Local filmmakers kickstart their projects with crowdfunding

Independent creatives in Central Florida increasingly turn to community investors instead of traditional financing routes to fund their latest projects.

Louanne Walters and her wife Sharon Saraga of St. Petersburg are working on a film about eating disorders in gay males, an issue that affects more than 15% of gay and bisexual men, according to a study conducted at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health. Even though it is considerably more common than most people realize, the issue receives very little attention.

“This issue is known, yet not discussed, in the LGBT community,” Walters says. “It’s time to change that. I feel that by not shining a light on this subject, the gay community is silently endorsing this problem. There are so many in the LGBT community who know someone who is suffering and don’t know what else to do, in part because the medical help is simply not available, and in part because it’s taboo.”

Walters hopes her film will raise awareness of the potentially fatal disorder and inspire further research. A portion of the documentary’s profits will go to an organization focused on helping gay men suffering from anorexia and other eating disorders.

To create her film, Walters estimates at least $30,000 is needed for just a “bare essentials budget with a skeleton crew.” A sum this large can be very difficult for most independent filmmakers to raise. And, even if a filmmaker has a solid history of successful movies, a full-length film is still not an easy project to bankroll through traditional means.

Fortunately for Walters and other artists, the crowdfunding website Kickstarter.com offers a shortcut to raising much-needed money without the arduous application process of traditional grants or the risks associated with personal financing through a bank. The website is also a great place to showcase prior projects and promote current ones.

Since its launch in 2009, the fundraising platform has dramatically changed the way creative people obtain startup capital. Instead of agreeing to the terms and conditions imposed by a few large financiers who may desire creative control over their project, filmmakers can now turn to Kickstarter and—hopefully—get funded through many individual investors, or “backers,” from the community.

The website does exactly what it advertises: It effectively kick-starts creative projects by allowing artists to tap into the financial resources of the “crowd.” The site has helped launch an impressive array of campaigns—nearly 142,000 as of this writing—ranging from photography and design to film and music. About 60,000 of those campaigns have been successfully funded.

The funding platform might be the only realistic option for artists hoping to subsidize a controversial project that isn’t likely to qualify for grant funding. It’s also a natural choice for those who don’t want to directly “beg” friends and family for money.

Fighting for funding: Matthew Lynn of Orlando is working on A Better Life, a film about his life and coming out to a religious family. His Kickstarter campaign failed, but he hasn’t given up on the project. Photo courtesy Matthew Lynn
Fighting for funding: Matthew Lynn of Orlando is working on A Better Life, a film about his life and coming out to a religious family. His Kickstarter campaign failed, but he hasn’t given up on the project. Photo courtesy Matthew Lynn

Sharing his story
Orlando filmmaker Matthew Lynn lost his family and his career as a Southern Baptist Music Minister when he was outed, but that didn’t stop him from finding peace with himself, the church and his parents. Now, he wants to share his story with the world through a film based on his life.

“Through the last few years, I have learned that it’s not just my story but the story of many LGBT people and their families,” Lynn shares. “The movie talks about self-acceptance and reconciliation with your family. That’s something that the LGBT community often misses out on and it’s a story I wanted to tell.”

A short version of the movie, called A Better Life, has received positive reviews from the community, but local support doesn’t always guarantee financial success. So, Lynn turned to Kickstarter to raise money, hoping community investors would help finance his project.

Unfortunately, Lynn failed to reach his campaign goal of $30,000. Because Kickstarter has an all-or-nothing funding rule, he won’t be collecting any of the money pledged by backers of his project, which amounted to more than $11,000.

Lynn hasn’t given up hope, though, and he’s currently speaking with private investors about funding his film.

How it works
To be successful on Kickstarter, a fundraising campaign must meet its pre-set financial goals by a deadline created at the start of the campaign. If the desired funds are not raised by the deadline, the project receives no money and none of the backers are charged a penny. For some, the all-or-nothing approach can be devastating, especially if the campaign falls just short of reaching its goal.

