Guest Post: 5 Tips for Running a Documentary Project
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After supporting 170 projects, receiving my reward from the 11th one I ever backed was a pretty sweet sensation. Especially because I knew that shiny new DVD had been many years in the making. The DVD was Last Summer at Coney Island, a documentary that has since appeared on PBS from New York to Michigan to Texas. And for good reason. The cotton-candy-and-roller-coaster beachside neighborhood of Coney Island gets a well-deserved closeup thanks to JL Aronson, who digs into the history of the area as well as the state of things as they are today. Now that he's got some lovely reviews under his belt, we asked JL for his top tips on running a successful documentary project on Kickstarter. Check 'em out below, and grab your own Last Summer here.
Follow the Kickstarter suggestions. Seriously, they're on the FAQ page for a reason. Lots of good advice there, but the single biggest ingredient of your potential success will be what you can show of your project already. This is the curse of all documentary funding. No matter what projects you've done before, people just don't want to put money into your doc until they can see a teaser that shows some of your footage, introduces the characters, and sets up the story a bit. If you already have an awesome trailer or a rough cut excerpt, you're in luck. If you just hatched this fantastic idea over the weekend and you just know it'll be great, prove it.
Along with the teaser video, include info in your project description that sells potential backers on a) why this story needs to be told, and b) how you will make sure it gets finished and seen. You can pretend the funding amount you're seeking is all you'll need to really complete the movie and that's fine (so long as you have other potential sources) but what people really want to know is, will this just sit on your shelf or will it actually get into festivals, libraries, art house theaters, a respected online portal, TV, and last but not least, a shiny piece of plastic.
Take rewards seriously. It's easy to kid yourself into thinking that people will support your project because they really like you or because they believe in your project just as much as you do, but at the end of the day, they want stuff. Even if it's a sticker and an online thank you. Offer a reward for all levels and put some thought into it. At the same time, don't offer rewards that will wind up costing what people put in (e.g., the DVD that cost you $8 in materials for donors who give $10).
Have an outreach plan ready to go before you launch. Even if your project will be live on Kickstarter for two months, imagine that it will likely come down to the wire so don't waste any time. Email everyone you know, personally and repeatedly. It really makes a difference and is worth the time. You can copy and paste most of the email but let them know you're writing to them as an individual. At the same time, research individuals and even institutions that might want to support your project and send a personalized appeal to them, as well. Briefly explain to all these people that you're partnering with Kickstarter, a secure fundraising platform, in order to make this film a reality. Use every shred of legitimacy you can muster. Finally, consider posting on message boards relating to your film's topic. And maybe arrange a public screening of your rough cut towards the beginning of the campaign. That can help get the word out through newsletters and media, even if only a handful of people show up to the actual event. But assuming people do show up, bring laptops to the screening or ask people to contribute right there on their mobile devices.
Don't aim too high! It's real tricky to come up with a realistic funding goal. You want to name the full amount that you need to really finish the film, and that's what you're supposed to be doing on Kickstarter. But just because you need $20K doesn't mean you can raise it. Don't assume you'll get anyone to give you more than $100, and don't assume too many people will even do that. Try to come up with a "reasonable" amount based on the project's and your personal fundability, and then, if you need to, make sure you have a plan B to get the thing did.
During the campaign, those who have already pledged will turn out to be your greatest asset. Keep posting updates and urge them in the strongest possible terms to convince 10-15 other people they know to get on the boat. These people want to see you succeed, they just need it to be made clear to them that their donation was only the first step, that it's an uphill battle you're fighting, and that we're all in this together. Ask them not to let those starving orphans/ endangered bonobos/ dead astronauts/ your first grade teacher/ or whatever/whomever you're making a film about, down. And then ask them to upgrade their donation amount because the "patron" level gets you the really good shit.