On Monday, a documentary about an American basketball player in Iran ended a 50-day campaign that generated $100,000 in donations at the buzzer on Kickstarter after major media hits with CNN, The Huffington Post and The Wall Street Journal. The Iran Job‘s Till Schauder tells Adam Schartoff how his team managed the campaign.
Schartoff: Having just gone through this process, do you have any words of wisdom to a filmmaker who is getting ready to launch a Kickstarter campaign?
Schauder: 1) Cut a strong trailer.
No longer than three minutes.
2) Get a team.
There’s no way you can do this on your own — It’s a full time job. (This is a good time to give a big shout-out to our fantastic interns-turned-outreach-professionals Stephanie Buhle and Kristen Cadacio! No way we could’ve done it without them.)
3) Line up some key supporters before the campaign.
In addition to our executive producer, Abby Disney, who’s been with us for a year now, we had the support of the fantastic Karim Sadjadpour of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and Maz Jobrani (the funniest Iranian this side of the Atlantic) who regularly tweeted to his 100,000 (or however many) Facebook friends he has. We also had incredible support from friends, e.g., soccer moms and folks from our kids’ play-groups (Amanda, Marte, Will & Shryia, and many others — you rock!), as well as from family (Evie, Birgit, Banafshe!), and from some of our colleagues and fellow filmmakers who were extremely encouraging (Jim, Daria and many, many others). These people became our strongest ambassadors, and you need that.
4) Try to connect in some way with your supporters.
For example, we shared some of the things that were going on in our lives — when you’re married with two kids and you basically have a full family life parallel to your campaign, it’s hard not to. I think people really liked that, at least that’s the feedback I’ve gotten. They became a part of something bigger than just a film. They got to know us a bit. They started pulling for us. At some point we posted a video of our kids partying it up in our office after we found out we’d cracked 50K, our first goal. People got a real kick out of it and started sharing that in addition to the film’s trailer.
5) Plan a vacation in the middle of your campaign.
We went to the Bahamas Film Festival, not with this film yet, but to be on a jury — Fantastic way to take a load off! All you need is laptop and a Bahama Mama. It really takes the edge off the campaign trail.
Schartoff: How did you decide on the initial campaign goal of $50,000?
Schauder: Before we launched the campaign, one of the toughest things was to decide where to set our goal: Should it be what we actually would like to raise, for example, $100K, or should it be a more realistic, manageable number?
Some of our interns and others suggested going for $35,000 in the hopes of exceeding it with some days left in the campaign and then going for $50,000. Others — particularly our go-getter intern Steph Buhle — suggested going for $75,000. Based on other campaigns she’d researched and what they reached, she had the confidence that we could outdo them with our film. I have to give it to her for being so gutsy. Eventually we settled in the middle, at $50,000 – which is still a pretty daunting number when you start. In a 50-day campaign that means raising $1,000 per day. From where? WHO will give you that money each and every day?
But we had confidence that we could get to $50,000, and hopefully with a few days to spare in the campaign.
Schartoff: When did you make the decision to aim for $100,000 and what did you have to change once you set that new goal?
Schauder: Prior to the launch we had drafted language that explains to our backers why we’re now shifting the goal post. We prepared that language just in case we did in fact get the chance to surpass our goal.
What we did NOT expect was that we’d surpass it so soon — 10 days before our deadline. So then we said, let’s get to $75,000 asap and if we do it with two or three days left in the campaign, we might actually get a chance to go for $100,000. And we did.
Schartoff: How do you explain the success of the Kickstarter campaign?
Schauder: First and foremost, our supporters were incredible. They really made it happen for us. Once they were involved, they didn’t stop. They shared it all over the place, and once it got going it was like a snowball. People get excited, and everyone wants you to succeed. It’s a pretty mind-bending experience.
