Exclusive Interview: How Films at Sundance Are Kickstarting Their Way to Better Distribution
While it's true that many Sundance films get distribution deals, they aren't always the deals of the filmmaker's dreams. With over a dozen feature films at Sundance this year that raised part of their budget on Kickstarter, is it possible to use that crowdfunding platform as collateral to attract a distributor? Or can you bypass a distributor all together using Kickstarter?
These are the things that filmmakers are starting to experiment with, according to Kickstarter's Film Outreach Lead Dan Schoenbrun. No Film School caught up with Dan at Sundance 2015 to hear about what films had been funded using the site, how they did it, what Sundance films from last year are doing with the platform, and what the future of Kickstarter might be.
NFS: Do you have any idea how many films at Sundance were funded by Kickstarter?
Dan Schoenbrun: Yep, we have 17 films at the festival this year.
NFS: Is that more than last year or about the same?
DS: I think it's about on par. For the last three years we've had 10% of the slate at Sundance. There are also always films that launch after the festival for distribution campaigns. We have a couple of films that are here at the festival this year live right now, but we also have David Cross' HITS [Sundance 2014 film] funding right now for their theatrical campaign and Taika Waititi and Jermaine Clement from Flight of the Conchords funding for What We Do in the Shadows.
NFS: Can you tell us about some interesting campaigns behind Sundance films this year?
DS: I always love looking at the slate at Sundance. It's kind of a microcosm of Indie film in general, and all levels of it. It's going to take some time to figure out exactly what the films this year mean in the world, but I like thinking about last year, where there were high profile films like the Zach Braff Project. But then, there was also An Obvious Child, The Babadook, and Blue Ruin -- films that were only raising for $20 to $30k. Maybe these films were not even raising for their entire budget, but just using Kickstarter as this place to introduce the project into the world -- to start to build buzz and a fan base and share what's exciting about the film leading into a Sundance.
Then, really, the legacy of a project, which starts on Kickstarter, is really defined by what happens at Sundance and then everything that happens afterward. Like, Babadook, if you had seen that on Kickstarter in November of 2013, who would have known that movie would have the impact that it did at the time? This year, it's this spread of new and more established filmmakers, like the guys who did The Cove, who are here with Racing Extinction. That was a pretty high profile campaign.
NFS: How much did they raise?
DS: They raised, I believe, it was just under $60,000. I think for filmmakers like that, it's really exciting to use Kickstarter as a way to raise money, obviously, but also to announce to the world that this is what they're doing and starting to tap into that fan base that already exists -- grow that fan base a little bit and build momentum and buzz so that when the film does come out, there's already some fanfare and expectation there. I think the same is true of campaigns at every level.
One of my favorite films this year is Christmas, Again. They did a campaign for a smaller figure, about $15,000. Charles Poekel is a first time filmmaker. I met him through IFP. This is a super scrappy Christmas tree salesman in Green Point who can sell trees all day and he's sad and despondent and lonely but it's this super charming romantic comedy. It has a great sense of place and community. They did a campaign that, again, wasn't one of these huge landmark campaigns, but it's a small, micro-budgeted, intimate film and they started to introduce it to the local community that the film is actually about.
There are some short films like that too. Papa Machete which looks so cool, is a Miami based filmmaker, he's part of that Borscht collective. They did a great, small scale campaign. Welcome to Leith, which I'm so excited to see, is about these white supremacists that take over this entire town. They are so funny when they are talking about their campaign because they are like, "Yeah, we really wanted to make sure that we weren't tapping into the white supremacist community." They had done a campaign -- I think they actually did two campaigns previously -- building audience one film to the next and using Kickstarter as, almost, the home base to grow that number. They're using Kickstarter as a place to build their brand and their audience and take it from project to project as they establish themselves as filmmakers.
NFS: If you had a successful Kickstarter, how do you bring your backers to your next project? Do you, say, send an update saying, look at my new project?
DS: I view Kickstarter as this home base. I come from IFP, where all we talked about all day was -- you as the filmmaker sustaining yourself and quantifying who your audience is and what your brand is. No one is going to do that work for you and take it off your hands. In our independent film climate, right now, I view Kickstarter as this physical place where you can grow and sustain that audience from project to project. We do have so many people on the site who are doing exactly that. You go from your first short film to your second short film to your first feature and beyond and, actually, just use it as this tool to bring one to the next and that audience keeps growing and supporting you and you're communicating with them. Then it becomes such a vital tool to be able to, then, take to the business world at large.
That's what they did with Obvious Child last year. I thought it was so smart -- they did a campaign and proved that there was an audience there. Got great press, really tapped into the Jenny Slate fans of the world, really tapped into the feminist community and, then, were able to say, "This might not be the type of film that you think should sell for lots and lots of money at Sundance but we've proven that there is an audience that's excited about this, here they are." I think that's the same kind of idea: grow that audience, build that community, use the metrics Kickstarter has that understand that community and what they want, and take them along with you for the ride.
