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by Mark Tapio Kines
May 1, 2014 1:44 PM
9 Comments
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8 Things I Learned From My (Failed) Kickstarter Campaign

Mark Tapio Kines

Mark Tapio Kines was the first person to employ online crowdfunding to finance a film; in 1998, he raised $150,000 in finishing funds for his debut feature "Foreign Correspondents." More than 15 years later, he ran a Kickstarter campaign for his third feature "Dial 9 to Get Out," but failed to reach his $120,000 goal. Below he details what he learned through his failed campaign:

I was the first filmmaker to crowdfund a feature online (way back in 1998), but that was no guarantee for repeat success: last month I attempted to raise $120,000 on Kickstarter for my third feature "Dial 9 to Get Out," and only scraped up about $42,000. A fair amount, but obviously not enough.

Regardless, I learned some useful information that doesn't usually pop up in the various crowdfunding articles you see on the Internet. If you're planning to crowdfund your next film, I hope these tips will save you time and money, or at least give you food for thought. 

Here are the 8 things I learned from my (failed) Kickstarter campaign:

1. Give your project a short, simple name, then change it right after launch.

Kickstarter freezes your project's URL the moment you launch. (Indiegogo does not.) You can change your campaign name as often as you wish, but your URL stays the same. Does this matter? Well, a disconnect between your project name and your URL does show the world that you're changing your message mid-campaign, which can look desperate. And if you make a typo, you're stuck with it!

Indiegogo lets you choose a short vanity URL for your project. Kickstarter does not. They do let you choose a vanity URL for your user name, but I suggest you launch your project with a short, simple title, without spaces. For instance, I should have named my project "dial9" at launch, so that my URL would have remained "kickstarter.com/projects/marktapiokines/dial9" instead of "kickstarter.com/projects/marktapiokines/dial-9-to-get-out-a-horror-tinged-suspense-film." It would have been easier to share and remember, too.

2. Create a Tiny URL for your project.

You see those handy "kck.st" URLs everywhere on Twitter. There are a number of ways to give your project a tiny URL, but Kickstarter's official way is a little hard to find. After you launch, click on the "< > Embed" button below your intro video. In the pop-up window, you'll see your Project short link at bottom right.

Indiegogo’s "igg.me" short link is easier to access: just click the "Link" button under the intro video.

3. Keep site commissions in mind.

If you use Kickstarter, they keep 5% of your total amount raised – provided you've met your goal. (If your campaign fails, you pay nothing.) Amazon keeps an additional 3-5%, but only from your U.S.-based pledges.

"Schmoozing with Kickstarter staff on Twitter or elsewhere won't help your cause."

On Indiegogo, a "fixed funding" campaign – the same "all or nothing" route that Kickstarter employs – offers you a slightly better deal: they take 4% and PayPal takes 3%. Indiegogo's "flexible funding"  route, where you keep whatever money you raise, is more popular – but you still incur the same 3% payment processing fee for credit cards or PayPal. And if you don't reach your intended goal, Indiegogo ups their own take to 9%. So commissions on an under-funded Indiegogo campaign can add up. (This is why some Indiegogo campaigners set a very low goal, even when they're trying to raise much more.)

Your mileage may vary – after a friend's recent campaign, his Kickstarter/Amazon commissions amounted to only 9% of his total haul – but I say err on the side of caution and add 10% on top of your film's budget to cover commissions. For instance, if your film's budget is $10,000, then your campaign goal should be $11,000.

4. Some tips on how to become popular on Kickstarter.

You won't get the majority of your backers through Kickstarter searches, but you will get some -- especially if you show up at the top when people search by popularity.

So how do you become "popular?" At one point in my campaign, I'd raised $30,000 – 25% of my goal – from around 200 backers. And yet my project was considered far less popular than one that had raised only $2,000 – 10% of its goal – from some 50 backers. Huh?

Someone on the Internet determined that Kickstarter popularity is primarily based on the number of backers a project gets per day. But I looked at the 40 most popular film campaigns last week, and there's clearly more to it than that.

For instance, the #6 film, which I'll call "Movie A," had 87 backers, an average of 8 backers a day, and had raised $2,469 – 123% of its funding. Yet the #34 film, "Movie B" – which you had to scroll down then click "Load more" to find – had 360 backers, an average of 13 backers per day, and had raised $81,712 – 141% of its funding.

"Your film might end up being financed mostly by your friends."

