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How Four Filmmakers Turned Kickstarter Into Sundance Gold

How Four Filmmakers Turned Kickstarter Into Sundance Gold

"Spa Night"

“Spa Night”

The connection between crowdfunding and Sundance is nothing new. To date, nearly 100 Kickstarter-funded films have been official Sundance Film Festival selections, with 14 at this year’s festival. Indiewire recently checked in with the crowdfunding team behind four of these films to get some tips on how to build a successful campaign.

READ MORE: The 2016 Indiewire Sundance Bible: All the Reviews, Interviews and News Posted During The Festival


“Months before my Kickstarter went live, we were absorbing any intel about what it takes to successfully crowdfund. We talked to other filmmakers, read tips online and became very familiar with Kickstarter’s Creator Handbook. Incredibly helpful were Kickstarter’s film team — Dan Schoenbrun and Liz Cook — and people from the Sundance Institute, especially Missy Laney.” – Producer/Director Dawn Porter, “Trapped
“A big part of our pre-launch strategy was outreach to influencers and press. Months before the campaign went live, we compiled a list of 500 social media influencers who had varying degrees of connections to Dr. Angelou. The list included famous musicians, artists, writers, political figures, and more, with followings ranging from one thousand to millions.”  – Alex Daly of Vann Alexandra, the agency behind the Kickstarter campaign for “Maya Angelou and Still I Rise”

“I would strongly advise folks to get a great team in place, one that with luck has some experience with these campaigns, but experience isn’t as important as just being deliberate, creative and organized.” -Porter, “Trapped”
“I reached out to 10 close friends and asked them to pledge as soon as the page went live and send a personal email to their contacts about our Kickstarter. I told them the exact day and time. It didn’t matter how much they pledged, as long as it was within minutes after the launch — the last thing you want is for people to see you at $0!” -Writer/Director Andrew Ahn, “Spa Night”

The Campaign Video

“I filmed a video that had a lot of blood sweat and tears in it. A video really from and of my heart, something that I was excited and terrified to send into the world because it felt very raw. I was nervous but I was really excited on so many levels.” -Writer/Director/Actor Jessie Kahnweiler, “The Skinny

“The campaign video felt like a short documentary, rather than a fundraising video. It included clips of the directors’ interviews with Dr. Angelou, archival footage, and interviews with celebrities ranging from Bill Clinton to Oprah and Common, in order to give viewers an idea of what the film would be like. Another huge part of a campaign video’s success is the quality, and our video looked great (well-shot, produced, and edited). Whether you’re selling a 3D printer, a design book, or most obviously a film, the video will always be a reflection of your product. If it’s a high quality video, viewers will expect a high quality product. If the quality is lacking, they will think the product is lacking too. -Daly, “Maya Angelou and Still I Rise”
“Since I was raising post-production funds, I was fortunate to have footage and a rough trailer to share with prospective backers. Not all filmmakers will have that opportunity, but I think it helps to have something that visually connects viewers to your film. It’s also important for the filmmaker(s) to appear on camera and explain, simply, what the project is all about. -Porter, “Trapped”
“Our Kickstarter video was really direct and sincere. I spoke about my passion for our film. We didn’t try to do some witty or high concept. Not only would something like that feel incongruous with the style of our film, it was also unnecessary. I believe that the main objective for your video should be to gain trust from your audience. If they trust you, they will pledge.” -Ahn, “Spa Night”
“Be honest. Ask yourself WHY this movie needs to be in the world? WHY are you the person to do it? Don’t be afraid of acting ‘desperate’ or ‘lame’ by begging for money. That’s just your ego. F*ck your ego. Your soul needs the money for color correction.” -Kahnweiler, “The Skinny”

Out Reach

“My team and I developed a communications strategy that identified three different audiences: friends and family; colleagues and people in the independent film space; and, finally, people who were passionate in the issues addressed in my film. We messaged each of these groups differently, recognizing that each would probably decide to give for different reasons. Mobilizing all three audiences was important and, truthfully, we wouldn’t have reached our goal if we had taken for granted support from any one of them.”  -Porter, “Trapped”