NFS: Of the campaigns for films premiering at Sundance 2015, did any have a strategy that was different or one you hadn't seen before?
DS: I don't know if there is one that really stands out as a super left field use of the platform. A lot of the campaigns that we have this year are great and creative and excellent uses of the platform, but fit into this rubric that we see of independent films that are on Kickstarter that are going to Sundance. Which is, you know, they're not reinventing the wheel, they're not raising for these grand amounts, or raising instead of traditional funding. They're doing it in tandem with everything else they have going on. Honestly, the ones that stand out to me are the films from last year that are now campaigning for theatrical distribution. Actual distribution campaigns -- this is just a different use of the platform that we haven't really seen enough of before. It's such a logical fit just because filmmakers need audiences to come to theaters, and why not take that into your own hands and build that audience and raise money to bring it to theaters?
I think the David Cross project for HITS which is live right now is so cool. At Sundance last year the film got great offers. They got great traditional distribution offers that, ultimately, they just didn't think would be able to serve the film the way they wanted it to be served. What he is doing is he is releasing it as pay-what-you-want on BitTorrent next month, which is dope, and then they also what to release it as pay-what-you-want in movie theaters in every state.
NFS: Pay-what-you-want in movie theaters, really?
DS: He is bringing it to his core fan base on Kickstarter, he's raising money to bring it to movie theaters and book it there. Then people can, literally, just show up and pay whatever they want to see it. Something like that is, obviously, a radical strategy. At all levels, I think that people are finding creative uses to not only use Kickstarter as fundraising but also as audience engagement. I think it's hard to tell, at this point, what the benefits will be just because it's such a long term thing. With something like Obvious Child, it's only in the rear view that you can see that it all started on Kickstarter. What Kickstarter is -- it's the first place you, as a filmmaker, publicly articulate what you are doing, what this film is about, what you need help with, and why audiences should be a part of it. It's only once you can see everything else that has happened that you can trace it backwards and say, "That all started there."
NFS: Were there specific strategies that made these Sundance film campaigns successful?
DS: I guess one thing I should plug is that we don't have many partnerships, but we have this amazing partnership with Sundance that has been in place since long before I was there and pretty much since Kickstarter was a thing. I think this is the 4th year it's been running where we work with the Artist Services team, who are incredible and lend their mentorship resources. We do this to really make sure these projects are thinking about their campaigns in the right way, and it's accounted for close to $9M of projects over the last four years.
NFS: That’s quite a lot.
DS: The success rate for projects that go through that program is higher than the site average. Because Sundance has been supporting them, they are great projects and because the team is so knowledgeable on how to run great campaigns and really taking a stand of making sure these filmmakers are super prepared. I always want to strategize with filmmakers before they launch. I hate when it's just in a bubble thing of, "Oh, that project is there," and then we get an email from them panicked two weeks later, "Oh, should I email my friends about this?" "Yes, you should definitely email your friends about it."
I think that all of those projects, nearly all of them, that are at the festival this year and we've supported through the partnership with Sundance are all really great examples of how to run a great Kickstarter campaign. I think at a core level, it's about having a page that's an incredibly strong story about why you are doing this. You having personality -- being exciting about the film or project itself is also there in the Kickstarter. Then, just having a great strategy for getting the word out about it. That's 90% of the conversations that I have with creators; it's all about outreach and it's all about how you make sure this isn't a tree falling in the woods. Who do you want to be impacted by it and who cares about this story that you are telling? Why are you making this film? Whatever the answer to that question is, it's all about starting that process now and finding fun, creative ways to get there. Not just, "Hey, help us. Give money to our Kickstarter," but finding cool ways to engage and share with those communities. That's something that I'd say all of the films here this year did. Whether it's a film about feminism, or a film about Green Peace, or a film about extinction, or a film about football. Whatever it is, you do that work and figure out -- It's also the first place where you articulate what the story is all about.
NFS: It's sometimes hard for filmmakers to understand what the answer is to, "Who is the audience for my film?" You mentioned Welcome to Leith and how they wanted to find their audience but make sure not to tap into the KKK. Can you think of some films that did a good job of reaching their audience?
DS: There's a film called In Football We Trust, which is a documentary about at-risk youth and high school football players. Their campaign us going on right now, and they're definitely working on it, but they're also world premiering a film at the Sundance film festival so they are running around doing a million things. The filmmakers describe it as Hoop Dreams for this town's high school football team. Also, they're featuring interviews with and support from more professional NFL football players. So a film like that, the outreach campaign has so many angles to explore. You can go and tap into the NFL audience, and the people who love those players, and their networks and making sure they're ambassadors for the film, the Kickstarter project, all of that. Also, the local community where the film takes place, and those high school students, and all of their networks and types of people who are leaders in the physical, geographic community that the film takes place in. Then, also, fans of high school football, in general. Then, you can also tap into organizations that deal with poverty and deal with at-risk youth and deal with methods of keeping those kids out of bad situations and logical organizational partnerships there that could help. Then, that's not even covering the friends and family and actually network that you have. Also, obviously, the fact that this film is premiering at Sundance and is an exciting piece of art. The fans that you will amass at your festival premiere are another kind of network.
People don't, usually, try to break it down like that before they start a campaign, but they absolutely should. It can be a hard and daunting process if it's just a page and you go, "Alright, how do I get the internet to take a look at this." I think it's this process of saying, "Well, my friends and family are one bucket, here are all of the other buckets that would be excited and interested in this Kickstarter project and in this film." Then, "Where can I reach them, where can I activate them."
NFS: How about for films that want to fundraise and are not at Sundance -- how approachable is Kickstarter? Can filmmakers message you before they start a campaign?
DS: Yeah, we are totally available. I'm one of three on our film team and then I'm one of about 100 at an organization that it's all about making sure people have the resources they need. Although, I obviously can't talk on the phone all day to all 900 of the projects that are live on the site right now. I'd say the first point of entry is just making sure you are doing your research. There's a Kickstarter Creators Handbook. When I got my job and needed to become an expert on Kickstarter, it's the first thing that I started doing. Reading this guide is very user friendly and walks you through all of the essentials of a great campaign. I'm sure if you're a filmmaker in the filmmaking community, you have friends who have run campaigns. It's useful talking to them about tips and tricks. But, you can always get our help, which it pretty cool. We have a feature on the site where, basically, before you launch, you can ask for feedback and that gets you in touch with someone at Kickstarter who is an expert on your category and they can give you feedback on it. And again, it's literally my job to be present and out in the world supporting films and filmmakers. I am always talking to creators about their campaigns and brainstorming with them and talking them down from ledges when they're in the middle of a stressful campaign.
NFS: Sometimes, people have a campaign and for whatever reason it just doesn't happen. Do those people have to run away in shame, never to try again? What do you say to people who have failed on Kickstarter?
DS: I think that we, as a creative community, and, probably, we as a society in general, have this fear of failure. In reality, I think it's great to try things and to put yourself out there, make yourself vulnerable, to take whatever you are working on to the world and use that as a learning experience. Maybe your goal was just too ambitious and you hadn't really thought it through. "Oh, I could have actually done this for half of the amount and still made it great. That's a raise in my cross hairs." Maybe you get feedback after you launch your project that just wasn't great or you didn't really think through what great rewards could be for a campaign or you didn't craft the correct outreach strategy.
I think there is always work to be done while you're running the campaign and the site is super versatile to help you. If you do have a project video that you are no longer happy with, switch it out. You can do that. Add new rewards. You can always strategize before you throw in the towel. The metrics that we do have really do show that success could come at any point in the project. So even if you're only 20% of the way there with five days left, you actually have an 80% chance of getting all the way. The highest funded project on the site, "The Coolest Cooler" which isn't a film project but it was a smart cooler, was a failed campaign.
NFS: Really, it failed?
DS: Their first campaign for around $100,000 did not succeed. They relaunched at $50,000. Their big flaw with their first campaign was they never actually showed the cooler in their project video. They relaunched and had a great video and raised $13M. Independent film, in general, can take a lot of work and different tries and different edits. You can really retool things to find the right way to do it, like the Coolest Cooler Kickstarter. You should always aim for something that will get it done creatively and be within your reach. But I think you should always be pivoting and finding out what you can do better, and relaunching.
NFS: How are filmmakers continuing to use the Kickstarter platform in new ways?
DS: To me, Kickstarter is this sustained thing within the independent film community that we know is a tool and we know is a resource and we know is there. I've been really interested in seeing filmmakers conceive of it as part of a much larger strategy. Again, not only to fill a gap or not only because you need money, but because you know that this is a useful tool that's going to help you build an audience. It's going to help you sustain your career. It's going to help you quantify who you are and get buzz going in terms of festivals.
We have this sustained presence at Sundance, as well as so many other festivals throughout the world with projects at all levels. I would totally encourage filmmakers and creators to really think strategically about how Kickstarter isn't just going to go to fill a financial gap, but to also be a core part of their budget but also their overall strategy for the film and the release. Starting to do that work and be really strategic about how you're introducing the project into the world will make it super lasting and super relevant to the film's entire life cycle.
Thank you, Dan!
What do you think about using Kickstarter as a way to get your film distributed, either by using your base to leverage for a better distribution deal or setting up distribution yourself?