Independent Documentary Thriving in Brooklyn

Guest post by Steve Holmgren.

We are back to our regular twice weekly events at UnionDocs, a documentary arts space in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. UnionDocs’ microcinema continues to be an exciting place to see important nonfiction films: from classics made by the likes of George Stoney, Rosa von Praunhiem, and Pare Lorentz to underseen crtical favorites like October Country and The Carter to boundary-pushing experimental work made by artists like Lynne Sachs, James T. Hong, and Ken Jacobs. In addition, UnionDocs presents panels and lectures, including talks last year on distribution and access (Richard Amromowitz, Todd Sklar, Ashley Sabin) and documentary criticism (Thom Powers, Richard Brody, Lisa Rosman, Ed Halter), as well as nonfiction photography, audio, interactive art, and writing. Always followed by engaging discussions with presenting artists.

We also host a year-long program for twelve emerging artists called the UnionDocs Collaborative. The participants collaborate on interdisciplinary group nonfiction production, and also attend private weekly workshops, sometimes with visiting artists. Between the collaborative, and the artist conversations, UnionDocs is a site for conversations about the future of documentary.

Coming up this Sunday (TODAY), we welcome back French music video maker Vincent Moon, who has redefined the genre with his intimate and profound Take Away Shows with bands like Grizzly Bear and Beirut. We will host a panel investigating documentary journalism and global perspectives in digital media, with guests from Wall Street Journal’s video team and among others. We also are continuing a monthly screening series with vital NYC independent and avant-garde distributor The Film-Makers Coop, and this month kick off a new screening series with Cineaste Magazine.We are trying to do our part to keep the flame going for independent and boundary pushing documentary. For a list of upcoming events and to sign up for our weekly email list visit:

Post by Steve Holmgren, Programmer at UnionDocs and independent Producer (Putty Hill, forthcoming documentary The Ballad of Genesis and Lady Jaye)

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