“I kept it really niche and reached out to organizations and media I knew would be interested in eating disorder centric work.”  -Kahnweiler, “The Skinny”
“I found my largest audience by reaching out to people who would care about the issues in ‘Trapped.’ I was lucky to have buy-in from large, national organizations that have existing networks of supporters. But we didn’t rely on just that. We researched journalists and bloggers who have written about the devastating effects of TRAP legislation in the last three years and we emailed them, individually, to explain what we were doing and ask for their support. Eventually, people begin connecting you to other people and suggesting other resources — that’s when I began to feel like I had assembled the right community.” -Porter, “Trapped”
“We had an incredible picture of Dr. Angelou as a little girl, which we included in every single email to get people excited. We received an enthusiastic response from many, but the most notable influencer to tweet was MC Hammer, who spread the word about the documentary and shared the photo with his 3.7 million followers before launch. 
“If I had to pick one group that was the most successful, I would say it was the artists. Before launch we reached out and asked several artists if they wanted to donate rewards to the campaign. We were able to offer a limited edition print of ‘Maya’s Quilt of Life’ by artist Faith Ringgold, which was picked up by more than 30 backers at $200. We were also extremely lucky to offer originally designed t-shirts by amazing artists like Mickalene Thomas, Hank Willis Thomas, Derrick Adams, and Nina Chanel Abney. Many of the artists also spread the word on social media, which meant our campaign was able to tap into their widespread fan bases.” -Daly, “Maya Angelou and Still I Rise”

The Press

“‘The Spa Night’ team and I really proactively pursued media opportunities. Without press, you’re left asking for help from friends and then maybe reaching friends of friends. That’s as far as it goes. Throughout the campaign, whenever we received press, a wave of new donations would come in, often from strangers. With ‘Spa Night,’ we got great press from the Huffington Post Gay Voices blog, KoreAm Magazine, and Angry Asian Man.” -Ahn, “Spa Night”
“We secured coverage from some incredible publications (New York Magazine, Vogue). Having great press on launch day is huge: it means more eyeballs on your campaign right away.” –Daly, “Maya Angelou and Still I Rise”
“Being chosen as IndieWire’s project of the day helped us gain early traction. A few tweets from celebrities also offered a nice boost.”-Porter, “Trapped”

Getting Over the Hump

“We always heard that Kickstarter campaigns slow down a lot during the second and third weeks. In order to stop this from happening, we found a backer who was willing to match donations. If we raised $8000 in four days, they would donate an additional $8000. This mini campaign challenge really allowed us to keep up the momentum.” -Ahn, “Spa Night”
“My executive producer, Cindy Meehl, offered a challenge donation that infused a lot of excitement during an otherwise sluggish week. We also made good use of Facebook ads and Facebook’s retargeting tool, which allowed us to circle back with potential donors who visited our website to learn more, but did not likely donate on their first visit.”-Porter, “Trapped”
“To reach a wide audience always be ready to pivot your strategy. For example, once we saw that artists were really responding to the project, we decided to spend more time reaching out to that specific community… The key is to plug away at it every single day. We have a team of four who worked non-stop to identify and reach out to target audiences. On top of that, the directors and producers behind the documentary were plugging away day after day, too. We were a team of soldiers. I would suggest that in the last week, crank up your outreach efforts to another level: send a new round of emails, post more on social media, and try to secure any more press that you can. Remind people that the campaign is about to end, and this is their last opportunity to get involved. – Daly, “Maya Angelou and Still I Rise”

“Call up every EX boyfriend and say, ‘You cheated on me the least you could do is donate…'” -Kahnweiler, “The Skinny”

Turning Crowdfunding into Crowd-raising

“When it comes to communicating with backers, more is more. Initially, I mistakenly only messaged them when I had a significant milestone to share. Quickly, though, I learned that they were invested in the entire process — both the good parts and the boring parts. Even if it’s just another message letting them know how editing is going, I encourage other filmmakers to message their backers at least once per month. I count my 636 backers as my core team — the people who will help me make the most of each phase of distribution. I truthfully would not have finished this film without their support and I hope to engage each of them on different projects in the future.” -Porter, “Trapped”
“Throughout the campaign, I set aside one to two hours each day to personally respond to Kickstarter pledges and messages. It was a fun process for me; it was like having many, many pen pals. I heard coming out stories. I heard about Korean-American parents. It was time consuming, but I really enjoyed learning about my backers through our correspondence.” -Ahn, “Spa Night”
“Your backers are like your mother. They just want to know that you’re happy and healthy. Photos and videos give updates a personal touch.” -Kahnweiler, “The Skinny”

The Kickstarter Green Room at Sundance is located at 591 Main Street and will be open every day from 11AM – 4PM. Throughout the week, Kickstarter will be hosting filmmakers, thought leaders, and other creators for all sorts of programming—or meet with the Kickstarter team during open office hours. To learn more, click here

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