Way, way back in 2008 I was home from school for a few weeks when I caught an ad for a national BattleBots competition happening in Miami. BattleBots was one of my favorite shows growing up, so my mind was blown when checked it out and found out that even though the show ended, the competitions were still happening. Not only that, but it wasn’t just adults that were competing. High school kids were building impressive robots and duking it out in the arena.
This instantly seemed like a cool doc – follow some students around as they navigate their teenage years while building metal smashing robots. But I wanted to go beyond just the fights you see in the arena, I wanted to look at the design process, the construction of the robot, and what happens in between the fights when you have 20 minutes to fix your robot before the next match.
When I graduated the following year I was looking for a project to do and this seemed like the perfect fit. So I spent a year following different kids and teams around, culminating in the 2010 national competition. That’s Bots High.
It was a huge learning process and as I look back at the film there’s a million things I would have done differently. It’s flawed. It wasn’t the indie darling I had hoped for, but it’s a fun, innocent look at kids building robots and being kids.
It’s incredible how much technology has changed in just five years, and fun to imagine how much different it would be with the tools available today.
This was shot before DSLRs were viable filmmaking tools. Before GoPros. Before drones.
I used Kickstarter to help raise funds, but this was in the early days before Zach Braff and Veronica Mars made it a household name, so it took a lot of explaining to people how this crazy site worked.
Fast forward to 2015. Thanks to the persistence of BattleBots creators Greg Munson and Trey Roski, BattleBots is back on TV, primetime on ABC. As if that wasn’t exciting enough, a good number of people from Bots High are competing on the show.
In the real life universe of robot building, Bots High is the closest thing to their origin story.
Boy genius Will Bales is one of the main characters in Bots High, along with teammates Alex Mattaway and Tyler Bond. Together they created Fluffy, the not very cuddly robot that occasionally bursts into flames from its own power. The film follows Will and his school as they try to build bigger, faster, and more powerful robots while combating procrastination and the lure of helping the opposing girls team. In BattleBots they team up again for HyperShock.
Their first match was against Will’s father and siblings.
At least that match didn’t end in (intentional) flames.
Marc DeVidts, creator of the seemingly unstoppable Icewave, wasn’t in high school during Bots High. However, he was the mentor to the other main team featured in the film, My Mechanical Romance, with Liz and Danielle. He has one of my favorite productivity quotes.
The robot is not done, therefore there is work to do.
Since the events of Bots High he went and co-founded Double Robotics, now a multi-million dollar telepresence robotics company. They have a very nice looking demo video. See if you can spot Greg, BattleBots co-creator.
Nola’s the glue that keeps everything together. One of the founders and head of Starbot, a sort of maker space catering to high school kids, she helps facilitate the building of robots for different schools and organize competitions. She also gets kids (especially girls) inspired in science and engineering. In BattleBots she competed with an all-girls team from Carrollton, one of the schools in Bots High where two of the featured teams are from.
Before it was a flame throwing multi-bot, the very first version of Witch Doctor made its appearance at the national competition in Bots High in the open division. It quickly became famous for tossing robots across the arena and into the Lexan walls.
There’s a follow up video with Bots High that catches up with Will and the teams the following year. In it is a battle between Will’s new robot and Witch Doctor, with some surprising results.
The biggest sparks that flew in Overhaul’s battle against Lock-Jaw happened after the fight, when Overhaul member Adam Bercu refused to shake veteran builder Donald Hutson’s hand for a hit after the buzzer.
Before schooling the two time super heavyweight champion on buzzer sounds, Adam was one of the original teammates of Witch Doctor. He also shook hands.
Special Shout Outs
Greg Munson, co-creator of BattleBots, served as announcer at the games in Bots High.
Other co-creator, Trey Roski, would step in to save the day from autonomous robots.
You can buy or rent Bots High right now on VHX, which is my preferred platform since the majority of your money will go to me, the filmmaker, to make more cool projects. Or learn more about the film and find more ways to watch at www.botshigh.com.
– Handwritten note on a festival rejection letter
The above note sums up the festival experience of my feature film Bots High quite well. A film that people who see, love, yet didn’t get much traction on the festival circuit. It played at some festivals, won some Best Documentary awards, got some goodreviews, and I had some great experiences and am thankful for the festivals that took a chance on the film. But obviously not the Sundance, SXSW, TIFF festival run you imagine while making the film 1.
