Lessons Learned from the 15 Story Beats of My CENTS Kickstarter
For over three weeks, I have been fully immersed in one of the best adventures of my filmmaking career: the Kickstarter campaign for my first feature film, CENTS. Running this Kickstarter has been a full-time job with so many unexpected twists and turns, you wonder who exactly is writing this script. One of the best parts about running a Kickstarter campaign is reconnecting with old friends and finding out that they will not only back your project, but they will pick you up with their words of encouragement. I have really enjoyed answering all of their questions about the film and the Kickstarter in particular. So I wanted to take this moment to share with you, the NFS audience, what I have learned so far from the 15 story beats of my CENTS Kickstarter.
1. This Kickstarter began over 2 years ago.
I discovered Kickstarter in October 2011. I had decided that after many years of writing, I finally had a script worth making as my first feature film. The next step was figuring out how to finance the film. Back in 1999-2001, I went to graduate school to get my MBA specifically to understand the film business. When the day came to make my first feature film, I wanted to know how to tackle the business side of film financing. As such, I was familiar with traditional methods of film financing, having written business plans in the past. But I realized the film financing landscape had changed dramatically over the years, and I need to find out how independent films were currently getting financed.
Very quickly, I discovered Kickstarter, which I started to research thoroughly. Through my research, I found Ryan Koo's campaign for MANCHILD (after it was finished, alas) and subsequently No Film School. I soon realized that I didn’t have the social media reach to launch a Kickstarter campaign. Additionally, I had more work to do on my script. As I rewrote my script, I made a conscious effort to expand both my social media network as well as my personal connections in the various circles of my life and community.
In December 2011, I noticed Ryan was looking for new NFS writers. I applied, doubtful that he would hire someone to write about screenwriting, my main passion, because of the site's main focus on digital cinematography. To my surprise, Ryan was interested in my writing and potential contributions to the site. He asked me to be patient as he trained two new writers who would mainly cover cameras (Joe Marine and E.M. Taboada), then he wanted to bring on additional writers to cover other areas of filmmaking. Thankfully, Ryan hired me in May 2012 to join NFS to write about screenwriting.
Writing for and interacting with the NFS community about the craft of screenwriting has made me a better screenwriter. I really enjoy finding lessons from professional screenwriters and sharing them with the NFS community.
2. I discovered the true value of Kickstarter’s all-or-nothing approach when I backed my first campaign in 2012.
The first Kickstarter I backed was a local Albuquerque feature film project called DEAD BILLY with a goal of $30,000. I joined the campaign right from its launch and studied the campaign closely. I also got very active, sending out emails to personal contacts and posting the Kickstarter link and updates on my Facebook page repeatedly.
In the final week of the campaign, DEAD BILLY still had over $12,000 to raise. I thought it would be impossible, but I personally re-doubled my efforts to spread the word along with several other backers. I doubled my pledge. Then, I watched in amazement as they raised almost $10,000 of their $30,000 goal in the final 24 hours.
This was the first time I really understood the power of the crowd to lift up a Kickstarter campaign at the very end of its run. I also realized why Kickstarter's all-or-nothing model is so important. Since that campaign, I have backed 14 Kickstarter campaigns and 9 Indiegogo campaigns. For every Kickstarter campaign for a film with a goal of $10,000 or more that I have backed, all but one have succeeded. For every Indiegogo campaign for film with a goal of $10,000 or more that I have backed, none have reached their goals. Kickstarter's all-or-nothing policy gives backers an incentive to work together with a campaign to push it past its goal in the final days and hours.
3. I spent 2 years researching Kickstarter best practices for film projects.
Right away, I knew that my campaign goal would be constrained by my social media reach. $100,000 was not a feasible goal. $30,000 was certainly possible given my network and based on my knowledge of and participation in other Kickstarters, but I didn't think $30,000 would contribute enough to the financing goals for CENTS. After much research and discussion with my producing partner, Ella Sitkin, we settled on $60,000 -- certainly a stretch, but also a goal that would be a considerable portion of our total budget for the film.
To discover exactly how Kickstarter campaigns for films with similar fundraising goals succeeded, I culled through successful projects using the search tools on Kickspy, then used a bit.ly+ link hack and Google Image search technique I learned from the Hacking Kickstarter post on Tim Ferriss' Four-Hour Workweek blog. If you take the short link URL for any Kickstarter campaign (the one for CENTS is kck.st/1aidgq3) and add a '+' at the end of the URL, you will see statistics from bit.ly showing you which sites referred people to the Kickstarter campaign.
I soon discovered that most successful Kickstarter campaigns for films with goals of more than $10,000 surged in traffic in their final 48-72 hours. In other words, the crowd realized the campaign wasn't reaching its goal and decided to do something about it. I also learned that the greatest sources of hits on a Kickstarter short link are direct emails, followed by Facebook, then Twitter, then other websites that featured the project.
Sometimes, crazy s#!t happens with Kickstarter campaigns.
Every once in a while, I would discover an outlier. For example, the recent campaign for Me + You had only raised $14,972 of its $75,000 goal from 187 backers by the end of day 38 of its 40-day campaign. By the end of its campaign two days later, Me + You had successfully raised $77,195 from 2,154 backers. What happened in those last 48 hours?
Using Google Image search with Me + You's main Kickstarter image, I discovered that Upworthy posted the pitch video for Me + You with approximately 36 hours left in the campaign. Upworthy's reach on Facebook, Twitter and Reddit sent Me + You into the stratosphere in those final hours.
Your personal networks, online and offline, are your best Kickstarter assets.
I also learned that not very many websites focus on film Kickstarters in a meaningful way these days. Unless it was 2013 and you were Veronica Mars, Zach Braff or Spike Lee. Otherwise, film campaigns on Kickstarter are not news. Kickstarters for new, cool products generate much more buzz and web traffic from a wide variety of sites (e.g. Pebble Watch and Ouya game console). This means your own personal network, both online and offline, are much more important to the success of your film's Kickstarter than posts on websites. Unless you get picked up by Upworthy, Buzzfeed, or some other viral generator for reasons most likely out of your control.
That said, you should still seek out websites with a connection to your story's content (in our case, sites that focus on girls, STEM - science, technology, engineering, mathematics - bullying and independent films) to see if you can be featured as a filmmaker with a compelling story. Just don't expect high volumes of backers to flock to your Kickstarter campaign as a result.
Rewards are important, but the price of reward levels is even more important.
We created reward levels for CENTS using the rewards of successful campaigns as our initial guides. We then figured out three things that would make our rewards unique.
- All of our rewards are multiples of 2 to tie into our story's math theme. Most campaigns have rewards for $5, $10, $25, $50, $100 and so on. Our reward levels catch backers' attention with their progression: $1 (2^0), then jumping to $8 (2^3), $16 (2^4), $32 (2^5), and so on until we reach $1,024 (2^10). Someone who was going to pledge $5 will likely pledge $8, $10 will likely pledge $16, $25 will likely pledge $32, $50 will likely pledge $64, and $100 will likely pledge $128. Those extra dollars matter. Also, at the end of the campaign, we hope backers at the lower levels will consider doubling their pledges, which will fit exactly into our reward level structure. The leaps from $8 to $16 and $16 to $32 aren't that great, but they will make the difference in the end.
- We offer a digital download of the finished film for $8, less than what we have seen on any other campaign. I can't say for sure if this is the lowest reward level to offer a digital download of a finished film, but most don't seem to offer it for anything less than $10 and usually higher. Digital downloads of well-known films retail between $10 and $15 on iTunes and Amazon. If a backer is willing to pledge to CENTS before we make it, we think that backer deserves a pre-order discount of at least 20%. Hence, we came up with the $8 digital download reward. You can see from the chart below that this is our most popular reward level to date.
- We offer help with your math homework starting at $256 (2^8). We thought this would be funny to add to our rewards, because of our story's focus on math and something nobody else would offer in association with a film. What is even better is we actually mean it. Ella teaches math at the University of New Mexico and Central New Mexico Community College. She can actually help you (or your kid or someone else's kid) with math homework.
4. We shot our teaser several months before launching our Kickstarter.
We needed to build our audience specifically for CENTS before launching our Kickstarter. The teaser gave us a way to engage audiences very directly with a short video and guide them to our newly launched website. The website enabled us to establish our Facebook and Twitter presences, as well as start our email list. The teaser would also become a valuable source of material for our Kickstarter pitch video and stills for our series of future Kickstarter-related posts on our website and Facebook.
Our post on NFS about the CENTS teaser provoked an engaging dialogue with a wide range of opinions, from supportive to very critical – all of which were very useful to read and digest. The NFS post also helped push our video views up substantially on Vimeo and get us noticed well beyond our initial core audience.
5. We told our audience several months in advance that our Kickstarter was coming.
In October 2013, we told our core audience over two months in advance that we were launching our Kickstarter. Initially, we said we were launching in December, but we later decided the timing wouldn’t work because of the holidays and our personal schedules.
We needed our biggest supporters to be prepared to pledge and spread the word from day one. I personally emailed my closest contacts well in advance of our Kickstarter launch to keep them up-to-date on our Kickstarter plans and how we hoped they would help spread the word once we launched.
