Crowd Funding a Year Later: One Success – One Bomb – Part 11

Gary Delfiner, Rob Barabas, David Mandel (blog interviewee), Aubrey Levy

Gary Delfiner, Rob Barabas, David Mandel (blog interviewee), Aubrey Levy

A year ago we accompanied David Mandel and his partners on the Kickstarter campaign for their feature Mulligan. Here, a year and one more Kickstarter campaign later, a wrap up.

David: you now have two Kickstarter campaigns under your belt (reference to both here); one, the feature Mulligan very successful the other, a documentary Indestructible Baseball on the Isthmus not so. Can you tell us in a nutshell where the big differences were between the two campaigns in terms of preparation, staffing, ask level, execution and leverage with ‘goodies’?

Mulligan was terrifying in a lot of ways.  Kickstarter and crowd funding was a new and exciting format to us, and we felt a lot of pressure to get it right because we had never done it before. Our “staff” consisted of the director, Will, the producer, Graham, and me, the co-producer.  We all had different tasks and distributed the responsibilities fairly evenly.  We learned as we went, but we did everything we could and reached out to everybody.  We spent months preparing, delaying the start several times because we felt as though we weren’t ready; agonizing over every detail, the rewards, etc.

For Indestructible, it was just the director Eric and me.  And although we did spend a lot of time agonizing over the same things as Mulligan, there was definitely a shortage of time for both of us.  We just happened to have a lot more on our respective plates, and because we felt a need to launch at a particular time (World Series, Hispanic Heritage Month).

I think “the ask level,” or the total amount trying to raise, is always one of the most difficult things to decide. What will be too much, what if we ask for too little because we want to play it safe? Kickstarter is an all-or-nothing platform, so there is the lure of setting your ask on the low side just to ensure you get SOMETHING.

Execution on the two campaigns was wildly different – we had fewer people on Indestructible (not only did Mulligan have our main team of three people, but some of the actors and crew were able to help out for certain things as well), and both of us didn’t have the luxury of time to work the campaigns the way I had for Mulligan.

I think we also managed to come up with some fun and very clever Rewards for Mulligan; in addition to obvious things like golf-related paraphernalia, we had funny voicemails from the cast, weird works of art drawn by the writer, and having some members of the crew write and record a song for the highest-level donors (Note: as far as I know, this gift still hasn’t been done yet, although our highest-level donors happen to be quite forgiving).

Unfortunately, I wasn’t as creative about what to give for Indestructible.  We did put in signed baseballs and stills from the film; I suspect a lot of thinking with Indestructible was that since it was a documentary, and one about a relatively serious cause, the mentality of giving would be much more supportive and less ‘materialistic,’ for lack of a better word.

Can you pinpoint ONE thing that you didn’t do for Indestructible that might have saved it?

I think it really just came down to the mentality that went into the campaign.  Again, with Mulligan it was all so new and scary that I and the team behind it (which included a director and producer) were willing to do anything and everything to make things happen.

In a nutshell, I didn’t plan the Indestructible campaign as well, I didn’t go at it as hard, and I didn’t have the time and energy that I invested into Mulligan’s campaign.  I didn’t follow a lot of my own advice – read this blog here – and made a huge mistake in believing that I had a “silver bullet”, one thing that was going to singlehandedly solve the whole problem.  Without going into too much detail, I believed having a well-written press release and sending it to a few major publications would lead to a lot of free publicity and a lot of attention; and it didn’t.  With no backup plans or time and energy to recalibrate or pivot, we basically put all of our eggs in one basket and paid the price.

I do think that the success of the first one went to my head a little bit, and that affected how I prepared/handled the second one.  I thought it would be easier, and the biggest takeaway is that it is just as hard the second time, and probably the next time (I’m sure there will be another Kickstarter campaign in my future).

What is your takeaway?  When you prepare for the next Kickstarter campaign what will you look out for, where will you put the emphasis?

There are no silver bullets; the reality is that these campaigns – and any time you are asking people to fund or support your projects – takes a lot of work and a lot of energy.  The mentality that ‘If you build it, they will come’ is a very rookie mistake that I’ve seen countless people make.  The marketplace is crowded (more on that below) and what distinguishes you from the next guy isn’t just quality, but how well you can reach out to the people who will put money on the table.

