KickStarter: The Good, Bad, & Ugly

I forget again who sent me this link, but I found CoffeeAndCelluloid's post on their KickStarter experience illuminating.

Although I have yet to engage in a crowdfunding attempt yet, I have been contemplating. And I have been providing some advice, thoughts, and general consulting to those that have. I think the points Joey Daoud raises about needing to raise a fan base first, having some investment pre-committed, and needing to have supporters, promoters, and blogs lined up in advance are all right on.  He's helping all of us learn how to make this better together.

Joey also posted many good links to bring more perspective on the whole crowdfunding experience:

  1. Kickstarter and Flattr
  2. How to Figure the True Cost of a Kickstarter Project
  3. Behavior Patterns of Kickstarter Funders
  4. Feature Film Editing and Kickstarter [Podcast]

A Favorite Film Website: Neither The Veil Nor The Four Walls

For a film not yet shot, Neither The Veil Nor The Four Walls, is a beautiful website, and one that we can be expected to be an inspiration for many other websites. It's got a great crowdfunding mechanism, clean simple design, easy navigation, and all the critical information you want. Somebody sent me a nice note Marian Evans sent me a nice note about it, but I forget who, but truly, thanks!

Financing in a Post-Capital Plane: Reflections on Putty Hill's Kickstarter Campaign

Today's guest post is from Stephen Holmgren, Putty Hill's producer. Last winter, Putty Hill director Matt Porterfield and I met with a small group of friends at Matt's house for a home-cooked Baltimore dinner. We were there to discuss fundraising ideas for Matt’s pending feature, Metal Gods, which we were determined to shoot over the summer. Matt had been polishing the script for years, and we were having success meeting great teen actors from local auditions. All we needed was some money to shoot and edit the movie.

We were open to working with production companies and investors on a variety of levels-- wanting more than anything just to have something completed by our self-imposed September deadline. We had various budget levels, including a best case, worst case, and disaster scenario. We knew that, despite positive industry responses, the reality was that if this movie was going to happen it would most likely have to come from local financial support. We brainstormed a long list of ideas, knowing we needed to reach outside of friends and family, to people who supported the arts. At this point, Kickstarter was in its infancy and not on our radar.

Flash forward to August. Time was running out, and our financial prospects were slim. Having failed to secure any concrete money from traditional industry channels, Matt and our team improvised, forging ahead with an alternate scenario called Putty Hill: a few pages culled together taking a screen test for Metal Gods as its inspiration. Working with what you would be hard-pressed to call a "budget",  we shot the new scenario with a week of pre-production and a mere 12 days of shooting. The city of Baltimore opened its arms, providing free meals, locations, equipment, and services. We ended up spending around $20,000 in total shooting which we received from a few small donations via friends and local business, and some meager savings Matt and fellow producer Jordan Mintzer had put aside.

The footage was great. Editor Marc Vives and Matt worked quickly to put together a rough cut. We knew we had something special. We also knew we were facing at least another $20,000 in order to get the movie in shape for any festival exhibition, with costs like color correction, sound mixing, and HD mastering.

That's when we started considering Kickstarter. A friend, Matthew Lessner, had recently run a successful campaign for finishing funds with his project, The Woods.  I reached out just in time for us to receive his last invite, and we decided to give it a go.  We spent a few weeks planning our campaign, devising various levels for contributions and strategies to get the word out.  We came up with a strong list, with incentives like special thanks on the DVD and Putty Hill "wifebeater" ($25), a signed copy of Matt Porterfield’s unreleased first feature, Hamilton ($50), limited edition archival pigment print photograph ($500), and even Executive Producer credit with admission and roundtrip airfare to our North American Premiere ($5,000).

After we had our levels set, we brainstormed ways to get the word out and decided to aim low: $10,000 in a three week campaign, ending the night before our World Premiere at the Forum in the Berlin Film Festival.

We had around $7,000 within the first 48 hours. We were excited, but also realized we set the bar much too low for what we actually need to finish the film and the amount of support we were going to be able to drum up.  We pushed on with individual emails to key friends, family, and industry, paying particular attention to people who could be helpful in not only contributing but spreading the word.  I sent around 2,000 emails in a period of a couple of weeks.  We passed our goal, and in the final days were able miraculously climb to $20,624.  It helped that we found a generous soul in New York City who signed on as 1 of 2 available Executive Producers at the $5,000 level (note, there is still one more slot open, inquire within).

Though we exceeded our initial goals, we learned a lot along the way and think we could have done even better. My sense is that we reached about 65% or so of our realistic potential with the campaign. Personally a lot of my emails went out late stages due to all the pressure and chaos with finishing the film.  Getting these emails out in the first days to encourage blog posts, Facebook mentions, tweets, mass emails, etc is crucial to get people aware and donating early. Regular updates to these folks also helps keep the momentum going.  We did some of this, but we certainly could have done more.

