uncollected thoughts on crowdfunding a movie

just wrapped up my 4th crowdfunding venture. [ran 3 for The Black Sea (one a success, one a fail, one in-the-middle)]. The latest was done to support my next feature film Sister/Brother. I am a big fan of the concept and spirit of crowdfunding but less a fan of the actual doing, which runs counter to my default personality setting which is more or less to be quiet. I don't want to ask people for support in general, much less for something that I've taken years to write and assemble and that has legitimate meaning for me creatively, emotionally or otherwise because a) it could fail b) I am exposing myself. In fact after The Black Sea I promised myself I would never crowdfund again because the experience was so draining and unpleasant even though the movie would not have been made without it. Some of this feeling - that I'd never crowdfund again - was ego and some was the mistaken presumption that for a second-time filmmaker with a developed screenplay with actors and key creative personnel attached finding capital would be a smoother enterprise this go-round. Not the case. Though the film played at several festivals and had small group of followers, no magical doors opened and no money magically rained down from the sky as a result. No well-heeled or hungry bulldog producer sought me out to shake me by the shoulders and promise me s/he wouldn't sleep until this movie was made and in the world.

And so last fall I applied for a battery of grants from a wide spate of foundations, thinking I could patch a couple (maybe even a few) together to maybe get a whisper of a spark of motion with which to approach investors - and came up empty on all of them. Every single one. This was deflating naturally but I have served on enough grant panels to know the competition is fierce and the inevitable projects - meaning the ones that appear to be getting made regardless of the success of the grant - are favored. And it became clear that without some money already in that funding a narrative feature via grants is not a sustainable idea.

And so after some interior deliberation (and especially because MAKING A MOVIE > waiting for something/someone to allow you to make a movie) I decided to go for it. The people at Stowe Story Labs agreed to be fiscal sponsor. Plus, Seed & Spark was launching the second year of Hometown Heroes and I thought perhaps I could piggyback on that for some additional motion. I had raised 32K on my first venture for The Black Sea and this was going to be less, 25K, so how hard could it be really? Some well-timed, well-meaning tweets, a steady but not-too-intrusive-or-annoying FB presence, some emails to former contributors and the money should come fairly easy. Except no.

In the 6 years between my first crowdfunding foray and this one, several things transpired.
- Everything online became immediate right-now loud, look-at-me turbine engine of white noise
- Crowdfunding in general became ubiquitous ("Help Me Pay This Dude to Pack my Apartment!")
- Crowdfunding for your tiny indie movie became ubiquitous
These all conspired to run counter to my expectation of how things would play out.

Day One was good. Some of the people I was counting on came through. Then day two we hit plateau and moved into a nothing-nothing-nothing-drip-nothing-nothing-nothing-drop rhythm that continued for ten days and which began to grind me down, activating a rising whirlpool of negative sensation, ultimately causing me to question the validity of the project, the validity of the campaign, the validity of me as filmmaker, and at darker moments, me as person, charting the trajectory of various failures in my life and allowing them to feed/sustain a terrible narrative in my head that I've been working for years to unravel. Why did I do this again?

With some creativity, some conversation with other filmmakers (thanks David W), and a well-timed-but-accidental-because-it-was-planned-a-year-ago trip to Yellowstone I started to find a path out of darkness. What's the worst that would happen, the project failed at crowdfunding? That's not the end of the project, just of one avenue. As someone once said (or should have said) there are many paths to the mountain. Once I began staring this failure in the face and accepting it and contemplating other ways to get this movie made things became lighter and the path out continued to illuminate itself. Ultimately the project was successful and I reached my goal but it was not without personal impact. The more time that gets between me and the experience the more favorably I'll reflect on it but at present it feels like there was a corrosive in the process, something negative. Those are funny words from a person who just raised 100% of his project and I know there are plenty of less-fortunate projects so maybe I'll zip the lip, dispense with the analysis, and head to these notes:


- don't conflate running a crowdfunding campaign with making a movie. they are not related in the least. you can argue that modern world blah blah hustle hustle self-produce blah blah but they are divergent. (maybe this outs me as old.) There are many people doing this who are great at the flash and sizzle and OMFG YOU GUYS and the funny gifs of cakes exploding or dogs high-fiving but that doesn't mean they can frame a shot or direct an actor or find the heart of a scene in a sudden two-shot because you're losing light. Don't forget this.

