A few weeks ago I wrote about the new site Flattr, which is a new venture to try to monetize blog content. Basically it’s a button like a Digg button, you click on stuff you like and depending on how many things you Flattr, the monthly amount of money that’s in your account is evenly divided among the creators.
The other day I got an invite (sign up for one here) and I’ve been messing around with it. It’s really rough. You have to manually submit every article on Flattr, and then embed the code into your post (there’s WordPress plugins, but I haven’t been able to get them work).
The nice thing – even if you’re a content creator, you have to setup a monthly balance (like 2 euros a month – yes, its’ only in euros right now) and you have to Flattr something before you can start posting.
Like I said, the site is really rough and it’s hard to find things on Flattr. I put a few Flattr buttons on some posts and I already got two Flattrs on the Kickstarter post. Of course you have to be a member of Flattr with an invite in order to Flattr something, so the audience is quite small. But I still think it’s an interesting idea.
It’s four days before the deadline for my Kickstarter project reaches its end. I’m only about a third of the way to my $9000 goal – a seemingly impossible feat.
A few hours later the goal is reached! So sudden? Anti-climactic? I know.
Now I wish I could say I received a miracle flood of donations in the 11th hour, or a mysterious backer stumbled on the project and became very interested. But no, it came from a phone call I made asking for an emergency bailout.
A few days later I wrote a check repaying this money. This is my Kickstarter experience.
Instead it might be a hard hitting dose of reality, but I think it’ll balance out the more popular success stories that you read that actually make you think this stuff is easy. And at the end are some things I learned that you can take away and learn from.
(Some backstory: I made a Kickstarter project to fund my feature documentary Bots High, which follows high school robotics teams built combat robots)
Now please don’t get me wrong, I’m still a huge fan of Kickstarter. I think the main thing to takeaway is it’s a tool, not a magical source of funding.
The best thing about having the project is it gave me a hard deadline, and forced me to do stuff I’ve been meaning to do for a while.
So I created the project. Within an hour I got a $25 pledge from a stranger. Yay, hopeful start! I posted the link on all my social networks, and got a good response, mostly from people invovled in the documentary and friends. But then it stalled.
I’m at about $600 and suddenly $9000 seems like a ridiculous ammount. So I started doing what I had been meaning to do – I emailed blogs. Tons of them.
I emailed anything to do with robots, science, technology, teaching. I created a press area on the site so they could grab photos, videos, and logos easily. I got a good response.
A few popular robotics sites wrote about the film, and RSS subscribers went from a handful to a couple hundred. So awareness of the film definitely went way up. Plus I created connections with blogs (and kept a spreadsheet of everyone I contacted, over 100 different sites), which will definitely come in handy once the film is done.
Despite the good writeups on various sites, and increased traffic and subscribers, none of that really converted into donations.
Funding was still stalled around $600. I’ve read studies that people are more likely to give if the funding goal is closer to being reached, rather than really low. So I put in $1500 to bring the level to over $2000. Not exactly close to the goal, but at least it was something in the four digits. ((The study is down on page four of the article. Here’s the quote, “To see whether the strategy made sense, List and Reiley wrote letters to potential donors saying that the university wanted to buy computers for a new environmental-research center. They varied the amount of money that supposedly had already been raised. In some letters, they put the amount in hand at $2,000, out of the $3,000 they needed for a given computer; in others, they said they had raised only $300 and still needed $2,700. The results were overwhelming. The more upfront money Central Florida claimed to have on hand, the more additional money it raised.”))
My marketing campaign continued, and I feel like the awareness was great. I emailed all my mailing lists. A few weeks before the deadline I was the Kickstarter Project of the Day. The project was written about in the Miami New Times Blog (mainly because I was using Kickstarter).
So while awareness was great, that still didn’t convert into donations.
But you know what did work? Credible referrals. A super nice and famous robot builder that I met when he came to Miami wrote about my project on a robot forum. I got a few good donations from that, just because his opinion had a lot of weight and he liked the project.
