Documentary filmmaker Jennifer Fox (Flying: Confessions of a Free Woman) has spent several decades creating ground-breaking films that meditate, challenge, and inspire. Her latest project, My Reincarnation, found wild success on Kickstarter, raising $150,456 from 518 backers worldwide, propelling Fox into the top five most funded filmmakers on our site, paying off her film's distribution deliverables, and affording her documentary a formal theatrical release this fall. A father-son epic, My Reincarnation spans two decades and three generations, following "the renowned reincarnate Tibetan spiritual master, Chögyal Namkhai Norbu, as he struggles to save his spiritual tradition, and his Italian born son, Yeshi, who stubbornly refuses to follow in his father’s footsteps."
Fox recently shared some of her thoughts on her Kickstarter experience with IndieWire, but we just had to get down to the nitty gritty ok-but-srsly-what-the-!@$%-happened? What did she do? How did she do it? And would she do it again? Skyping from Amsterdam and Zurich, Fox took some Central European Time out of her days to candidly and thoughtfully explain how after 18 years of fundraising for one impossible project, one Kickstarter campaign breathed a whole new life into My Reincarnation.
In one IndieWire piece you wrote, "I don’t know about you, but this kind of public fundraising scares the shit out of me." How did or didn't that feeling evolve as you went through this process? What do you think is gained or lost fundraising through Kickstarter as opposed to a more discrete forms?
Exposing to the world that you actually have a funding problem seemed really scary and even humiliating. This film is actually the first time I've ever approached private individuals even before the Kickstarer campaign, but in the sense that you meet with an individual privately, and nobody knows but the two of you that you're asking for money--that's obviously a much more closed door process so it feels quite safe. I think that when you have as big of a problem as I had, which was a film that's finished with $100,000 debt and no where else to get it, that need to raise money was so strong that it propelled me across all my natural boundaries. Even though I initially didn't want to do it, I just had to give up humiliation and fear.
And then once you're out there you see all these wonderful things that can happen in a crowdfunding campaign on the web. It is sort of the classic "niche audience" concept. People you never knew existed appear out of the woodwork. We had I believe over 30 countries donating, so if you're doing the outreach to properly get out the word, people really do find it and become a part of it. I was really happy to let go of some of those fears, happy to come out of the closet once I did it. i think it was really positive. Why should fundraising be private? Why should it be embarrassing that you have a deficit in a world that supports the arts? In a medium that's one of the most expensive mediums you can imagine to make art, it makes total sense. You just have to let go of shyness, boundaries, and self-consciousness.
About coming up with your project rewards you wrote, "It’s been a great Buddhist teaching to struggle with-–and let go of--my attachment to my objects (that chest is one of my favorite possessions)!" What do you think about our rewards system?
I've been doing this a really long time, and I've never made a profit on a film--meaning, everybody gets paid and the film is paid off has never happened in 30 years of filmmaking! So I am really uncomfortable taking investment money and feel that actually, it's a truer exchange to offer a kind of gift, incentive, and emotional participation in an artistic and social endeavor. I like the idea of incentives at different levels, anywhere from a postcard to a producing credit. In my case we were selling artwork and different Buddhist items. I think that's really fun, and it's not really tit-for-tat because sometimes the items are much more or less expensive as a reward than they would be sold elsewhere. It's really saying to someone, "You are a patron, and here's a little icing for you to enjoy."
The idea that most filmmaking is a business is a false notion. We are in the arts. It's an expensive art, but in order for the arts to survive they need patronage. So I think it's almost a false axiom or incorrect concept to accept that arts pay for themselves. Why are the arts invaluable if they don't pay for themselves? Art is society's reflection on itself. Art provides a really important function. It's crucial that we don't talk about "donors," we talk about "patrons," and we don't talk of "give us your money," we talk about "participating in a process," "joining movements," "supporting the arts." With these rewards it's not implied that you give me something, and I give you nothing. I think we're giving a lot back to the people who make contributions.
Can you talk about your campaign plan? Were there peaks and valleys? What was most effective?
Everything sounds great in hindsight, but we were doing a lot of flying by the seat of our pants with a team of four really bright women. We just kept beating our heads against the wall to ask, "What are we doing? What can we change now? Why is it lagging? Why are we failing? Why are we succeeding? Why was there a big rush today and not yesterday? What was that blog post we sent out about? When did we send it out in the week? What was the last e-blast?"
