How the Bill Nye doc is making Kickstarter history

Jason Sussberg (pictured, right) and David Alvarado (left) talk to realscreen about the crowdfunding campaign for their doc on TV scientist Bill Nye (center), which is now the most-funded doc in Kickstarter's history, having raised more than US$806,000.
August 13, 2015

When the Kickstarter campaign for Jason Sussberg (pictured, right) and David Alvarado’s (left) latest documentary project closes at 10 p.m. tonight, the end will be, well, Nye.

Since launching on July 13, the pair’s crowdfunding campaign for their documentary on popular TV scientist Bill Nye – star of the ’90s PBS/Disney series Bill Nye, The Science Guy - has become the most-funded doc in Kickstarter’s history, having raised – at press time – US$806,674.

In the course of one month, the campaign attracted more than 16,000 backers and overshot its $650,000 goal by $156,000. It breaks the record set last month by Adam Nimoy, son of late Star Trek actor Leonard Nimoy. The doc about his father, For the Love of Spock, generated $662,640 and drew 9,439 backers.

Considering previous successful documentary campaigns on Kickstarter had more modest goals of $60,000 (BronyCon: The Documentary), $250,000 (Kurt Vonnegut: Unstuck in Time) and $300,000 (Bridegroom – An American Love Story), the high bar set – and met – by Bill Nye and Spock bodes well for more commercially oriented doc projects looking to test crowdfunding waters before seeking support from broadcasters or granting bodies.

bill nye

Bill Nye

The Bill Nye Film is the second feature effort from Sussberg and Alvarado, who previously directed last year’s SXSW entry The Immortalists, which focused on two scientists chasing eternal youth. That film was also successfully funded via Kickstarter, but raising $30,000 in 60 days “was really like pulling teeth,” Sussberg tells realscreen. So for their next project, the directors were keen to make a science film that was more accessible to general audiences.

After initially contacting Nye and his agent on their own, the pair was told the scientist was already making a documentary. However, when they approached Nye’s team again – this time after enlisting the help of Undefeated producer Seth Gordon, who is working with Alvarado on another doc – the team was told Nye’s documentary was still in need of a director. The duo jumped on board.

Set for completion in 2017, The Bill Nye Film will cover the scientist’s career in engineering and television, as well as his current position as CEO of non-profit space advocacy group The Planetary Society. Later, the doc will follow Nye as he launches a climate crusade, beginning with a book launch this November and followed by TV appearances, climate change demonstrations and a trip to Washington DC to speak with Congress.

Realscreen caught up with Sussberg and Alvarado to discuss their reasons for going the Kickstarter route, why they set such an ambitious fundraising goal, and what they hope the campaign’s success teaches other documentary makers.

Why did you set your goal at $650,000, and how did you know it would come close? 

David Alvarado: That’s the funny thing. All of us independent filmmakers raise $50,000 on Kickstarter. But the budgets are generally between $300,000 and $1 million – that’s just the range for a small indie doc. And Jason and I were considering how to keep more creative control, how could we make the film we wanted to make. And we just said, ‘Maybe this was the right film and this was the right time to have a fully funded film.’

Jason Sussberg: We didn’t really  know. We were counseled to choose a much lower goal. One of the producers on the project, Seth Gordon, has done a bunch of docs and he was like, ‘You guys are crazy, you should aim a lot lower.’ He recommended that at the very most, we should choose a ceiling of $200,000 to $400,000. But we had faith in the community. We had faith in Bill’s fan base and we really laid it all on the line and tried to be transparent and say, ‘This is our budget. Can we get it or not?’

How did you get the word out there about the doc?

DA: I think a lot of it came from Bill’s presence. When we mention Bill Nye to just anybody asking us about our work, most people who are raised in English-speaking countries and are between 18 and 35, the first thing they says is, ‘Oh my God, I love Bill Nye. He’s my favorite part of science. He made the classroom come alive.’ I think people of a certain age group just love him as a personality, and he’s sort of been out of public life since the show ended, and he’s just now coming back. So we released some videos that really captured that imagination, and one of the more successful parts of the campaign was the ‘Mean Tweets’ video, where Bill reads mean tweets about him, and that got millions of hits in a couple of days. Things like that really help drive traffic.

Is $650,000 your entire budget for the doc?

JS: Yes and no. It’s really that you make the best film you can make given the means you have available, and so we could make this movie for $3 million if we had the money to do so, but our baseline is $650,000. That’s the least amount of money we required to get the film out into the world in around 24 months from when we started.

Did you have any financial support before setting up the Kickstarter? Any grants or copro deals in place? 

JS: We started talking to a few granters and broadcasters [at Hot Docs in Toronto] but we knew that it would still be a great candidate for a Kickstarter and we wanted to see first what we could do on that before we reached out to nonprofits and broadcasters – to see what we could raise there just by letting the people who love Bill Nye participate in the production of the film.

'the bill nye film' kickstarter rewards

‘The Bill Nye Film’ Kickstarter rewards

How do you plan on sending prizes and rewards to your thousands of backers? 

DA: We’re working with a company who are pros at just that, and for a very low cost. They do shipping and handling and they’re going to organize the data to make sure we provide the right customer service in order to deliver everything to everybody and keep track of it, which is a huge task. The company is called BackerKit and it’s worked with similar large Kickstarters in the past.

JS: David and I are true believers in Kickstarter. The community does rally. They really want to support the thing and they want to save a project. But at the same time, we also realize that people want goods and we’re going to have to fulfill those pledges. So as much as they believe in our vision and Bill, they also want their coffee mug. We’ve even priced out coffee mugs separately – to buy and ship them, it’s going to cost between $60,000 and $70,000.

So when you’re drawing up the budget, are those costs allocated?

DA: We’ll have to wait till the end to figure out how much the actual costs are, but we already have nonprofit partners who are interested in helping pay for the remaining part of the film.

JS: It’s not so much a nonprofit but a family foundation that has a mission, and our film fits their mission. They believe in the project, they believe in Bill, and they’re excited to work with us.

Will you reach out to broadcasters and other granters as well? 

DA: Well, it’s an interesting thing because seldom has there ever been a film that has no investors, no broadcasters, but has the full budget. Really, we want to focus on making the best film we can with our team, so we’re still trying to figure out what kind of partnerships make sense going forward.

Is this a lesson for documentary makers, in terms of choosing subject matter that people rally around, and want to see a film being made for? 

DA: With The Immortalists, sure we did it successfully, but it was an uphill battle to convince people to come and engage with those types of ideas at the movie theatre. For us, we’re doc fans so it’s a no-brainer that a doc is a worthwhile thing to do with your Friday night, but not everybody’s like that.

So thinking of our next time, we asked ourselves, ‘Where do we go where there’s already an audience that wants to come out and will participate with a film?’ Right away, we remembered that Bill was a big part of our childhoods. We loved him growing up and are always tuning into what he’s saying when he speaks publicly about different things today, so it made sense to approach it as one of the next projects.

Do you have any advice for projects that may not be so commercially viable, but are still looking to draw audiences through Kickstarter?

JS: There’s always an audience for a film and I think it’s important to identify what that audience is and who they are. Is it a marginal audience? Is it a film about your grandmother, and is the audience your family? Or is it about a celeb scientist where you’re going to get a much bigger audience? It’s important to gauge who the audience is and not to give them what they want, but to see through their eyes and perspective, consider what they want to see and think about how this story can be sold to them before a frame is even shot.

DA: We hope that what we’re doing is helping to make a blueprint for other filmmakers who come after us, to see what we did and try to replicate it so they can crowdfund their own projects.

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