You already know where this is going. It was a few days before the deadline and aside from a miracle I didn’t see anyway that I was going to reach the goal. I didn’t want to lose all the pledges I already had. Plus I couldn’t have an email going out to everyone saying the project wasn’t successful. I always said from the start that success or not, this is happening, it just depends how much hair I’m going to pull out and stress over.
So I called a relative and got bailed out. Not pretty. Not glorious. Not the ending I was hoping for (I could have used that money, especially now that I got rejected from the Tribeca Gucci Grant).
I learned a lot from this experience, and I think I know where I went wrong and what I can do better in the future (and what you can learn from my experience).
Larger Established Fan Base: Sure, I have a few hundred Fans on Facebook and picked up more fans while marketing the project, but this is my first film and I don’t have anywhere near Kevin Kelly’s 1,000 True Fans. It’s also harder to build a fan base and raise money in the early stages of a project, before you have something to show and spread. That’s why there’s so many finishing grants – they want to put their money on something that has a high chance of seeing completion.
People like a sure thing (preferably a completed thing): So I just touched on this, but it’s a tougher sell for a film in pre-pro or production. A lot of this stems from my short doc/experiment You 2.0. I had been pre-selling DVDs for a few months for $9.99. Got a few buys – I think 30 or so. Then when the DVD was actually done and I raised the price to $14.99, I got tons of orders. People weren’t willing to gamble on a pre-sale. They were fine paying more for a sure thing. So if you’re trying to raise funds while you’re in development or production, you just have to work that much harder to sell it to donors. ((Case in point: Beijing Taxi didn’t get its flood of donations until after their second email blast, which announced it was premiering at SXSW))
Be a Hustler or Find Someone Who Is: So by my standards, I hustled more than I ever have before. But that clearly wasn’t enough, and I should have found someone who is a born hustler to get in touch with more blogs and groups to promote the film (Jon Reiss talks about this, though it relates more to booking films in theaters. Either way, if you’re not a hustler, find someone who is).
Get on a high profile blog: This is pretty elusive and I might as well have put “Create a Smash Hit Viral Video,” but it’s worth mentioning. If I were to have gotten Fluffy on fire or some other video on Boing Boing or Gizmodo, I would have been set.
Going back to You 2.0, I’m not actively promoting it and pay zero for advertising, yet I get a few sales a week. Most of that is coming from two Lifehacker write-ups – one of a video of a guy talking about his office, and the other about a program I had developed (and there’s also an article I wrote on another popular blog about creating that program solely to drum up traffic). That’s how powerful these big aggregating sites are.
Goal Amount: As far as the whole post on the True Cost of a Kickstarter Project, I still stand behind the issues brought up there. But I might add to throw in a dose of reality. I probably should have set the goal lower, maybe $5,000. After all, more can always be raised (Like Diaspora, which is nearly 1800% over their goal. Insanity! A NY Times article does help. And Signal vs. Noise has an interesting explanation as to why people are giving to them.)
Apparently there was a time when a young filmmaker such as yourself could make a decent independent film, submit it to festivals and sit back while distributors threw wads of cash at your feet, all while begging for the privilege to give your little indie the theatrical release it rightfully deserved. Well if that time ever existed have no doubt – it’s long since passed.
These days, the fairy tale seems much more Hans Christen Andersen than Walt Disney. Case in point – today I attended a panel discussion on Digital Distribution as part of the Miami International Film Festival, where I sat before the likes of filmmaker Jon Reiss and Arianna Bocco (of IFC fame) as well as reps from Cinetic and the no-longer-in-business B-Side Entertainment. If there’s a simple way to summarize the 90 minute conversation it’s this quote from John Reiss:
If you want to make an independent film and also make money you must “find a superniche that spends money and make your movies for them.”
The idea is that these days the flip side of DIY production is DIY distribution. They go part-n-parcel. If you’re signing up for one of them, you’re signing up for the other. So as an independent filmmaker it behooves you to figure out who wants to see your movie and how they will see it before you set out on the already difficult task of making. This brought up the first excellent idea of the discussion – Hire a Marketing Producer from day one.