Below I’ll be outlining how I’m taking my film’s future solely in my own hands, and the ideas that led to this strategy.
What Can You Do That I Can’t?
Epic festival run or not, the next question is, “Now what?” This is a question most of us filmmakers face once we have a finished film. Even the top indie films with recognizable actors are having a hard time getting distribution deals with upfront money. Three Sundance films just posted Kickstarter campaigns to raise distribution money. Dying to Do Letterman has run a phenomenal campaign to raise money to do their own Oscar qualifying theatrical run.
Do you try to raise more money and do everything yourself? Do you tour the film around and hope to break even, like Total Badass? Hope a company comes along to pick it up? With so many digital outlets yet so few companies putting money into buying films, choosing the right path for your film reminds me of the stress of picking the “right” college.
I received some distribution offers, but nothing that paid anything upfront, just some backend percentage. This means I’m going to have to sign away broad definitions of certain rights for 20 years (essentially forever as far as the film is concerned), no guarantee that any money will be put into a marketing campaign, and hope that maybe I’ll see a couple of thousand in return.
The main question I asked for every offer is, “What can you do that I can’t do myself?” Let’s take the best offer, one from a company whose name I actually recognized. They wanted all digital rights and would get the film on iTunes, Netflix Instant, Amazon, Xbox, etc, and keep 25%. Not a terrible deal, but not many guarantees on marketing, prominent placement, etc. I can handle the online stuff through Distribber – pay a flat fee, keep everything, both money and rights. With a lot of new online-only companies out there, I feel like they’re all just trying to build their library instead of putting their time and money behind something because they believe in it.
Good deal for someone whose film has been sitting on a shelf, not for someone that just wrapped and still has some fight in them.
Check Out the Film…Possibly at a Festival Near You…Or Online…Soon
Packed theater at the Bots High World Premiere
Bear with me as I take you through three realizations I had that will soon merge into the mega-idea.
The bigger question wasn’t how to get it online, it was how do I launch. How do I build enough buzz so the online launch is relevant? How do I get the film on people’s radar? Previously, if I told someone about the film, or pitched a blog to write about it, it’s like, “Maybe the film will play at a festival near you…or sign up for the newsletter and I’ll let you know when it’s on iTunes.” There was no target date, no time to build towards, that people writing about the film could say, “Here is a cool film, you can watch it on this day.”
Around the same time of this brainstorming, when I was crashing SXSW with an underground screening, I found it was incredibly easy to set up a free screening (shocker!). I held a screening at the University of Texas. They donated a theater, I didn’t charge admission (but sold some DVDs), super easy – no worries about rental costs and breaking even.
Get Your Priorities Straight
If 2 you read Jon Reiss‘ great book Think Outside the Box Office, one of his key points when making your distribution plan is to figure out your goals. Do you want to make money, promote a cause, or use the film to market yourself? Going into this, as I’m sure most filmmakers do, I’m thinking, “All of the above! It’s going to make money, and because it’s making money that means it has enough buzz that I’m being promoted as a filmmaker.” Clearly, not the case. But one of the main reasons I made this movie instead of trying to work up the Hollywood ladder was to have a feature film to my name to lead to more, paid work.
So with a reworking of priorities, #1 now being to use the film to market myself as a filmmaker, that means getting the film out as wide and far as possible. Combine that with my previous two realizations, and the strategy is quite clear…
A Free Worldwide Screening Day
Yep, one day to direct everyone towards that launches the film. “Hey, Mr. Reporter, check out my film. Your readers can see it October 6, for free!” Using free tools, such as Meetup Everywhere, groups can organize based on their location and create their own screening. I want to empower people to create their own theatrical experience, which as Jon Reiss redescribes as “people watching ‘films’ with other people. Any place.” ‘Theatrical’ is not a 35mm print screening in a movie theater anymore. 3
Even if people don’t come out to a screening, here are my goals from the plan when someone mentions Bots High to someone else.
“Oh, I heard of that film.”
“I saw that.”
“I love Bots High, I own it!”
The more blogs that right about it, the more someone is aware of it, the more that will help when I need credibility for other projects.
