Atlanta Film Festival

Chris Holland worked in the film industry for more than a decade. In the early days of the internet he was a film critic and later he joined the staff of the Austin Film Festival. In 2006 Holland joined film distributor B-Side Entertainment as the Director of Festival Operations. There he worked with festivals like Sundance, AFI Fest, and SILVERDocs to market films to audiences and to discover emerging new voices in cinema. In 2008 he published "Film Festival Secrets: A Handbook for Independent Filmmakers" and began working as an consultant on marketing and festival strategy with artists around the world. Chris currently serves as the Operations and Marketing Director for the Atlanta Film Festival, where he has helped to launch the festival's first ever crowdfunding campaign. Below he writes about why the festival decided to use crowdfunding to raise money for the annual event and shares his lessons for crowdfunding. The current Kickstarter campaign has raised more than $10,000 towards its $13,000 goal with 12 days to go.

In my conversations with friends at other film festivals on the topic, it became clear that not everyone views crowdfunding as a desirable or even sensible form of fundraising for events like ours. Some praise internet fundraising platforms such as Kickstarter and IndieGogo as indispensable tools that keep their events in business, while others view the concept as little more than futuristic panhandling. As our campaign here at the Atlanta Film Festival progresses, I'm quickly becoming one of the former. The upsides of the opportunity to connect directly to our fans by asking them to support something they tell us they believe in -- coupled with the desire to increase our travel support for visiting filmmakers -- now outweighs any reservations we might have felt about the method. Personally, I'd been itching to have the Kickstarter experience from the creator's side, and said as much around the office. A few conversations later the ATLFF staff was on its way to launching a 30-day Kickstarter campaign with the all-or-nothing goal of raising $13,000 in contributions.

Crowdfunding for a film festival is hardly a new idea, and we're not even the only festival of our relative size running a campaign at the moment. But since internet "crowdfunding" as an institution is barely five years old and non-profit institutions in general change their habits at a more cautious pace, we do find ourselves as the exceptions rather than the rule -- for now. Hopefully festivals to come will find these lessons useful (we've learned a lot), and hopefully we will be an example of how to create a successful campaign, rather know. Knock on wood. Cross your fingers. Turn around three times and spit.

Here are 7 tips for running a Kickstarter campaign for a film festival:

1. A strong narrative is as important to a fundraising campaign as it is to a movie.

One of the biggest messages that Kickstarter tries to impart when you start a campaign is that "It's not just a project, it's a story." Telling your festival's story well and inviting potential backers to be a part of it should permeate every aspect of your fundraising strategy. Just as filmmakers ask themselves "how does this scene propel the story or character development," you should ask yourself, "how does this video/text tell the story of our event? How does this reward encourage the reader to involve himself in a chapter of our story?"

You can watch and read our campaign’s narrative on the campaign site, but it basically begins with our audience survey, which told us that our attendees regarded the presence of filmmakers as the festival's #1 selling point. At the same time, our travel budget was dwindling as tourism-related sponsors, hit hard by the recession, were forced to withdraw their support. Faced with fewer resources in the one area of activity that our fans told us they liked best, we decided to appeal directly to those fans for help. Not only does it focus their attention on the festival’s most attractive feature, it encourages our attendees to really think about the festival’s purpose, the audience’s role in fulfilling that purpose, and how they benefit from it.

2. Your ideas for crowdfunding strategies may be pretty good, but there are better ones out there in the world. Go steal them.

As the late Steve Jobs said, "Good artists copy, great artists steal." We spent three months before our launch researching Kickstarter strategy, finding the campaigns that had gone before us, and preparing our own project. That research included talking to our friends at festivals around the country, during which we discovered fests who were preparing campaigns (like the Dallas International Film Festival) and festivals who had done similar projects before us. Our Kickstarter team analyzed what rewards seemed popular on the crowdfunding pages of other events like ours (including those that weren’t film festivals) and took note of the common traits and practices of those campaigns that were successfully funded. Good ideas that we deemed a good match for our story and audience, we stole.

Atlanta Film Festival Photo

Our best stolen idea came from the Flyway Film Festival's Rick Vaicius who, during a phone call, drew our attention to his campaign’s "Kickstarter Award Jury," which deliberated on an award given at the festival and was composed of campaign backers. A very similar Backer's Jury is one of the most popular perks of the ATLFF campaign and will provide us with an additional chapter in our festival story -- we’re going to fly the winning filmmaker to the festival, record their acceptance of the Backers Jury award, and send the video to the members of the Jury who can't be with us at the actual event.

3. There are best practices in general, and there are best practices for your campaign.

By the time you finish your research, your brain will be full. Many of the recommendations you read will conflict with one another, and some of them won't make any sense at all. Just as in festival programming, at some point you have to decide which crowdfunding strategies will help tell your story and resonate with your audience and which to discard. If you're in tune with your fans, you’ll know what will get them to respond. If you're not sure, don’t guess -- ask them. Cheap email survey software is abundant, and if you're not using it, you should be. A short survey prior to your campaign will not only help you determine what perks to offer, but it will also tease the campaign itself and help you identify the members of your community who are most engaged.

Our entire campaign originated from the responses to our audience survey. From it we knew what area of our budget could reasonably draw public support, what our audience valued, and what kinds of rewards we should offer. We also learned that our parking lots need better signage, but that's a different article.

4. Rookie errors are real.

If you've never done this before (we certainly hadn’t), you're going to make mistakes. Make peace with it. Your research will help you avoid many of the pitfalls, but some you won't see coming and others you'll stumble right into despite knowing better. The best countermeasure is to allow for such mistakes when you set your goal and your timeline. If your aim is too high or time too tight, otherwise correctable stumbles become fatal errors.

We thought we were reasonably ahead of the game when we set up our Atlanta Film Festival Kickstarter and Amazon Payments accounts, but as launch date drew near we realized we hadn't started the paperwork process soon enough. Confusion about our street address -- our university campus street address was flagged by Amazon Payments -- resulted in an indefinite delay. As days ticked by and it looked like we might not be able to launch the campaign until further in the holiday season than we were willing to do, we held back on some of our efforts to wrangle support in the days leading up to the campaign. The issue was eventually resolved and we launched only a few days after our target date, but the early supporters of our project numbered fewer than they might have.

I bring this up not to say that the campaign isn't going well. As I write, we're at 75% of our goal with 12 days left, so I'm pleased with the progress we've made. It is, however, an example of the unexpected intervening in unpleasant ways. Do what you can to make those moments merely unpleasant and not disastrous for your fundraising goals.