By every single measure, Movie B was far more popular than Movie A. So why was it so much further down the list? Here's the only difference I could find: Movie A had, amongst its 87 backers, a Kickstarter staff member.

There is a possibility that employee love for a project might give it a boost on the popularity charts, but only Kickstarter knows for sure. In any event, I can assure you that schmoozing with Kickstarter staff on Twitter or elsewhere won't help your cause. People suck up to them every day, and since staff members have to approve your project in the first place, they are already aware of it, and they've probably also decided whether they want to back it, promote it as a Staff Pick, etc.

5. "Data mine" on social media.

Many people tell you to build up a large social network well before you launch your campaign, but I know a filmmaker who amassed an impressive 20,000 Twitter followers. When he tried to raise a mere $8,000 through his Indiegogo campaign, he barely squeaked by with $4,000. It's like an anti-numbers game: the more impersonal your online relationship is with someone, the less likely they will support your cause.

That said, one experiment of mine worked out much better than expected: I looked at the backer lists for Kickstarter projects similar to mine. Then I got on Twitter and searched for those people who had backed at least 20 campaigns – "serial backers," I call them – and followed about 200 of them. Only about 40 of them followed me back. But when someone follows you back, it means you can Direct Message them. So I DM'ed those 40 serial backers, asked them to consider my project… and more than half of them wound up pledging. Some even became the film's biggest cheerleaders.

That's over 20 backers out of 200 attempted contacts. A 10-11% success rate is actually quite high for what amounts to direct marketing to strangers. Of course, this data mining is a time-consuming process – good luck finding exactly the right "Jeff Williams" or "Brian Carter" on Twitter – but if you're hoping to expand beyond your circle of friends, it can work out, and it's not really a controversial practice.

6. Count on your friends.

"Friendfunding:" That's the term I use for the money you will raise from your personal contacts. I suspect that it's the secret behind a lot of film campaigns that don't have celebrity names or built-in audiences (e.g., role-playing gamers, H.P. Lovecraft fans, or other dependable "geek niches"). Nobody likes to talk about how much money they got from their buddies (or from mom and dad), because it undermines the myth of crowdfunding.

I will tell you this: of my 249 Kickstarter backers, only about 20 were not friends, friends of friends, or Twitter followers. In comparison, a friend with a successful campaign said that he personally knew only a third of his 320-odd backers. However, that friend's campaign did appeal directly to one of those aforementioned geek niches, and was showcased on a number of popular websites.

In any event, it's worth acknowledging that, unless it has something truly buzzworthy about it, your film might end up being financed mostly by your friends. First, you need to gauge your comfort level with that. Then come up with a funding goal that could realistically be met solely through your contacts. (This is another good reason why you should have a team: the more people working on the campaign, the more social circles that can be tapped.) Keep on trying to alert strangers to your cause, but if any come on board, consider that to be gravy.

My Kickstarter campaign had a goal of $120,000 – not only because my film couldn't be made for less than $100,000, but also because I knew this amount was beyond what my friends could raise. In other words, if I failed (which I did), it wouldn't be because I didn't harass my contacts enough. I took comfort in this, as I don't like begging friends for money. In order to succeed, I had to connect with the outside world. And I believe that success on that front is, to a large extent, arbitrary.

7. Don't forget final parting words.

Remember, you can't change anything on your Kickstarter page after your campaign is over.

When you have just an hour left, take that time to add a final message to your campaign's main page – "Go to my website to follow this project" is a typical one. Because if you still have text or an image that says "LAST DAY OF THE CAMPAIGN!" up there, it will remain there forever. Whether your project's successful or not, you should have a useful "goodbye message" for anybody who visits your campaign after it’s done.

8. It takes time to get the money -- if your campaign is successful.

It takes about 2 weeks after the end of your campaign for the funds – minus commissions – to be transferred into your Amazon Payments account. Note that you'll still have to transfer those funds from Amazon into your own bank account; this doesn't happen automatically. Consider this a good problem, because it means you’ve succeeded. Congratulations!

Mark Tapio Kines is the author of Screenwriting Fundamentals on Lynda.com. He has written and directed two features, and is the first filmmaker to ever use crowdfunding to finance his work. Visit his site.

9 Comments

  • Andrew Hines | May 13, 2014 10:12 PMReply

    MARK and MARK...

    Thanks again for providing awesome information. VERY useful to ones like me who will soon be crowd funding. I will definitely be using some of the tools presented by Mark Kines. I keep marveling at the willingness of the online community to reach out and assist others. Just does NOT happen in the corporate world.