Of course we were extremely fortunate to get the kind of press coverage we got — most importantly the piece on CNN’s homepage which had 100,000+ hits. But we didn’t seek this out — they found us! People started asking us, “Who’s your publicist?” I said, “We don’t have a publicist — yet!” Bloggers all over the world just started writing about and promoting the film. For example, the editors of a German basketball site took it upon themselves to translate our Kickstarter info into German and present it to their fans. A guy from Australia kept checking the time difference with us so he could best time his e-blasts to his network. People just caught on to the excitement.
Secondly we had a pretty awesome team that worked together on outreach. We each targeted a different angle: sports, Iranians, basketball fans, doc fans, women’s rights groups, etc.
Basically once we hit $50,000, everything went almost exactly like we hoped, including some big pledges at opportune moments that kept motivating our supporters and instilling a belief that we could actually do this.
Schartoff: Is there anything you would have changed about how your team ran its campaign?
Schauder: When you reach your goal, and actually double it, there’s little to second guess.
I suppose there were a few things we didn’t need to do, that were perhaps not the best use of our time. The one thing we should’ve perhaps done differently is this: Instead of 50 days, we should’ve run the campaign for the maximum period allowed, which Kickstarter recently set at 60. (It used to be 90! Imagine what we would’ve done with 90 days!) Had everything clicked all of the time we might have even cracked $120,000. Who knows?
But really, considering this was a significantly shorter campaign than those of previous successful film campaigns, we did extremely well – especially when you look at how much money we ended up raising per day: $2,000!
Schartoff: How do you think your film’s subject matter plays into the success of your fundraising?
Schauder: Kevin (Sheppard, the film’s protagonist) and the Iranians he meets are just phenomenal film subjects. With those characters as assets we tried cutting a trailer that might hit this out of the park for us, and it looks like it did. I think it got over 20,000 online views.
One of our backers put it this way: You feel comfortable with Kevin and because of that, you allow him to take you on this journey in Iran. He’s one of the funniest, smartest and soulful people I’ve ever met, and the camera loves him. Can’t go wrong with these traits!
Schartoff: Did you break the news to Kevin? What was his reaction?
Schauder: We haven’t reached him yet, which is how it always is when something exciting is happening. A couple weeks ago, CNN wanted to put him on their “World Report,” but Kevin was MIA. I think he was celebrating Carnival (he lives in St. Croix, U.S. Virgin Islands, and Carnival is a much bigger deal there than CNN’s “World Report”). I told him, “Dude, you’ll be on CNN!” He said he needed to check out his friend’s band first. They did track him down eventually.
At our fundraiser party in Brooklyn last week, we screened the interview. The party became really quiet all of the sudden. I saw people literally holding their breath. The way he framed the film and its impact and potential to bring people together, and inform our diplomacy, it’s very powerful.
The Iran Job is smack in the middle of some of the most pressing social, cultural and political issues, and with this momentum we have the potential to connect people in such a way that it might change public perception and potentially influence policy.
Schartoff: What is one of the lessons you can take away having launched a Kickstarter campaign?
Schauder: I’m going to quote one of our backers because I couldn’t say it any better: The power of visual storytelling and the paradigm shift created by both the democratization of distribution and funding (Kickstarter), along with social networking, have created a new set of possibilities for film as a vehicle for social activism AND entertainment.
In other words, as filmmakers, when you’ve got a strong project, you don’t need to be a slave to networks, festivals or other gatekeepers any more. Programmers and gatekeepers can have a somewhat antiquated vision of what audiences want to see, whereas Kickstarter is a kind of public referendum of what’s going to work with an audience, what they in fact WANT to see, and it’s difficult to ignore it. Kickstarter, when it goes well, can accomplish many of the same things, and probably more, than most festivals could. We never would have imagined getting this level of press attention before the film has even premiered! That said, we’ll now start working with a publicist.
We’ve now migrated our fundraising to the film’s website, theiranjob.com, which is important because we still need to raise more. Luckily there is now a lot of momentum and excitement around the film and plenty of people who’re interested in helping this film get the widest audience possible even after Kickstarter ended. They can now donate through the site and it’s actually 100% tax deductible now –something Kickstarter couldn’t offer.