In practice, filmmakers never work alone – the job is just too daunting for one person, no matter how big their ego. Instead, films are made through team work. In this example, the core film-making team includes a producer whose role is primarily promotional. While the other producer is scouting locations, contacting SAG and clearing music, this producer is taking behind the scenes videos, hustling up twitter followers, selling t-shirts and maintaining the production blog. The reality is that this job is so utterly crucial to a films success that it can no longer be relegated to an after thought, especially since it seems that company’s like Netflix determine whether or not to pick up a film based on the amount of buzz it has prior to it’s festival run.
Other things I picked up:
Marketing and distribution is so crucial that half of your budget should be reserved for it. If you only have $10,000 to make your film, spend 5k on the production and save the rest for distribution.
When releasing your DIY movie the biggest obstacle you will face is not piracy, it’s lack of exposure.
The time has come to redefine “theatrical release.” Back in the day, a movie theater was a dark room with a working projector and enough seats for a handful of people. We’re going back to that. If you play your cards right, free screenings can raise awareness and push DVD and merch sales.
There are tons of options available when it comes to online aggregators (people who will help get your movie on iTunes and other credible places). Find one that has great reach and favorable conditions and little upfront cost.
Treat your films like children – if you nurture them correctly, they’ll come back and take care of you in your old age.
The distribution landscape is everchanging. Be flexible. Be aggressive. Also, check out Dynamo. It’s relevant.
I couldn’t find a way to shoe-horn this into my rambling, but if you’re interesting in the future of digital distribution filmmaker Barry Jenkins talks about his experiences in this excellent interview with NoFilmSchool.
Jon Reiss (@Jon_Reiss) has become one of the main voices on DIY and alternative distribution (along with Ted Hope). He’s a filmmaker and the author of the book Think Outside the Box Office, an invaluable resource for anyone who’s made or (more preferably) is thinking about making a film.
In the podcast we talk about different distribution options, alternative screening venues, building an audience, the closing of B-Side Entertainment, Tribeca’s VOD announcement, and more.
This podcast episode has a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike license. Basically you can share and reuse this episode however you like, but all I ask in return is that you also share it and you Coffee and Celluloid by linking back to this page.
45365 is a documentary that was at Full Frame but I never got a chance to watch it. This week it’s been on Hulu for free, which I’m very excited about (but today is the last day so watch it now). But for the film itself, I thought it was great. It’s very Cinema Verite, so I can understand why some people didn’t like it. There’s no narration, no formal interviews; just an amazing portrait capturing an entire small town (45365 is the zip code of Sydney, OH).
Now for the business side of the film being on Hulu. As I said, this makes me very excited. SnagFilms, a video sharing site designed soley for documentaries, has their watermark on the whole film. I’m glad to see they’re growing, and I’m also glad to see they’ve joined with Hulu. I watched a film on SnagFilms once and their player wanted to make me gouge my eyes out, it was the worst thing ever. The ads would play and then send you to a different point in the movie, and then you couldn’t go back to where you were without watching more ads. So painful. I hope they’ve done some serious changes to it. But at least this is on Hulu, which on the opposite end I think is one of the best online players, even better than Netflix.
So I’m curious as to what the distribution deal is, because it was on Hulu for a week. SnagFilms says it’s part of a series to watch a film a week for free before it goes to TV of Theater (I’m guessing TV). I’m glad Hulu has been embracing documentaries (Crawford premiered on Hulu a few months ago). 45365 has been in the top banner all week. It’s gotten hundreds of comments and I’m sure thousands of views. This is a film that probably wouldn’t have worked too well in a theater, but now it’s online for free and ad supported (most of the ads were for a Honda documentary series) and tons of people are seeing it who probably would have never heard of it had it not been for SnagFilms, Hulu, and of course this new-fangled internet distribution model.