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The Microbudget Conversation

We're Only Talking a Few Thousand Dollars by John Yost

The Microbudget Conversation: Down And Dangerous

In sticking with our “Do Your Homework” theme, this week on the conversation we dissect one aspect of the micro-budget equation – crowdfunding. As someone who is about to use Kickstarter for the first time, I felt it was best to leave you in the capable hands of someone who had not only successfully met his goal, but who doubled it. Zak Forsman is no stranger to the world of microbudget filmmaking and I love his advice on crafting a great campaign. At IFP week I heard tons of questions from filmmakers on how to wrestle the task of a good crowdfunding campaign. Very few panelists had a good answer, or the success that Zak has had. Perhaps this is because no two campaigns are alike. It’s always best to see what has worked for others, then add your unique take, and hand tailored strategy. This isn’t the first time we’ve tackled this ever-changing tool, but it’s the first time we in this column have been able to take one apart and see how it works.

About six months ago, I watched a video interview with Ira Glass where he put forth the notion of doing a volume of work to close the gap between one’s own good taste and an ability to execute on that level. It had been a little more than three years since directing my first feature, and this was just enough of a push for me to choose one of several half-developed ideas. I was intent on shooting this sucker before the end of the year one way or another. I wasn’t going to wait for financing, I was going to make the best damn movie I knew how and focus on the challenges that would help me grow as a storyteller. I wasn’t willing to let money be a barrier to making it, so I couldn’t rely on it being there when I did. I chose the most doable story on my slate, a crime thriller titled‚ Down and Dangerous – microbudget, no budget, whatever. I’m making a movie. But as the story developed, it became clear that I was going to need help and some money to pay for it. So I took a serious look at the crowdfunding landscape.

The plan had always been to run the campaign in August and shoot a few months later. For weeks I struggled with the notion of what I could offer to would-be supporters beyond the usual array of perks. I finally settled in with the idea that I would present my excitement and enthusiasm for the project in earnest, and the real reward for backers would be to give them a fun, entertaining crime thriller full of action, romance and wit. I felt anything else would be a gimmick; this was going to be a campaign grounded in authenticity. Unique to this proposal was a personal connection to the creative inspiration behind the movie – my dad. In the early ’70s he independently smuggled cocaine between South America and New York and was noted for being uniquely principled, always putting the people who carried the cocaine first by designing ingenious scams that allowed them to walk away if the load got hit. He only got out when organized crime moved in. They put a gun to my mom’s head and told him, “We’re your new partners.” A book titled Snowblind about his brief career in the cocaine trade was written, but the movie rights were sold in perpetuity long ago. Still, it was his spirit and life lessons that would serve as the creative inspiration behind this new movie.

And that’s all I had. I didn’t have any big connections to people with money. I put very little thought into the $1,000 and $5,000 perks. In fact, I had considered removing their respective Associate Producer and Executive Producer credits because I was skeptical that a credit would be a compelling incentive. I was way off the mark there, and a few other places as you’ll see. For example, I had already cast the lead role with John T. Woods, and had underestimated his influence on the campaign.

First, I chose the platform. Kickstarter, and for one reason: it is exclusively all-or-nothing. I can’t count the number of people who have unloaded a private rant at me, detailing why they won’t donate to campaigns on other platforms for fear that a filmmaker who says they need $10,000, only raises $3,000 and takes the contributions only to half-ass their movie with less than they really needed, or to never make it at all. I think this notion is compelling for two reasons. Backers who grasp the nuances of this craziness feel a sense of security knowing that their pledge won’t be wasted if the goal isn’t met, and the platform serves as a quality control filter for support and interest in the project. I went in knowing that if people didn’t respond enthusiastically, I would have to take a good, hard, mean look at what I was putting out there.

