On the road to make a successfully crowdfunded film, and lessons learned so far
Nathaniel Hansen is getting ready to take a cross-country road trip to find his film, a documentary called “The Elders,” but he’s found his funding for the journey through the kindness of both friends and strangers, and their belief, in dollars, in what he’s doing.
Hansen, an Oregon native living in Boston, and with a degree in documentary filmmaking from Emerson College, is one of those filmmakers who is inverting the formula for how it’s done.
One of the ways he has is by mounting a successful crowdfunding effort through Kickstarter.com, which bills itself as “a new way to fund and follow creativity.”
Kickstarter allows filmmakers and other artists to propose a project, with a defined amount of funding requested and defined window of time in which to raise it. If the funding goal is not met, all pledges are wiped clean, a kind of all-or-nothing prospect that can be both inspiring and daunting, seeing if your idea is as viable as you think.
Hansen says, “I’ve been following Kickstarter not quite since they launched, when a friend of mine sent me an email and said, ‘Have you seen this?’ I was a little frustrated because it was by invitation, and it was a bit of a mystery to me how you got invited. But I kept following it, and in the back of my mind I kept thinking, ‘What kind of a project would get me the widest possible support from friends, family and strangers?’
It’s not just the idea, it’s the execution, and it was a matter of both finding the right idea, and then proving he could manage it.
As a documentary filmmaker, you have this kind of “idea bag,” a grab-bag of potential ideas that you’re flushing out, trying to determine what’s feasible or not. Last fall I’d started a short exercise, to test out an idea I’d had a couple of years ago, which was to do a documentary project online that had a linear DVD film that accompanied it, that was interview based, and more portrait documentaries that were all connected by some narrative thread that I would try to establish. I interviewed five people I came in contact with on a regular basis, people I called “familiar strangers” who I saw on my walk around town or in my neighborhood. I created five portraits and found I got an overwhelming level of response from throughout my network, my friends and colleagues and family, and people on Facebook and Twitter. Over a couple months on Vimeo, my videos were getting over 1,000 views a week. That woke me up to the fact I was on to something.
“The Elders” spun off that. Hansen, who has done a variety of commercial work including a spot that will run during the upcoming World Cup soccer event, had been giving thought to the sometimes-unnoticed bank or wisdom among the older people who are the same “familiar strangers’ in our lives.
“I morphed this into this idea of it being portraits of senior citizens or people who are elderly,” he says, “because I thought they have so much to give, but aren’t always afforded a lot of space to give it. So I wondered if I could effectively create some meaningful portraits that would show a whole range of human emotion. I wanted to condense that to a 60-or-70-minute film and also grow it organically over time to have this collection of portraits online with this wisdom.”
His idea was a combined web-film project. He set a funding goal of $11,000. And, of course, when what one thinks of as good ideas get put to the test, it isn’t always a formula for restful nights.
It was kind of nerve-wracking to pull the trigger on a Kickstarter project, because I’d been talking to my colleagues about it. A friend of mine whose project I’m co-producing was looking at a Kickstarter project, and I was encouraging him to get on it and he did get an invite and was successful. I thought “My reputation is kind of on the line, and if I go for funding and don’t get it, I’m going to feel kind of stupid.”
But it all went well. On May 26, when the deadline closed, he’d been funded in the amount of $12,520, from 166 separate donors. Some supporters he expected; others surprised him, and others were strangers to whom he remains grateful.
“These donors are not backers, but rather people who give of their own money, and with no definable payback, other than satisfaction and the a copy of the film (Hansen will send a video download to all donors who have $15 or more, and a DVD to donors who sent in $35 or more).”
He says for people thinking about looking at crowdfunding, there are some clear lessons.
I wanted to make sure first is that the project was really something I believed in, and that I would be willing to tactfully annoy my network about. You can’t just pick any project that comes to mind and say “I’m going to raise $10,000, and if it doesn’t work out it’s OK.” The passion has to be there, because your network is not so much investing in the rpoject as in me, and my ability to make sure the project is good. You can’t convincingly – or at least genuinely – reach out to people in a way that would make crowdfunding work. So I was very particular about the project that I chose.
I felt I had a lot of ammunition going in to make it as successful as possible. I think people are interested in getting behind projects they have some connection with, however loose that might be. I was surprised and overwhelmed at the beginning by personal emails people had sent, talking about their grandmother or their aunt or other relative, and because of that how much this project meant to them. I thought, “I haven’t even started, and people are already responding just to the idea.” There are a lot of touch points for people.
There are people I consider close friends, but I would have never expected they would donate at the level they did; the power of crowdfunding is you can get a little bit from a lot of people. I had a couple of people who were willing to fill the gap, but I didn’t have to call on them to do that. I had some people step in and donate in a big way I wouldn’t have expected – $500, or $1,000 – and that really floored me.
I was kind of shocked at the number of strangers who donated $50. That humbled me. They were people who were referred by Twitter, or by the Kickstarter homepage, where it was featured for a day. I was amazed by the generosity of strangers who came in and gave money was amazing.
Hansen will now set out to make the film. “I’m in the process of trying to plan my route – I’ll be driving this,” he says. “I want to get a good sampling of people across the country; I don’t want to have them all be from Boston.”
Finding subjects has come in several ways.
I have a friend who works in the senior-care industry, and he has reached out and said, “We have thousands and thousands of very interesting people who live in our communities, and could you help track down people in your community who might be interesting.” And within my network of contacts, people have come out of the woodwork and said, “You know, I have this interesting neighbor who has shared these amazing stories.” So I’m trying to amass this list of people who are potential interviewees, and then figuring out how to get permission, and in some cases figuring out how to get permission from their families or extended families. But one thing I learned is that not everyone I find interesting is interested in being interviewed – I kind of naively thought, “Why wouldn’t they want to be interviewed?” But I got turned down a lot.
He says he hopes over the next two to three months to get around 20 very solid interviews. And he’ll blog through the process to keep both donors and other interested people up to date. He believes that you can’t wait to get a film “in the can” before you get the word out.
“Documentary can’t just be the traditional release method, where you do the project, release to a festival, and maybe get theatrical or DVD. I think these days, to create a better audience, you need to engage them throughout the process.”