…resolutions? What the hell do I know about resolutions? When I look at my life, it’s totally un-resolved. It’s been that way since at least 1991, when POV bought my short film and gave me the notion that maybe, just maybe, I knew what I was doing with this filmmaking thing. Since then, I’ve only gotten better: at writing, at directing, hell – at thinking and working – and yet, after all the films and scripts and accolades and awards junking up my bookshelf I have yet to break through and actually get someone to to sign on. To stick their neck out. To look at the work and say, “Yes, John, we see what you see. We support it. We want it to grow. Here’s a chance. Here’s your shot.”
There have been close shaves. At the Austin Film Festival, after winning top prize for a screenplay I co-wrote, I was sure we’d met the producer who was going to Change Everything. So sure, in fact, that my writing partner and I did a free rewrite for the guy. I know, I know… and I even knew then: never, ever do that. But this was different. We had a deal. We’d shaken hands, we’d had drinks together. We were working together! We bashed out our rewrite in 3 weeks and called the producer and what do you know, we couldn’t even get him on the phone. The alcohol buzz and the Austin magic dust had both worn off. He was back in L.A., and the force field was back up. He never even looked at our rewrite.
But, no matter. I just keep plugging away. Occasionally I say “I don’t need anyone’s permission to make films,” or something brave like that. And to some extent, that’s true. I keep making my own way, far from everything, with no mentorship and no process and no guidance except for my own sense of how things should be, which, in my defense, is so very very strong it’s been enough in many cases to carry me from concept all the way through execution, and resulted in a good film. When I toured the festival circuit with The Life of a Dog I was mobbed after screenings by people waving twenty-dollar bills, looking to buy DVDs. Vindication is sweet. It’s not the reason for doing things, but I’d be a liar if I said I didn’t enjoy it.
Clearly as much as I love creating things, my identity as a creator of things is for me fraught and fettered by all kinds of emotional crap. I know my condition is far from unique among creative people – in fact, it’s probably the norm. There is some comfort in this. (Actually there’s a shit-ton of comfort in it.) Nevertheless, I am often beset by anxiety. Sometimes I get tired, or depressed, or angry.
There’s no cure. This kind of life is a chronic condition. As miserable as it sometimes makes me, I can’t imagine stopping. So, since it is the season for it, let’s tally up some accomplishments and lay some plans for the future. Therefore:
Things I’m proud of for 2013:
My first foray into crowdfunding was an unqualified success. I put up a promo video explaining what I wanted to do, and people believed.* We raised over $22,000 to make my short film, NEW. Fully $5000 of it came as a matching fund, which we were singled out to receive by Rose Kuo, who was at the time Executive Director at the Film Society of Lincoln Center.
Making the film. Given the length and complexity of the script and the money and time available, NEW the short film was ambitious. What’s on the screen isn’t at every moment a perfect distillation of what I wanted it to be, but it’s pretty damned close. I learned a lot.
Directing my first-ever sex scene. Hey, not only can I watch that scene without cringing, I actually like it. Cherry popped!
Working with the best actors I’d ever worked with. And my lead actor telling me I was the best director he’d ever worked with. People on my crew telling me NEW was the best film they’d ever worked on. And, the grip who got choked up watching us shoot the big scene, when he realized the subtext of a character’s line.
My wishes and goals for 2014:
Finish NEW the short film.
Finish NEW the feature screenplay. Concurrently, so when the film is out there being seen, I’m ready with a polished script in my hand.
Find help. Making NEW the short film was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. In this production, we found the edge of impossible and skated on it. I lost 10 pounds during a six-day shoot. (There’s got to be a better way to lose weight.) I simply could not make a feature film using the same methods. So, once the screenplay is done, a concerted effort must follow to get it out there and connect with people who can help me get it made. Granted, I’m much happier hunkered down alone with my crayons than bragging about myself to strangers, but selling yourself is part of the job, too.
Make more films. More little ones, rather than fewer big ones. I am not prolific. I expend huge amounts of time and energy on ambitious projects. My latest short film was written in the summer of 2012. 18 months later, I’m in post, and will be, into early next year. And so: make more films. Hell, don’t even call them “films” if that’s too much pressure. Grab a camera. Shoot some video. Have fun. Remember fun?
