Taking the Reins: Warming Up the Crowd

First, please allow me to introduce myself: I’m Julie Keck – screenwriter, filmmaker, baker, and one-half of King is a Fink Productions. Second, I’d like to thank ScriptMag and my new boss Jeanne Veillette Bowerman (oh, lord, what have I gotten myself into?) for the opportunity to share my experiences. I prefer fiction, but I’ll keep my posts here as close to the facts as possible. But, for the sake of fun, let’s all imagine me as very tall and very blonde. Thank you. Let’s move on.

Although I consider myself first and foremost a writer, taking the reins of my career and producing my own work with my partner in life, crime (allegedly), and movies (Jessica King) has been very empowering. Many screenwriters spend years toiling, sweating, and crying over a script only to spend the following year querying, fretting, and wishing on birthday candles and shooting stars for a speck of a kernel of a smidgen of hope that someone somewhere will pluck you out of oblivion and make you the next Diablo Cody. Jess and I decided early on we didn’t want to do that. We wanted to see what our characters moved like, hear their voices, make them sneeze: so we started making our own movies.

This is what I look like right before I start telling everyone what to do...

Producing hasn’t always been easy, but it has been the best career move, as writers, we’ve made. We don’t just have to hope that what we write translates to the screen; we know. Each of our self-produced projects becomes a living, breathing part of our writer’s resume.  This has ultimately attracted fans and collaborators who have brought us opportunities we never would have imagined a year ago. It’s a rush, and in this column I’m going to share with you our successes, missteps, madness, and method so that you can make the same leap if it’s the right time for you.

Enough with the mushy stuff. Let’s jump right in with a subject that’s near and dear to my masochistic heart: crowdfunding.

Beware the One Who (Says He) Holds the Key

In 2012 Jessica and I ran a successful Kickstarter campaign for the independent feature thriller TILT.

This. Is. TILT.

Prior to the crowdfunding campaign, we’d only made movies with money out of our own pockets. Since we and TILT’s director Phil Holbrook wanted to boost the production level of this project, which was the first feature for all of us, we decided that crowdfunding was the way to go. Since raising the movie funds through Kickstarter, Jess and I have given out a lot of crowdfunding advice, mostly to friends and (sometimes) very polite strangers. Each time we’ve been happy to help, but we’ve never ever promoted ourselves as experts. Why? Because running one or two successful campaigns in no way classifies us as experts. In fact, we recommend that you be very suspicious of those who proclaim to be ‘crowdfunding experts.’ Why? Because crowdfunding is still new, crowdfunding is personal, crowdfunding is cumulative, and crowdfunding doesn’t start the moment your campaign begins: it starts the moment you step into the social media arena.

Just to be clear, the only time you should say you’re the Key Master is when a possessed Sigourney Weaver with fabulous hair asks you directly. And then you should say ‘yes’. Always.

Don’t Forget to Stretch

Those who train for marathons often speak of the first moment when they decided to start running. You might compare this to the moment you decided you wanted to become a filmmaker. Did you immediately invest in costly equipment, create a $100k budget, and start shooting? No. You started training. Perhaps you took some classes, worked on other people’s projects, borrowed equipment, or made some no-budget shorts starring your friends, girlfriend, boyfriend, unlucky pet, little brother, or neighbor who stopped by for a cup of flour. Hopefully you also worked on your storytelling. You honed your skills (basically) for free. Then, after you’d developed your confidence and competence (built up your endurance and muscles, so to speak) you decided you were ready to take the plunge: it was time for you to make a short or feature on a real budget.

This is where crowdfunding comes in, right? For most of us, finding investors for thousands of dollars seems hard, scary, or damn near impossible; asking your friends / fans / followers for $25 – $100 each = a little bit easier. Plus, this type of ‘ask’ isn’t generally face-to-face, which is helpful for us shy ‘behind the scenes’ types. But can you go from couch (no Twitter game) to the starting line (first day of your crowdfunding campaign) without putting in the training? My answer: no way.

Baby Steps
Jess and I had been playing on Twitter for about 9 months before we started the crowdfunding campaign for TILT. No, we didn’t start doing Twitter with a specific project or crowdfunding effort in mind, but we definitely hoped to learn something and make connections. We watched how good tweeters were tweeting, developed our own voice, engaged people in the indie filmmaking world we admired, kept an eye on how early crowdfunders managed their workload, spent A LOT of time talking and sharing ideas, and, most importantly, played back and forth with people.

It’s the ‘back and forth’ that’s the key. We never blasted people with our projects, blog posts, film fest updates, or latest Mixin Vixens episodes. We didn’t just jump around like fools and demand people’s attention (although there was a certain amount of that): we also gave people our attention. We read their blog posts and commented, watched their trailers, inquired about future projects, participated in chats, learned people’s real names, and got to know people in the real world when the opportunity struck.

Testing Your Mettle

Why was our TILT campaign successful? Partly because we had a good reputation, partly because we described our project goals well, and partly because we were playful (i.e. we were ourselves.) Jessica and I came up with a unique way to engage and involve our contributors during and after the crowdfunding campaign, our virtual GoogleMaps-based backer community TILTtheTown, which gave our supporters a new way to play with us and each other while spreading the word about our project. Just like with any relationship, you have to keep it fresh, right?

