Austin Film Festival: Day 4 (Panel)

I only had time to attend one morning panel on the fourth and final conference day (the festival itself continues through the week with screenings, but the conference has ended). The panel I attended was on "Independent Production: Crowdfunding Your Indie Project." Again, I'm not really sure if I will go this route, but I like to have the information so I can get a sense of all the options out there.

A quick explanation of "crowdfunding": sites like Kickstarter and Indiegogo allow filmmakers, musicians, inventors, whoever, to plead their cases to the general population. In other words, you can go on one of these sites and beg for money for your project. A little bit here and there begins to add up. The idea is that if everyone gives just a little, as opposed to having a big investor, the creative artist can realize his or her dream without the interference that big money tends to bring. Or, really, if you can't get the big money, get a lot of little money.

The panel was moderated by Evan Fitzmaurice and featured Jeremy Cloe, Lisa Rudin, and Victoria Westcott. Mostly these three spoke about their own experiences raising money via Kickstarter, as each has done so successfully. For example, Cloe stated he had already made a short film, which he posted on Kickstarter to give backers an idea of what the feature he was planning might look like. (I probably should have asked what a writer can hope to post to get people to give, since it sounds like Kickstarter requires a video of some kind, and my sitting and talking about the project wouldn't be terribly interesting.)

Of course, having a social media presence is key to a successful crowdfunding campaign. One can't start with just three Facebook friends and hope to get $10k. Well, you can, but you shouldn't be surprised when you don't raise the funds. (By the way, stats show that while the average goal is about $4500, campaigns are more successful when they ask for $10-20k.) It was suggested by one of the panelists that you make a contact list of pretty much everyone you know and start there. Roll it out to friends, family, online acquaintances, and try to get the word to spread. Another interesting statistic that came up: it takes an average of seven times of reading/hearing about something before a person is likely to act. That means seven times of seeing your e-mail or Tweet or FB posting before they might actually go look at your Kickstarter page and give some money.

Thirty days seems to be the right amount of time for a campaign. Rudin said if you start strong, that's a good sign. From the sound of things, a strong start and finish are the key; in the middle, don't panic if there's a little bit of a plateau. Of course, if you don't get that strong start . . . Maybe panic then.

Swag is a good way to get backers. Promising little perks at various donation levels. But it's also important to be honest and clear when dealing with donors: they will not make their money back, they will not get a return on their "investment." At best, it's a tax write-off. Meanwhile, promise those who give $75 a copy of the DVD, and give really major backers an acknowledgement in the credits, a ticket to the premiere, whatever. Just also remind them to be patient since making a movie takes time as well as money. If you can guess as to when these goodies will be available, that's great, but also be clear that schedules are subject to change.

Now Kickstarter recently came under fire when it was noticed that some less-than-worthy types were using it to raise money and then never deliver the project. (This happened to me when I bought into an of-the-month club on Etsy, so I can understand that frustration.) Kickstarter is working to crack down on this, which is why it requires so much from the artists hoping to raise funds: the video, the plan, a promise that if you get the money, you will make the project. There are legal ramifications and SEC issues swirling, but I won't go into those. Sufficient to say that if you use Kickstarter or its brethren, you must have a solid project and present yourself as utterly trustworthy because you will be fighting a certain amount of skepticism. This is why the social network is so important, since having people to vouch for you goes a long way.

Meanwhile, don't under- or over-report things. If you show up too much in a person's Facebook feed, they'll probably hide you. Only send updates—whether via e-mail, Tweets, or FB—when there is interesting or important news. Some people may want more, but don't put it in their faces. Instead, keep up a production blog that lets them go deeper if they so desire. This will also put your backers at ease that the project is real and is happening; you haven't taken their money and run.

That sums up what I took away from this particular panel. A lot of good information. It may seem like common sense, but it's always nice to hear from people who've been there and done that.

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