- some people will surprise you. they give more than you anticipated or give more than once or are invested in your success without you even knowing it. their belief in you and/or the project will sustain you in the darkness. even when it is quiet, know that there are people in the world who have your back.

- some people will disappoint you. there will be people you are counting on, or at least presuming will support you - in no small part because when they asked for support for their project you were there for them; you gave money and tweeted/FB'ed about their project - who will leave you flapping in the wind. Do everything you can to not let this eat you up from the inside. Chalk it up to them revealing who they are, remember it, and don't dwell or let it fester. I mean, first try emailing them directly and give a gentle reminder or two (we have just 26 hours to go. remember when I gave you fifty bucks for X?)  but then cut them loose and never ever ever support them or their art again. (note: not sure the aspiring buddhist in me agrees with the end of that sentence and I'm still processing/wrestling with it but it felt satisfying to type it out.) At minimum, don't let their lack of response define you or impact your emotions.

- some people who supported you last time won't support you this time: but how can that be? you never know what is going on in someone's life and social media is a murky lens. So when the person who gave to your last movie, emails you back a one-word email (the word: UNSUBSCRIBE) after you sent her a direct email, not a mass email, appealing for support, just shake it the hell off. Maybe your email was annoying or maybe she is contending with darkness of any form and can't deal. Either is okay.

- your best friends are fellow filmmakers: one of the highlights of this experience was crowdfunding alongside a bunch of other projects and watching them navigate similar hazards and obstacles. Talk to them. Celebrate/commiserate together.

- don't do the whole campaign by yourself: even if you've done it before. you need a multitude of voices and you need days when you have nothing to to with it.

- let gratitude be your default setting: no matter the amount you raise or the difficulties you encounter. Treat the $5 contribution with the same level of respect and thanks as the $250 contribution.

- find quiet: if you are lucky enough to find yourself in the hills of Montana in October and the light is golden in the aspens and your heart is open the smallness/greatness of existence will speak to you. This enterprise is so small it will say. It doesn't not have the meaning you are ascribing to it it will say. The meaning lays solely in your movie it will say. It will shake you by the shoulders and promise you that what you really need/want is already inside you and no matter what it won't sleep until this movie is made and in the world.


Pj Perez said...

Save for the Yellowstone trip, this matches up against my experience (and feelings) almost to the tee (T? tea?). In the end, both our projects fared pretty well, but man, this campaign definitely felt more challenging than previous ones, and the signal-to-noise ratio out there is just so bad now. And with a global crisis seemingly always happening (in tandem with personal crises), it made it really hard to feel good about asking people to help pay for me to make a film about a bunch of artists hanging out around a university in the '90s.

Brian Padian said...

yes, current events definitely made the ask harder. 'Hey, I know the world is on fire right now and your rights are in jeopardy for a generation at least but check out this killer campaign whoohooo!'.

thanks for reading PJ

Darren C. Sullivan said...

It's like anything we do artistically is putting ourselves out there, to be exposed, beaten., chewed up, admired, respected, hated. You're asking for any and all reactions to a passion for making art, and many people these days don't feel passion for much of anything than the next election. Art has seemingly taken a back seat, and when you try and expose your art, some feel resentful that you can, and they simply can't. Producing art is hard. It takes a need and desire from down deep to be willing to take the abuse from critics...that you should seek their approval first, before going any further. I tip my hat to artists in this day and age. It takes great bravery and courage to be willing to expose your desire and share it with other people. It's an envious state of being, and when other people can't feel it, they feel bitter. I'll always donate to your films Brian, and I only wish I could donate more.

Diane Lansing said...

This was such a balanced perspective. I'm thinking of embarking on another short film and want to hook up with Seed And Spark as I like their vibe, very positive. Im reading Crowd Sourcing/Crowd Funding by Richard Botto and have found some great pearls of wisdom there in how to approach funding. It is a lot of work, and scary at times. But I keep going back to that feeling of artistic elation I had when we finished a project I was passionate about. And getting ready to take the journey again. Congratulations on making your goal! I look forward to seeing your film!

Brian Padian said...

Thank you Darren. Love you man.

Brian Padian said...

Thanks for reading Diane and contributing. Someone recommended that book to me but I haven't checked it out. The artistic elation you speak of is definitely the goal and crowdfunding is one path to that goal. But for me at least this particular path comes bundled with multiple hazards and it isn't all fun time. You may have a different experience. Good luck on your next short. Where can I see the first?