ALTERNATE ROUTES: Crowdsourcing for Filmmakers – Interview with Stage 32’s RB Botto

Marty Lang interviews Richard “RB” Botto about the difference between crowdfunding and crowdsourcing, offering insights screenwriters can use to develop their brand.


Marty Lang is a screenwriter, filmmaker, journalist and educator. His feature writing/directing debut, RISING STAR, was acquired for worldwide distribution by Content Film in 2013. His producing credits include the 2016 Independent Spirit Award-nominated OUT OF MY HAND, and BEING MICHAEL MADSEN, starring Michael Madsen, Virginia Madsen and Daryl Hannah. Twitter: @marty_lang.

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Richard Botto at the American Film Market

The process of creating any kind of narrative content is not for the faint of heart. The more help you can get at every stage, the easier the load becomes and the more likely your project will reach the goals you’ve set for it.

What many filmmakers don’t realize, though, is they can get some of that help from the people that will ultimately be your audience. Many think of audience members solely as people you engage with once your project is completed, but there are ways to engage them at every stage of development, production and distribution. And Richard “RB” Botto, CEO of Stage 32, has written a book that details exactly how to do that. Crowdsourcing for Filmmakers: Indie Film and the Power of the Crowd is a how-to manual of how to make your project stand out from the noise, and how to source everything from funding, equipment, locations and more. RB was also kind enough to include my feature film, RISING STAR, as one of the case studies in the book, so I was able to contribute a small piece to his new work as well.

I met RB at Stage 32 headquarters in Manhattan Beach, California, where we talked about what the book offers to filmmakers, and why he felt it needed to be written.

Script: How did you come to write this book?

RB Botto: I was asked to speak on a crowdsourcing panel at the American Film Market in 2014, and it went really well. A lot of people didn’t understand the difference between crowdsourcing and crowdfunding, and AFM wanted independent producers to understand that, along with branding and audience building. It’s not just about making a movie anymore. You have to come to the table with a built-in audience if you can, not only for the project, but also for your brand. As soon as the panel was done, I was approached by Focal Press, and they offered me the book in the room.

Script: What is the difference between crowdfunding and crowdsourcing?

RB: In the most basic terms, crowdfunding is turning to the crowd to help finance a project. It’s asking the crowd to donate money to your project. Crowdsourcing, in its most simple terms, is identifying, engaging and moving an audience, for the purposes of your brand, or the brand of your project. So within every crowdfunding campaign, there is an element of crowdsourcing, because you’re building a crowd. In fact, the reason why most crowdfunding campaigns fail is because there was no crowdsourcing ahead of it. Most crowdfunding campaigns are just thrown up there. They worry about the content, and they worry about the budget, but they don’t think about who their audience is, who would be willing to donate to the project. And if they’re first-time filmmakers, what they really don’t think about is that you need to build a brand for the project first, and yourself second. Once you prove yourself with your first film, then part of your brand becomes that you’re solid, that you delivered and that you’re reliable. Most people just don’t understand that with crowdfunding, you should be crowdsourcing three to six months ahead of time.

Script EXTRA: Warming Up the Crowd

Script: What are some successful examples of crowdsourcing that you talk about in the book, that first-time filmmakers can use?

RB: There are three case studies in the book, and I purposely tried to give very diverse examples of crowdsourcing. With RISING STAR, what I love about that film was the fact that you crowdsourced locations. Because people tie crowdsourcing to crowdfunding, they think of only money. But they don’t realize that you can utilize the crowd, and move the crowd, to provide services, to provide locations, and even to provide ideas for characters.

Another case study is a feature documentary called MILE … MILE AND A HALF, which to me is a fascinating story because it’s a story about six filmmakers that hike the John Muir Trail. That doesn’t sound like a riveting or particularly mainstream documentary for a general audience, but the way they crowdsourced their audience, and how creative they were, was great. They didn’t just go after the hikers, nature people and health nuts, they went after the gearheads and the film lovers as well. So these filmmakers, five cinematographers and a sound engineer, captured the trail in a way that it had never been captured before, with all this state-of-the-art equipment. They were able to capture the ecosystems that occur along the trail. It’s a beautiful piece of filmmaking, but on the surface, if someone described that to you, it might not sound as riveting as they made it, by targeting their audience and engaging them in such an incredible way. They were the first film to sell out the L.A. Film Festival, to the point where they had to screen the film a second time in another theater. And that’s because the crowd moved on their behalf.

All the case studies are captivating. I think they provide insight into how many different ways you can identify and engage a crowd. I think people will learn a lot from those.

Script: How do you think screenwriters can use the information in this book to help with their branding and their own audience building?

RB: Out of all the disciplines in film, I think screenwriters can benefit the most from this book. That’s because in this day and age, screenwriters need to be more than just screenwriters. A lot of screenwriters think that the brand is the work, the actual product of the screenplay, and that’s not necessarily true. Screenwriters need to understand what their brand is, what kind of image they’re trying to put out there. If they’re comedy writers, for example, they need to know who their audience is, how they’re projecting themselves on social media, and are they going to be good in a room? Is that being projected? Right now, the way that agents, managers, and producers find talent is so vastly different than it was even three or four years ago. Your online presence is a huge part of it. I talk with agents and managers all the time, and they say that after they read a script they like, before they even contact the writer to ask what else they have, they’ll check the writer’s social media out to see: do they have a following? How do they carry themselves? If they’re comedy writers, are they funny? Are they difficult on social media? How do they go about engaging people? Because they want to know that you’re good in a room, but they also want to know what kind of image, what kind of brand, you’re putting out there.