    Don't be bashful. Check out what we will be offering at ScreenSuspenders. I always appreciate feedback. Especially the negative! One can learn more from constructive critique.

  • Mike White | May 3, 2014 10:38 PMReply

    I think that one of the biggest things I've seen is setting a SMALL goal rather than shooting for a huge payoff. It's not as daunting for your potential funders. And, you can always go over.

    The other is... Never cancel your campaign in on one platform and start it again on another a few weeks later. I've never funded a campaign twice.

  • Mark Tapio Kines | May 4, 2014 6:01 PM

    Thanks for your input, Mike. I agree with you on your second point. When my Kickstarter campaign ended, many friends urged me to try again on Indiegogo. But I was, and remain, skeptical.

    As to your first point, I feel it's important that a filmmaker nail down a realistic budget for their film, then set their crowdfunding goal accordingly. It's not fair to ask for $30,000 when you really need $50,000. I have heard of filmmakers who took this route, and then were unable to raise the remaining funds. No film was made, and the backers just threw their money away.

    -Mark Tapio Kines

  • Alice | May 2, 2014 1:16 AMReply

    This was a really great post and quite insightful. Will definitely be sharing it across my social profiles to give my audience a REALISTIC view of crowdfunding. Big Ups on the Twitter strategy you did. Social media can work if you have the time and the willingness to work it correctly like you did. Thank for sharing.

  • Brian Briskey | May 1, 2014 3:41 PMReply

    Thank you for helping educate aspiring artists Mark! There is really a great deal of work in professional crowdfunding campaigns and even celebrity backed projects call upon any and all resources like social listening and statistics like PMD Partners, our team of filmmakers and campaign managers. Kind of like a wedding planner, you want to place your most publicized moment in the capable hands of a whole team including, web, social media, email marketing, video production (for conversion - not filmmaking) and the crowdfunding consultant.

    Please continue sharing your insights with other content creators so they can work to bring their projects to success. That way the good content will rise to the top with fan support as opposed to the paid advertising machine.

    ~Brian Briskey

  • Armak | May 1, 2014 3:21 PMReply

    If you had to do it over again— actually, I assume you're doing to do it over again— would you …use KS vs IGG? …lower your goal? …plan your Indiewire article to come out mid-campaign instead of after it?
    In other words, what would you do differently? Or have you decided— since you consider outreach success to be "arbitrary"— that it's just a crap shoot and you got unlucky?

  • Mark Tapio Kines | May 1, 2014 5:28 PM

    Hi Armak -

    Good question. First, I did have an Indiewire article go up in the first week of my campaign, but it didn't lead to many new backers. Second, I like Indiegogo, but I think they're better for raising finishing funds. For starting a film from scratch, KS is more fair. If I tried to raise $120K on IGG, and only wound up with $42K, I'd be ripping off my backers.

    As for what I'd do differently... The obvious answer is that I would get a famous name attached before launch. Easier said than done. But I would have worked on getting a recognizable actor to sign on, and including them in the intro video. This would have gotten the campaign more press and made the film more attractive to strangers.

    More realistically... Since my "data mining" experiment worked out, I would have started that process months earlier, following hundreds more Kickstarter backers on Twitter. I also would have spent more time becoming a regular on film-related Internet forums, especially for horror films, before promoting my project there. And I might have experimented with paying Facebook and/or Twitter for sponsored posts. None of these things would have necessarily raised the full $120K, but they probably would have helped.

    -Mark Tapio Kines

  • Aron Campisano | May 1, 2014 3:17 PMReply

    LOVE and ADMIRE Mark's work profoundly - dude is an inspiration because he walks the talk. In my humble and very limited experience, the #1 Kickstarter issue is unrealistic fundraising goals set by unknown filmmakers - this happens by modeling your budget, however loosely, on Hollywood standards. Abandon this long-dead approach and instead create win-wins for each and every member of the production - literally build your film this way. I am astonished by the amount of cash that CAN be raised online, but set very small expectations - 1/3 to 1/2 of what you others say you "need". If Joe Swanberg didn't have $100K for his first 10 features, then you don't either - not to mention that a film that has raised SOME cash is much more appealing to an Angel investor that could make up the difference.

  • Nid Collins | May 1, 2014 2:18 PMReply

    Where was this when I started MY failed campaign!? Lol. Great advice and I will definitely use it when and I try again. Thanks!