We also quickly reached our friends and families, but could have used more planning in branching out to a wider audience.  It is crucial to hit people who are key in spreading the word, and also those outside of your social and film circles.  It seems nowadays I get emails daily from friends with Kickstarter projects, and I want to help them all, especially those that helped us.  But Kickstarter is about a lot more than friends giving money to each others projects.  When you are able to get posted on list servs, blogs, and have people forward to institutions outside of who you know,  the power of the campaign really comes together.

I found the experience with Kickstarter very pleasant overall. While Kickstarter isn't a necessity to set up donation levels and raise money for your projects, the program legitimizes your requests, allows for you to build a community around your campaign, and gives you an excuse to ask people to donate without feeling uncomfortable about it.  It feels very official, the site looks nice and is inviting for people to browse, donate, and view other projects. It was a big confidence booster to realize over $20,000 in grassroots support.  We did shop the film around again in the post-production stage, and although people seemed to like what they saw, we again were unable to get any firm money commitments and found ourselves back at square one.  Kickstarter provided a much-needed alternative for financing in a way where we could directly connect with friends and fans, without pre-selling any rights or losing control of the project.  It provided us a way to tap into the Baltimore community and beyond in ways which seemed unreachable just a few months back in our brainstorming session.

We had a few complications with withdrawing our funds following the campaign, but the Kickstarter team was helpful overall with customer service, although it is a small crew with an ever-increasing group of projects being launched.  I’ve turned into one of those old school phone people, and it was a challenge not having a direct number to call to get concrete answers when we needed help.

Another reality we are facing is that the campaign is over, but the costs are still spiraling.  We are facing difficult decisions with music rights, and are working on figuring out how to finance striking a 35mm print for proposed German distribution in the fall and hopefully eventually US distribution as well.  We have decided for a limited time to continue our campaign through our own website,, which Kickstarter has thankfully given us full approval to do. Thanks to a recent Washington Post article on our campaign and recent positive reviews as our SxSW screenings get underway, we are continuing to receive traffic on our site and donations.

There are definitely other ways of crowd funding and alternative sites, but I think Kickstarter definitely has the right formula and feel to continue to help not only independent films but projects of all natures for years to come.  It feels similar to what iTunes did for mp3’s in some respects or Netflix for DVD’s; the system makes sense and is currently leading the way, although due to the nature of the game, there are always opportunities for viable alternatives.  As it stands, I am looking to set-up another Kickstarter Campaign in the future with UnionDocs, the nonprofit documentary arts center in Williamsburg, Brooklyn where I program (often documentary films) for some of our many financial needs.  I imagine we’ll be back for fundraising for Matt’s next Baltimore film as well…

Good Luck, Steve Holmgren

Steve Holmgren is a New York-based Programmer and Producer.  He is the Programmer at UnionDocs and also works with the Robert Flaherty Film.  He was integral in developing Metal Gods, as well as Putty Hill. He continues efforts to distribute Porterfield’s first feature,Hamilton which will have a rare NYC screening at BAM on Monday, April 12 with Director Matt Porterfield joined by Richard Brody of the New Yorker for discussion

Miao Wang On The Secrets of Her Kickstarter Success

We have a guest post today from Miao Wang, director of Beijing Taxi, set to premiere shortly in SXSW.

A number of people have asked me for my secrets in regards to Beijing Taxi’s successful recent Kickstarter campaign. Frankly, the campaign’s success far exceeded my expectations. As is often the case, I simply had no alternative. I had gotten the last of my rejection letters from the post production grants I applied for. I had just received my invitation to have BEIJING TAXI’s world premiere at SXSW. It gave me a much-needed boost of energy and a deadline to push for! I knew having SXSW’s world premiere would be a crucial element in the fundraising effort, yet it was a couple of weeks before I could publicly announce it. The pressure is on! It was either get into mounting debt for the post production expenses, or do my best to raise as much as I can! It seemed like a win-win situation. I had heard about Kickstarter a few month ago, but didn’t manage to find an invitation to post a project until the last minute. Luckily my friends at Argot Pictures came to the rescue and helped me secured an invitation. I was due to start color correction and sound mix in two weeks!

There were several limitations to the Kickstarter campaign from the very beginning. I knew I had to raise at least $10,000 in a very short period of time. I had to decide whether to go for a lower goal, like $5000, which is much more achievable, or just go for the full $10,000 bare minimum I truly needed to raise. $10,000 seemed like an impossible goal in 30 days, but I immediately decided on a back up plan. I will raise as much as I can through Kickstarter, and if in the last day we’re far from the goal, I have asked my family to essentially be on-call to pledge a “temporary loan” to make sure I don’t lose what has been raised up to that point. I also felt that, knowing the reality of the full amount I have to raise, people will feel more inclined to make a pledge amount that will make a difference.