It’s not really enough to just be a screenwriter anymore. You need to have other talents, and many screenwriters are now taking matters into their own hands by controlling their own content. That’s where crowdsourcing becomes even more vital, because now it’s not only the brand of you as a writer, it’s the brand of you as a creative. So the people you want to engage with, and move over time, becomes more vital. The biggest mistake people make on social media, in my opinion, is that they try to be all things to everybody, and that’s a fool’s game. You want to know who you’re targeting, who you want in your circle.

Script EXTRA: Developing Your Screenwriting Brand

And crowdsourcing goes even beyond that, to winning champions. It’s not just the audience for you and your film, or for your script and your brand as a writer, it’s about your contacts in the industry. It’s very easy to reach anyone on social media, but once you do, how do you handle yourself? How do you make yourself attractive to them, so that they want to know more about you? The advent of the Internet, and accessibility to free screenwriting software, and everything about us being in this goldrush of content, has made everyone think they can be a screenwriter. That means there’s more noise than ever before. So agents, managers and producers are seeing more crap than ever before. So before they can get to whether your material is worthy or not, they’re going to look and see what you’ve done for yourself. Do you have an audience? Do you have a website? What kind of content are you putting out on that site? Before you even get to the quality of someone’s writing, you can go and see how someone carries themselves. If they’re always complaining about the notes they get, then they don’t know how to take notes. If they’re always complaining about the industry, then they don’t realize that this is a marathon and not a sprint. If they’re asking questions about copyrighting their work, when a simple Google search will answer that question for them, they’re not ready. People will read that first, and judge whether they want to read your script on that! So how you carry yourself on social media, the audience you bring with you, the type of followers you have, these things all matter in this day and age.

Script: If a writer is interested in presenting a good face to the industry on social media, how should they go about that?

RB: Everything begins with asking questions, and with selflessness. We live in a narcissistic world, and social media invites narcissism. The people that succeed the most handle themselves in the opposite way of that. Now, ego and narcissism are two different things. It’s okay to have a little bit of ego; it’s okay to pound your chest a little bit, if you’ve had some accomplishments. I’ve known people who’ve been signed, repped, and financed, and those relationships began with a tweet, or with a post on Stage 32. Those success stories all have one thing in common: the person who had the material always came from a place of selflessness. So you want to ask questions. If you know there’s a manager online who’s a fit for your content, you have to engage them. You can’t just follow them and throw up a tweet, or send a DM on Stage 32 and say “Hey, I have this thing,” because you’re going to get radio silence, or you’ll get blocked or ignored. But come from a place of interest in what they do. You may not get an answer all the time, but if you ask questions, more likely than not, you’ll open the door. Especially if it’s an informed question about something you’ve learned about that person.

Script: How can crowdsourcing benefit a project when your project is ready to be distributed?

RB: You should be thinking about that before you shoot a frame. Again, the whole point behind crowdsourcing is, who is your audience? When I consult on films, that’s the first question I ask. And over half the time, their answer is “Everyone. Everyone is going to love this movie.” And my response is always “Tell me one movie in the history of movies that everyone has loved.” You can take the most successful films of all time, you’ll find detractors.

You hope that once you identify your audience, and you find ways to engage them and move them to see your film, that their word of mouth will lead to more people seeing it, kind of ancillary branches, other groups, that will be interested. But the first thing is, who is that audience, and how do you engage them? You need to think about the genre of your film, and the subject matter of your film. And then you have to think of the sub-themes in your film that might be attractive to a smaller audience? You can talk with those folks, and engage them about your project.

Script: Many screenwriters are nervous about becoming multi-hyphenates. What advice do you have for them, and the work they’ll have to do to bring their content into the world?

RB: Well, it is a lot of work. Before I consult with anyone, the first thing I tell them is that this is going to be a ridiculous amount of work. You need patience, because building a crowd doesn’t happen overnight. Think about your friendships, your surface friendships and your deep friendships. Think about how long it took some of your friendships to go from surface to deep. If it happens, it’s because of your investment in it. It’s not all that different. Audience building is relationship building. That doesn’t come naturally to a lot of people. Many people hide behind the glow of the computer; if they’re safe, they might be more comfortable interacting. I tell people you’re going to learn immediately that whatever your online interactions are, they’ll be the same as your offline interactions. And that means if you wouldn’t walk into a theater and shout, “Hey, look at me! Check out my film!” you shouldn’t do it online either. A lot of people do that, and it’s not authentic.

It’s definitely a grind, but it’s a good grind. You’ll see progress every single day, and it’ll become a lot of fun. You can see your audience and your interactions growing. And as that happens, you become really buoyed by that.

Script EXTRA: Screenwriter Michael Brandt Moves Behind the Camera

By and large, screenwriters are introverted. We write in isolation, and when we put our work out there, we get crushed by notes. You need very thick skin to be a screenwriter, and you need to carry that thick skin into doing something like this. You have to understand that it’s okay to be introverted. It’s a matter of taking a step every day to get out of that a little bit. There’s nothing more rewarding than getting a response to something. You put yourself out there, all you want is a response. If you’re selfless, giving of yourself, asking questions, more often than not you’ll get the response you’re looking for. And then all of a sudden, that introverted feeling will melt. Once that starts melting, I guarantee you’ll start thinking, “I can do this. I can figure this out.”

There’s that famous George Addair quote “Everything you want is on the other side of fear.” I believe in that. I believe that as you take steps, and as you control what you can control, and as you get a positive reaction from that, those fears go away. The way the fear won’t go away is if you do nothing, if you don’t take action. Fear dissipates as you take action. And for me, the thing that takes the fear away the most is not only action, but that I’m informed on everything, I’m well read on everything, that I’m learning all I can about the business. Asking people what they did right, and what they did wrong. Those things will take the fear away.

Richard Botto’s book Crowdsourcing for Filmmakers: Indie Film and the Power of the Crowd is now available for order on Amazon.com.

More articles by Marty Lang

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