Independent documentary filmmakers in America have had it tough. Unlike our counterparts in Canada or Europe, we traditionally haven’t had a lot of public funding options to turn to. After a 1988 congressional mandate, the Independent Television Service (ITVS) began providing complete funding packages (up to a half-million dollars) for independently produced programming, and there is a mixture of organizations that can provide smaller grants, usually in the range of $5,000 to $20,000. However, money constraints (including the deteriorating financial position of our federal and state governments) mean that there are far more independent projects out there than ITVS or other organizations can fund. As a result, American filmmakers must rely on private pools of dollars in order to translate their visions from electrical potentials across neurons to electrical signals in silicon.
This may not be an overwhelming obstacle for filmmakers with good business acumen working in historically lucrative fictional genres, like action or horror, where films can be packaged as profit-generating ventures to attract private investors. However, documentary is notoriously unprofitable and without grants many filmmakers resort to friends, family and credits cards, a strategy that severely limits the size of the budget for most projects.
With the rise of the internet, some creative filmmakers started to use auction websites like eBay to sell film credits in exchange for bids that were essentially donations, while others set up websites to sell credits directly. However, it wasn’t until the 2009 introduction of the crowd-funding platform Kickstarter that the options for film funding in America would change drastically.
In just three years, Kickstarter has gone from a novel concept to the gold standard of online fundraising for creative projects. There are some other services out there like Indiegogo, but no one tops Kickstarter. A look at the statistics on Kickstarter’s website tells the story. While it supports a wide range of projects (including food, dance and games), film and video lead the pack in terms of the number of projects listed and total dollars raised. Of the total $327 million that Kickstarter has helped people collect since its launch, $75 million has been by filmmakers — enough to make a Hollywood blockbuster.
What makes Kickstarter so exciting is that it is a hybrid of non-profit, grant-based fundraising and for-profit investment-based fundraising. Like grants, funders make a donation to a project without any sort of financial return, but like investments, it’s “market based” with producers competing for money from the general public through their pitch, non-monetary rewards and concept.
Although most projects raise less than $10,000 there are more and more films able to reach the six-figure mark. I spoke with Mina Son, co-director of the ping pong extravaganza Top Spin, who did just that. Using two campaigns, Son and her partner Sara Newens raised over $100,000 for their passion project, placing them in the top 1% of the Kickstarter-verse.
The duo started the project as a documentary short while in film school and later decided to expand the story into a feature that would require travel to China. “We realized that this obviously wasn’t a backyard story and we knew we needed money. We had applied for some grants, hadn’t received any of them, so basically it was we either do [Kickstarter] or we couldn’t go,” says Son.
The pair targeted the table tennis community with its 300+ clubs across the country while also utilizing their personal networks. “The more communities, the more lists, the more numbers you have, the better because it increases your chances,” explains Son.
The results exceeded their expectations. “Everybody got in on it. We reached our $20,000 goal and there were 10 days left. People kept on giving and that was a really positive experience.”
The 50,000-foot view of Kickstarter is pretty simple. Producers put up a description of their project, set a funding goal, pick a time frame (usually around 30 days) and list the perks (gifts) they are willing to give away for certain levels of support. They then have the duration of the funding period to attract enough backers to reach their goal. If they’re successful, Kickstarter takes a 5% commission. Funding is all or nothing. If producers don’t make their numbers they don’t get a dime and neither does Kickstarter.
However, Kickstarter loves it when projects exceed funding goals — bumping them up to higher visibility in listings and kicking fundraising into overdrive. In Son’s and Newens’ case their first campaign went on to raise a total of $25,000 after surpassing their goal of $20,000.
With seed money in hand, the women began principal photography with the plan of raising more money along the way. “We assumed that we would be getting grants and other sources of funding,” says Son. But time marched on and the grants never came.
“We were running out of money. We were getting into credit card debt, we had to go to London, we had to start paying back people who were on deferred pay,” recalls Son. So it was back to Kickstarter and just one year after their first campaign the women were able to raise an additional $75,000 with a second one.
Through the graces of Kickstarter and a lot of hard work, Top Spin has firmly made it into the realm of post-production. But for Son and Newens fundraising continues to be a long, hard slog. The pair continues to apply for grants, but even with photography wrapped and a promising film in the pipe, finding traditional sources of funding is proving a challenge.
“We spent the last year applying to every documentary grant [out there] and haven’t had much success. We think that’s partly because it’s not a social issues film… we’re competing with films about genocide and people dying and starving… our film at the end of the day is a film about ping pong,” admits Son. “We’re trying to come up with more innovative, grass roots fundraising campaigns,” she adds.
Could a third round of Kickstarter be in the cards?
Although the service provides tremendous opportunities, Son cautions that it’s no walk in the park. “Everybody says Kickstarter is a full-time job, and it’s more than a full-time job. You have to resign yourself over to the campaign. What that entails is constantly talking to people, e-mailing people, Facebooking, Tweeting, etc.” Then there is the issue of increased competition among projects. “The piece of the pie is so much smaller now; there are so many films, projects and creators fighting for their share,” she continues.
While Kickstarter campaigns may not be easy, the very fact that the service presents a viable third-way with respect to grants and self-finance has really opened up the field to independent documentary projects like Top Spin that may have trouble appealing to traditional granting agencies and yet require too big a budget to cover out of pocket. There is no question that Kickstarter has become hugely influential on the way that independent documentary filmmakers go chasing dollars, and therefore the way they go chasing dreams.