Crowdfunding sites like Kickstarter have revolutionized financing across the art world, resulting in many creative triumphs. The phenomenon has also led to an awkward new dynamic that allows people to raid their social networks for cash. Ellen Gamerman reports on Lunch Break.
For aspiring artists, crowdfunding sites that raise cash from the masses can make a dream project come true. For contributors like Annabelle Gurwitch, they're a potential minefield.
The Los Angeles actress and comedian is worried she'll create personal or professional bad blood if she ignores the constant requests for money. So she funds nearly every one she gets—from a show by a director friend (she might want a role one day) to a web series by a fellow actress (they shared a dressing room at the time). An old classmate she hadn't seen in 30 years asked her for "quite a bit of money" while another campaigner complained that she didn't offer enough. Ms. Gurwitch, who gives up to $1,000 a year, considers this the art-world equivalent of paying protection money to the mob. "I'm terrified not to contribute," she says.
The Oscar-winning short 'Inocente,' was partly financed by Kickstarter.
Crowdfunding sites like Kickstarter and Indiegogo have revolutionized financing across the art world, contributing to two Oscar-winning movies ("Inocente"
), a best-selling book (the zombie-filled graphic novel "FUBAR: Empire of the Rising Dead"
) and many other creative triumphs.
The phenomenon has also led to an awkward new social dynamic when would-be Scorseses pressure their family, friends and colleagues for cash. The transparency of crowdfunding sites makes things worse. Campaigners are free to scour their backer lists to see which uncle went cheap, which best friend "forgot" to contribute and which former co-worker turned out to be surprisingly generous.
There's also a growing wave of bona fide movie and TV stars pressuring their fans to back their pet projects. A cadre of self-styled experts, offering advice on crafting the ideal pitch, has sprung up to add fuel to the fire.
In 2011, Steven Parke sought $16,000 to print his fantasy book set "Medusa's Daughter."
Mr. Parke, who shot the photographs and came up with the concept for the books, appealed to 2,000 family members, friends and strangers. He sent 800 emails that opened with the line, "Hi!! (I feel like Jerry Lewis on a telethon)" and asked his contacts to buy the books and repost a link to his campaign.
Mr. Parke, a 49-year-old Baltimore photographer who has worked for the musician Prince, summoned his fundraising nerve by imagining himself as a salesman in a loud sports jacket. "I literally felt like I was putting on a character, because otherwise I think I'd feel kind of bad just bothering people constantly," he says. When he "dug deep" with messages to his Facebook FB +0.90%
friends, he says, he ran into the site's anti-spam system and was temporarily blocked from sending any more messages.
James Franco | The actor promises to have dinner with anyone who coughs up $10,000 for his new $500,000 Indiegogo movie campaign.
Close friend Leslie F. Miller said she gave Mr. Parke money after he "guilted the entire world" into backing his ultimately successful campaign. (The book set shipped last month to more than 100 backers.) Ms. Miller, a 50-year-old Baltimore writer, says when Simon & Schuster published her baking history/memoir "Let Me Eat Cake" in 2009, she had no way of identifying the people who didn't buy it. But her pals with crowdfunding campaigns know if she ever holds back. "There's a little bit of private shaming," she says.
Kickstarter, which raises funds in categories such as art, technology, fashion and food, has driven much of the crowdfunding growth online since its launch in 2009. Fundraising highs include more than $10.2 million for the Pebble Smart Watch, a customizable watch that allows wearers to receive texts and other notifications on their wrists, and enough lows to fill an unprintably named site devoted to ridiculing such projects. The crowd has funded a "RoboCop"
statue for Detroit, a dance performance by Texas public power workers
in bucket trucks and "Chug,"
a travel show featuring a guy drinking beer and other spirits (it raised $591,804).
Campaigners create a pitch, often with a video, with a stated fundraising goal. On Indiegogo they have the option of keeping as much as they make; Kickstarter is all-or-nothing, so campaigns that fall just short of their goal don't get any of the pledged money. Backers are not investors and don't get a cut of any profits. Instead, they receive rewards pegged to dollar amounts—from a simple thanks to a walk-on role in a film or a private concert. In a new $500,000 Indiegogo movie campaign by James Franco
, perks for $10,000 contributors include dinner with the actor and his production team.
This spring, Kickstarter campaigns for a movie based on the Kristen Bell TV series "Veronica Mars"
soared to $5.7 million and Zach Braff's proposed film "Wish I Was Here"
hit $3.1 million, raising more money than any other movies on Kickstarter and unleashing criticism that people who need these sites the least are the ones benefiting the most. Kickstarter counters that the two campaigns drew hundreds of new contributors who have gone on to back other projects.
