Guest Post: Martha Shane on Kickstarting Without a Niche (or a Phone Dock)

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Since 2007 filmmakers Dan Nuxoll and Martha Shane have been chasing Marie Castaldo — convicted criminal, alleged con-artist, and scandal-plagued film fest director. As featured in the Wall Street Journal among other outlets, this Queens International Film Festival queen of con is one for the film history books! Nuxoll has spent the past decade as Rooftop Films' Program Director (among wearing many other festival and producer/composer/sound designer hats), and Shane is the Brooklyn-based documentary co-director, producer, and co-editor of Bi the Way (SXSW 2008 Official Selection), as well as the director of two more feature docs currently in post-production.

At the time that I’m writing this, my co-director Dan Nuxoll and I are two days away from the end of our Kickstarter campaign for The Mystery of Marie Jocelyne, a feature documentary about a convicted con artist who ran film festivals and film companies in the US for over twenty years. We have $1,500 left to raise to meet our goal of $22,880, so we thought this might be a good time to share a bit about our experience with this unusual project. 

Going into this, I knew one thing for sure: Kickstarter campaigns can be stressful. I have often found myself lying awake at night wondering how we are going to pull this off. But at the same time, I’ve always felt certain that this story is too entertaining and too unbelievable not to be told.

In the past, I’ve been part of teams that raised funds for Bi the Way, a feature documentary about bisexuality in America, and After Tiller, a documentary that follows four abortion doctors in the years after the murder of their close friend and colleague Dr. George Tiller. Fundraising for both of those projects had and has its own challenges, but with The Mystery of Marie Jocelyne, the question is more pronounced: Without a niche audience that the film can specifically appeal to, where, and how, do we find our supporters? 

Looking for inspiration, we started researching. There have been a number of documentaries (like Minecraft the Story of Mojang and My Reincarnation) that have raised a tremendous amount of money on Kickstarter, but most of those projects had an advantage over ours — they were docs that already had a clear built-in audience, or they were films that addressed specific political or social issues. Our documentary, on the other hand, is about a woman who is a convicted con artist. Though there are communities online that care a lot about fraud, not too many of those people are the type to give online credit card donations to people they don’t know (though that doesn’t mean we didn’t try to reach out to them!). So, given that, how could we convince people who didn’t already know about us and our movie to care enough about the project to make a donation? 

We looked around at some of the other hugely successful campaigns that weren’t documentaries. You have probably read about the off-the-charts success of the Elevation iPhone Dock, and the Double Fine Adventure video game. Perhaps these campaigns could offer inspiration? Maybe we could add some new rewards—like a Mystery of Marie Jocelyne iPod cable!

Then again, maybe not. It didn’t seem that there were many relevant lessons to be taken from these hugely successful campaigns. (Though, for the record, if we raise $2 million in the next two days, we’d be thrilled to create a Mystery of Marie Jocelyne video game, in addition to the documentary.)

Since people weren’t going to donate just because of our subject matter, we knew that we would really need to convey our vision for the film. Dan and I are confident that our film will be entertaining, suspenseful, hilarious, and thought-provoking, but that’s a little bit like a parent thinking their kid is smart, beautiful, charismatic, and definitely going to be President of the United States someday. We couldn’t just tell our audience that our film would be exciting and fun — we had to show them too. 

We had to figure out how tell this story in a way that would make it most compelling to the widest possible audience, and we had to figure it out now, before we were even finished shooting interviews. We had to learn how to compress the story of Marie — which spans multiple continents and the course of an entire lifetime — into a five-minute pitch. And we had to learn how to talk about myriad crazy stories without getting bogged down in the many tangential details.

And in addition to telling the story concisely, we knew we had to spend a little bit more time on our video than some people do. We couldn’t sit in front of the camera and read the synopsis — we had to make our video dynamic enough that that audiences could get a sense of how our film would be different from other documentaries. And we did that by taking some stylistic chances, creating some fun graphics, and using music and pacing to create a sense of suspense and urgency.  

The wonderful thing is that doing this work for our campaign has helped us to tighten our vision for the movie and understand what we need to make the final film work. And that, I think, is the gift that Kickstarter has given us. Beyond providing a platform for us to raise money, it has forced us to learn how to talk about and promote the film in the most effective way possible. And that’s something that I would recommend for any documentary filmmaker who’s trying to tell a story that doesn’t fit into the usual categories. 

We still have a long way to go in the next day, and I’m still terrified. But that said, no matter how challenging it might seem to undertake a crowdfunding campaign when you’re not sure exactly what crowd you should be aiming for, my advice would be: figure out what excites you about the project, and then figure out how to communicate that in the best way possible.  

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