Remember fun. Remember to have some.
Read more. Books and screenplays, that is. Fewer emails, Tweets and Facebook posts.
See more films. Old ones, and new ones too.
Go to bed. Turn off the internet, and go to bed. And since you are now rested, it will be easier to get up earlier (leaving the email and the Twitter OFF), and to write for a least an hour every day before you go to work. (And when you get home at night, get some exercise, too, OK?)
Look outside myself. Finally, I resolve to think about myself less. Not in the sense of neglecting myself. In the sense of turning off the negativity when it starts. Dismissing myself from that activity. You are excused from introspection. Look around, instead, at things and people. Listen, too. But remember that words are not the be-all and end-all of filmmaking. Images are. Don’t disappear up your own inner monologue worrying about character arcs and turning points and backstory and dialogue. Talk is cheap, but a picture is worth a thousand words. So look at the world. Look at what people do. Look at art. Doodle. Daydream. (And if I remember to do this one, the “have fun” part will probably take care of itself).
Happy New Year.
* When I say “I” it’s not to imply that NEW was created single-handedly. My heart still brims with gratitude toward the people who helped me, but I’ve thanked them elsewhere, and profusely. This blog entry is all about me, so – back to me.
Yesterday, around noon, we hit our fundraising goal for our film, NEW.
Our heartfelt thanks goes out to everyone who has donated and helped spread the word. Because of you, we’ll now be able to make a film we’ve been burning to do for a year now! We plan to be shooting soon, and have a movie for you all to see before the end of the year.
USA Projects has extended our campaign through May 24, so if you’ve not yet supported us with a donation, you still have time! The $22K goal represented the minimum budget need to make the project – any additional funds will be put to good use. That’s a promise!
Our deepest appreciation, from me, Sheila Harden, Don R. Lewis, Skot Christopherson and the entire NEW crew.
These are the end times, friends: the campaign for our sci-fi film NEW concludes Wednesday night, May 15, at one minute to midnight, PST. If we fail to reach our goal of $22,000 by then, all shall be for naught. Everyone will have their donations refunded. And We. Get. Nothing!
That would be, as they say, a bummer.
To sweeten the pot and (for some reason) reward the procrastinators out there, we are now offering a choice of two BRAND NEW PERKS to anyone who can donate $200 or more! Please view the video above to learn more about how donating to the NEW campaign will bring total fulfillment to your life.
Once again, thank you for your support! Now, please share the link to this project with someone today. No, really, like, right now. Here’s your cut and paste:
And check back for more updates soon!
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SHOUT-OUTS TO SOME EXCEPTIONAL HUMANS
Many people have stepped up in many ways, to give of their time and money and effort to support our cinematic aspirations. Here are just some of them:
The Arts Council of Sonoma County
We would not be here on USA Projects at all, if not for the seminal support of our local arts organization. Thanks to John Moran and Jennifer Sloan and everyone at the council.
USA Projects, and Rose Kuo from the Film Society of Lincoln Center
It’s a honor to be invited to use the USA Projects platform to promote and fundraise for my work. USA Projects has supported us in many ways, notably by choosing NEW to receive April’s Creative Vision Award: $5,000 in matching funds that have helped us immensely in approaching our goal. The guest judge who selected us to receive the award was Rose Kuo, so our deep appreciation goes to Rose as well.
My boss, Tom Armstrong has been generous with his time, money, and resources to help me realize my dream of making NEW. It’s all really quite counter-productive, because he knows if this project takes off in a big way I might have to quit working for him to go make the feature film version of NEW. That’s just the kind of guy he is.
The American Cryonics Society
Is cryonic preservation right for you? If you’ve been thinking it over, these are the folks you want to talk to. Edgar Swank, president of the society, has read the script for NEW and ACS has been a supporter of our efforts from early on. An article about NEW will be forthcoming in the next issue of their magazine, Long Life.
Deep appreciation to this friend of NEW, the noted futurist and Hugo-award winning science fiction author, for great endorsements on his Facebook page and his blog, Contrary Brin. You should totally buy all his books. In hardcover!
