The fact that he’s using Kickstarter isn’t news — it’s the fact that in 24 hours, he raised $77,000, $2,000 more than his fundraising goal of $75,000. As of Friday afternoon, with 21 days left, over $118,000 had been pledged. This is only the latest example of the thriving Kickstarter economy, which since 2009 has become an increasingly common way for independent creators to fund their projects.
The economics of Kickstarter, if you’re not familiar, work like this: the aspiring create project pages to solicit funds from friends, family, their fans, or total strangers. Much like a PBS pledge drive, certain types of rewards kick in for set amounts — for $10, you might receive a DVD of the project once it’s completed, while for $50 you might get the DVD as well as a T-shirt.
And as the numbers go up, the rewards become increasingly lavish and creative: For $1,000 you might get a producer credit or a walk-on role in the project — plus, of course, the DVD and T-shirt. Other sites like IndieGoGo offer similar services, but Kickstarter’s catch is this — if a project doesn’t meet its fundraising goal within a set period of time, then it’s canceled, thus creating an urgency to the project that inspires donations. Kickstarter collects a five percent fee from a project’s funding total.
In the last year or so, this has lead to a surge of potential projects born with crowd-sourcing — if you’re on the Internet and know at least one wannabe filmmaker, then you’ve probably already received at least one Kickstarter request, which comedy sketch troupe The Vacationeers has satirized brilliantly.
But according to Kickstarter co-founder Yancey Strickler, the site has become a serious option for creators seeking cash. The newest documentary by Helvetica director Gary Hustwit, Urbanized, raised its $118,505 budget this way; Pariah, a low-budget drama that premiered at Sundance 2011 and is considered a potential Oscar contender, used the site to raise $10,000 to finish production.
In total, there have been 3,500 successfully funded projects in Kickstarter’s Film and Video category, raising more than $35 million from donors: $12 million for narrative features, $12 million for documentary features, $11 million for short films, and two million apiece for web series and animation.
This makes the Film and Video category by far the most successful of Kickstarter’s 13 options, something Strickler attributes to the fact that filmmakers are used to the hustle required for fundraising. “When we were making Kickstarter, we had the broad idea of it being for creative projects — I don’t know that we expected film to leap out like it has,” Strickler said in a phone interview. “But I spend a lot of time working with filmmakers, and working in the film world means that you are a perpetual fundraiser.”
Putting a project on Kickstarter, therefore, is the natural evolution of, say, Spider-man director Sam Raimi asking dentists for the money to make The Evil Dead.
Elisha Yaffe first used Kickstarter last year, when he and his partners used the site to raise enough money to complete the independent web series Remember When. His second Kickstarter project, to fund a new web series called Girl Crazy, also just reached its fundraising goal with days to spare. To him, the benefits of Kickstarter are both financial and psychological. “In order to get my crew inspired, I felt we needed some support. No matter how much people give, it inspires a production,” he said in a phone interview.
One change Yaffe observed between the two projects was that whereas with Remember When, the donors were largely comprised of friends and family, with Girl Crazy there were more donors Yaffe couldn’t say he knew personally, pointing to the site’s potential power as a discovery engine. “It’s leading to a user base that supports cool independent projects that they want to see,” he said.
Another recent Kickstarter success is Jesse Thorn, who recently completed fundraising for the second season of Put This On, a sartorially-inclined web series that has raised over $70,000 for an ambitious concept involving travel to London, Milan and New York.
Put This On and Kickstarter go way back — the 2009 pilot was funded by Kickstarter while the site was still in beta — and crowdsourcing made sense to Thorn, as he’d already built the podcast/radio show The Sound of Young America using public radio-style fundraising. The evolution of the site, for him, comes down to how potential donors approach it. “People originally wanted to support [Put This On] as a charitable endeavor, but they’re now understanding that it’s a financial transaction. They’re not just sending us a couple of bucks because they like us, but because they wanted to see a second season. They have a stake in it, and that’s great for us.” he said.
The pledge rewards are also a key element to inspiring donations. “The call to action has to have something to push people, because once they pull out their credit cards, the amount is negotiable. But if you’re not manufacturing a project, you either have to spend some money, or do something cool that uses a little bit of your time but doesn’t necessarily cost anything,” Thorn said. For example, for a $1,000 donation to Put This On‘s second season, rewards included a producer credit and a hand-selected necktie. One person took them up on that.
Yaffe warns, though, that Kickstarter isn’t necessarily the savior of the independent creator. “It’ll always be there as a solid tool to getting your full budget, but it’s not something you can rely on entirely.” he said. “More people are considering [Kickstarter] as an option, which is good, but the impact is a little less. We raised more money for Girl Crazy than Remember When, but it took more effort,” Yaffe said.
The key to Kickstarter seems to be this: As a way of raising money, it works — but only if you use it to channel your natural hustle. “Some people look at Kickstarter and think it’s free money, but it’s not. You have to have an audience,” Thorn said.