[This is a guest post by Mark Tapio Kines]
I hold the somewhat geeky distinction of being the first person to ever crowdfund a film. When I needed money to finish for my first feature Foreign Correspondents, I launched a website for it in late 1997, and wound up raising $150,000 over the following year.
But I’m not here to wax nostalgic. At this very moment, I’m in the throes of funding my third feature, Dial 9 to Get Out, on Kickstarter. (My second feature, the microbudgeted thriller Claustrophobia, was self-financed.) So if nothing else, I have a unique perspective, and I can appreciate the contrasts between my fumbling early efforts in 1998 and the billion-dollar phenomenon that crowdfunding has since become.
Obviously, technology has changed enormously over the past 16 years, on the Web and in filmmaking itself. But in terms of trying to raise money for a movie online, some basic truths are the same. Here’s what I’ve learned:
Never underestimate the power of a good superlative
When you look at all the films currently campaigning on Kickstarter and Indiegogo, it seems like it will be almost impossible for yours to stand out. Well, if it will make you feel any better, back when Foreign Correspondents was literally the only movie on the planet trying to raise money online, it was still almost impossible to stand out. There will always be a bad signal-to-noise ratio on the Internet. Once you accept this, you can focus on how to rise above it.
A lot of filmmakers’ campaigns get attention because they’ve got a celebrity or because they’re making a fan film. If that’s not you, then you need to exploit all the aspects of your film (or yourself) that suggest uniqueness.
On this front, I’ve found that using superlatives to identify your project -- the first, the biggest, the scariest, the weirdest, whatever -- is surprisingly effective in getting your work recognized and remembered, and not just by those coveted media outlets you’re trying to get exposure from, but even by your own personal contacts.
The good news is that you don’t need to be doing anything earth-shattering to deserve some superlatives. It’s all in the way you spin it. Are you the only person to ever tackle your film’s unusual subject matter in this particular way? Well, of course you are. No one has ever done anything quite like this before? Naturally. You’re the first person in your family to ever make a movie? Fabulous! Just look at all the superlatives you’re stacking up.
Filmmakers are storytellers, and you can tell a great story about yourself and your campaign by emphasizing all your unique qualities. Superlatives are a succinct tool for this.
Ask not what the public can do for you. Ask what you can do for the public
Your close friends and family will donate to your campaign because they love you. Everyone else, however, may need some convincing. They want to be entertained, and like it or not, filmmakers are entertainers. So if your film is entertaining (and if “entertaining” is too loaded a term for you, then at least say “unboring”), then your crowdfunding campaign should also be entertaining.
When I designed the Foreign Correspondents site in 1997, I couldn’t just leave the message at, “Hey, I’m a nice guy, and this is a great movie, so send me money. Thanks.” Mine was the first movie website made by its director, but that wasn’t enough. I had to put my money where my mouth was. So I bent over backwards to share cool stuff on the site that only an indie director could. The goal was for my site’s audience to get something out of their visits. That’s the only way they could get excited about the film. In short: It wasn’t about me. It was about them.
This should be a no-brainer. Yet I’ve been looking at a lot of other filmmakers’ campaigns lately -- not just out of curiosity, but because I enjoy backing films that appeal to me -- and too many of them offer little more than the old self-centered spiel about being “passionate.” In other words, the campaigns are not giving me, Joe Q. Public, anything to enrich my day. It’s like a busker not playing his guitar, but expecting passersby to throw coins in his hat anyway, just because he has the potential to play the guitar.
Certain film genres have it easy when it comes to delivering an entertaining campaign. A comedy’s campaign should be funny. A horror movie’s campaign should be creepy. A hard-hitting documentary about a social issue should have a campaign that makes you so outraged that you been compelled to give. (Outrage is certainly a kind of entertainment – especially on the Internet!) And so on.
In comparison, it will be difficult when you’re making a quiet, personal indie drama. Crowdfunding is essentially about selling. Your campaign page is both an advertisement and a store. So if your film isn’t something that you feel you can easily market, then a crowdfunding site may simply not be right venue for it.
Be open to changing your campaign strategy if needed
This can be a tricky one. I know a couple of people who kept tinkering with their crowdfunding campaigns because they weren’t getting the numbers that they wanted. So they revamped them several times -- in one case, three times in a week. The flop sweat was apparent, and the impression was that they didn’t know what they were doing. It didn’t inspire confidence.
