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Crowdfunding: An Awkward, Instructive Tool for Student Filmmakers

Crowdfunding shouldn't just be student filmmakers painfully asking friends and family for money.


On the set of “Calliope”

Adam DeSantes

Last month, I finished a Kickstarter campaign for my first short film: “Alpacaland,” a horror comedy inspired by a movement of late 1930s Soviet propaganda musicals set on farms. I looked at crowdfunding as a resource to help give the project funding I couldn’t otherwise offer. To cast a wide net of interest, I updated the page every day, asked a dozen friends to help with social media, and tried to make the project sound like a legitimate independent film worthy of the site I write for.

The experience was successful, buoyed by a number of supportive friends and family members. Yet for a while, it was an awkward, messy experience, bordering on obsessive and self-doubting. For weeks, our social media mark struggled to extend well beyond donors who knew a member of the team. I started asking students I knew at Wesleyan, NYU and other schools if their experience was similarly strange. Surprisingly, I heard similar reactions across the board.

“Alpacaland” Kickstarter video

READ MORE: 7 Revelations From Indiegogo and Seed&Spark Execs on How to Successfully Crowdfund Your Film

“I hated it. I was an anxious wreck during the campaign,” said Adam DeSantes on funding his first film “Calliope.”

DeSantes had teamed up with writer/director Joe Shaffer and composer/writer Thomas Thurlow to make the trippy, drug-filled feature film which raised over $11,000 on Kickstarter this year.

“We tried to advertise it on Facebook, Reddit, we even had an article written up during the campaign by a local website,” said DeSantes. “None of that generated much traffic or created many donations. We were even lucky enough to be put on Kickstarter’s ‘Projects We Love’ page, but nothing happened out of it. It was such a bummer, I thought we’d get wider support.”

In the world of crowdfunding for undergrad filmmakers, the numbers are stacked against the students. The undergraduate department of film and TV at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts supports approximately 400 junior and senior level projects each semester. Including freshmen and sophomores, there’s a total population of 1,200 undergraduate students making projects. The vast majority of these filmmakers crowdfund. The ratios at USC, Emerson, Wesleyan and a host of the country’s most popular film schools are similarly high. Many students feel grossly underprepared for the challenge.

“Nobody ever teaches you how to ask for money,” said Max R. A. Fedore, who sought funding for his experimental short film “Ascension” ($7,000 budget) and his Tisch thesis film “Opera of Cruelty” ($20,000 budget). “If you’re not a specific genre people recognize, it’s harder to get seen. It was difficult to pitch my idea surrounded by film students and an oversaturation of crowdfunding campaigns.”

opera of cruelty

“Opera of Cruelty”

Max R.A. Fedore

“I usually tell students to remember you can only kind of pull that trick once,” said Steve Collins, associate professor of film studies at Wesleyan. “When you graduate and you want to make your next big film or your first feature, if you knock on all those same doors again, people may get a little tired of handing out money. You have to balance into the equation if you’ll want to do this with your first feature or your first short, where you won’t have access to free equipment.”

When countless students publicly ask for money, how can any single campaign gain momentum with so much collective noise? Christina S. DeHaven, head of production and production supervision at NYU Tisch School of the Arts, has encouraged an approach to crowdfunding more akin to the work of a legitimate independent film producer.

“The notion that one Kickstarter is the only time you can use crowdfunding for a project is certainly not true,” she says. “It’s the efforts you put forth to draw your target audience toward your film to find what I call your fundraising community, that drives traffic towards your webpage and make them donate.”

DeHaven emphasizes students need to build a community. Crowdfunding isn’t a well to draw from, it’s a means of building interest for your film. To do that, it takes a little more than sending around a page.

READ MORE: How Four Filmmakers Turned Kickstarter Into Sundance Gold

yellow heart

“Yellow Heart”

Sophia Harvey

Asking for money from strangers is always intimidating.

The crowdfunding pages I tracked mostly fell into two categories: Campaigns that could not track beyond the campaigner’s own personal network, and campaigns sent to and tailored for friends and family. I empathized with both scenarios: I struggled to find ways to get strangers to see and donate to our film, to the point where promoting it publicly could feel like a waste of time.