Walters thinks the all-or-nothing rule is a positive thing.

Financing a voice: St. Petersburg couple Louanne Walters and Sharon Saraga plan to launch a Kickstarter campaign in the near future to fund a documentary on gay men and eating disorders. Photo courtesy Louanne Walters
Financing a voice: St. Petersburg couple Louanne Walters and Sharon Saraga plan to launch a Kickstarter campaign in the near future to fund a documentary on gay men and eating disorders. Photo courtesy Louanne Walters

“It’s a safeguard for investors,” she says. “Other funding sites allow the project leaders to keep whatever amount is funded. In my opinion, this is not in the best interest of the donor as the money may or may not be spent on the project.”

Although Kickstarter has a higher success rate than other crowd-funding sites, about 66% of all campaigns fail, according to the Kickstarter website. Sometimes, this is due to vague plans or lack of communication with potential investors; most people aren’t comfortable donating money to a cause they don’t understand or believe in.

Showing examples of prior work, utilizing photography and video to get the message across, and relentless marketing through social media are key to a successful campaign. Ultimately, it is up to individual backers to determine whether a creative venture is worthwhile.

Generating buzz in advance of a campaign can get it off to a good start and help with an initial boost of funds. Of projects that have reached 20% of their financial goal, 81% were successfully funded by the deadline. This is why Walters is focusing on building interest in her film before setting up her campaign.

“We will use Kickstarter once we have completed our grassroots awareness campaign with like-minded organizations in the LGBT community, such as GSAs (gay straight alliances) and college groups (education is an essential aspect in awareness), and PFLAGs, film festivals, etc.,” she says.

Even with the possibility of getting nothing, Kickstarter offers hope to artists who would otherwise be unable to finance their project. The funding platform has leveled the playing field, allowing even unknown artists the ability to solicit public donations based on the merit of individual projects. And, even those who don’t successfully fund their projects through the website reap other benefits, including increased exposure for their work, artistic feedback from the community and interest from private investors.

Have a plan
Kickstarter isn’t open to anyone, though. The site can only be used for well-defined creative projects with a clear beginning and end, such as a film, music album, exhibition, or app. The site cannot be used to raise money for business startups, charitable organizations, “fund my life” projects or other ventures.

Using the site is simple: Creatives set up an account, determine a funding period for their campaign and share their story through text and video. A tier of rewards, such as copies of the film or other prizes, is developed to entice investors to back the project. Marketing through social media gets the word out.

The work doesn’t end when the campaign does, though. There’s a lot of time and expense involved in delivering on promises and fulfilling rewards to dozens or hundreds of backers. When artists are not prepared for this part of the process, stumbling blocks like these can cause even the most successful projects to fall apart.

Lynn put a lot of thought into the rewards chosen for his campaign, because he wanted to keep a low overhead. Most of his rewards were “digital, intangible, or something we were going to be doing anyway,” he said.

His approach could save artists a lot of money; it’s common for reward fulfillment to burn through hundreds or even thousands of dollars. Unless this money is budgeted into the campaign goal, costly rewards can bankrupt a successful campaign before the project even gets off the ground. For this reason, it’s crucial to factor in a buffer when developing a fundraising goal to cover unforeseen expenses.

“Don’t spend all your Kickstarter money on rewards,” Lynn says. “The point of raising the money is to make the film.”

Using the site isn’t completely free, either; Kickstarter keeps a cut of 5%, assuming the campaign is successful, and there’s a payment processing free that ranges from 3-to-5%. Additionally, all money earned through the site is considered taxable income, something many artists don’t consider going in.

Still, Kickstarter is the only chance many creatives have at fulfilling their dreams and delivering their art to the public. And a failed campaign isn’t necessarily the end of a project; for many, it is an opportunity to rethink the venture, incorporate feedback received during the initial campaign and then re-launch with a fresh approach.


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