That said, don’t worry too much about the flop sweat. Seriously. Fact is, if you’re two weeks into your campaign and you only have 15 backers, they won’t hate you for trying new approaches to get the backers you need. And the thousands of strangers you’re still trying to attract won’t know the difference, since they’ve probably been oblivious to whatever your campaign was before you retooled it.
In general, though, the best changes are additive. You don’t have to just say your film (and thus your campaign) is spooky and leave it at that. A week later, it can be spooky and sexy. A week after that, it can be spooky and sexy, and also, you’re also the first Guatemalan-Armenian to make such a spooky, sexy film. Whatever it takes to make the connections.
As it’s said, when you make a film, you’re really making two films: there’s the film you think you’re going to make, and there’s the film you end up making. The same holds true for a crowdfunding campaign. It’s natural for new challenges and new ideas to pop up. Few things are set in stone.
Don’t stake your fortunes on the whims of influential strangers
You never forget your first time -- that is, the first time someone tells you that they’re totally going to help you get money for your movie, and then disappear on you completely. It’s a “Welcome to Showbiz” moment that almost every filmmaker goes through.
This happens during crowdfunding, too. You already know to be skeptical of those services that offer to get you more backers -- for a price. But what of the individuals who contact you personally, and sound so sincere? Or more importantly, what about the established media outlets or celebrities that you think you might have an “in” with? How long do you wait until you give up on them?
From my experience, you never wait. You stay vigilant with these people and see what develops, but you never let any aspect of your campaign be contingent on getting coverage on a certain website, or having a certain famous friend tweet on your behalf, or getting that one person who promised $5,000 to finally donate. I know someone whose campaign got derailed because he spent too long waiting for a glowing review of his work to come in from a well-known tastemaker. So he held off on any email blasts or other major campaigning until he could share that review. Guess what? That review never arrived.
I say all this because in the heat of crowdfunding, as the clock is ticking and you’re not sure how you’re going to make it, it’s easy to start looking at anything and everything as your film’s potential savior. And so you might pin a lot of hope on would-be benefactors, because “you never know.” But I can’t tell you how many people contacted me back in 1998 with the promise of big investments, only to string me along for weeks before vanishing. And already, less than two weeks into my current campaign, I’ve received a few similar promises that have yet to materialize. It just happens. Be optimistic, but wary.
Get your “dark night of the soul” moment over with as soon as you can
Unless you’re Zach Braff or the Kung Fury guy, you will have disappointing days where almost no money comes in for your campaign. Possibly even on your first day! Other people may advise you to keep your chin up, fake it ‘til you make it and so on, but it’s dangerous to wait until week three for your meltdown. You may not be able to rebuild your momentum or your confidence for the final stretch of your campaign.
I say go ahead and -- privately, privately -- indulge yourself with your whiniest, most self-loathing feelings after your first big setback. Why? Because a) it’s early enough that you will still have the energy to overcome that despair, and b) once you survive that dark period, you will enter a sort of bliss where you just don’t care what happens anymore. That’s not to say you will or should be apathetic about your campaign, but you’ll let go of your expectations and accept that there are certain things beyond your control.
Before I began my current campaign, I assured my wife that I would take a sort of “zen” approach to the whole thing. In reality, like everyone else, I am finding it difficult to eat and sleep during this period, because there’s so much at stake. But my experiences back in 1998 did teach me a lot. The situations I went through are the same situations I see crowdfunding filmmakers going through now -- the anger over having wealthy friends who for whatever reason aren’t chipping in, the frustration over not getting email or calls returned from key players, the baffling inability to connect with the people you’re just positive will adore your movie.
Everything in this article kind of comes back to the same basic idea: letting go of your ego. After two feature films and a lot of triumphs and defeats, if there’s one thing I’ve learned it’s that no one owes you anything. Make it a policy to live your life with many hopes and few expectations, and you will survive the rigors of crowdfunding with both your dignity and your creativity intact.
Be sure to check out Mark Tapio Kines' crowdfunding campaign for his film Dial 9 to Get Out on Kickstarer.
Mark Tapio Kines is an independent filmmaker living in West Hollywood, California. His first feature, Foreign Correspondents starred Melanie Lynskey, Wil Wheaton, and Corin Nemec. His second, Claustrophobia, starred Lynskey, Sheeri Rappaport, and Mary Lynn Rajskub and was distributed by Lionsgate. Mark also won grand prize in a Getty Images-sponsored short film competition. More recently, he authored and presented Lynda.com's popular Screenwriting Fundamentals course, and has been a freelance writer on dozens of studio Blu-ray special features and for sites like Indiewire and Fandango.