6. We shot our pitch video in November, two months before our January launch.
I knew I would need time to edit our Kickstarter pitch video and get feedback. Our CENTS editor was busy on other projects, so I had to edit the pitch video myself. I’m not editor. I’m competent, but far from an expert, so I needed extra time to work with our material to put together a quality pitch video. This extra time was valuable because I was able to create multiple iterations, constantly cutting it down to make it shorter and clearer.
The first cut was approximately 4:30. The second cut was around 3:45. Successive cuts and trims got the final pitch video down to 3:14. Personally, I wish it was even shorter -- between 2:00 and 2:30 would be ideal -- but I couldn't find a way to make it tighter. That is why I need an editor for my feature film.
The time between shooting the video and launching the Kickstarter allowed me to incorporate the Kickstarter widget animation created by Joke & Biagio for their Dying to Do Letterman Kickstarter that Ryan also used to great effect in his Kickstarter pitch video. Joke & Biagio kindly made the After Effects and Photoshop files available for free and made a video on how to use them. Since their campaign is long over and their documentary is now available, be sure to buy Dying to Do Letterman as a way to say thank you for using the files (like I just did).
7. We worked on our Kickstarter page for a full month.
After studying multiple campaigns, we figured out what we liked and didn’t like about other Kickstarter pages. We wanted to tell our story, but we didn’t want to bog readers down with too many details. We also wanted backers to understand the basics of Kickstarter and how the money would ultimately be used. You will still need to educate the vast majority of your backers who will be first-time Kickstarter backers when they join your campaign. You may be an expert on how Kickstarter works, but most of your backers are newbies.
We sent a preview of our campaign to our closest friends and advisors to get feedback and hear their questions. We then made edits based on relevant feedback to improve the page prior to our launch.
8. We got our Kickstarter campaign approved 3 full weeks before launch.
We figured the holidays might mean Kickstarter may not be fully staffed to review projects. Therefore, we worked to finish our pitch video and create our Kickstarter page well before our launch date. We submitted our project at 7:05 am MT (9:05 am ET) on Wed. Dec. 18. We received approval by 2:18 pm MT (4:18 pm ET) that same day. We were surprised by the fast turnaround. I'm not sure if this was typical, or just Kickstarter staff staying on top of project submissions before the winter holidays. I hope this quick turnaround is the standard for Kickstarter.
We could still edit our page and rewards before launch even after we were approved. Throughout the campaign, Kickstarter project creators can edit everything on their page with the exception of reward levels that backers have already chosen. New reward levels may be added during a campaign.
Also, there is no rush to launch your project once it is approved, so we definitely recommend getting approval well in advance of your scheduled launch date in case you run into any issues with Kickstarter during the approval process.
9. We emailed our close contacts again once a week for a few weeks just prior to launch to get them ready and excited.
We knew we had to hit the ground running when we launched our Kickstarter. 31 days is an optimal amount of time to run a Kickstarter campaign (they recommend 30 days or less), but it’s obviously not much time to raise $60,000. We needed to get out of the gate with a strong start so new backers would be interested in our campaign when they saw substantial dollars pledged in the first few days.
10. We took a mental break over the holidays just before our launch.
Kickstarter is a full-time job, so I knew I needed to clear my head before we launched. I spent time with my family and enjoyed the kids’ winter holiday break before moving full steam ahead. My producing partner Ella did the same.
11. We launched on Thu. Jan. 9 and chose our exact end date and time of Sat. Feb. 8 at 9 pm MT (11p ET, 10p CT, 8p PT).
We wanted our campaign to last 31 days as a tie-in to our film’s plot. We also wanted to control when the campaign would end. Kickstarter now lets you choose the exact date and time when you want to finish your campaign.
We opted for a Saturday in the hopes that people would be able to spend the final hours of the campaign emailing, posting on Facebook, tweeting, texting, and calling friends when they were not at work.
We picked 9 pm to give us the majority of the day here in Albuquerque without getting too late as to miss people. Activity on our Kickstarter tends to die down around 9 pm MT each day, so this assumption seems to have proven itself to be true. This also kept the finish date of Sat. Feb. 8 consistent across US time zones.
We pre-wrote and saved individual and personalized emails to all of our core contacts prior to launch. As soon as we were live, we sent out those individual emails in rapid succession to get the ball rolling.
12. We discovered we were a Staff Pick and an Indiewire Project of the Day.
We have no idea exactly how Kickstarter decides Staff Picks, other than what they say on their website: they review all of the campaigns as they go live and make their picks. We believe all of our time spent on our pitch video and Kickstarter page certainly went a long way to getting the Staff Pick designation. Being a Staff Pick also boosted our campaign in Kickstarter’s Discover and Search sections during our first few days.
