Guest Post: 5 Tips for Running a Documentary Project

Share this post

Last Summer at Coney Island (documentary) 2 project video thumbnail
Replay with sound
Play with

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.

    1. Missing avatar

      Catmili on

      I was looking for a button to send your link on to family and friends".....Could not find it
      Where is it ?
      Thanks C.

    2. The Postwoman Movie on

      Thanks. This is very helpful as we are preparing to launch our own campaign. Take good care.

    3. JL Aronson on

      in response to Catmili:

      thanks. Glad to be useful.

    4. Justin Richey on

      Thanks! Hopefully this will help me in my own documentry project!

    5. Jacob on

      As I just started a KS for my documentary, this is good advice. I need more material on my page, not just stating the intent of the doc.

    6. Vincent J Scimeca (Spoons) on

      That's sad,I went there when I was small,and my mother when she was small. We used to shop at Alexanders?? Great Course,good-luck .....Spoons

    7. jeremy jones on

      This comment has been removed by Kickstarter.

    8. Silverbullet Management on

      This comment has been removed by Kickstarter.

    9. zoe kozlowski on

      Thanks this was really helpful. Appreciated!

    10. Sati Faulks on

      Thanks for sharing your experience & advice!

    11. Missing avatar

      jrtfjfgkkhgkhk on

      This comment has been removed by Kickstarter.

    12. Maxwell on

      thank you :)

    13. Missing avatar

      deleted on

      This comment has been removed by Kickstarter.

    14. Kalyan Arr on

      This comment has been removed by Kickstarter.

    15. Missing avatar

      Namaku Keren on

      This comment has been removed by Kickstarter.

    16. Missing avatar

      Doa Ibu Tersayang on

      This comment has been removed by Kickstarter.

