Veteran documentary filmmaker Jennifer Fox entered Kickstarter’s Hall of Fame May 28 when she raised over $150,000 for her latest project “My Reincarnation,” a portrait of a High Tibetan Buddhist teacher and his Western-born son.
The fourth-highest earner of any film on Kickstarter, “My Reincarnation” met more than 300% of its initial $50,000 goal from just 518 backers, marking another milestone: Fox’s project yielded an average of $290 in donations per person, the highest of any movie ever on the fundraising website.
Along with a small handful of others, Fox’s Kickstarter triumph offers further evidence that crowdfunding can be a valuable and viable tool for indie filmmakers, potentially changing the way movies are financed, produced and distributed.
But it wasn’t easy. It took months for Fox to even agree to do it. “I did not want to do this campaign; I was exhausted,” says Fox, who is perhaps best known for her debut “Beirut: The Last Home Movie,” which won the 1988 Grand Jury Prize: Documentary at the Sundance Film Festival. “It’s the last thing you want to do after 22 years working on a film. ”
“But you just have to get over yourself,” adds Fox. “What Kickstarter showed me is that there were people all over hungry for this film that I didn’t even know about.”
However, Fox and other Kickstarter Hall of Famers are quick to point out that success doesn’t come from just a good idea, but a carefully orchestrated campaign with compelling marketing hooks. (For details on how she did it, click here.)
Fox says the Kickstarter funds are second only to European broadcaster Arte in terms of the amount of money invested in “My Reincarnation.” (PBS’ P.O.V. program, which pre-bought the film and will air it in late 2012, came in for less). “It’s a real nice piece of the pie,” she says. “But we really worked hard.”
Other filmmakers agree.
Cora Olson, producer of “I Am I,” the 6th highest film funded on Kickstarter ($111,965, 902 backers), says the project was tailor- made for crowd-sourced donations.
“Because we could do it on a small budget; because [director] Jocelyn Towne had a good network of people that she could start with; and we thought the project had some marketable elements, like actors Simon Helberg (from TV’s “The Big Bang Theory”) who has a Twitter following over 100,000, and Jason Ritter, who is also really active on Facebook and Twitter.”
Olson says the clever single long-take video that Towne created for Kickstarter—which functions like a promotional spot for Kickstarter itself—also went viral quickly. “I think she hit it out of the park, to show off what she could do creatively,” says Olson.
When the project was then featured on Kickstarter’s own blog—“a huge help,” she notes—traditional press outlets such as CNN then took notice, which lead to a “snowball effect,” says Olson. “Then we started raising a lot of money really quickly.”
“I Am I,” one of the few dramatic narrative Kickstarter winners, ended up gathering half its budget on Kickstarter. “But it wasn’t some random feature from out of the blue. It was definitely by design,” adds Olson, who notes that the film will now wrap production in a couple weeks.
Christopher Salmon, who is creating a CG animated short based on famed “Coraline” author Neil Gaiman’s story “The Price” (the third highest Kickstarter funded film, at $161,774, based on 2,001 backers) says the writer’s following was a huge factor. While Salmon didn’t orchestrate it that way, the Utah-based filmmaker admits, “People said to me, How canny of you to hook up with an author who has such a big online presence.” But Salmon says the film drew other niches, like pet-lovers, as well. (The story centers on a cat.)
Ultimately, however, Salmon thinks it came down to the professional level of his pitch. “What I’m noticing about Kickstarter is that you’re dealing with consumers,” he says. "If they feel it’s a real thing and the presentation materials are strong, that’s a huge determining factor to get people to push the button.”
Gary Hustwit, director of design docs “Helvetica” and “Objectified,” and whose latest “Urbanized” is the fifth-highest funded movie project on Kickstarter ($118,505 from 1,814 backers), credits the fundraising triumph to the groundwork he laid with his previous two films. “I really tried to engage with the audience, having done hundreds of screening events around the world,” says Hustwit, also noting his strong Twitter following (146,576).
“I’m lucky that I’m in a position that I have all these people who have seen the films, and want to see more of the work,” he says.
Furthermore, Hustwit adds, filmmakers are also kickstarting their distribution efforts. For example, he presold 764 digital downloads, 211 DVDs and 41 Blu-Ray copies of the new film before completion.
Hustwit’s fortunate situation begs a broader question for other filmmakers with a track record. “For any filmmaker that has an audience and has made a few films, I don’t understand why they’re not on Kickstarter," he says. "It’s totally the direction documentary funding should be headed. Not specifically Kickstarter, but the idea of getting people involved early on.”
Call Jennifer Fox a convert. After fundraising the old-fashioned way for almost 30 years, she says, “Maybe broadcasters don’t realize it, but if you have this option, you can say to your audience ‘Do you want it?’ And if they say yes with $20 or whatever, it changes the whole equation of what gets made.”
[You can read a more detailed breakdown of Fox’s Kickstarter strategy at her guest post, “The Next 14 Things I Learned From Our Six-Figure Kickstarter Campaign” on Ted Hope’s blog Hope For Film.)