Free Doesn’t Mean No Money
Let’s be clear, ‘Make Money’ is not off the list (to the comfort of the patient people I owe money to). From my screening experience at festivals and ones I organized, about 2-5% of the audience buys the DVD. My thinking is cast a really wide net and if 1%-3% buy, that’s still a decent amount of money.
But I can’t have a Bots High representative at every screening selling DVDs and counting money. So in the way that I’m empowering people to organize a screening, I figured I could empower them to be retailers as well.
I sell the DVD for $20 on the web site and at screenings. But I’d be totally happy selling a guaranteed 10 DVDs for $10 each, which is what I’m doing with the event organizers. They can buy a 10 pack for $100, and then sell them at their screening for $20 each and keep the profit. I’m happy, they’re happy, win-win!
I foresee a lot of groups hosting screenings being connected to robotics programs or robotics teams themselves. I would love for the film to be used to recruit new members, whether the team does combat robotics or task oriented. I feel like teams could also use this as a fundraiser. So I also setup a ridiculously low $100 fundraising license which lets any non-profit charge admission to the screening as a fundraiser. 10 tickets at $10 and they cover the fee, then everything else goes to their program.
Make it an Event
Q&A at Bots High World Premiere
I am all about Ted Hope’s and Jon Reiss‘ talk of making screenings an event. I want the film to be used as a platform for teams and schools to create an event around. Show off their robots, have mini battles (Google loves sumo-bots), get guest speakers – anything to go beyond just a movie screening and make it a unique night. Also, there needs to be something special about playing the movie on October 6 other than me saying you have to.
The one thing that’s great about festival or independent screenings is the Q&A. I didn’t want to lose that element, and with all the free streaming services out there it doesn’t have to be lost. I’ll be setting up a live webcast of myself and people from the film to answer questions that are tweeted to @botshigh. I figure most of the screenings will be in some sort of college auditorium that’s hooked up to a computer, so switching over to a webcast shouldn’t be a problem.
How You Can Help
And that’s the plan – a free, worldwide launch of my film. So far the press has been good (WIRED, Laughing Squid, IndieWire) and I’ve got screenings set up in India, Spain, South Korea, Bolivia, and 26 other cities. My goal is 100. With schools getting back in session, and constant emailing, I anticipate the numbers to pick up speed pretty quickly.
Of course you, independent film lover / maker who’s reading this, can play an important role and help set up a screening. Go here for all the details.
You can follow me on Twitter at @C47 or the film at @botshigh. I’m toying with an idea of running trailers for other independent films in similar positions before the screener disks of the movie, so if you’re a filmmaker with a movie and might be interested in this, email me.
I’ll be posting more about my experiences with this, including Distribber and getting the DVD on Amazon. Stay tuned!
I don’t have a definitive answer for why this is, especially since festivals don’t really give feedback, just some theories from an attempted objective viewpoint, such as the film is light hearted, has a narrow focus, and doesn’t tackle a heavy issue. All the rejection letters cite record high submissions, thanks to the digital revolution which now creates a higher level of noise. I’d like to imagine my film was buried in a Raiders of the Lost Ark style pile and never watched. But who knows.
Obviously this experience has left me a little bitter about festivals, which led to question their relevance at all. Especially after my short Space Miami got over 50,000 views and more onlinepress than any festival could give a short. That’s another post, though check out this Fest vs. Online comparison.
With a tight budget I’m always a big fan of turning to Elance to outsource some work. I’ve had interviews transcribed with timecode reference, After Effects animation, and poster design done. Now I needed some subtitles for Bots High. I knew this would need a higher level of accuracy than I expect with transcripts, so I was willing to pay more than I do for transcription.
I got a bid from a Russian company. At first I was hesitant – I really wanted a native English speaker. But their emails had proper grammar and they said they had English speakers on staff. So I went with them.
You know how it goes, you get what you paid for. I knew I’d probably have to tweak some stuff, and I was expecting what I got back to be 90% towards a final product. It ended up being more like 50%.