"Veronica Mars" creator and executive producer Rob Thomas, who launched the movie project after Warner Bros. passed on it, said there were "almost daily" conversations about how to avoid the whiff of panhandling. The key was to make backers feel as if they'd joined a private club with first access to casting news, video clips and updates from the set. The campaign, which drew 91,585 backers pledging $1 to $10,000, requires intensive follow-up: Mr. Thomas estimates it will cost around $2 million to send T-shirts, DVDs and other perks to supporters. "If we get bad press at the end of the movie because of poor fulfillment, I think it would scare off other studios from doing this," he says.
Celebrity children have an especially hard time keeping the crowd happy. Zosia Mamet,
25, of the HBO series "Girls," and her sister Clara Mamet, 18, daughters of playwright David Mamet, recently launched a $32,000 Kickstarter campaign to make amusic video showcasing their vocals, "body percussion" and banjo skills.
The campaign failed when it raised less than $2,800. On their Kickstarter page, one person wrote sarcastically that given the size of their funding goal, their video ought to be 213.33 times better than the one he did with a $150 smartphone. The Mamet sisters declined to comment.
Colin Hanks, son of actor Tom Hanks, didn't appear to have any trouble winning over his 1,686 backers—he raised $92,000 in a 2011 Kickstarter for a documentary about Tower Records
, nearly double his original goal. Funders, however, now want to know why he's not working faster. "It's a little frustrating because this has been almost two years," says 31-year-old New York backer Marisa Jeffries, who gave $40. Mr. Hanks, who was not available for comment, has posted recent updates on Kickstarter about his ongoing work on the movie.
Fans are even testier with Josh Dibb, known as Deakin of the experimental rock band Animal Collective. In 2009, Mr. Dibb raised nearly $26,000 on Kickstarter for a project to create a book and CD
about slavery in Mali. Mr. Dibb said that he changed the campaign shortly after it launched so that all funds would go to charity rather than to cover costs that included his travel expenses to Mali. The campaign met its goal, and Mr. Dibb flew to West Africa.
His backers are still waiting for the record. Los Angeles media entrepreneur Dan Rollman called the campaign results "truly disappointing" on Mr. Dibb's Kickstarter page. In an interview, Mr. Rollman said he offered Mr. Dibb a desk at his office so the musician could work on the album. Mr. Dibb says he's almost finished with the project and encourages disgruntled fans to contact him, adding that he has met with some personally.
About four in 10 Kickstarter projects reached their funding goals last year, with more than $274 million distributed to creators (Kickstarter and credit-card processing in the U.S. take about a 9% cut total from successful projects).
So far in 2013, Kickstarter has seen nearly $200 million go to successfully funded projects across the site. Indiegogo does not make its financial figures public, according to a spokeswoman, who noted that the site's campaigns raised 20% more in 2012 than the previous year. The crowdfunding site RocketHub, which is pairing with cable channel A&E to highlight projects in short features between programs, reports 20% growth in campaign postings every month.
It's difficult to tune out an appeal by someone's mother. The Kickstarter campaign for a "Moby Dick" card game
Tavit Geudelekian cocreated recently closed at $102,730, more than four times its original goal—thanks partly to Houry Geudelekian, Tavit's mom. After giving $300 herself, she enlisted her Facebook friends ("People! Let's do this!") and stuffed her purse with 4x6 cards bearing the Kickstarter project's Internet address. Ms. Geudelekian, who represents nonprofits at the United Nations, even snuck in a Kickstarter pitch during a seminar for high-school students about her work with the international organization.
Ms. Geudelekian, whose friends and co-workers often reported to her exactly how much they gave, is fighting her urge to find out whether certain cousins contributed.
One name that's missing: Tavit's dad. Vartan Geudelekian isn't so comfortable with the Internet. Mr. Geudelekian jokes that his father turned him down over the phone with something like, "I pledged with college, OK, goodbye." His dad says it took him awhile to figure out what the "Moby Dick" project was all about. "I don't understand computers," he says. "I don't know how these things work."
As tricky as it can be to attract backers, delivering their rewards later can be even tougher. To fund his indie-folk-pop album, "He Said She Said That's What She Said,"
Jeff Harms had offered personalized songs for pledges of $50 or more. The 39-year-old Chicago musician made $6,000, twice his Kickstarter goal, but in the year since then he's had to write 30 songs for his backers (including three about cats—"Delilah you hunt 'em down, Delilah you've outdone all the other cats in town," and so on).
Mr. Harms still owes his contributors three tunes and a rock opera. He calls his time-consuming rewards system "really naive," but he adds that his fan base has grown to include people around the country and abroad. Mr. Harms, who is still working on the double album his backers funded, sends them new songs and regular updates about his work. "Now I have this captive audience," he says.
Not everyone wants to join the crowd. When Darlisa Black promoted a Kickstarter campaign for an album by her daughter, Leannan Sidhe
, she asked one of her oldest friends if she'd had a chance to listen to the music. The friend leveled with her. "She flat out told us she didn't like my daughter's music," says the 55-year-old photographer from White Salmon, Wash. "That one did hurt my feelings. At least you could pretend."
