Kickstarter Film helps projects on the popular crowdfunding reach their goals. But how do they pick the types of projects they help on?

We spoke with Kickstarter Director of Narrative Film, Elise McCave about that, but in the process learned about the pitching process in general, and what opportunities Kickstart Film has coming up for filmmakers in the very near future. 

NFS: Tell us about Kickstarter film and where you get involved in the process?

Elise McCave: I think lots of people who have a general understanding of Kickstarter as a fundraising tool, as a player in the international and especially the U.S cultural space. One thing that people aren't always totally clear on is that we have this outreach team made up of people who have worked within a really broad range of cultural institutions and other organizations. Our team has worked in publishing, music, and fine arts,  design, and technology. Then this group of 15 or 20 of us works in-house with the creative community. 

About 5% of the people who come use the site will interact with us in some way. Sometimes we do some fairly intense handholding around strategizing for a campaign and then working with them as they execute it.

It could also just be that we dash off a couple of emails with, some top-line thoughts about how they could be thinking about their campaign and what they might need to do to make it even more successful. A lot of our work is working one-on-one with filmmakers as they prepare and then execute their fundraising campaign.

NFS:  How do you identify which filmmakers and campaigns you work with? 

McCave: We lean pretty heavily on our industry friends and partners to do a certain amount of sifting through an enormous field of projects. That turns it into a smaller field of projects that seem interesting or dynamic or exciting.

Having done that, we will then meet with X number of projects through those partners, and some projects just in a way announce themselves.

It might be that they have a budget gap that fits very well with the budget gap that we can help with. It might be that the film is particularly well suited to Kickstarter as a platform. For instance, it has a preexisting audience that the filmmaker has access to. Maybe it has a central character, either an actor if it's a narrative or a central protagonist if it's a documentary, that already has a certain following.

Often the projects that are right for the site are rising to the top already.

NFS:  Is there a through-line in the projects you help out with?  What are the qualities of a project that typically stand out?

McCave: There are lots of different ways that projects stand out for us. It might be that a project has a huge and engaged preexisting audience. For instance Legend of Vox Machina, which ran a project in March/April last year and has an enormous preexisting audience on Twitch, which led to them raising more than $11 million. 

Sometimes it will be a short narrative and it's a thesis film from someone who's relatively new. You can see when a filmmaker has a very strong vision and commitment. It might be through how detailed they get when they talk about the project, their relationship to the project and how much care they have selected and presented the project with. 

You can see when a filmmaker has a very strong vision and commitment. It might be through how detailed they get when they talk about the project, their relationship to the project and how much care they have selected and presented the project with. 

It's not the case that we are just looking out for big blockbusters that are going to raise a ton of money. There's a level of care and vision, which really announces itself. You notice it immediately, you go onto the page and you think to yourself, "Oh, they've really gone to a good deal of effort to describe their vision and their commitment to the vision." That really communicates and soars above the masses.

NFS: Do you notice trends in content both in terms of what creatives are trying to do and in what audiences are responding to?

McCave: We do. Yes, there are broad trends, but I actually think that the things that catch our eye are enormously varied. If anything, we try not to repeatedly promote similar projects. We are seeking a balance and variety so that anybody could stumble on the Kickstarter film project page and find something that they're interested in. Someone shouldn't just be presented with 12 social issue documentaries if what they're really interested in is a short animation.

NFS: It seems like part of what you're doing is connecting an audience directly to the content they want to see at an earlier stage in the process. Usually, audiences don't play a role in what gets chosen to move forward. Plus creatives don't get to connect to audiences until projects are done. Someone's doing all this guesswork: "That'll connect to an audience... that won't connect to an audience," but in this case, it's more organic, right?

McCave:  Exactly. A documentary tends to do very well on Kickstarter. Documentary filmmakers use it frequently for fantastic projects. I think people find it sometimes easier to connect with the story of a real group of humans than perhaps to connect to a group of characters that lives in the mind of a filmmaker, and isn't yet truly visible to them.

That said, that's not what everyone's looking for. So yes, trying to keep an interesting balance by promoting a variety of different projects and also figuring out what people are responding to, what people are backing when they were offered up to these 10 projects, what do people tend to grasp? What do our users tend to gravitate towards? That's also important, but the variety is going to always remain important, even if lots of people are gravitating towards one project.

NFS: Do you ever work to try and address that discrepancy in terms of narrative and doc? 

McCave: For those filmmakers that I work with, I end up acting like an outside consultant. I wouldn't elevate myself to the level of story consultant, but maybe messaging consultant. So in that respect, I'll look at someone's page and say, "You know what's really missing here? I really don't get who was making this film," or "You're really not managing to communicate why you wrote this script. I think there is an interesting story to tell that will help you connect with your audience," or "I really have no idea what this is about, I know you want to keep your story under wraps but you are actually going to have to give us a little bit more to bring us in."

I'll look at someone's page and say, "You know what's really missing here? I really don't get who was making this film," or "You're really not managing to communicate why you wrote this script. I think there is an interesting story to tell that will help you connect with your audience,"

I can't do that with everyone. We might have 400 film and video projects live on the site at any one moment. Yet the goal is to help people to see the ways in which they can communicate their project better. That is a skill that people need, whether they are crowdfunding or whether they are appealing to investors or whether they're seeking funding through grants.

