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How to run a successful crowdfunding campaign?

> Shuchi Talati raised $75,000 (approx. 40 lakh INR) for her first feature film Guttersnipes-that she plans to shoot in mid 2013- through a successful campaign on crowdfunding website Kickstarter. DearCinema spoke to her to find out what it takes to make crowdfunding work
By Bikas Mishra • Published on January 25, 2013

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Guttersnipes is a story about a teen homeless girl, Jo, who finds a 12 year-old autistic girl on the streets of Little Rock. Now Jo must decide whether to turn the little girl over to the hellish state home, find her a new home or keep her and make a home with her on the streets.

An alumnus of the American Film Institute, Talati currently lives and works in Los Angeles and has made ten short films before.

DearCinema spoke to Shuchi Talati on how to run a successful crowdfunding campaign:

What made you go for crowd-funding for your film? Did you consider other options?

We started looking for funds for Guttersnipes in the traditional way by approaching producers. Even though people loved the script, no one was able to bring in the money. It was too hard to market a drama with two unknowns as leads. We waited for two years for someone to green-light the project.

Ultimately, we realized that no one was going to do it. We had to green-light ourselves. That’s how we decided on crowdfunding — as a last resort.

Why Kickstarter? What advantages does it have over others? Did you consider other options such as IndieGoGo or Wishberry?

We chose Kickstarter because the stats seemed to suggest that projects on Kickstarter have a higher success rate than IndieGoGo. Kickstarter has the famous fixed funding model — if you don’t make your goal, you don’t get any of the money. IndieGoGo lets you choose between ‘all or nothing’ and a flexible funding model where you get to keep the money you’ve raised.

Here are the main factors to weigh while picking a platform:

Fixed or Flexible funding: Personally, I like the ‘all or nothing’ model. It gives backers some reassurance that their money will get a film CrowdFunding_Table-01made. A project that raises only 20% of its budget, may never get off the ground.

But more than that, ‘all or nothing’ creates a sense of urgency. I’ve seen too many half-hearted IndieGoGo campaigns where people give up mid-way. Giving up is much harder when you think you are going to lose the money you raised. We had a scary period during our campaign where we were stuck at $30,000 for over two weeks. Our goal, $75,000, seemed distant and unreachable. But $30,000 is a lot of money and I wasn’t willing to lose it. So we pushed on. We reassessed our strategy and decided we needed to target the large donors ($1000 and above). And it paid off in a movie-style cliffhanger where we reached our goal an hour before the campaign ended! I’m convinced that if we had a flexible funding campaign, we would have given up at $30,000.

Backers also respond to the ‘all or nothing’ urgency. Many people increased their pledges and arm-twisted friends and family to donate as we got close.

Payment Mechanism: Kickstarter processes the donations through Amazon Payments. This is a pain at two levels. For project creators it means you have to set-up an Amazon Payments accounts. The process is difficult and opaque and can take a week if everything goes well and upto 3 weeks if it doesn’t. Project backers also need to have an Amazon account in order to make a pledge. It’s hard enough to get people to donate and the extra step does not help!

IndieGoGo accepts payments though PayPal and all international credit cards. This makes donating much easier. Wishberry seems to accepts cash and cheques in addition to credit cards. This is useful for older donors who might be less comfortable with online transactions.

I should point out, however, that increasing your pledge amount is easiest on Kickstarter. This is important for fixed funding campaigns where backers tend to increase their pledges. I couldn’t figure out how to do it on IndieGoGo.

Tax-deductible donations: Offering your backers tax-deductible donations can be a nice incentive for non-commercial projects. It could encourage larger donations.

Kickstarter doesn’t offer this option but IndieGoGo does. Normally tax-deductible donations can only be made to not-for-profits. But through a mechanism called Fiscal Sponsorship, a legal not-for-profit can have limited oversight over a project. Once sponsored this way, the campaign or artist becomes legally eligible to receive tax-deductible donations. In exchange, the Fiscal Sponsor takes a percentage of the donations. IndieGoGo partners with several not-for-profits (Fractured Atlas, Women Make Movies, San Francisco Film Society, etc.) that can become Fiscal Sponsors for film projects. There is no additional fee as IndieGoGo shares its 4% cut with the sponsor. This information is very useful when you are filing your online tax return.

Wishberry doesn’t seem to offer this option even though NGOs can run tax-deductible campaigns.

How did you set your target? What’s the formula to predict an achievable target for crowdfunding?

First, we hired a line producer to create a production plan. Once we were sure we could get the film ‘in the can’ for $150,000 (total budget is $300,000) we tried to see if we could get 50% of that on Kickstarter. We made a comprehensive list of potential donors and with a conservative and optimistic estimate of how much they would donate. Then we chose a middle point. This was around $45000 since we had a 7-member team.

Ideally this would be the target — a slight stretch but still reachable. But we added $30,000 on top to set our goal at $75,000. I don’t recommend this as a formula. We did this because we had invested significant time and effort on a PR campaign before the Kickstarter. We had also compiled long lists of blogs, organizations and Twitter ‘celebrities’ who would be sympathetic to our mission — autism awareness. We also had a team of 10 part-time interns to help pitch to these lists. So we had reason to believe that this would result in donations from beyond our social circles.

Your tips on running a successful crowdfunding campaign?

We learnt from many people before launching our campaign. Documentary filmmaker Jennifer Fox who raised over $150,000 for her film My Reincarnation has written at great length about it and I suggest reading her posts if you want to launch a campaign to raise some serious bucks.