What scared the shit out of us was that my funding problem was $100,000 big, so it just wouldn't make sense for me to set a $15,000 goal. That just wasn't going to get me far enough. These bills are really due. To raise money for a finished film--that weighed really heavily on my mind. "Oh my god how can they explain people that they can see it in a film festival but it isn't paid for?" So we carefully crafted that statement, only maybe we didn't craft it carefully enough, so about midway through we explained in more detail, and then people got it better. We had a very carefully constructed page which I think is very important. We looked around and realized we have to explain everything including what Kickstarter is because we have an international audience unfamiliar with the platform. We copied the best pages we could find. We also took your advice about having a range of incentives with a lot on the lower end. We had a strong trailer and did cut one to-camera appeal in the last 3rd of the campaign when we were trying to up the ante.
We originally thought, "We're trying to raise so much money, we need more funding time" because I didn't know that shorter campaigns were typically more successful. We did see the campaign peak and lag. It peaked when we met our initial goal. Then we still had half our time left, and of course if we didn't have that $100,000 need I don't think we would've raised the flag to keep going, but for us, $50,000 was great, but it was only halfway through the problem. So as soon as we got to $50,000 I was in as much anxiety about the next 50 as I was the first 50! While we had always said in our Kickstarter pitch that we needed to raise $100,000 or even $140-$170,000 including distribution, the minute we kept going and changed our description to say $100,000, some of our previous contributors wrote in asking, "How is this possible? Have you lied to us?" and we set about explaining on the page why we needed to keep going, why $50,000 was not enough, how we had always said $100,000. Ultimately people came aboard, but it took a kind of truck to turn it around. Then it was steady but slow-going up to about $65,000, which is when we started to add things to the campaign.
Tell us about the social media component of your campaign. What kind of content did you create? How did you keep people engaged from beginning to end?
If you want to do a web campaign you've got to give people a reason to keep checking and reading. I knew I would be touring with the film so I was really careful to get video during that tour. There was always something to add to the site. We did videos of the festival Q&As, showing the film sold out in X, Y, or Z city. Backers see that it's already a mass movement. We also released outtakes from the film. It's got a general audience which is this father-son story, and then it's got this niche Buddhist audience, and they really want to see more footage. So that was another reason to get people to check back.
We also wrote real posts rather than just fundraising posts. We didn't think hard about that as a tactic, I was just bored shit of asking people to "donate." How many ways can you ask people to participate? Creatively I needed to do something that had some juice to it, you know that you could get your teeth into. Like, asking myself "what am I living right now?" I am on the road with a film. "What are my thoughts, feelings, ideas? How can I relate that? What it's like to go to through Kickstarer, to have your hand out to the world? And--as this relates to the subject of the film--what does this do to my ego?" So, we tried to make real posts, and everything I wrote was then edited by the three other women working on my campaign. It was really a team effort. Every time we sent out an email we checked Google Analytics to see who opened it and the subject matter of the blast. We had different writings for different communities--general audience, Buddhist organizations, people who had already backed. We found that when I wrote real letters people donated more. We found that with certain stories people donated more than other stories.
We started to build new lists of spiritual, Buddhist, religious, and yoga organizations across America. We did several tailored email blasts asking them to share the story of the film and our Kickstarter site with their members. It is step one to building an email list up, and it's really walking towards your film's general outreach campaign. We did the same thing to Buddhist communities in Austria, Italy, South America, and Australia.
We also had a sneak-peak fundraising screening in Australia, as the film was about to be in the Sydney Film Festival. One of our goals was to get more people to see the film. The screening actually didn't really make money, we didn't even quite break even because I had to travel, but we filmed a Q&A with the protagonist there, and not only is it really sweet to see him watching his own film, but he gets in front of the room and says, "This film is important and here's why." For the Buddhist community to realize the protagonist was behind the film was a real shot in the arm for the campaign.
Then the viral effect took hold. Some people took on the task of promoting the site that I didn't ask. Some were contributors, some had no money but wanted to make it their job. Our first contributor, a random guy in Germany, became a big flag-waver for the film. He then posted on our project page asking backers if they could double their donations, and a lot of people did because it wasn't coming from me.
What might you do differently if you launched all over again?
I would reach out more specifically to the film community sooner. I was a little uncomfortable because I know everybody needs money in the film community, but I would've asked them more specifically can you blast your email, and I would've posted more personally on everybody's Facebook page that I know saying "please pass the word" with a link. I did that really late in the campaign, like with 3 days left. So just going through your Facebook and posting personal posts with the link is effective.
What bumped you up and over $100,000?
From $65,000 to $150,000 was one big movement, but we didn't know it would happen. We had a problem which is not only did we need to make $100,000, but we did a blog for Ted Hope where I publicly said to the film community we're going to raise $100,000. So now we really needed to raise the $100,000! We decided we needed to do a pitch to camera. Then mid-May we had a sneak-preview fundraising screening, and at the event (my colleague) Kate shot man-on-the street interviews of people coming out of the screening on her iPhone. It was really low-end, but that video helped a lot because it was all really amazing responses that we cut with other responses we got in Amsterdam.
