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!