How Crowdfunding Can Screw Your Distribution Plan
What you do in your crowdfunding campaign can affect the final release of your film — positively and negatively. Here's what you should keep in mind from the start.
It’s been four years since I ran a Kickstarter campaign of my own, and shared several articles about things to think about before running a campaign of your own (part two here). In that time, I’ve written dozens of drafts of my script, changed titles from Manchild to Amateur, released a short prequel, and now have a 2,337th backer: Netflix. Other than issuing updates to my backers throughout the process, I haven’t been "in the trenches" of running a crowdfunding campaign since 2011. What is new in the world of crowdfunding since then? Turns out, a lot. Many of the capabilities I wanted for my crowdfunding campaign 2011 are now available for you in 2016. And with the progression of many more Kickstarter projects to their ultimate release — though my own is not there yet, as we will be embarking on production soon — there are many new lessons to be learned for the distribution life cycle of your project. These are things you should be thinking about in advance.
The SXSW 2016 panel How Crowdfunding Can Screw Your Distribution Plan held many answers about how a crowdfunding campaign can affect the distribution phase of a project, positively or negatively. And with 20 films from Kickstarter creators screening at SXSW this year, the festival is a great place to have this discussion. Moderated by Missy Laney of Sundance #ArtistServices, the panel included Dan Schoenbrun (Film Lead at Kickstarter and the Executive Producer of the SXSW premiere collective: unconscious), Kristin Cooney (Managing Director of Ro*Co Films Educational), and Matt Grady (President of Factory 25).
It's not the money; it's the audience
Schoenbrun: The first thing with crowdfunding is not the money. The biggest thing is the people you’re bringing on board. If you make them feel like part of the team, they’re your street team when the film comes out. A distributor shouldn’t be thinking about how your backers could cannibalize your audience,; they should be thinking about how the backers can expand it.
Plus, it's a data tool. You can use it to understand your audience, where they’re coming from. For example, for the documentary on Kids, the single biggest referrer for backers was a blog about sneaker culture. So they learned about their core audience: ‘90s kids from Brooklyn with disposable income now. [The filmmakers] are able to tell a distributor, "This is our audience."
Grady: I look at Kickstarter to see if [the filmmakers] were successful. It is a built-in audience. With Little Feet, the film was done; it’s a small film that’s barely over 60 minutes and the Kickstarter campaign really helped.
Don't rush to a digital release
Cooney: We’re looking at other ways to give things away [besides the film]. [For DisHonesty - A Documentary Feature Film] they didn’t have a large enough window. They were working with another distributor who was set on releasing the film on iTunes early. It’s hard for me to get people to host a theatrical, educational, or semi-theatrical screening for $350 when it’s available on iTunes for $1.99. There’s pressure on filmmakers to get it out but those people will [still] be there if you can capture them on your website — or via other methods — if your film comes out 6 months later. Sundance has done research on that and it shows there is no difference in releasing a [documentary] digitally during theatrical versus 6 months after theatrical. Don’t rush to release on digital.
Laney: That’s common on docs; Matt, is that true of narratives?
Grady: [For narratives] I do try to rush it out at the same time as theatrical. Not always as soon as I can, and it depends on the film, but for narratives people move on really, really fast. That’s a difference in docs versus narratives.
As for giving away a film on Kickstarter, I think that’s what people go for, and that’s a good, easy option to put on Kickstarter. I think people should wait until it comes out on theaters. But for narratives, only 5% of people actually watch it digitally. Dan, do you have stats on that?
"It’s hard for me to get people to host a theatrical, educational, or semi-theatrical screening for $350 when it’s available on iTunes for $1.99."
Schoenbrun: That 5% statistic is fascinating. We don’t have stats on that because [video watching] is handled externally.
Laney: How are you getting that number?
Grady: We're talking about looking at the number of people who redeem a Vimeo coupon/link versus the number of backers of the project.
It's okay to miss deadlines, but you have to communicate
Schoenbrun: [Filmmakers should ask themselves], how important is it for me to have this money early on? Versus waiting? It’s all about communication and windowing.
Laney: Speaking of communicating... (she references a quote from the Risks and Challenges section of Schoenbrun's own campaign: “We are very confident we will release it as a web series in 2015.")
Schoenbrun: I think we missed the majority of our deadlines. But what we did is that we communicated. Things change, even the title of the project. [The campaign page] says it’s a web series; it ended up becoming a feature film. We communicated, and people were excited for us. This is what we see on 90% of films. When backers start complaining, it’s because they haven’t heard from the filmmakers.
Think carefully and critically about the rewards you offer
Grady: Give fewer and fewer physical things out as rewards is huge. It’s easier. DVDs take longer to make, and sometimes they don’t get fulfilled. Whatever you’re offering, you should be able to do it on your own. The distributor isn’t going to want to make all of your DVDs [and ship them]. With narratives, I’m not even making DVDs for every movie. The filmmaker can say, “I was waiting for you to make them and then I was going to buy them from you.…” This is something that should be discussed with the distributor when making the deal. The distributor’s probably not fulfilling your DVDs.
Laney: Filmmakers fulfill DVDs by buying them from distributor or doing it on their own 50% of the time [as opposed to a distributor taking care of it].
Grady: Don’t offer your backers a private screening. Instead, give them tickets to a larger screening, four-wall a theater, have a party afterward — it'll make the film feel bigger.
Laney: Linsanity sent a form to their backers: “Are you interested in being part of our street team?” People who answered yes got put on a separate list of “super fans” to not annoy their casual fans, and then they could activate them and send materials their way to help get the word out.
Schoenbrun: Don’t think of the release of your film as “there are X number of people that will see my film and the # of backers is eating up that [portion of the audience].” Your Kickstarter is part of your community and marketing and distribution plan and there is power in that.
No Film School's coverage of the 2016 SXSW Film Festival is sponsored by SongFreedom.