“There’s a huge intimidation factor when asking for money from strangers,” said Professor DeHaven. “The notion that there could be somebody out there that doesn’t know you from a hole in the wall, and wouldn’t make any money off a short film is funding a project that mostly benefits you, your grade and your degree, sends some students into a panic. That’s a philosophy students have to work their way out of mentally.”

“It’s a tricky game,” said Sophia Harvey about getting internet exposure for her thesis “Yellow Heart.” She successfully raised $4,313 for her Tisch film on Indiegogo. “You don’t want to bombard people. The whole game of fundraising is convincing people that they’re going to be a part of something great, and not just giving you money, which I guess is the game of people spending money on anything. But the student film fundraising game relies so heavily on your own network.”

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Wesleyan alum Rizky Rahadianto avoided social media promotion entirely. The Indonesian filmmaker raised $1,600 for his thesis project “Mild Medium Hot” (retitled “A Girl Makes Hot Sauce at Home”) on Indiegogo through emails exclusively.

“I don’t like asking for money most of the time,” said Rahadianto. “I couldn’t offer evidence I’ve done something except my Sight and Sound projects [an introductory filmmaking class]. I couldn’t assure strangers that this movie was going to be good. By writing a personal email, I could undergo an intimate relationship with my donors.”

For myself, it took talking to Professor DeHaven to get over the psychology of being embarrassed by the ask. We took our Kickstarter to online film forums where film history nerds could resonate with our film’s revisionism towards Soviet musicals, and reached out to alpaca farms across the east coast to see if they could help in any way. We struck the right markets, and have already acquired loads of free alpaca fiber.

“A Girl Makes Hot Sauce At Home”

Rizky Rahadianto

Finding your platform means finding your target audience.

Before choosing the pitch and the platform for your campaign, you have to lock down the kind of film you want to make and figure out what audience it belongs to. Professor DeHaven teaches a class at Tisch called Producing the Short Screenplay, a nuts-and-bolts production class for students preparing to make and fund one of their first short films.

“You should ask what the target audience is for your film,” said Professor DeHaven. “What is meaningful about the content in your movie? You could look at the much bigger social impact and community at your disposal if you are using film to tell a really important story about a subject that impacts our community every day. Take time to see as a filmmaker where your community is. And if you don’t meet your goal, what discounts or rentals will you find to make your film happen? You have to have the gumption to ask those questions.”

Nearly 309,000 projects have launched on Kickstarter since its inception in early 2009, and less than 36 percent of those projects have succeeded at funding. For young filmmakers who want to raise whatever they can for their project, services like Indiegogo, Seed&Spark or GoFundMe will let students acquire however much they raise, although they also take a bigger cuts of the proceeds. Indiegogo takes nine percent from an unsuccessful campaign, compared to Kickstarter’s five percent from a successful project.

READ MORE: ‘Drive’ Soundtrack Gets Special Edition Vinyl Rerelease To Celebrate Its Fifth Anniversary

Yet some projects need an all-or-nothing ultimatum only Kickstarter can offer. My team and I felt that to execute the cinematography and production design that would help “Alpacaland” feel like one of the tractor musicals that inspired us, we needed to raise all of the $4,500 we asked for. For DeSantes and “Calliope,” the decision to crowdfund similarly reflected the scale needed to make their film.

“I knew we needed at least $7,500 for this feature,” said DeSantes. “I don’t like these other websites where you can get $3,000 and not be able to deliver the product like you’re supposed to. I looked at one of the major services that let you keep you the money you get, and it seemed like on Kickstarter the success rates were higher, the traffic was better, and it felt more respected, I suppose.”


“Calliope” title card

Adam DeSantes

It’s better if your goal is small.

DeHaven encouraged realism when it came to how much students plan to raise, noting most successful projects attempt a smaller funding range of one to ten thousand dollars.

“Be very realistic about your fundraising goal,” said Professor DeHaven. “It’s probably safer to keep it smaller, a number you could possibly raise through your own social network, and then maybe a little bit extra.”