The timecode with the subtitles didn’t match up to the dialogue (which I can’t fully blame them for, I think there was an issue on importing), subtitles with six or seven lines of dialogue on one card, and my favorite – some of the most bizarre transcription that leaves me wondering what the hell they think this movie is about. I know not all the dialogue is crystal clear, but if you’re a native English speaker doing this, where you excel over a computer is you can take context and infer what they’re saying.
I realized when working with foreign freelancers / virtual assistants you have to treat correspondence and outlines like a computer program. You need to state every parameter, think of how they could stray, and write out what you’d think would be obvious but probably isn’t. I can’t blame them for putting six lines of dialogue on one really long card because I never said “maximum of two lines per card.” I just assumed people doing subtitles knew that, but you know what happens when you do that.
Below are some screen shots of my favorite WTF captions. It made the two days of going through everything and fixing it tolerable. Enjoy!
When girls fight there’s no knowing what they’ll do.
Sounds like she lost her arm in a vicious robot battle and got it replaced with a wrench – because she loves robots so much. How can you take her arm from (form) her??
Just reading this it’s probably not that funny, but that’s because it’s supposed to be, “How long is the shaft?” To which Will replies, “That’s a personal question.” As with anything you can still find some sexual innuendo in ‘hollowing your shaft.’
The best for last. They did understand that the robots were fighting, not having robo-sex in the arena, right? Line should be, “Good game, that was awesome! We actually lasted thirty seconds, so I’m proud.” I guess a guy’s firmness and proud-ness could be considered the same thing…in Russia!
A few weeks ago we finally got an official trailer up for Bots High. There had been one up for a while (well, first it was a teaser, then a trailer). The problem is it took way too long to get to the action.
Here’s the old trailer:
And below you can see the hot spot graph:
What's Hot and What's Not?
Unsurprisingly, attention peaks when robots start beating each other up. But it takes way too long to get to that. So Andrew and I cut a new one, one that gets to the action immediately and also gives you more of an idea of what the film is about.
The only major debate we had was what should be at the very beginning. Andrew was in favor of some sort of fake MPAA “This Trailer has Been Approved for All Audiences,” to give people a moment to get in the mood of trailer watching. I agree with that for watching something in a theater, and there have been times that I’ve played Bots High and wished there was something in the beginning, like a studio bumper. But in the world of web video, seconds matter and there’s no reason to add more seconds to the video with a fake MPAA warning.
The moment between deciding to watch the movie and clickling play is the period the viewer can get in trailer watching mode.
Chris from /Film really dug it.
What really struck me about this trailer is that not only does it look better than a lot of indie trailers I get sent in the mail, but it is crystal clear about what it’s going to show you: four robots, three teams, two schools. The opening is like a little sizzle reel as it gives you a taste of the robot destruction that’s coming. We launch into an explanation of how we got here and it’s done with sharp attention to economy, no unnecessary filler here…
The trailer is snappy thanks to some quick, but not freakishly ADD infused, editing and the way in which we move from competitions to interviews to quiet moments of reflection. It never feels jarring and for that I say this is one of the better trailers I’ve seen all month.
This post is a dissection of my Kickstarter project for my documentary Bots High to both figure out a) how much I needed to raise to successfully finish filming my project and b) have enough money to fulfill all the rewards.
Before posting, I did a lot of research into successfully funded projects. This post will get a bit mathematically nerdy, but hang in there because I think it’s quiet useful. (Check out my last post, Behavior Patterns of Kickstarter Funders, because the data in that post is what I use to figure out the cost)
I’m not a mathematician. The purpose of this post is to give you something to think about and make sure you’re aware of everything that goes into successfully pulling off a Kickstarter project. If you see more accurate or easier ways to figure out the total, please let me know.
Here’s the breakdown of the steps needed to figure out the true cost of your Kickstarter project:
Focus of Project
Cost to Complete Project
Create Backer Levels
Project Number of Backers
Cost of Fulfillment
True Project Budget
Focus of Project
The first big question is do I go for all the money I actually need (to film, edit, and send to festivals) or focus the project on one specific event, and take it one step at a time, with future projects for different stages of the production if need be. I decided to go the latter route, and focus the Kickstarter project on getting the money needed to film the final championship of my film and wrap up all production.
Cost to Complete Project
This is pretty straightforward budgeting – what’s the bare minimum you need to complete the project you’re proposing? Be honest, and think of everything. I budgeted that to rent additional cameras, hire and feed a crew, get rental insurance, and travel to San Francisco to film the second championship and do interviews would be around $7000.