Last December I launched this blog with a side-by-side comparison of two of the biggest crowdfunding platforms, as seen from a filmmaker’s perspective (that filmmaker being me, a guy who is currently planning to shoot his first crowd-funded film later this year. It’s a sci-fi short called NEW and you can read about it here).
In part 2, I’ll be focusing solely on the USAprojects.org platform.
One aspect of USA Projects that immediately distinguishes it from Kickstarter and Indiegogo (and most other crowdfunding sites out there) is the fact that it is vetted. All artists on the site are there by invitation only. For that reason, this article will be of most interest to that subset of filmmakers and artists who have secured an invitation and for whom using USA Projects is an option. The rest of you Googlers may want to click on your merry way, with my best wishes.
USA Projects is an outgrowth of United States Artists, a nonprofit grantmaking and artist advocacy organization that annually awards thousands of dollars in grants to artists in a number of disciplines, including literature, performance, and visual art. The USA Projects crowdfunding platform, like its founding body, is a non-profit 501(3)(c) and so donors will be able to claim a tax deduction if they contribute to your film.
Participation in USA Projects is by invitation only; it’s a curated site. Because I received a cash award in 2009 from the Arts Council of Sonoma County, I was invited to participate. When that invitation came, I was already planning the details of my first-ever crowdfunded film project, most likely destined for Kickstarter.com. Suddenly, I had a decision to make. At the time of writing this entry, I still do.
One factor every prospective crowdfunder must consider are the fees. Kickstarter and Indiegogo collect a percentage (between 4–9%) of all funds raised. That’s how they make their money. And at the time I was invited, USA Projects was collecting a whopping 19%! This was a potential deal-breaker for me. If I raised $25,000 on the site to make a film, for instance, I’d be docked nearly five grand right out of the gate. But just two days ago, USA Projects announced they were dropping ALL FEES for artists using the site. They don’t even pass on the credit card charges. Artists keep every dollar they raise. That’s huge.
So, on the subject of fees at least, we have a clear winner. More winning: they kick in matching funds. Some of that money comes from USA Projects, some from the arts organizations they are partner with. No other crowdfunding site I know of offers this. Artists can expect to receive dollar for dollar matches at a rate of “2% to 52% per project, but 16% on average.”
For neophyte crowdfunders like me, the Kickstarter and Indiegogo sites offer plenty of resources. Videos and articles offer lots of tips for running a successful campaign. But USA Projects goes further and actively consults with you in planning and promoting your project. You are assigned an Artist Relations Specialist who takes phone meetings with you through every phase of your project. (Mine is named Sarah, and we’ve already had our first 45-minute consult. She seems very nice.)
Then there is the matter of success rate. USA Projects uses the all-or-nothing model common in the crowdfunding world: projects must raise their stated target amount or the project fails and no money changes hands. Fully 75% of projects launched on USA Projects succeed in making their goal. That’s impressive, more so even when stacked up next to other sites (see chart).
So what’s the bad news?
Why haven’t I made what seems like an easy choice, if it appears there is no downside to choosing USA Projects?
The answer, of course, is that there is. The downside: USA Projects is not well-known. A crowdfunding campaign lives or dies based on the traffic going to its home page. The Kickstarter community of users is huge, and networked to social media in a big way. Kickstarter.com sees hundreds of thousands of visitors every day and upwards of 2 million page views. For Indiegogo, it’s more like tens of thousands of visitors. I don’t have web traffic statistics for USA Projects; but I’d bet it’s another order of magnitude lower. Witness the social media numbers: Kickstarter’s Twitter account has 634,000 followers, Indiegogo’s, 42,000. USA Projects has 644. The Facebook numbers follow the same pattern, with Kickstarter’s page getting 468,981 likes, with 66,985 for Indiegogo and 9,040 for USA Projects.
A bright spot: because USA Project only hosts a few hundred projects total, your chances of being featured on their home page, or on one of their weekly email blasts is much higher. But considering the low traffic numbers, it’s undeniable: at USA Projects fewer eyes will see your project page. The chances of strangers stumbling across it are lower. Your chances of going viral are lower. The onus is on the filmmaker to spread the word about their project to sympathetic ears.