Several students made successful campaign by asking for the bare minimum, including Sophia Harvey for “Yellow Heart,” whose film would go on to be selected for Cannes Shorts in 2015.

“It was my first movie. I didn’t want to spend a ton,” she said. “We shot in my hometown, I didn’t use any outside crew, I used NYU equipment, I got us food for free, our art decoration was minimal. It ended up being a pretty cheap project. it seemed silly to put a ton of money into something I wasn’t yet familiar with.”

READ MORE: 2016 Fall Movie Preview – 11 New Movies From Female Directors and Filmmakers to See

The ability to make push your thesis into the “success” category on a crowdfunding site will come from either keeping your budget small or part of what DeHaven describes as a “multi-pronged approach.” Wesleyan alum Mara Woods-Robinson’s 16mm thesis film “Pharmaceutikillme,” which followed a daughter fending off her pill-popping parents in a ’50s-set dystopian world, achieved funding through several grants from Wesleyan-affiliated organizations, finding part-time jobs to save up cash and an Indiegogo campaign (where she raised $655).

“In terms of funding, it has to be the kind of thing where you can fully commit yourself to raising a substantial amount of money, or you need to be finding an alternate way,” said Woods-Robinson. “The grants offered only cover the difference between shooting on 16mm and digital. But recently the price of 16mm has gone up even higher, from even one year ago, because nobody’s working on it anymore. So the grant didn’t get me everything, I didn’t have enough still.”


Mara Woods-Robinson in “Pharmaceutikillme” production still

Eli Sands

With non-profit sponsorship, students can think bigger than individual donors.

There’s a space for a multi-pronged campaign to flourish on other platforms. Max R. A. Fedore barely raised a fraction of his Indiegogo goals on the pages themselves. Instead, he directed interested donors to Fractured Atlas, a not-for-profit organization that sponsored his projects and offered tax reductions to backers of his films.

“[Professor DeHaven] talked me through my options, and the one that made the most sense to me was fiscal sponsorship,” said Fedore. “Once you’re granted sponsorship [by Atlas], you’re under a nonprofit network. This way, I could appeal to a handful of major donors and found companies that would match those donations.”

Watch: American Honey’ Trailer – Cannes Winner Explores The American Dream For New Generation

Fedore hosted a screening for his first film, “Ascension,” in his hometown for backers. He then made a presentation where he pitched the story and showed off the concept art for his next film. “I told these people who’ve supported me in the past that this is what I want to do. This is my dream, I need your help to make my dream happen. It was humbling to have continuing support, to set up an artist-audience relationship. They were invested in what I created.”

opera of cruelty

Max R. A. Fedore in “Opera of Cruelty”

Max R.A. Fedore

You’re not promoting yourself: You’re promoting a film.

One of the more surprising elements of my own experience is in spite of the awkwardness in asking for money, the decision to crowdfund crystalized the needs of my project early in its pre-production stage. Raising money forced me to think how I would go about creating a film true to the experience I promised my backers.

“I don’t regret it at all,” said Rahadianto. “I wouldn’t have made my thesis without it. It’s a huge learning process. Especially if you want to go into an independent or art film path, you have to take ownership and be responsible. Even the money of your movie will be important in the future. You say you give them something and you can’t bail. They’re trusting you.”

girl makes hot sauce

Eva Ravenal in “A Girl Makes Hot Sauce at Home”

Rizky Rahadianto

Social media is the new face for promoting an indie film of any size, whether it’s an A24 release or a student project on a shoestring budget. Professor DeHaven argues for the necessity of young filmmakers to expose themselves to this market: The process can lead students away from marketing themselves and towards marketing the experience they want to create.

“The intimidation factor students feel is that it’s a film, it’s not a fundraiser for curing cancer or medical research. ” said Professor DeHaven. “That it’s for your own personal benefit. But there are people out there who still believe in movie magic. I hope everyone working on the film is promoting the potential the film has – it does not just benefit the director/producer, it benefits everyone involved. It’s an experience a donor can be a part of.”

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