Next, the campaign video is essential so put in the work and do it right. If you’re representing yourself as a filmmaker, then be a filmmaker. There is no excuse for an under-lit, poorly composed video, shot on a camera phone with the mic on the other side of the planet. I was careful to give the campaign video the same attention to composition, lighting, music, editing and graphics that I would give to anything I produce. I wanted to address potential backers on a sincere and emotional level, so I spoke directly to the camera and did my best to express my personal connection to the material. I don’t like the mock interview format for this kind of thing. It strikes me as phony. Be authentic. The video introduced lead actor John T. Woods and gave viewers a juicy little bite from his screen test. I also worked in a quick explanation of how the Kickstarter platform worked, for first-timers. I saved time by snagging some fantastic motion graphics offered up by Joke and Biagio that demonstrated the platform, customized them and kept it all under two minutes so as not to exhaust anyone. I let the project description do the heavy lifting by going into further detail.

When deciding what perks to offer at different donation levels, I was careful to keep items that required mailing to the higher pledges, and perks that could be dispersed via email and downloads to the smaller donations; an exception being postcards and the reason for that is not as odd as it may seem. I wanted addresses so I could track where our backers were clustered. This is data I plan to use for secret screenings and more.

I had originally decided on a 30-day campaign because that has been defined as the sweet spot according to the folks who run Kickstarter. Apparently campaigns longer than that don’t benefit from the additional time in any significant way. However, when I found I was ready to launch six days early, I pulled the trigger. I figured, “Hey, six more days to raise money, right?” Wrong. Dead wrong. This would turn out to be the biggest misstep I made as we got deeper into the campaign and I’ll explain why in a bit. For now, I’ll just say, don’t let fear drive your decisions. I let my fear of having enough time override what the guy who founded the platform and wanted me to succeed was telling me. After all, they only make their cut if I meet my goal. Still, “Six more days, right?” No. Six days too many.

I set our goal at $30,000 because the bare minimum soft budget I did came to about $27,000. Also, I took an inventory of everyone who I thought might donate times 100. This formula *cough* was based on looking at other campaigns’ ratios of backers to money raised. If you were to do this, know that taking your potential backers times 50 is a safer, more conservative number that will protect you if you don’t attract any four figure donations. I felt comfortable with $20,000 but at $30,000 I expected it to be a grind. And again… I was wrong. I know people are going to want to strangle me for saying this, but even though the campaign demanded my full attention every day, I rarely worried about not making our goal after we launched. It was a fairly stress-free run.

In our first 48 hours we raised $10,000. Half of that was from a backer who learned about the campaign on a filmmaking message board I co-moderate, It wasn’t pre-arranged — in fact we didn’t pre-arrange any big pledges. I’m a bit of a gambler, not a degenerative gambler mind you, but I was ready to treat Kickstarter as a filter for interest in the project and would let this campaign live or die on it’s own merits. So two days in, and we were in a good spot. The large contribution just intensified the momentum we already had and this is why I would recommend the following. If anyone tells you with a wink and a smile that they are holding out to contribute big at the end, fight like hell to get that money in as early as possible. People love betting on a sure thing and with big pledges coming in, you get a significant snowball effect. If you let people wait until the end and things are going well for you, they inevitably reduce what they would have contributed because, well, “You don’t need my help anymore!”

This is a good time to mention what people said they were responding to. I wanted the perks to go beyond the merch directly associated with the movie. Besides, who really wants a poster for a movie they haven’t seen? I wanted these to come from an authentic place as well. In describing the project on the Kickstarter page, I cited Raiders of the Lost Ark as the movie that launched my interest in moviemaking and where my father’s nurturing of a career in movies began. So, we offered a Raiders-in-the-style-of-Popeye mash-up comic strip by my brother, Chuck Forsman. In addition, I offered copies of the book written about my dad, signed by my mother, and I released radio interviews that my dad recorded while on tour for the book. I wanted to make the creative spark that I was drawing from “real” in the minds of our backers. And by putting it out there, some of our backers said they finally got a handle on what I meant by a “uniquely principled smuggler.” But that’s half the picture. Our first big backer was the one who said, “I’m not backing a movie about a smuggler, I’m backing you.” To my complete surprise, others cited the Associate and Executive Producer credits we were offering as a primary motivator. Those were usually people I didn’t know before the campaign. Others pointed to my insistence on growing as a storyteller as the reason they donated. It confirmed that the appeal of a crowdfunding endeavor is all wrapped up in your ability to make an emotional connection within these social circles. Whether that be to satisfy someone’s desire to have a nice high-profile Executive Producer credit, or because they relate and see themselves in your hopes and dreams for the project. Or both. Okay. So how did I foster those connections?

