secret to success? We asked, and this is what they had to say:

Well, we'll let No Film School know on August 13th once the campaign is funded! We chose our goal because it is the entire budget of the documentary and we know there is a passionate, dedicated and hungry audience for a film about Bill Nye and his quest to change the world with science.

We remember early on in the dawn of crowdfunding when docs started to make figures like $75k. At the time it shocked everyone. We indie filmmakers started to realize "wait a minute... these platforms can make you more than the top grants... and WE stay in control." And then someone did a 2nd (what?!) Kickstarter for the same project. Then we all knew that THIS was something that could be accomplished as well. With the recently Kickstarter-funded For the Love of Spock and (hopefully) Bill Nye documentary, indie doc makers are drafting a road map of how we can make the full budget and make sure that the crew is getting paid what they are worth. That way the project can meet it's full potential and make the most impact.

Every project is different. Filmmakers have to gauge the interest of the community — is it a niche market or is it for everyone? Bill Nye and his efforts to create a more scientifically literate world speaks to a mass audience. We are hedging that this audience will rally to support the creation of this documentary. Also, people appreciate transparency. We are pretty upfront about how much a documentary costs.

What do you think? Do you have any experiences raising a budget on a crowdfunding platform? Please share your experiences or ideas about a sustainable future of fundraising for documentary and independent filmmakers. And if you're looking to be part of the movement to get docs fully funded through crowdfunding, back the Bill Nye Film on Kickstarter!      

Your Comment

11 Comments

I crowdfunded a documentary about stop motion animation (trailer on my profile) on Kickstarter, raising $12.8k which was the majority but not all of the budget, the rest coming out of the pockets of myself and a few other producers.

I'm certainly grateful that crowdfunding exists; I would have been unlikely to make this film otherwise. There are some wrinkles involved in crowdfunding, however. Kickstarter fees and the cost of rewards (monetarily and with regard to TIME) are something I knew to account for, but it still feels like a distraction amidst trying to get the film made in a timely manner to also focus on producing a series of rewards, and you do end up needing to raise quite a bit of money beyond the actual cost of the project.

The other consideration is that I believe it is difficult to raise large amounts, even with a good pitch, unless you have a pre-established community or fanbase to tap into -- in my case, the small but enthusiastic online stop motion community that I am well-connected in, or in the case of a big project like this, fans of Bill Nye. I'd love to raise a proper budget for a next film, perhaps a documentary, but I feel I might have to resort to choosing a topic because I think I could get funding for it, not because it's something I'm passionately interested in. Perhaps that is the case with any financing method, however, because it makes distribution much easier once the film is complete.

August 6, 2015 at 6:33PM, Edited August 6, 6:33PM

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Philip Heinrich
Director, Producer
857

Isn't Bill Nye just a political activist now, having left science some time ago? I remember when he was worth watching. He just seems to be a caricature for political causes now. This video will likely just be political buzzword. Why does he need crowdfunding? Where did his money go? And why can't he make enough at this point to make it on his own???? Maybe it's not just me disinterested in him now. But oh yeah, he's changing the world. Delusional. So sad, really. I used to love watching him.

August 7, 2015 at 1:44AM

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Gene Nemetz
live streaming
628

Don't entirely agree with your assessment there, Gene. Bill Nye does also advocate for science-based policies. So he will oppose creationists, or climate-change deniers, because those people reject science. But he's kept out of social issues, where differences are more matters of opinion or worldview and less matters of fact.

August 7, 2015 at 2:27AM

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Minor Mogul
Dilettante
773

I'm not sure what a climate change denier is. They deny climate changes?

August 7, 2015 at 11:10PM

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Gene Nemetz
live streaming
628

Claiming Global Warming is real is rejecting science and matters of fact. There has been NO temperature change for 19 years and counting. Enforcing global taxation and control is the real motive for this "Climate Change" nonsense, and well-meaning do-gooders are easy marks for fraudulent science.

August 11, 2015 at 12:19AM

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JAY T
168

Oh dear, Jay. Oh dear.

August 14, 2015 at 11:43PM

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Minor Mogul
Dilettante
773

To your points: "Why does he need crowdfunding? Where did his money go?" Isn't this a film about Bill Nye, not by him?

August 7, 2015 at 4:10AM

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Dan Horne
245

Ummm, looks like he's involved in it. He can't get a regular job on tv anymore because he's become a political caricature. He seems to think he some sort of savior. At least that's how it looks. I think they call it a messiah complex-- poison for tv ratings.

Anyway, I won't help with this crowdfunding. I'll look for something interesting.

August 7, 2015 at 11:15PM

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Gene Nemetz
live streaming
628

Hi Gene- Bill Nye isn't making the film or conducting the kickstarter, the filmmakers are.

August 9, 2015 at 5:27PM

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David A Alvarado
Director
8

I am a professional crowdfunding coach and have coached over a dozen campaigns and brought in nearly $600,000. If you do the math, my campaigns average around $50k, with my highest being $67,000. This was without stars or any other notable highlights - in fact, it was a WEB SERIES, which usually live in the $20k range.

Setting the right goal is a large part of the CF process. The elements that go into it are the size of your team, the time you have to prep, and any additional "assets" such as celebrities, press relationships, or the content (a Star Trek fan film always does well.) If you don't have any of the latter, most films top out around $60k - $70k. There are exceptions of course, but over that amount, you're really hoping for some virality - you and your team's personal networks aren't large enough to generate the "social echo" required to bring in $100k when the average response rate is less than 2%.

It's a numbers and marketing game, so you have to weigh those two together. With Bill Nye, you have a legacy brand with a an active internet fanbase who spends money online. I expect them to succeed.

August 7, 2015 at 7:20AM

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Justin Giddings
Actor / Writer / Director
67

Charging what you actually need to finish a project comfortably is all well and good when you have a celebrity subject or star. Most of us don't have that luxury. You're not going to see another documentary with a 600k budget succeed without star power helping.

If this was a doc about Bob the climate scientist they would have made $50.

August 8, 2015 at 8:25PM

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Great article and definitely food for thought... I loved the Immortalists, btw, it was cute, and I'm glad they succeeded....
I'm currently running an IndieGogo (which has the good ol' Flexible Funding option in case you fall just short of your goal; though I have found that people tend to step up toward the end sometimes when there's a sense of urgency...) and now, reading this, I fear that the amount is pitiful/laughable (two sides of the same coin arent they??) I've crowdfunded once before, for a different project, and succeeded (and was shocked because it's hard to shake a cup at folks!), but it was for a very specific part of the process and only 5k. But, like you said, I felt good just because I'd succeeded... So this time around I aimed low again because it seemed to work, hah, and because I'd funded some of it through arts grants and investments but BOY is film expensive, and, now that I do the math and take out the processing fees and 5% to IndieGogo I realize that even if I succeed that $$ won't go very far... I got articles published in some good blogs and magazines and everything, peripherally about the campaign, and what's the point when I didn't ask for the right amount?? Too late for this one. But definitely next time 'round (if I can manage a next time! Haha)

August 11, 2015 at 2:47PM

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Naama Kates
Writer/Director
8