Chinese new year always felt like an auspicious date to pick for a fundraiser, especially given it’s appropriateness for the film’s China theme. This year, Chinese new year was on February 14, 31 days away from the date I received the Kickstarter invitation. However, I had already started brainstorming creative ideas for pledge rewards a few days before that, so that I would be set to post and launch the project right away!

In terms of pledge rewards, I feel like it’s important to create some value in the rewards. I always believe that if you put your heart into creating something, people will sense that, and more willing to stand behind that. You’ve put all your heart into this film you’ve worked on for so long, your rewards should in some ways reflect the same heart and attention you’ve put into the film and not just something you slapped together. In two previous local NY based fundraiser parties, my team and I have obsessively handmade art objects like flipbooks (made from sequential frame grabs from the film) and an art book made with images from the film. We still had a bunch of the flipbooks and one art book left, so I naturally included them as part of the rewards. I diligently looked through some of the most successful projects on Kickstarter to get inspired for ideas as well as see how I can cater them to my project. I also wanted to think about cultural related reward incentives specific to Beijing. The dumpling class, a personal tour of Beijing with the director seemed like enticing rewards for those with deeper pockets.

To get the word out for the Kickstarter campaign, I set out on a major push in two phases. I signed up with a mailing list manager service (Mailchimp). I exported all my contacts from my many different stages of life into the mailing list manager. This allowed me to send out a beautifully designed graphics rich email campaign, and not just a text-based email. I sent out my first email blast as soon as I launched my Kickstarter campaign. In this first blast I was not yet allowed to publicize SXSW, so I just posted the headline as “accepted for premiere at a major film festival, details coming soon...” I also included some BEIJING TAXI updates from the last year, including grants received and labs attended. I knew SXSW was to make its press release on February 4, 10 days before my Kickstarter deadline, so I had to be ready to go on a massive e-blast campaign right away. As expected, the first phase brought in some pledges from closer friends, but it was far from enough and pledges started to trail off a week or so after the email blast. I couldn’t send out too many blasts because I wanted to send out the important announcement of SXSW on the 4th. In the meanwhile, I posted the Kickstarter widget on the home page of BEIJING TAXI’s website, tried to plaster my Facebook and Twitter pages, as well as reach out to my funders and supporters to help with the outreach. Many friends have kindly cross posted on their Facebook and other social networking sites. My diligent intern Aiyana Parker also helped me research film blogs and Asian related blogs. We made a list of those to reach out to once SXSW is announced. Phase two – SXSW announcement. As soon as SXSW news is released, I added the SXSW laurel on the home page of BEIJING TAXI’s website. I also sent out my second email blast with the headline “BEIJING TAXI : World Premiere at SXSW!!” in the subject line of the email. Sure enough, pledges starting flooding in. Aiyana emailed all the film blogs and Asian culture related blogs to help give a shout out to the Kickstarter campaign that was to end in 10 days. The sense of urgency prompted many to help.

I can’t say enough that I have been so moved by all the wonderful family, friends, clients, co-workers, colleagues from my entire life who have pledged their support to make this campaign a success. It would not have been possible without them. Aside from the loving support of those who know me, Kickstarter’s website has been in itself an incredible outlet to reach out to new supporters. The biggest pledge for our campaign actually came from someone who just stumbled upon the project while browsing Kickstarter. This backer sent me a message and expressed interest in making a significant pledge. We exchanged a few Skype video chats. I mailed him a preview screener of the DVD. He decided he liked the project and went ahead with a pledge at the $5000 level! Some other associate producer ($500) level pledges have also come from a group of volunteers for a non-profit organization called A couple of people were interested in supporting the film. They approached me about possibly having a private screening event for a very small group of people interested in making an associate producer level pledge. It was less than 8 days before the end of the campaign. They helped throw together this small private home screening party where we met. Three people from the group made a pledge as a result.

To me, the success of this Kickstarter campaign is not only in having over-reached our pledge goal, which is on its own an incredible feat, but also in the new supporters and interests in the film that has been gathered along the way. More than just a fundraiser, the campaign has served as a fantastic promotional and outreach tool for the film.

Beijing native Miao Wang has a B.A. in economics from the University of Chicago and a M.F.A. in design/film from Parsons. Her award-winning documentary YELLOW OX MOUNTAIN has screened at over 20 venues and broadcast on WNET Thirteen. She apprenticed at Maysles Films. Miao has been awarded grants from Sundance, NYSCA and the Jerome Foundation. She is a fellow of Tribeca All Access, IFP Filmmakers Lab and the IFP Market.


PS.  Word of Miao's success has started to spread.  Lonely Planet just covered it.  Spread the word.