NFS: That's extremely helpful advice for any filmmaker because if those are the consistent things you're seeing that need to be brought forth.

McCave: Yes. When I think about Last Black Man in San Francisco one of the things that was so exciting about that film is, you could watch the film and you could think to yourself, "My God, this is a beautiful, lyrical, unique vision." But I feel like when you find out the backstory to the film, the relationship between the writers, between the director and the lead actor... when you find that all of that additional material, it elevates it to another plane. I loved the film and I went to the premiere at Sundance and I just knew I was about to watch something very, very special, but it was a result of a very, very special and unique relationship.

NFS: Was that something you saw in the early stages and you thought could be brought forth, as well?

McCave: Yes. You can see it on their Kickstarter page. They raised a good amount of money, obviously, a fraction of the final budget, but they raised it in 2015 so it's a critical time to have raised that money. You definitely get that sense of where this film came from, the people that it came from, the relationship it grew out of. They have a photo of the two of them at high school and that backstory is really important. Constantly bringing your pitch back to its roots and managing to communicate its urgency and relevance at this moment.

NFS:  Do you attend festivals and events just to get a sense of what's happening and what else is out there that you might want to get involved in? Do you wait for that, like you said, for industry partners to bring things to your attention? Do you ever just scope around on Kickstarter and see what's happening? Obviously, there's so much!

McCave: We do all of those things and we do as much of all of the things as we can within the confines of a 24 hour day. We'll look at what's coming through the sites. I'll see lots of stuff launches on the side that we didn't know about ahead of time, so we'll try and do a reasonably good quick scan of things that seem cool and exciting. We go to lots of film festivals where usually when they have some industry elements, some presentation of projects in progress.

I'm looking forward to seeing the films at Sundance this year that raised some portion of their funding on Kickstarter. We will go and check in with our people, make sure that they feel supported and also find out what everyone's doing next.

NFS: Does it vary when you get involved with various projects on their timelines?

McCave: We're happy to support filmmakers whenever it is that they need the money that they need. So, we just had a feature doc called Truth or Consequences. They ran a campaign back in November, really just for the end of their post-production budget. They needed to close that gap and also to rally the community around the film ahead of that. I'm not sure. So, in that case, it was right at the end of their printing process and we want to help the filmmakers at the moment that they most need the help.

NFS: What do you see as the place with the most opportunity for newer filmmakers to break int these days?

McCave:  We have coming up in the first quarter of this year is a real focus on short film. Short films have always done really well on the sites for a number of reasons, not least because it is relatively easy to raise a pretty large portion of your shorts budget, as opposed to a narrative feature, where what you're going to raise on Kickstarter is going to be proportionately smaller.

So yeah, shorts have always done really well and we just wanted to create a moment where we could really focus everyone's attention on that. So, that moment is the month of March. We have a lot of industry friends and colleagues will be looking to Kickstarter for the month of March to scout for projects. We will be focusing the site on shorts projects, and obviously we'll be getting a lot of filmmakers do launch their shorts projects. So, we're hoping to create a moment for shorts on Kickstarter and really see a boost in the number of projects that come through, that get funded and it'll be fun. It'll be very fun to watch what happens over the course of the following 12 months to see what all of those shorts films end up doing.

NFS: Is that going to be a potentially annual thing or is that just something you're floating now this March to see what happens?

McCave: It's the first time we've done it. So, it'll be interesting to see what comes from it and then we can make a call on whether this becomes an annual thing, where the March is the right month to do it and that sort of thing. We've produced a bunch of bespoke educational resources, specifically directed at shorts filmmakers, so that's been a very fun kind of writing project for Liz and me over the last couple of months.

NFS: To help them identify how to optimize their short for Kickstarter and their page?

McCave: Yes, exactly. Basically, we preempted the group of questions that we get the most often and just written a whole load of stuff for people, so that even if they don't get that one-on-one relationship with us, there is actually a document which contains all of the things that we would say to them out loud on a call, anyway. We've done that, but it will be interesting to see what comes through and how they perform. We're going to give him a lot of promotion, so we'll be pushing him pretty hard over the course of that month of March.

The hope is that if someone was on the fence about whether to run a campaign or not, then the additional promotional support that they can get in March might just tip the balance and they can be part of this cohort of cool, exciting, boundary-pushing, career-altering, altering short films. It also points to a bunch of other resources, which should be all collected in one place to help short filmmakers sort of figure out, "Okay, what am I making this for? What do I want it to do in the world? How can we think about this? Do I want to make money out of this? Do I want this to be a stepping stone to something bigger? Am I just desperate to make this piece of art to deliver on my vision?" That's the goal, and having not done it before, we don't know what will be. I'm sure there'll be some things that come out of it that are exciting, some things we didn't anticipate. I hope some films will pop up in film festivals in 2021.

For more, see our ongoing list of coverage of the 2020 Sundance Film Festival.

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No Film School's podcast and editorial coverage of the 2020 Sundance Film Festival is sponsored by RODE Microphones and SmallHD.