Did you always know you were going to raise money for the film via crowdfunding?
One of the things we were always struggling to do is to give people a call to action that benefitted the movie. Yes, we can generate all this amazing buzz, yes, we can do stunt things on the internet. But how do we get people to a point where they’re going to do something about it? Whether that’s to share a video or to buy a ticket or whatever. So I was kind of already in that mindset. I had a film that I really believed in at the script stage and there was so much support for it just within the producing team. But I knew we were going to have a really hard time getting this movie made in a traditional channel. So one of the things I realized is that no one knows what this movie looks like in my head. No one knows what this movie really really is. And very few people are going to take the time to read the script and think about it. So I made a concept together for the film with my tax return.
With a refund from your taxes you mean?
Yeah, with my refund check. I thought, “What if this were a movie? What would the trailer be like?” And I made that trailer. And the point of that trailer was to make it so great that people would be devastated when there wasn’t a “coming soon” at the end of it. And it came out really really great. At first the thought was, “We’re just going to make it for executives and we’re going to use it to take to meetings. But, being in this mindset of it’s going to be hard enough going through the traditional channels, why not just take it directly to the people?
I had the thought, “well maybe we should just put it on YouTube.” But of course, if we put it on YouTube and people dig it, then we have to give them something to do. At the time we needed money, the idea was “let’s raise $5,000, and let’s get a lawyer to incorporate us— you know, “Dear White People,” incorporated— so we can go out and start to raise the financing for the film, which was considerably more than a few thousand dollars. And that’s really where it started.
And Indiegogo was the one place where if you didn’t reach your goal you’d still keep some of your money. So we felt good about having what to us was a very ambitious goal of $25,000. And we thought maybe we’d meet that one day. And that’s what we did. So we put this video up. “Coming Soon” never happened at the end of the video. Instead it was, “hey, would you like to see this movie in theater? Great. Press this button and throw us some coins.” And within three days, we surpassed the $25,000 goal. And even after the campaign was over people just kept giving us money.
So you had already made the trailer before you were thinking of a crowdfunding campaign?
Yeah. It was a concept trailer. I must have been thinking about crowdsourcing at the time, but I just really thought it was above me. I didn’t think I’d be able to raise…I knew I wouldn’t be able to raise the budget. And maybe I could have if I was more ambitious, frankly. But I thought, we could use $5,000, enough money to get a lawyer to incorporate us so we could really start the fundraising process. But I didn’t realize that we would raise much more than that, and we were able to do so much more. At the beginning of this movie’s gestation period, that really was the jump-start that got the movie to the proper channels to get it made.
Of course, it’s not just about raising the money, but also about promotion, building awareness and making people feel like they are part of the community.
Absolutely. When a person is so excited about something, and you give them something to do, and that something to do could be as simple as giving you a dollar, that person becomes an evangelist for that concept. And it’s the story of the trailer, and the story of the Indiegogo campaign, that’s what got the movie made. The money was helpful obviously: we were able to start casting and location scouting. There were practical uses for the money, but really what it did was it became a story in and of itself. We had what we called “the union” of people dedicated to getting the movie made. And that paid off hundreds of times over in this process. We were able to walk into Sundance with 25,000 fans, and walk out of Sundance with 100,000 fans.
Was there anything that surprised you about the way the campaign itself went? Were there some hiccups along the way?
The biggest hiccups were that some of the perks — because frankly, we were a lot more successful than we ever thought we’d be — some of the perks were a lot harder to fulfill. We had to really reach out to our fanbase and make sure they knew it was coming eventually. Because we were able to finance the film and go to Sundance and all this stuff, we weren’t able to necessarily send out the screenplay right away for instance. That’s something that had to wait until the film was released in theaters. I don’t think any of us anticipated how quickly it would catch on. So it there were any hiccups on our side it was just sort of catching up to the response more than anything.
A good problem to have!
Yeah, it’s a great problem to have…And what’s so cool is to go around the country and meet people who say, “you know what, I gave you money. It’s been two years and I am so glad that put money into this because it came out so great.” And that’s awesome to hear, someone who’s followed us for that long and they were satisfied with what we did.
Are there any tips you would give to filmmakers that were in the position you were in a couple years ago? Anything you would say they should definitely do or definitely not do?
This is more of a crunchy-granola answer, but it’s the one that feels the most right, even though we had to rely on other people to get the movie made, you have to get to a place where you’re not asking for permission. You’re not depending upon other people to fulfill your dreams. The crowdfunding piece of it for me, for “Dear White People,” came after I decided to take full responsibility for getting the movie made. It wasn’t a situation where if we don’t get crowdfunding we’re screwed, we’re devastated. It wasn’t that. It was, “you know what? We believe in this. This is going to get made hook or by crook.”
I sometimes run into people who have ideas I’ll say are probably like fringe ideas. They’re not the traditional narratives or they’re not about the more commercial subject matters. And it’s almost coming from a sense of like begging: “If someone doesn’t give me permission to make this movie I’ll never make it.” And I don’t think that’s the best mindset to go into it with. I think people feel the difference between a really confident campaign and a campaign that feels like it’s begging. It hinges upon your support, and people want to be a part of a moving train, more so than they want to get behind the car and push.
People responded to the trailer because it felt like a real trailer and we made it with confidence. I thought it was awesome (laughs). It wasn’t like, “please, I have a dream! Without your help I can’t!” It was like: “This is dope. Do you want to be a part of it or not?” That’s kind of the attitude that we lead the campaign with…People want to be a part of your movement. There are fewer people who want to start your movement for you. But once you start it people are happy to join if it resonates with them.
Social media also helps obviously.
Yeah. I had worked on social media campaigns, particularly stunts that had a “call to action.” That was something I had a lot of experience in. And the one thing I learned from that was that you can’t ever anticipate what’s going to happen. You really can’t make a fire out of two twigs. There’s either going to be a fire or there isn’t. And if there is going to be fire you better have all your ducks in a row. The night before we launched it on YouTube and Indiegogo we made sure we had the Tumblr up, the website going and everything was sort of ready if people were down to be part of it. And that’s really what you can do. If no one responded to the trailer, and nobody gave money, there would have been a limit to how successfully we would have been able to do things, but we would have been ready either way.
As far as Indiego in particular, it sounds like you chose that because of the flexible funding option.
Kickstarter is probably the better known brand. But Kickstarter was really saturated at that time with other campaigns. And also, I liked the spirit of Indiegogo, and I liked that they said, if you raise any money you should be able to keep it. That to me made a lot of sense, especially when I didn’t really know what the market was interested in. I didn’t know people would give me enough money to reach that goal. So that was the route that I went and I’m really glad that I did because not only was it a great success but the support from the Indiegogo team has continued to be great long after that campaign. I’m glad that’s the choice we made.
Editor’s Note: The “How They Funded It” series is presented by Indiegogo. Indiegogo has the largest, independent film fan base in the industry, all eager to discover new movies, new genres and new film projects. To learn more visit www.indiegogo.com.