The kindness of strangers

Crowdfunding site Kickstarter has become a go-to funding source for many documentarians, ranging from established filmmakers such as Nick Broomfield to newcomers to the genre. Realscreen finds out more about how and why it works.
September 27, 2011

Kickstarter or bust.

That was the predicament for filmmaker Jennifer Fox and her documentary, My Reincarnation (pictured). The finished film was ready to launch at international festivals, but a coproducer wasn’t able to put in a previously agreed upon portion, leaving Fox with a US$100,000 funding gap.

“I had exhausted all the individual [donors] I knew, [and] I didn’t think any distribution was going to come up with that money fast enough to pay off things like music rights, post-production costs … It was basically the only choice left, other than going bankrupt,” Fox tells realscreen.

Thus, the choice was Kickstarter, the crowdfunding platform that has helped to fund projects in 13 creative disciplines, including film, art, comics, dance, design, fashion, technology, and more. The New York City-based initiative has seen more than 11,500 projects successfully reach their funding goals, with more than $85 million pledged by more than 900,000 backers to date.

According to Kickstarter, every week tens of thousands of people pledge millions of dollars to the thousands of projects on the site. Approximately 44% of projects that launch on Kickstarter reach or exceed their funding goal.

Not too shabby for an endeavor cooked up in 2009 by co-founders Perry Chen and Yancey Strickler, who wanted to give creative arts projects a chance to come to fruition through the generous donations of others.

“Traditional funding is looking for a way to make a return on their investment,” explains Strickler. “They want to put money into things that make money, but for us, most of the great ideas are the ones that have no intention of making money at all, they’re just ideas. We wanted to change that dynamic and allow ideas to be funded on their own merit rather than how much of a buck they might generate for someone else.”

Kickstarter has proven to be a viable option for extra doc funding. “Docs alone have raised over $12 million dollars on Kickstarter and film is over $30 million overall,” Strickler says. “To be a filmmaker is to be a perpetual fundraiser. With us you’re doing that fundraising that is so important and you’re doubling that up with promotion and marketing.”

The majority of film projects come from lesser known filmmakers, but recently some familiar names have popped up on Kickstarter, including Gary Hustwit’s campaign for finishing funds for Urbanized. Hustwit raised about $120,000 on the crowdfunding site.

Nick Broomfield also had a successful Kickstarter campaign to raise money for the theatrical distribution of his doc, Sarah Palin: You Betcha! At press time, Broomfield’s campaign had pulled in $31,120, ahead of his $30,000 goal.

In appealing to the average Joe for help in funding a film, incentives are offered up, which can include signed DVDs or producer credits, depending on the amount contributed. In Broomfield’s campaign, backers received incentives such as “good will and gratitude sent from the indomitable spirit of Wasilla, Alaska,” for a pledge of $50 or more, and for $600 or more, one lucky donor received Broomfield’s bullhorn that he uses in the film, autographed by the filmmaker.

Of course, Kickstarter isn’t the only crowdfunding game in town, and many filmmakers have turned to other sites such as IndieGoGo and Rockethub for their projects. The unique thing about Kickstarter, as opposed to its crowdfunding competitors, is that the Kickstarter campaign will not receive the funding unless it achieves its fundraising goal. If the goal isn’t met, the donors don’t lose their money on a partly funded project.

“Of the over $90 million dollars pledged on Kickstarter so far, 85% has gone to projects that have made their goal,” Strickler says. “It really seems to bear out the strength of the ‘all or nothing’ idea.”

Fox’s campaign at press time had 518 backers that have donated a total of $150,456. She maintains that her campaign worked – hers is the sixth most funded film on the site – because she took it very seriously and targeted the niche audience that her documentary appealed to, the spiritual community. My Reincarnation is a documentary about Tibetan Buddhist master, Chögyal Namkhai Norbu, passing on his spiritual knowledge to his Western-born son, Khyentse Yeshe.

“We wound up raising 300 percent of our goal. It was exhilarating. You’re in the fast lane. Ninety days on the Web is three years in real time,” she says.

Currently, the ability to post projects to Kickstarter is only available to U.S. residents with a U.S. bank account, requirements dictated by the payment system they use, Amazon Payments. However, international backers can donate.

Strickler says that there are plans to expand in the years ahead. “To be honest, having a specific market to get to focus on has been very good for us. Spreading us around the world is something that will take some effort and we want to make sure we do it right.”

About The Author
Barry Walsh is editor and content director for realscreen, and has served as editor of the publication since 2009. With a career in entertainment media that spans two decades, prior to realscreen, he held the associate editor post for now defunct sister publication Boards, which focused on the advertising and commercial production industries. Before Boards, he served as editor of Canadian Music Network, a weekly music industry trade, and as music editor for As content director, he also oversees the development of content for the brand's market-leading events, the Realscreen Summit and Realscreen West, as well as new content initiatives.