It didn't end up mattering much. The campaign was a success, and soon Ms. Black was back promoting her daughter's Kickstarter for her next album,
which Ms. Sidhe describes as "a mix of dark fairy tales and passion, wrapped in a labyrinth, sprinkled with enchantment and served with a side of whimsy." Ms. Black reached out to plenty of strangers this time: more than 2,000 people on Facebook, Google+, Flickr and Twitter. Her efforts did not go to waste. The campaign reached its $3,000 goal—with $330 to spare.
Here Come the Crowdfunding Consultants
One sure sign of crowdfunding's growth: The emergence of self-styled experts who, for a piece of the action, say they'll shape a successful campaign.
Lucas McNelly, a 34-year-old part-time filmmaker from Waldoboro, Maine, is part of a band of crowdfunding consultants. He handles about 10 campaigns at once—double his business a year ago—and provides services ranging from advice on advertising to running a campaign's day-to-day operations. He gets a 5% to 13% cut from projects that meet their goals, taking home between $20,000 and $30,000 a year.
Consultant Richard Parks
Campaigners rely on creating buzz through their social networks. Mr. McNelly has gotten kicked off Twitter at least once while promoting a client's campaign. After he sent more than 100 tweets in an hour during a final push for a client and the site stopped him from sending more for a while. (Twitter temporarily prohibits users from sending any more tweets after they hit a rate limit.)
To avoid irritating friends, Mr. McNelly tells them to unfollow him before a campaign's final push. "I just say, 'Look, it's going to get bad.' "
The campaigns are getting glossier. Milana Rabkin, a digital-media agent at United Talent Agency, has helped young filmmakers and writers hone their Kickstarter pitches. She has introduced some of her clients to the site's executives and was involved in the high-profile "Veronica Mars" movie project. (Of the more than 100,000 projects launched on Kickstarter since 2009, only a fraction have been produced with professional help, according to a site spokesman.)
Campaigners promote themselves on sites like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Tumblr, but those with little social-media presence can try to buy buzz from a number of new services. One of them, CrowdFund Promotion, offers customers access to 21 Twitter accounts with 90,000 followers. For $74, customers are also promised at least 1,500 retweets. Campaigners stay mum about employing such services so their traffic doesn't look phony. "They don't want to admit they used us," says company founder and CEO Matt Morris. (Mr. Morris says the company complies with Twitter's requirement to label all sponsored tweets.)
Lucas McNelly gets a 5% to 13% cut of projects.
BackerKit, a software tool released this year, helps campaigners send out rewards on schedule and maintain relationships with contributors. The idea: Backers are ripe to become long-term fans and customers since they've already spent money on the concept. "Money can't buy that kind of loyalty," says Maxwell Salzberg, a co-founder of the startup.
Los Angeles filmmaker Richard Parks says he gets a few calls a month from people asking him to make their videos—one such Kickstarter video cost more than $10,000 to make, he says. Some campaigners ask Mr. Parks to appear in their pitches, too. With his scruffy mustache and plaid shirts, the 31-year-old filmmaker has made a few Kickstarter videos for himself and others, so he believes he knows how to hit the right note. "It's like asking for something in a not-annoying or entitled way," he says.
The King of Kickstarter
Sultan Saeed Al Darmaki wants to be the Cecil B. DeMille of Kickstarter.
The 30-year-old horror-movie fan from Abu Dhabi has given to 90 Kickstarter campaigns, making him one of the site's top backers. He often contributes at the top tiers (funding levels run up to $10,000) but won't disclose a total because he says he doesn't want to belittle other supporters.
Sultan Saeed Al Darmaki
Sultan Saeed Al Darmaki
"He bought one of the highest rewards we had," says filmmaker Jared Butler, who launched a Kickstarter campaign this spring for a postapocalyptic zombie movie, "Undying." Though the film fell short of its $45,000 goal, Mr. Butler was heartened that a stranger would pour money into his idea. "I thought it was someone playing a joke. It sounded too good to be true."
Word of Mr. Al Darmaki's largess is getting around. Campaigners send him reverent emails calling him "Your Highness." They don't realize that "Sultan" is his first name, not a title.
Mr. Al Darmaki is owner and managing director of the Al Darmaki Group, a family company based in Abu Dhabi that he describes as a variety of businesses from children's clothing retail operations to construction. He hopes his Kickstarter patronage will help him network in the film industry. Indeed, he is now listed as a producer on imdb.com, the heavily trafficked Hollywood database. (Backers who spend enough can get a movie credit as a perk.)
He also has been offered walk-on roles in return for his cash. "I wouldn't mind doing that," he says. "I just want to get in better shape."
Outside of Kickstarter, Mr. Al Darmaki is currently involved in three independent films, including one he wrote and plans to direct. Kickstarter is still an obsession, though. He checks the site about every six hours, he says, adding that it has gone a long way in replacing another online habit: "It did help me quit World of Warcraft."