Total cost to complete filming Bots High: $7000
Kickstarter takes 5% of whatever you raise to cover their costs. Fair enough, we all need to stay in business. Now you might think, “Oh, I’ll just take that out of what I raise, I don’t want to pass that cost onto the funders.”
Well, if you were 100% honest and your project budget is the bare minimum you need to complete it, then where is that couple of hundred dollars supposed to come from?
Also, Amazon takes its own fee per transaction. This isn’t as simple as a flat 5% (it’s a combination of a flat fee and variable percentage which hovers around 2.9%). For the sake of simplification, I used 3.2%. If you have a more accurate estimate, please let me know (As Andrew did below).
Kickstarter Fee: 5% of $7000 = $350
Amazon Fees: 3.2% of $7000 = $224
New Project Budget = $7574
Create Backer Levels
Create a variety of backer levels with different rewards. I’ll post a brainstorm I did of possible things to offer next week. In the Behavior Patterns post, the numbers used in the graph are the most popular levels, so if you want to stick with what people have come to expect, use a variety of those levels. Make sure you have something on the very low end ($1-$5) and on the high end ($2500 – $5000). Yes, most projects don’t get any high end backers, but some do, so it’s worth having it.
Project Number of Backers for Each Level
Ok, now it’s math time. In order to do the next step, which is to figure out approximately how many DVDs and t-shirts and posters you’ll need to fulfill your backer levels, you need to have a rough idea of how many backers to expect for each level. Using the pie chart in the Behavior Patterns post, you can guesstimate how many backers you’ll get/need for each level.
So right now the budget is $7500, and from the pie chart I can predict 15% of the backers will give $50. Here’s the formula:
(Total Budget $ / Reward Level $ * Percentage in Decimal Form = # of Backers Needed)
($7500 / $50 * .15 = 22 Backers)
So I’ll hopefully have 22 backers at the $50 level, and need to plan to supply 22 people with everything I offered at that level.
Repeat with each level
(Note: The math works up until the very high levels, around $1000 and higher. One large donation will pleasantly throw this all out of whack.)
Cost of Fulfillment
Whether or not this is an extra expense for your Kickstarter project (or if you could call it an expense at all) is debatable and varies from project to project. I’ll explain in a second.
But first, you need to figure out how much it’ll cost to fulfill all the rewards you’ve now promised your backers. That means DVD, t-shirts, posters, stickers, props, dinners, etc.
Not only do you need to know how much each item will cost to make, but how much it’ll be for packaging and shipping. Yeah, lots of details.
Now I say debatable if it’s all an expense related to the Kickstarter project because a lot of these items are things you’d need to buy anyways for marketing and distribution (t-shirts, posters, DVDs for screeners and festivals). And of course the more you buy quantity wise, the lower the individual cost of each item is. And depending on what stage you Kickstarter project focuses on, this might be stuff you already have. Either way you should just be fully aware of everything that you’ll need to satisfy your backers, and not just your project’s needs.
So for each level you need to figure out how much of the actual funding you’ll be getting, minus expenses.
For my $25 level, which is a DVD and updates and input on the film, it’ll cost me about $6 to fulfill the DVD, so I’m getting $19 towards the project.
Assuming I don’t get any large donations, I know I’ll need 150 people to buy a DVD (which would bring in $3750), but it’ll cost $900 to fulfill.
So you need to figure out all the fulfillment expenses for each level, add them up, and budget them in the project total. If you already have some of these rewards already made, then budget the packaging and shipping costs.
Total Cost of Fulfillment: $1538
True Project Budget
Kickstarter Goal: $9000
That’s what I put on my project. Higher than I initially thought when I first had the idea to do a Kickstarter project, but I think it would be worse if I set a lower project goal, got all the money, and then realize I need another $1500 to print and ship all the rewards I promised.
Update: These numbers are slightly more variable than presented, because the fees are coming off the total budget and I figured them out earlier. Read Andrew’s comment below for a better formula and keep in mind a little contingency padding might be in order.
I hope you found this useful, or at least it gave you something to think about. If you did, then why not support that project that prompted this study?