Crowdfunding 201: Learning From Your Mistakes

on Thursday, May. 3rd

I have a saying I trot out every so often that goes something like this: “If everything is great, then nothing is great”. It’s a variant on the Boy Who Cried Wolf. Basically, if all we do is say nice things about people, it gets really hard to tell when something is actually worth checking out. And not just that, but how will we ever learn from our mistakes if we don’t think we made any?

I think it’s one of the great failings of the arts communities that we’re so hesitant to give each other honest feedback. Or worse, that we’re unwilling to listen to honest feedback.

So we’re going to look at a campaign that’s made some mistakes.

We thought about doing this after the campaign, almost as a post-mortem, but why hold off when the campaign is facing such a long, hard road to getting funded? Maybe one of the people who read this will become a backer. You never know.

So with that in mind…

The Anniversary by Alison Monda

…Well this is awkward.

I wrote that introduction this morning, and by the time the folks behind the campaign had emailed me back with answers to my interview questions, they’d fixed the biggest problem in the campaign. But we’re trying to educate here, so let’s talk about it anyway.

When the campaign for The Anniversary launched, it did so with a perk at the $150 level that got backers a Blu-Ray DVD of the film. That was the only perk that allowed backers to see the finished film in the comfort of their homes. As you might guess, that’s a bit unusual.

Conventional wisdom puts the DVD perk for a Kickstarter campaign at $25, which is the perk level that is often cited as the most popular. Earlier this year, I started tracking successful campaigns and came up with the theory that it isn’t the $25 value that drives the perk level’s success, but is instead the DVD, as the peak in the bell curve seemed to reliably shift with the DVD perk. As much as we like to think that DVD is on the way out and everyone’s going all digital all the time, a $50 DVD will almost always draw more backers than a $25 digital download, or even a $10 digital download. There are exceptions, of course. Mother’s Red Dress pushed their $3 download perk pretty hard, and that out-drew the DVD, but usually the DVD dictates the bell curve. it’s a situation where I think conventional wisdom is just flat-out wrong, something a few people said early on that no one ever bothered to verify.

Of course, there’s a limit to that. It’s hard to find successful campaigns where the DVD is priced higher than $50, and I’m not sure I recall seeing one where it works higher than $100, and for good reason. That’s a lot of money.

The thing is, DVDs are kind of a hassle to fulfill, especially compared to digital downloads, which you can pretty easily upload to Dropbox and send everyone a link. You have to make the actual DVDs, and label them, and stack them up all around your living room, and ship them, and it’s a whole thing. I think most filmmakers would be just fine with the idea of going completely digital, but the market isn’t there yet. Redbox’s revenues keep growing. Quite simply, DVD’s death has been greatly exaggerated. So when you ignore it, you’re kind of shooting your campaign in the foot.

But beyond that, sometimes artists forget that when someone gives you some of their hard-earned money to make something, there’s a fundamental expectation that they would be able to see that thing you made. This is obvious when you’re the person giving the money, but seems to be less obvious when you’re the one getting the money. That sounds more sinister than it is.

Anyway, the campaign for The Anniversary launched with no way to see the film for under $150. And they heard about it. Quickly. So they added a perk at $50 where they’d stream the film for 1 day only, which is leaps and bounds better and has the advantage of having the feel of an event, but still that’s not great. People have lives and unreliable internet connections and that’s a pretty small window.

And so they fixed it. Like, today. In-between the writing of the introduction and the body of this article. To quote Erin Neal (one of the producers):

We’ve actually been discussing this for a while. You’ll note that we have already added the digital download level at $35 and added a DVD addendum to $50 and a DVD w/ Special features to the $100.   Because already we have backers at every level up to $1000 currently, it meant we couldn’t change the rewards as they were locked. We had to add new ones. We were just trying to figure out the best way to implement it without confusing new backers or irritating those who’ve already contributed at other levels. 

There’s a couple of things here. First, Kickstarter has a rule that you can’t change a perk once a backer has selected it. That way you can’t offer people a limo ride with Brad Pitt for $1 and then change it to a virtual hug after a bunch of people have given you money. So you want to be very careful in setting up your perks. You don’t just launch the campaign without being damned sure those are the perks you want to live with. You can add perk levels, but you can’t change the existing ones. So check your spelling. Make sure you’ve budgeted your costs. Second (and more importantly), this is a hallmark of a campaign that is listening. I asked Erin 18 questions in total, and in almost all of them you could tell they’d put thought into their decisions and were–to some degree–aware of how they were being interpreted.

Is it a flawless campaign? Not even close. There’s a litany of issues, running the gamut from things they never considered to things they misunderstood. But they’re doing their best. They’re having fun with the process. And they threw someone in a lake.

At some point, they’re going to throw a pie in someone’s face. And there’s a music video. And if you’ve got a stunt you want them to pull off, they’ll do that too. Because they’re listening, even if they’re making mistakes along the way.

Extra Credit

This week I almost wrote about the campaign for Dust, but couldn’t come up with a good angle. It ends this weekend and looks really, really cool…Dawn Mikkelson’s Smooch (a documentary I volunteered on last year) just launched a campaign for a international shoot that’s off to a good start…Scott Macaulay has an interview with Jessica Oreck about her campaign for Aatsinski over at Filmmaker Magazine…It’s a documentary about something called “Conspiracy of Beards”. They sing a cappella versions of Leonard Cohen songs. No, really.…Jeremy Wilker’s campaign for Death to Prom is in the final days.

Lucas McNelly is the filmmaker behind A YEAR WITHOUT RENT, UP COUNTRY, BLANC DE BLANC, and GRAVIDA. He runs Kickstarter campaigns for a living. He hasn’t lived anywhere in a long time.


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