But then, the onus is always on the filmmaker. Thus is the way of crowdfunding. No matter what platform we choose, my partners and I will be actively, fervently promoting our effort to our personal networks of family, friends, and fellow creatives, and counting on them for (if statistics hold true) roughly half of the money we hope to raise.
But what about the other half? Will enough sympathetic strangers and friends-of-friends-of friends find their way to us to make up the difference? My film, NEW, is an ambitious project. We’re planning to set our goal somewhere between $20,000 and $30,000. Considering that, USA Projects is in fact well-suited in some ways: higher average goal amounts, and higher average contributions. And then, there’s that little voice in my ear saying, “75% success rate…”
Is our project compelling enough to draw people to the site? Will people be biased about donating to a project on a crowd-funding site they’ve never heard of? How big of an incentive will tax-deductible donations be? These question are unanswerable. So, how can I make this decision?
What would you do, if you were me?
I welcome your comments.
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Postscript: Decision made. Check out my USA Projects page, live as of March 29, 2013!
Post-postscript: On May 17, 2013 our film NEW made its fundraising goal. By the time the campaign ended we had raised $22,115. Of that total, $16,915 came from individual donors, to whom we owe a debt of gratitude (and some perks, to be delivered). $5200 came from USA Projects itself, awarded in the form of matching funds. For that we are also grateful…
Post-Post-Postscript: (Fall 2013) USA Projects has re-branded itself as Hatchfund.
As a filmmaker in the preliminary planning stages of my first crowdfunding campaign, I’ve been doing some basic research trying to determine the best platform to use.
As most indie filmmakers probably know, the two biggest crowdfunding sites are Kickstarter and Indiegogo. There are others out there: sites like Pozible, Peerbackers, RocketHub, and an interesting upstart called Seed&Spark that will not only help you raise money but also distribute your film too (read an article about them here). There’s also USAprojects, a wild-card contender I have to seriously consider (more on that later). But you’ve got to start somewhere. Here’s what I’ve learned so far.
Indiegogo and Kickstarter, compared
The biggest difference between the two biggies is that Kickstarter users must use the “All-or-nothing” funding model. If a project campaign doesn’t hit its goal, it fails, and no money changes hands. On Indiegogo, however users can set a goal and choose between the all-or-nothing option or a “Flexible Funding” campaign, where any amount raised they are allowed to keep (but Indiegogo keeps a larger cut in this case).
The all-or-nothing campaign structure is generally recognized as the better model, for a couple of reasons. Having a make-or-break goal adds a sense of urgency that helps encourage donations. It also helps reassure donors that their money won’t be wasted on a project that is poorly executed or never completed because it only raised a fraction of the needed funds.
(Note that 501 (c)(3) non-profit projects get a 25% discount on fees at Indiegogo.)
Maybe the most important distinction between the two: KS is a bigger brand. It is, as one blogger put it, the Coca-Cola of crowdfunding. They have name recognition. They have more projects, more members signed up, and more web traffic. Here’s a comparison for the last 12 months:
Total size notwithstanding, it appears from the numbers I was able to compile that IndieGogo actually sees a higher rate of successful film/video campaigns (see below). Not in total numbers, of course, but in the percentage that succeed:
What I’ve not been able to obtain so far is the average goal amount for successful all-or-nothing Indiegogo film projects. But it’s commonly said around the internet that IndieGogo projects raise less money. So for projects with smaller budgets at least, it appears IndieGogo has the edge. Larger-budget projects might benefit from the higher visibility of a Kickstarter campaign.
And then came USA Projects
USAprojects is another crowdfunding platform, however, it will probably not be relevant to all filmmakers. It’s a curated site, tied to philanthropic arts organizations. Participation is by invitation, and because I was fortunate enough to receive an Artist Award from the Arts Council of Sonoma County in 2009, I’ve invited to participate. They offer a bunch of advantages: donations are tax-deductible, they actively consult with you in planning and promoting your project, and they even kick in matching funds. And fully 75% of projects there succeed! The downside is that they are not well-known, and that they take a much larger fee: up to 19%. I am still weighing my options!