There’s a great TV show called Portlandia which just so happens to be on the Independent Film Channel (IFC).  There’s a wonderful clip of someone opening up an email and it’s their daughter’s Kickstarter campaign; they can’t make it through the whole video, but they wind up donating the full amount anyway.  Essentially the message is: Shut up, no one cares, but here’s some money anyway.

Whether there’s any truth to that sketch (and I think there certainly is) is almost beside the point. The first people who will donate to your campaign are your friends and family.  And as painful as that process can be (I don’t know anyone who enjoys asking friends and family for money), that initial amount can have a snowball effect.  The pain of asking your family is easily trumped by the pain of sitting, watching your Kickstarter page stay at $0.

Where do you see the biggest difference between fundraising for a doc and a narrative film?

One thing to quickly point out is that both of the projects I put on Kickstarter were essentially finished – some have started referring to this type of campaign as a “Kickfinisher.”  But it makes a huge difference because you are able to show your potential donors clips of the film, and I believe that can have a huge impact in a lot of ways on whether they donate.  You’ve got “proof of concept” as they say in the business world.

As I mentioned before, documentaries are usually centered on “Causes” – in our case, it was the downfall of baseball in Panama.  That’s a pretty serious issue, although certainly there are a lot of fun parts to the film.  Whereas Mulligan is a comedy and therefore really lends itself to a fun approach, Indestructible was more about communicating the message of the film, and why it was important to support it.  In a lot of ways, it narrows your focus and your approach.  I’m personally not a huge fan of asking for money this way, but I also recognize that for the right people it’s the right approach.  And certainly there are funny documentaries out there that get to have the best of both worlds when they go out and raise money.

Another interesting thing about the whole doc vs. narrative thing: documentaries tend to have very obvious audiences – for Indestructible, its baseball fans and Latin-Americans.  Mulligan was a much harder film to categorize.  It’s an independent comedy, but it’s got elements of golf in it, weird animations, and a couple of recognizable actors.  So we spent a lot of time trying to chase ways to get Mulligan’s Kickstarter campaign to the attention of people within those very loosely-defined demographics.  Ironically, although Indestructible has very obvious target audiences, they’re so huge that there’s no easy way to reach them – we thought we had a silver bullet in getting a publicist to write a nice press release and send it out to the places that reach those audiences; it didn’t get picked up, and we didn’t know what else to do.

Do you still think Kickstarter is a viable platform for fundraising?  Have you looked into alternates?

I do think Kickstarter has become pretty inundated.  If you look at what’s up there today, you see that a lot of recognizable talent from both the independent film world and Hollywood is using it – which is a good and bad thing.  Nice, that these people don’t have to keep using the inefficient traditional means of getting their projects off the ground.  Bad, because how’s the little aspiring documentary filmmaker out in Boise, Idaho going to compete with Michael Moore or Morgan Spurlock?

The alternatives I’m currently pursuing are, ironically, some of the things that Kickstarter is replacing: production funds and companies, angel investors, and sales and distribution companies.  I may get flak for saying this, but at the end of the day it’s really not rewarding to work this hard for so little money – if you’re going to be busting your ass 40+hours a week, I’d rather be doing it to raise several million, not $15,000.  Kickstarter is a powerful resource for those starting out, and I think that there’s so much to be gained by going through the experience – in a lot of ways, a Kickstarter campaign is a production microcosm.  But you can’t keep doing them forever, and you can’t keep operating on this level.

I’ve stopped calculating how much I make an hour because it’s a little too depressing. Ultimately it’s important to have things like Kickstarter – and all of the other modern advances that are happening in the indie film world – but we have to be careful that we’re not caught up in a race to the bottom.

Parting advice: A few weeks ago I was invited to speak on my crowd funding experiences a panel at Digital Hollywood, moderated by Gary Delfiner of Screen Media.  After an hour of really interesting discussion, the panelists were asked to give their ‘parting advice’ to those interested in doing something on Kickstarter.

DigitalHollywood_DavidRon Barabas, an attorney who specializes in crowd funding, started off by saying “Run it like a business.”  I thought that was great advice, and definitely applicable to anything you do in life – especially artistic and film projects.

I followed with “Run it like a marathon.”  It’s a very different strategy than running a sprint; it takes determination, perseverance, and an almost sickeningly high tolerance for pain.  But the feelings you get from accomplishing it are powerfully rewarding.  And even if you don’t cross the finish line, I do believe you’re better for trying.

(Note: David Mandel has not run marathons. Yet.  He did run a lot of 5Ks when he was in high school.