We put that up, and then we put up new incentives. I re-raided my house because a couple of the higher rewards weren't selling, so I put up a couple more mid-range ones, a couple things that were under $1,000 and a couple that were $3,000 because the $7,000 ones weren't doing it. Then we started writing e-blasts every day in the last 10 days of the campaign, which sounds really obnoxious, and I'm sure it was, but it actually worked! This was hard because it still has to be real writing, not just "give us, give us, give us." Then we kept adding new incentives each day, and everything always went up on Kickstarter, on our Facebook, and got e-blasted to various communities.
I had never asked the protagonist to give us objects to put on the site because the Buddhist community has a lot of needs, and it felt unfair to ask someone who had already given 20 years of his life to the film to now help me fundraise. But as we got to about $80,000 I thought "we've got 5 days left, I'm just going to write the son and father. They may not answer, they may not see it. But it's 3 AM. What the hell." The son wrote me back immediately with a gorgeous statue to offer, and the dad gave a ring of his. The statue went the minute we posted it, gone in the middle of the night to someone very marginal who had seen the film at the Singapore Film Festival. She was not a student of the people in the film, and she had already made a donation. It was a $6,000 item. The fact that the son donated inspired people to contribute. It was like a vote of confidence. And then when the father donated we thought "should we put the ring up for $9,000 or $5,000? $9,000 just because it is his? Let's not be greedy, we'll put it at $5,000." We put that thing up at $5,000, and it was gone in two hours. The person who bought it hadn't donated before. They called us from Alaska, having read about it on one of the listservs, saying, "I've been following this teacher, I've never met him, and I have to have it."
Here you have a subject who lets you follow him for 20 years, who you can see is supportive of the film all along, and yet he donates an object in the last three days of the campaign, and all of a sudden people really believe "my god he is behind this film." And then it was like fire. We started to get donations every three minutes. People wrote to me saying, "We are watching the campaign it's better than television."
Did you find posting project updates to be helpful? How did you use them?
Thanks for reminding me! I owe them a post! Absolutely we will keep updating. I have to say I get a lot of people asking me for donations for their own campaigns, and one of the things I'm really disappointed of is the writing. I can't listen to another person say "Give me money because we need it." Give me a reason. Show me you've put me as much effort into your letter and into your project page as you want me to care about your campaign. I think thats where we really got over funded, and that's not just because of me, that's from a team effort of four people.
Also, we never let up. We were still doing outreach--7 hours, 5 hours, 3 hours, 30 minutes--I was still sending out updates. So the idea that it's not over until the clock hits zero is something that i don't think people get. Every minute counts on the web, and every minute is a potential turning point.
A 20-year project in the making that's been in the works for far longer than our site, how did you first begin fundraising, and at what point did you decide Kickstarter was going to be the method for your last push?
We'd been raising money on this project every second. The film sort of pushed me already way out of my comfort zone because it was pretty much un-fundable for the first eighteen years, and that's a long way to keep going! Then we slowly got quite significant TV partners in, but they didn't cover the whole budget, and I had pretty much done everything except Kickstarter. My own money is in the film, we'd covered all film foundations, got an Impact Partners partnership, had co-produced with four European television broadcasters, had done significant personal fundraising in the Buddhist community, I sold half my personal objects before I got to Kickstarter, and then I had also done a lot of pitching to individuals. So by the time I ended up with this problem I had no where else to go.
Then, a girlfriend of mine named Ana Egge who's a wonderful musician had run a really successful Kickstarter campaign to fund her new album, and I really enjoyed participating in her campaign. I really saw the pleasure in it--the pleasure of being the patron and the feeling that that album was something I helped get out in the world. Ana wasn't a first-timer. She's a really established singer/songwriter, so watching her do it made me feel like this is really viable.
Would you consider using the platform again for your next project?
I absolutely would. I don't think it's like peanut butter that you can spread on any project, but very rarely does any film have the exact same funding strategy. I think that Kickstarter is perfect for the niche audience. We were very well supported by film people all over the world, but it was the niche audience that offered the higher donations. One of our $10,000 donors came from China, but it was 6 people who got together to make a $10,000 donation. In China! I had no idea they'd even heard about the project. The niche donors care profoundly that the project gets into the world, that the message of the film is shared. Those are the people that want to see the film that badly.
And when can we see the film?!
Lots of good things are coming down the pike, I'm happy to say. The film will be on POV in 2012, and thanks in large part to Kickstarer, now we are definitely doing a theatrical release in the States this fall. So there's a lot to look forward to. The campaign really brought a lot of attention to the film that's pushed it into a new phase. Kickstarter's been really exciting for us at a level that has nothing to do with money.
To check out Fox's posts on IndieWire see: