Write, Teach, Laugh

NAB 2015: Fundraising for Your Web Project

(Originally published on Blogcritics.org)

Even in this era of crowdfunding, getting financial backing has never been easy for artists, and that includes the newest generation of video filmmakers. At the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) Show in Las Vegas in April, three video professionals with time in the trenches shared what they’ve learned at a seminar titled: “Fundraising for Your Web Project.” Their advice fell into four categories – building your team, running the campaign, rewarding your backers and finishing your project.

LA Beer

Miller’s ‘LA Beer’ is the first web-series sitcom filmed before a live audience.

The presentation panel consisted of moderator Sam Miller, Adryenn Ashley and Rebecca Norris.

Miller created L.A. Beer, the internet’s first live-audience sitcom. He is also a staff writer on theCBS sitcom Mom.

Ashley runs Crowded Reality, Inc., which helps people with ideas for reality TV shows run their crowd funding campaigns and develop their ideas.

Norris developed the award winning web series, Split, and writes the “Writers on the Web” column for Script Magazine.

Building Your Team

Norris explained that, since everyone was doing crowd funding nowadays, the rules have changed. “At first you could put up a five minute video explaining your project and that might work. Now you have to do 60 to 90 seconds explaining what the benefit is to the viewer,” she said. “Why should they take their money out of their pocket and give it to you?”

Miller admitted to starting out all wrong. “We shot a 25-minute pilot,” he said. “That didn’t get traction. So we did a series of short versions. You have to be ready to put up 5 minutes. 10 minutes. We also put it into 15 second clips. We did behind the scenes videos and actor Q&As.” Miller’s group essentially created a fan site, not for fans that existed, but to find out who was interested and who is going to watch online. They then knew to whom to direct their fundraising and launched a Kickstarter campaign to fund more episodes, raising over $25,000.

Miller also pointed out that although crowdfunding was great idea for his production company, it didn’t do anything for the brewery they were shooting at. “But, if you can mention a local business in your show, they can be invested. The craft brewery we shot at then had mutual goals with us.”

Norris said that it was important to cast your project before you fund raise. “Identify all the actors and crew,” she advised, “and they will help you raise money. Don’t hire people to be part of the project unless they agree beforehand to help with the fundraising. Put it in a contract that they will post and Tweet.”

She also said not to be afraid to reach out to everyone you’ve ever known: “You’ll be surprised who donates. One of my old boyfriends helped, an old air force buddy kicked in $500 and even an old friend from high-school helped out. Not my sister, though, but I’m not bitter. Really.”

Sam Miller

Sam Miller, creator of ‘LA Beer’ and writer for CBS sitcom ‘Mom’

Norris also emphasized the proper timing for a campaign. She recalled a 60-day campaign, which began around Halloween, and timed to end at New Years. It went nowhere. She explained that at that time of year people spend money on other things.  She also advised not to start on Memorial Day or Labor Day, when people are going to be busy.

According to Miller, timing is important in another way. “There was a campaign for a custom cooler that started in January. It failed. No one is thinking about coolers in January. They ran it again in June and succeeded in hitting their target.”

Norris added that you also need to prepare emotionally for your campaign: “Some people you think will support you don’t.”

Miller chimed in, “You’re still bitter about your sister.”

“No,” she shot back, looking sad.

Running the Campaign

The speakers all agreed that you don’t just get an idea on Monday, and start a fundraising campaign on Tuesday.

Ashley suggested a minimum three months for planning. “You need an editorial calendar; you need to proof things, and prepare your media.”

She also said that your project needs its own legal entity and trademark. “That needs to be done ahead of time so that the income goes to the project, not you personally, or the IRS will expect you to pay the taxes on it.”

Miller said that when they looked at a 60-day campaign, they realized that they needed to break down the plan by week. “You need to know what you’ll be doing each week,” he said.

Ashley emphasized the importance of a good team. “You need five or six people working,” she said. “You need to thank your backers every day and you need to be able to sustain 24 hours of enthusiasm for however long it takes. There are tools that let you schedule posts, but live interaction with supporters is crucial. It may be five o’clock where you are, but your potential backers may be on the other side of the world. Tweet every two hours, 24 hours per day.