Early in the campaign I used a web site called Tweriod (I know, right?) to analyze when most of my Twitter followers were online. The highest traffic was between 8 or 9am with a sharp decline at 3pm. That surprised me and I quickly adjusted my schedule to accommodate because I was mostly interacting in the afternoon and evening the first few days. The conventional wisdom is that you will only be able to raise money from friends and family, these being your most immediate core group of “fans.” Kickstarter will remind you of this repeatedly, by the way. But I only found that to be true for maybe half our donations. Without a doubt, I’ve made new friendships with people who discovered the project via Kickstarter and more from the discussion that was happening on Twitter and Facebook. In fact, some very, very generous contributions in the $1,000 to $5,000 range came from people I’d never met before. Some, mysteriously, won’t even respond to my emails.

During the campaign, we got a nice bit of validation from director Joe Carnahan (Narc, Smokin’ Aces, A-Team, The Grey) who watched our campaign video and tweeted about it. Did this lead to more money? No. I think it’s a reach to think that any followers he might have are going to throw money at something just because he tweeted about it. What it did do was energize and supercharge our backers, the conversation happening on Twitter, and of course those of us running the campaign. Should you seek out this kind of endorsement? Definitely. But don’t expect it to translate into more donations unless these people are actually part of your production.

It wasn’t all roses though. As Bret Michaels will tell you (he went to my high school so I should know), every rose has its…you know. Here’s what DIDN’T work. Email blasts, generally, didn’t do a thing for us. Facebook and Twitter on the other hand were where the heat was. The difference? In those emails, I was talking at the person. One-way communication. Zzzzzzzzzz. I’d delete it too, and should have known better. However, through social sites, I could foster a genuine conversation and out of that conversation sprang pledge after pledge. I expected to lose followers on Twitter by taking up valuable real estate in my followers’ streams. Wrong again. In fact, I gained followers by the hundreds. I’ve received a bunch of kind notices for running a classy campaign without resorting to spamming and irritating all my friends by flat-out begging for money. Any dissenters have been thankfully tight-lipped. Here’s a tip on nurturing the dialogue happening on Facebook about your movie that completely obliterates the need to beg: When someone donates, find them, friend them and thank them sincerely on their wall using the title of your movie as a clickable link. Don’t use a stock “thank you” — show that your appreciation is specific to them and be gracious. Believe me, when people are behind you, it’s easy to feel humbled and grateful. They will inevitably comment on why they donated, what moved them about the project, and now you have a public testimonial that all their friends on Facebook can read. See what I’m saying here? Nowhere in that scenario am I hard-selling anything or begging for money. Just by being a decent human being, you’re rewarded. I learned long ago that “networking” and being a salesman don’t suit me. I have a very healthy disrespect for shallow attempts at marketing. I’m not the guy at the film festival shoving DVDs of my movie in the hands of everyone I meet. I’d rather follow my inclination to leave the DVDs in the hotel room and go out and make some friends. So, I thanked every person I found on Facebook after they made a donation, if I could. If not there, then on Twitter. And when I say a campaign demands a lot of time and attention, this is why I spent nearly every waking hour in front of a computer for 36 days. But I wasn’t alone and I’d recommend forming a core team, with a caveat you’ll see below.