Here’s my version:

Before the campaign

1. Identify your target audience: Not just the target audience of the film, the target audience of your campaign. If you are raising between $10,000 – $15,000, this could just be friends and family. But if you are reaching for a larger number, you will want to look beyond.

And talk to your audience about the film before the campaign. People listen better when you aren’t asking for money. We started this 8-10 weeks before the campaign but looking back, we could have started this process even earlier.

Our target audience was in Little Rock, Arkansas where the film is going to be shot. This was also my writer/co-producer’s home town and he has a lot of goodwill there. So we decided not to compete with the Los Angeles crowd where everyone and their mother had a crowdfunding campaign. Instead, we spent 3 weeks in Arkansas and met people who cared about a local film or about autism awareness. A PR agency that offered their services pro-bono and got us TV, radio, newspaper and magazine interviews. This gave us a lot of credibility with our target audience before the launch.

This is also a time to build a social media presence and get page likes and twitter followers.

2. Make a great pitch video: The video must speak to your target audience. We are filmmakers so our pitch-videos must inspire confidence in our abilities. Indie film I am I  that raised $100,000 has one of my favorite Kickstarter videos of all time. They play up their strengths — recognizable actors, large crew. We didn’t have either so we tried to focus on our strengths — our earnestness, the moving ‘story behind the story’ and why we felt it HAD to be made.

3. Prep, prep, prep: Crowd-funding is not easy money. Every Rs.500 / $10 that comes in is hard won. For our campaign target of $75,000, we schedule 8-10 weeks of prep. We shot content for campaign updates, researched other successful campaigns, created a timeline with funding milestones.

4. Build a team: Build a campaign team that believes in your project. They can be the filmmakers or not. In our case, the story resonated with people who had a personal connection to autism and some of them joined our team.

Running a campaign is a full-time job and having a team helps with the workload. But more than that, I can’t tell you how important it is to have a team to share your excitement every time you get a big donation or reach a milestone. Or when a strategy isn’t working and you need to brainstorm. Or when you are feeling plain low — trust me, there will be plenty of those days — and you need someone to cheer you on. Three days before the end of our campaign, we were just at $42,000. I had already started writing ‘defeat letters’ when a team member encouraged me to give it one final push.

Running a campaign is a full-time job and having a team helps with the workload. But more than that, I can’t tell you how important it is to have a team to share your excitement every time you get a big donation or reach a milestone. Or when a strategy isn’t working and you need to brainstorm. Or when you are feeling plain low — trust me, there will be plenty of those days — and you need someone to cheer you on. Three days before the end of our campaign, we were just at $42,000. I had already started writing ‘defeat letters’ when a team member encouraged me to give it one final push

5. Get creative with rewards: At lower levels (less than $50), you can offers things – DVDs, t-shirts, etc. But it gets harder once you go to higher reward tiers.

During the campaign

6. Launch with a bang: Make sure you have several close friends and family who will donate within the first 48 hours of the campaign. This will generate excitement. It can push you up on Kickstarter’s ‘Popular This Week’ or IndieGoGo’s ‘New This Week’ sections. You need to create a loyal base of backers who will amplify your voice as early as possible.

7. Keep the counter moving: We failed at this one but I think it is important. There will be good and slow days but it is important to to keep the money trickling in. If it looks like the campaign has stagnated, people lose interest quickly. Even those who might have donated think – “Doesn’t look like they’ll make it so what’s the point?” People just don’t want to spend their time and money on a campaign that looks like it is failing. So you have to create an appearance of success. This is hard. My imperfect solution is to have some ‘booster’ donors lined up: people you can trust to donate on call.

8. Be personal: Facebook posts and email blasts are fine but we found personal emails to have the highest success rate. One person on our team even wrote old-fashioned letters. And try to write ‘Thank you’ notes to your backers. You want them to know you are grateful for their support. And you want to remind them to tell their friends too.

9. Regular updates: Each time you post a campaign update, it goes out to all your backers as an email. An update per week (more in the last week) is a good way to keep backers engaged. Plan for interesting content. We always saw a spike in donations after an update.

A photo of me with James Adolphous, the cinematographer of Guttersnipes

Shuchi with James Adolphous, the cinematographer of Guttersnipes

What kind of projects are better suited for crowd-funding?

Crowdfunding was the best option available to us but I’ve come to believe that it is far from ideal for film funding. It seems to work best for product, video-games, etc. where people get something tangible in return. Gamers still buy video games. But who buys DVDs any more?

Crowdfunding for film is a good option ONLY when:
-you have a celebrity associated with an existing fan base. Eg. Charlie Kaufman’s Anomalisa
-you are addressing a very current, topical event/issue Eg. Bridegroom
-you are trying to raise a small sum (< $15K) which can come from friends and family. OR have a BIG team willing to harass their friends and family for money. Eg. I am I

Would you go for crowd-funding for your next project as well?
Not unless we hit one or more of the above criteria. I did a small crowd-funding campaign for my short film Porcelain. Guttersnipes was my second campaign. There are only so many times I can go back to family and friends with my hand out. I’m hopeful that a first feature will open doors so I don’t have to wear out the people closest to me.

Your learning from running the current campaign?
Stick to your circle of influence. Remember the team of interns I mentioned earlier? They were focused on outreach to bloggers and organizations. While this resulted in a spreading awareness, it didn’t result in much money.

The bulk of the money first came from friends and family. Then friends of friends. And later friends of friends of friends. These people were strangers to us but had been approached by their friends. This is powerful. Reaching out to strangers was a strategy we spent a lot of time on but one that didn’t work.

I guess things would have been different if a truly influential stranger had endorsed. If Oprah or Aamir Khan had tweeted about us, I imagine we would have made our goal quickly!

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