On Day One of the campaign, we also submitted to Indiewire’s Project of the Day, and we only discovered that we were Project of the Day on January 14 after a backer who found us on Indiewire told us! The exposure on Indiewire certainly helped, but didn’t exactly translate into pledges.
13. I published my NFS post about the 1 thing I’m doing this year to become a better screenwriter and introduced the Kickstarter campaign to NFS readers.
My focus at NFS is screenwriting. I keep personal posts to a minimum, but they typically generate the highest traffic of any of my NFS posts. My post on the 1 thing I'm doing this year to become a better screenwriter by making my first feature film drew a lot of attention -- mostly positive, but some certainly negative. Moreover, the post was viewed over 10,000 times.
From that post, we can see on our Kickstarter dashboard that we received 7 backers for a total of $72. Our embedded widget has generated $47 from 4 backers, some of whom could be from NFS. Aside from Kickstarter and Facebook, that NFS post was our most viewed piece of publicity during our campaign so far, and a gracious estimate shows that we received 11 backers from over 10,000 views of that NFS post, or approximately 0.1% of readers of that post pledged.
I point this out because it is important for anyone who is considering a Kickstarter campaign to understand that your best resources are your direct contacts via email, Facebook and Kickstarter itself. You can see this in a current breakdown of all of our backers from our Kickstarter dashboard below.
You can see that Kickstarter generates a lot of backers for our campaign. This is another reason to use Kickstarter as your crowdfunding platform. As the leading crowdfunding website, Kickstarter is constantly getting new people to sign up for its site, referring backers to similar projects and emailing backers information about recently launched projects. As I write this, 29% of our pledges have come from Kickstarter referrals.
Now, this number is a bit skewed because at live events, we have sat next to people with our iPads and computers, and gone directly to Kickstarter to help them make their pledges. Still, from the referrer breakdown above, you can see that backers who are complete strangers have used Kickstarter to find and pledge to our campaign.
You may also notice next to the pie chart above that our average pledge is close to $100. This is considerably higher than Kickstarter's overall average of $70. We expect this average pledge to decline in the final hours of the campaign as more and more backers we don't know personally join the campaign at the lower dollar amounts. However, we're humbled that our current backers are generous enough with their pledges to bring this average up considerably higher than the norm.
14. We’re working overtime to motivate our backers to email friends, post to Facebook, tweet, text, and call anyone they know that shares our passion to make a film about girls, math, bullying and “drama”.
Tweets from celebrities and thought leaders certainly draw attention to a Kickstarter campaign. We have had retweets from Danica McKellar (Winnie Cooper from "The Wonder Years" who has a degree in mathematics, a theorem with her name on it, and several bestselling books for girls about math) and Rosalind Wiseman (bestselling author of Queen Bees and Wannabes, the basis of Tina Fey's Mean Girls). We are continuing to reach out to celebrities and well-known leaders among girls and women, STEM, and bullying to spread the word further.
We are sending a steady stream of related stories to our Facebook and Twitter followers in addition to updates on our campaign’s progress. We vary our images on Facebook, using a variety of stills from our teaser along with the Kickstarter short link to avoid constantly posting the embedded Kickstarter link on Facebook.
We send out thank you’s and shout-outs via Facebook for every ten backers we receive. We send personal thank you messages via Kickstarter to every single backer, usually within minutes of receiving their pledge to let them know how much it really means to us. We also ask them directly to email their friends and share the campaign on Facebook and Twitter
We are asking our backers and Facebook followers to get involved by sending photos telling us why they are making CENTS.
We have interviewed one of our earliest supporters and Kickstarter backer Noramay Cadena, an MIT graduate and co-founder of Latinas in STEM, to share her amazing and inspiring story with our audience.
We are emailing our personal contacts on a regular basis to get them to pledge and to encourage others to do the same. We always keep our messages positive, but we also impress the urgency of our deadline upon our audience.
15. You, the crowd, get to write the ending to our Kickstarter story.
The beauty of Kickstarter is the success of a campaign ultimately lies in the hands of the crowd. We share our passion for our film CENTS with you, and hope that you not only pledge, but bring your friends along for the ride, too.
It’s crazy to think how far $1 per view of this post would go. I’m a realist, so I know that won’t happen. But if you have found value in this post or any of my previous NFS posts since I started writing for the site in May 2012, I hope you will at least consider a pledge. Every dollar counts. Digital downloads start at $8.
You can write the end of this story. You can make CENTS.
Thank you for reading this post and all of my previous posts about screenwriting on this amazing site for filmmakers worldwide.
[UPDATE: Read all about the exciting conclusion to our CENTS Kickstarter campaign in the follow-up post, The 15th Story Beat: More Lessons Learned from the Finale of My CENTS Kickstarter]
Link: CENTS Kickstarter