Holiday Crowd-Fundraising Tips from 7 Documentary Insiders

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IMDb, to date, lists 7,262 documentaries released in 2011, and there’s no telling how many were made that remain unreleased. That’s a lot of money that must have been raised (or that will continue to appear on credit card statements). But fundraising hasn’t increased so much as it has just gone public with tools such as Kickstarter and IndieGoGo. Public fundraising campaigns that might have once been seen as acts of desperation now seem commonplace if not protocol, whether it’s for a story about a video game (Minecraft: The Story of Mojang — $200,000+ in crowdfunding) or a male porn mogul becoming a gay rights activist (Seed Money: The Chuck Holmes Story — $25,000 in crowdfunding).

How do you raise money at a time of year when folks are spending their dollars on holiday gifts, travel, food or the past year’s underpaid taxes? The holiday season is no holiday for documentary producers looking to raise funds, but some documentarians say it’s as good a time as any.

Marshall Curry, Filmmaker of If a Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front

Marshall Curry, Filmmaker (If a Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front)

There’s so much competition to get funds from traditional doc funders (Gucci/Tribeca, Sundance, Cinereach) so sometimes it’s smart to also go off the beaten path. If you are making an “issue” documentary, try approaching funders who care about your issue but don’t usually fund films.

Felix Endara, DocuClub Programmer

Give a pretty compelling reason to have your project be chosen over a myriad other “causes” during the holidays. To just say that your project is great isn’t enough.

But also have the backing of a trusted supporter who has already donated. I see many friends on Facebook post Kickstarter campaigns of many projects, but they themselves don’t contribute to it. Put your money where your mouth is, so to speak.

It also helps if you have a fiscal sponsor, as a tax-deductible donation is a good incentive especially for those relatives who want to lower their tax bracket at the last minute.

Lastly, in order to receive, you have to give. In other words, support other filmmakers’ projects, so that this fosters reciprocity, not to mention, builds community. We’re all in this together, in one way or another.

Whitney Dow, Filmmaker (When The Drum Is Beating, which recently raised $65,000 in a Kickstarter campaign)

Don’t do it! But if you have to… make it tax deductible. Seriously, it is very hard to get people’s action at this time of year. If people are willing to give, it is usually to a cause that benefits people who are significantly worse off than they are, as opposed to a middle-class white guy (like me) who needs money for his film.

Tyler Measom, Co-director of Sons of Perdition

Tyler Measom, Filmmaker (Sons of Perdition)

Regardless of the time of year, filmmakers are often so intent on selling the money-making potential of their project that they neglect to sell the sizzle. Let’s be honest, investors can easily find more stable and profitable investments than film, so when they put capital towards a motion picture, they are essentially buying their way into our (supposedly) “exciting and sexy” industry. That is why it is important to make an investor feel like he or she isn’t merely a checkbook, but rather an important part of your film. Call and email them with updates on the project, ask them questions about casting or locations (even if you don’t need it) and let them visit the set and watch rough cuts. Each investor usually has a certain knowledge or skill set that enabled them to achieve their wealth, and filmmakers would be wise to capitalize on those qualities.

It is assumed that the film industry shuts down in December, and for the most part, it does. However, savvy filmmakers can use the coming new year as a catalyst to find private investors in need of a year-end tax deduction. This works especially well when raising capital for non-profit documentaries or docs being produced in conjunction with a fiscal sponsor. When we were raising capital for my first narrative film, TAKE, we sent out an email prior to the new year that told investors about Section 181 of the tax code, which enables them a tax deduction on any funds invested in a feature film. We were able to get additional investments from previous investors and a few from new investors. This tax code is still in place and filmmakers should definitely utilize it to entice private equity.

But frankly, it is a tough time of the year to raise funds. My advice, spend the month of December perfecting your script, trailer, and business plan, pawn your Christmas gifts and then hit it hard in January.

Kelly Anderson, Filmmaker of My Brooklyn

Kelly Anderson, Filmmaker (My Brooklyn)

I think it’s a bigger question: Is getting individual contributions really a solution to the funding problem? Now that I did one Kickstarter campaign, can I really go back again to the same people? I don’t think so. I don’t think it’s a viable long-term revenue stream. So the real issue is how to get work funded other ways. That’s my 2 cents.

Danielle DiGiacomo, Producer/Programmer/Consultant

As for why it is so successful even now, I would say it’s all about persistence. Coming into this, we knew that the economy is terrible, and during the holiday season people are more likely to be thinking about how to knock 17 family members off their holiday gift list than contributing to a documentary. But, we actually managed to use that and pitch this as a time of generosity, as well as a gift to the people represented in the film, and audiences who will want to see it. It’s also important that people realize every dollar counts; even if people are broke, they will give $5 if they think it will make a difference, so it is important to make clear that it will. Finally, don’t be afraid to bug people. A lot of people will get annoyed, sure, but it’s also highly effective, and a lot of people, even annoyed, will give money.

Michael Galinsky, Filmmaker of Battle for Brooklyn

Michael Galinsky, Filmmaker (Battle For Brooklyn, which has just launched its second Kickstarter campaign)

It’s the end of the year; tax deductible donations are something people are thinking about. We are launching a Battle For Brooklyn campaign momentarily through our fiscal sponsor so all donations are tax deductible.

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Adam Schartoff
Adam Schartoff
Guest blogger Adam Schartoff is a freelance film journalist living in Brooklyn, New York. He's the founder and programmer of the Brooklyn-based film series Filmwax.
  • Adam Schartoff

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  • http://twitter.com/DGS120 David Graham Scott

    Great article. I was thinking about posting a crowdfunding trailer quite soon but felt that Christmas would probably kill it. Might wait till Jan/Feb now.