“And have a designated cheerleader,” she said. “If you get cranky when you’re too tired, you can’t be a cheerleader.”

Miller shared an important tactic. “Say you are launching on a Sunday,” he said. “Do not announce to the world until Monday. Have the people you have talked to personally and who are ready to commit, do so on Sunday. That way on Monday when you make your announcement, people don’t see zero dollars. You need the aura of success when you’re launching.”

The panel agreed that the use of hashtags in campaigns was crucial.

Ashley said that it’s amazing who responds when you just use the hashtag #crowdfunding. “Photo tweets are great, too,” she said, “and don’t feel bad about using somebody else’s hashtag. Nobody owns them.”

She did correct herself later, saying that there are a few trademarked hashtags. Research I did indicated that this is something of a gray area.

Miller urged people to be respectful of other’s hashtags. For his show L.A. Beer, the logical hashtag was #LABEER. “This was already being used by Los Angeles area brewers to promote their events, so we tried to use it in a generous and respectful way.” He added, “You should have at least a dozen hashtags you hit regularly.”

Ashley pointed out that if you can get your hashtag to trend globally, this is important. “Screencapture it,” she said, “and share the graphic. It shows you are powerful.”

Norris pointed out that campaigns go through phases. “You’ll see an immediate surge,” she said, “then it dips for a while, then there’s a surge at the end. Keep the energy in your tweets and Facebook. Keep it going. You might go five days with nothing. People need to feel they have to donate. That’s why it peaks at the end.”

Ashley quipped, “A watched pot never boils. That applies to crowdfunding, too.”

Rewarding Your Backers

Rebecca Norris

Rebecca Norris of Script Magazine, producer of ‘Split’

Rewarding your backers has been a key part of online fundraising. The panel agreed that finding the right mix of rewards was critical and that live events are helpful.

Miller suggested having a premier party for your campaign in order to cultivate local relationships. Norris agreed. “Have a raffle at the event,” she said, “and try to put together big gift bags from local stores. You promote the stores and they help you.”

Miller added that if you’re lucky, your community is not in it for the awards, but have them anyway. “It is great pre-marketing,” he said, “if people are wearing your t-shirts around before the campaign officially begins.”

Ashley shared a negative example: “We had 18 donation levels on one campaign. Don’t do this. Too many of the levels didn’t work. We also didn’t have a name your own donation option. We simplified and added a ‘name your own amount’. That option saved us. People began throwing $500 donations at us.”

Ashley also pointed out that “experiential” rewards worked well, such as invitations to premier parties, opportunities to be on the set, and individualized director’s chairs to sit in.

Finishing Your Project

Norris said, “The most important lesson I’ve learned from crowdfunding is just keep going and have those contingency budgets so that you can make something.”

The panel explained that contingency budgets give you a range of options. You may want to make a project for $10,000, but you should have back-up plans if you only raise only $8,000 or $6,000.

Split

Scene from ‘Split’, Rebecca Norris’ web-series.

Miller advised, “Be realistic. In the collaborative world of social capital it is much better to successfully fund a $1,000 project than to unsuccessfully fund a $2,000 project. Get one success, then you can move to the next level.”

The panel agreed that having a fiscal partner who is a non-profit is great if you can arrange it. The IRS considers crowdfunding normal income, so it is important to track all your expenses.

Miller mentioned that some campaigns are started for post-production. “And there’s no shame in that,” he said, “especially for film, there are so many variables. Sometimes you just need a little bit more to finish.”

Norris agreed. “It’s pretty common for finishing funds,” she said. “We’re going to do a crowdfunding to finance our festival run.”

Miller reminded Ashley that on a panel yesterday she said that for a crowdfunding project, “90 percent is building your community, 10 percent is creating your show.”

Ashley nodded. “Whatever topic you’re passionate about,” she said, “there is probably a group of people already organized around it. I bought a farm and then an old Ford 8n tractor. To my surprise, I discovered there were 80,000 people for whom old tractors were a hobby.”

Miller concluded, “The idea of artists going to the community to fund their art isn’t new. The Coen brothers did it years ago, going to groups of Midwest dentists. It worked for them. You can do it, too.”

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