Line icon alert icon Artboard Copy 8 arrow-down icon arrow-down arrow-left icon arrow-left arrow-point-left icon Fill 1 Copy 5 arrow-point-right icon Fill 1 arrow-right icon arrow-right arrow-up-right icon icon--arrow-up-right copy bar-chart icon Artboard Copy 6 bell icon Combined Shape Copy 5 book icon Artboard Copy 3 bookmark icon Fill 1 brand-assets icon Artboard Copy 13 cart icon Artboard Copy 4 chat icon chat check icon Fill 1 Copy 6 circle-back icon Fill 1 Copy 13 circle-forward icon Fill 1 Copy 16 circle-k icon circle-k circle-left icon circle-left circle-right icon circle-right clipboard icon Artboard Copy 12 clock icon Combined Shape close icon close closed-caption icon Fill 1 compass icon Combined Shape Copy 2 conversion icon conversion delta-down icon Fill 1 delta-left icon delta-right icon Fill 1 delta-up icon Fill 1 duplicate icon duplicate embed icon Combined Shape Copy 6 eye icon Combined Shape Copy 12 facebook-contained icon Facebook Contained facebook icon Facebook logo flag icon Fill 1 Copy 3 gear icon Fill 1 Copy 14 global-africa icon Fill 1 Copy 9 global-america icon Fill 1 Copy 10 global-asia icon Fill 1 Copy 17 graph-bar icon Combined Shape Copy 9 graph-line icon Combined Shape Copy 16 heart icon Fill 1 Copy 8 help icon human icon icon--human icon--alarm icon icon--alarm icon--alert icon icon--alert icon--arrow-down icon icon--arrow-down icon--arrow-left icon icon--arrow-left icon--arrow-right icon icon--arrow-right icon--arrow-up-right icon icon--arrow-up-right icon--arrow-up icon icon--arrow-up icon--backer-badge icon icon--backer-badge icon--bell icon icon--bell icon--bolt icon icon--bolt icon--bookmark-outline icon icon--bookmark-outline icon--bookmark icon icon--bookmark icon--calculator icon icon--calculator icon--calendar-check icon icon--calendar-check icon--calendar icon icon--calendar icon--campaign-outline icon icon--campaign-outline icon--check icon icon--check icon--chevron-down icon icon--chevron-down icon--chevron-left icon icon--chevron-left icon--chevron-right icon icon--chevron-right icon--chevron-up icon icon--chevron-up icon--circle-around icon icon--circle-around icon--circle-back icon icon--circle-back icon--circle-forward icon icon--circle-forward icon--circle-loader icon Page 1 icon--circle icon icon--clipboard icon icon--clipboard icon--clock icon icon--clock icon--closed-caption icon icon--closed-caption icon--code icon icon--code icon--collapse icon icon--collapse icon--commissions icon icon--commissions icon--compass icon icon--compass icon--confirmation icon icon--confirmation icon--conversion icon icon-conversion icon--cpu icon icon--curve-right icon icon--curve-right icon--cross icon icon--cross icon--delta-down icon icon--delta-down icon--delta-left icon icon--delta-left icon--delta-right icon icon--delta-right icon--delta-up icon icon--delta-up icon--download icon icon--download icon--ellipsis icon icon--expand icon icon--expand icon--external icon icon--external icon--eye icon icon--eye icon--facebook icon icon--facebook icon--filter icon icon--filter icon--flag icon icon--flag icon--frown-filled icon icon--frown icon icon--gear icon icon--gear icon--globe-africa icon icon--globe-africa icon--globe-america icon icon--globe-america icon--globe-asia icon icon--globe-asia icon--graph-bar icon icon--graph-bar icon--graph-line icon icon--graph-line icon--happy-filled icon icon--happy icon icon--heart-outline icon icon--heart outline icon--heart-thin-outline icon Fill 1 icon--heart icon icon--heart icon--home icon icon--home icon--home-with-door icon icon--human icon icon--human icon--humans icon icon--humans icon--image icon icon--image icon--inbox icon icon--inbox icon--info icon icon--info icon--instagram icon icon/instagram icon--lightbulb icon icon--lightbulb icon--link icon icon--link icon--lock-black-bg icon lock-icon icon--lock icon icon--lock icon--mail icon icon--mail icon--meh-filled icon icon--meh icon icon--menu icon icon--menu icon--message icon icon--message icon--mobile icon icon--mobile icon--overflow icon icon--overflow icon--pause icon icon--pause icon--pencil icon icon--pencil icon--pin icon icon--pin icon--pinterest icon icon--pinterest icon--play icon icon--play icon--plus-human icon icon--plus-human icon--plus icon icon--plus icon--prohibit icon icon--prohibit icon--project-budget icon icon--pull-quote icon icon--pull-quote icon--question-filled icon icon--question-filled icon--question icon icon--question icon--reorder icon icon-reorder icon--reply icon icon--reply icon--save icon icon--save icon--saved icon icon--saved icon--search icon icon--search icon--section-break icon icon--section-break icon--small-k icon icon--sound-hi icon icon--sound-hi icon--sound-lo icon icon--sound-lo icon--sound-mute icon icon--sound-mute icon--star-outline icon Star Outline icon--star icon icon--star icon--subtitles-captions icon icon--subtitles-captions icon--text-bold icon icon--text-bold icon--text-bullet icon icon--text-bullet icon--text-italic icon icon--text-italic icon--textalign-centered icon icon--textalign-centered icon--textalign-right icon icon--textalign-right icon--thumbs-down icon icon--thumbs-down icon--thumbs-up icon icon--thumbs-up icon--thumbsdown-outline icon icon--thumbsdown-outline icon--thumbsup-outline icon icon--thumbsup-outline icon--trash icon icon--trash icon--tumblr icon icon--tumblr icon--twitter icon icon--twitter icon--unlink icon Artboard icon--unlock icon icon--unlock icon--update-freeform-round icon icon--update-freeform-round icon--update-freeform icon icon--update-freeform icon--update-pinned icon Artboard icon--update-qa-round icon icon--update-qa-round icon--update-qa icon icon--update-qa icon--upload icon icon--upload icon--video icon icon--video icon--youtube icon icon--youtube icon-imagealign-center icon icon-imagealign-center icon-imagealign-left icon icon-imagealign-left icon-imagealign-right icon icon-imagealign-right info icon Combined Shape Copy instagram icon instagram copy kickstarter icon Artboard Copy 5 leaf icon leaf lightbulb icon icon--lightbulb link icon Combined Shape Copy 8 loading-spin icon lock icon Combined Shape Copy 4 mail icon Combined Shape map-pin icon Fill 1 menu icon Group message icon Fill 1 Copy 12 mobile icon Page 1 Copy 2 pause icon pause copy pencil icon Combined Shape Copy 3 pin icon Combined Shape Copy 11 pinterest icon pinterest play icon play copy plus-human icon icon--plus-human plus icon Fill 1 Copy 7 question icon Combined Shape Copy 14 search icon Fill 1 Copy 11 shapeshift icon share icon Fill 1 Copy slash icon solid-arrow icon solid-arrow sound-hi icon Combined Shape sound-lo icon Combined Shape sound-mute icon Combined Shape star icon Fill 1 Copy 2 stopwatch icon Group 2 thumbs-up icon Shape tools icon Shape trash icon Combined Shape tumblr icon tumblr copy twitter icon twitter copy user icon Artboard Copy 10 volume-up icon Artboard Copy 9 warning icon Combined Shape Copy 10 write icon Artboard Copy 11 x icon Fill 1 Copy 4 youtube icon Combined Shape