While I’m extolling the virtues of social media, I’m going to undercut it with another lesson I learned. Social media was half the story. As I write this I’m realizing how many misconceptions I entered into this with. Why shouldn’t the whole thing play out on Facebook and Twitter, right? Enter: John T. Woods. This man is about as outgoing and amiable a person as you’re likely to meet. I’d go to restaurants with the guy and sure enough, everyone there knows his name. He’s not much for tweeting but he has befriended an immense number of people who just seem to really like him. And when they learned of this campaign, they came out like an army to support him. Still, his real-life relationships and friendships (aka Twitter 3D) were crucial to our success. In fact, he and I agreed his involvement in the campaign should be as behind the scenes as possible. There is something to be said for protecting an actor’s mystery. I can’t say exactly what it is, but I feel like when an actor is up close and personal on Twitter all day and every day, you get a really good handle on who they are as a person. And it’s hard to divorce yourself from that when you watch them on screen. But that’s a tangent for another time. My takeaway here is that when assembling your team, look for people who run in different circles. If you’ve got ten people working with you and you all know the same people, that only makes it ten times more annoying for all your friends and followers. In addition to myself and the film’s lead actor, we have a co-producer and editor, Jamie Cobb, who has garnered an appreciable following on her blog. She reached out to the post-production community and was essential to making sure every backer was thanked in one form or another. Erik Reese and Kevin K. Shah at The Sabi Company also helped spread the word, but in terms of day in and day out campaigning, it was a core team of three people with different social circles. And I was happy with that number.

Further into the campaign, we released two videos introducing other members of the cast. The first was Paulie Rojas, whose screen test demonstrated a rare combination of intensely raw talent and stunning beauty. Backers were floored by her and pledges surged. A week later, we released a third video introducing actor Ross Marquand. Now, Ross has a unique ability to completely transform himself and I felt it was time to bring a little levity to the campaign. So we released this mini-masterpiece.

And again, the praise just came on like gangbusters as we saw another massive uptick in donations. Backers watched and re-watched, posted, shared, and flipped for the talent they saw on display. And this goes back to presenting your project in a professional and polished manner from the technical aspects (no, the camera mic is not good enough) to the creative content to the people on the team.

We never lost momentum and never experienced that dreaded flat-line in the middle that people talk about until we reached our goal. To keep that pace, we often used milestones and mini-goals that backers could “own” by getting us there. Finally, a week before our deadline we hit our $30,000 goal. A person I’ve never met learned of the campaign through a friend and donated $5,000 and put us over. Suddenly, people were coming out of the woodwork to pile on with more donations in the hundreds and thousands of dollars. I was quick to clarify what additional funds would go toward and was thrilled, thinking we had another big push to expect on our last day…something people call “The Kickstarter Effect.” And this is where I think the extra six days hurt us. If this rush of pledges had happened on our last day, I think the surge would have been that much greater. Instead, we had a week where we stalled out and our last day came and went with no “Kickstarter Effect” to be had in our final hours. We’d already experienced it roughly a week prior. Some very generous last minute donations and raised pledges brought us to 126% funded at $38,050. Pretty damn good.

Of that, only $265 didn’t clear for one reason or another. Having spoken to other filmmakers, I expected this. Not a big deal in the grand scheme of things. Besides, it gets better. While the campaign on Kickstarter ended on September 2nd, we’ve continued to received direct donations amounting to an additional $15,000, give or take. After Kickstarter and Amazon Payments take their fees (roughly 8% for us) we are shaking out at nearly $50,000, or 177% funded.

Right now, select perks are going out, the money just transferred into our production account, and I’m furiously punching up the screenplay in anticipation of an impending December shoot. I truly cannot wait to take this gift I’ve been given and make good on my promise to deliver a fun little movie. I may drop off from social media for a while now as we ramp up pre-production. See you on the other side of December! – Zak Forsman

I love how Zak uses Kickstarter as filter to determine the want, need, and validity of his project. I’ve always though that if we could use this stage of the game to evaluate the interest in our project, we’d realize what works and what doesn’t before even rolling camera. A failed campaign may even lead to a re-adjustment of resources, talent, and script in order to launch another campaign. You should get discouraged, you should get determined. Take that “feedback” and re-craft the pitch; use it as a way to make the project better.

We’d never turn down the chance to hear from you, especially microbudget fans and filmmakers. To become part of the conversation please send us your thoughts, responses, and questions.
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