Now I’m going to say some things that you might not agree with:

  1. I think someone who has gathered a ton of good will via social media can run a sufficient (if ho-hum) crowdfunding campaign and still meet their goal. The thing is…someone who’s put in the social media effort ahead of their campaign is very likely NOT to slack on the actual campaign, because they understand the importance and value of what they’ve built.
  2. On the flipside, I also think someone can design an amazing project and related crowdfunding campaign but NOT meet their goal, because they didn’t take the time to connect with peers and potential fans via social media before starting their campaign. It’s heartbreaking every time, but it’s part of the learning curve. What’s best about this situation is when someone learns, refines, tries again, and succeeds.

Why are these things are true? For the same reason that you can’t just roll off your couch with Dorito dust on your chin and stroll up to the starting gate for the Chicago Marathon: you must put in the work before you run the marathon. For me, this means you have to develop your social media street cred before you do the Big Ask.

What’s Next?
In future posts, I’ll discuss: exceptions to everything I just said above (you knew that was coming, right?), along with developing your social media skills; things Jess and I (usually I) have totally screwed up along the way (and how we fixed them); reaching out to potential crowdfunding contributors who don’t use social media (hi, Dad!); using social media tools in different ways for different projects; and how to use Twitter to trick other people into giving you a column in Script Magazine (oh, hi, Jeanne!)

Be good. Play nice. Happy commenting!

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18 thoughts on “Taking the Reins: Warming Up the Crowd

  1. kingisafinkkingisafink Post author

    Aw, thanks, Dylan! We totally agree that writers should give production a shot, even if it’s not what they want to do in the long run. It’ll make them better writers! And it’s a rush to see people actually saying and acting out the words they’ve toiled over for so long…

  2. quicksilverwest

    Congratulations Julie! Always a kindred spirit, coming from production for features and independents I abso agree with Zak it’s people first, then things (them money too when you’re not looking!). I have read you and watched you and King Is a Fink grow and this is the simply next achievement in what I know is a great spiral upward in the beautifully obsessive and meme-ish world that’s film. Congratulations to Jeanne for making the snag on you ( smart girl ). It’s what you know and “how” you grow with it that is always movie-making and I cannot wait to see what you do. To everyone reading, if you can produce your own work, do it. There’s everything to win. Go Julie, Get It! – Dylan

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  4. kingisafinkkingisafink Post author

    Wow, thanks so much for the support, you guys.

    Diane – Much more on the way. Thanks for stopping in!

    Marty – I know you know your way around a crowdfunding campaign, and I’m so happy that I finally got to meet you in person at Sundance this year. You are proof that great people on Twitter are great people in real life.

    Chris – You had me at ‘hello’. Also, get back to work on our new doc. ;)

    Simon – There certainly seems to be a bit of passing back and forth the same $25 contribution amongst the indie filmmaker community, very sportsmanlike behavior, but we’d never get our films funded if this was all that happened. We have a lot to learn about how to run crowdfunding campaigns from the people who contribute to them without expecting anything back. What brings people to campaigns? What makes them contribute? What makes them pass? These are VERY important things to consider, and we’ll be exploring this in future posts.

    Zak – I *might* copy and past your comment in its entirely into my next post. ;) Yes, there are some folks hoping to capitalize on those looking for golden answers and quick fixes, but if people didn’t buy their books or go to their seminars, they couldn’t get away with it. Everything Jess and I have learned, we’ve learned by trying and screwing up and trying again, getting better (we hope) each time. In fact, I’m getting ready to screw up something right now…

    Kim, Rebecca, Joe – Come over here, and give me a hug!

  5. Marty LangMarty Lang

    Truer advice never given: “you have to develop your social media street cred before you do the Big Ask.” So many people think the whole crowdfunding process is simply putting up a campaign and letting the money roll in, but there’s so much groundwork you have to lay before getting that reward. Also, I like how you mentioned you met people in real life when the opportunity presented itself; that’s such an undervalued part of crowdfunding. A face to face connection can do so much. Great work, Julie! Can’t wait to read future columns. :)

  6. Christopher E. Grimes

    Julie Keck of King is a Fink Productions is simply not capable of Bull Sh&ting people…which is why it is so fantastic that she is writing this column. I won’t lie, I have had the pleasure of knowing her for a while and she ran a very successful KS campaign for our documentary “A Second Knock at the Door” in which she also served as an Associate Producer.

    I won’t repeat everything that Zak Forsman said because I agree with all of it. Be careful out there. A lot of people will tell you what you want to hear for a price…but good resources are out there for free.

    Julie’s column is a great start. She has a passion for crowd-funding films without the cynicism that has seemed to crop up in the last year. She views it as not the only road to funding a film but one important tool that begins months before the campaign begins. I recognize that come here as a biased observer, but if you are crowd-funding any time soon I would recommend you check this column out…plus it is free.

  7. Simon Van Der Spoel

    Love the KFink crew! Wise words girls, and since I’ve not actually run my own campaign, but contributed to a few, it’s something I will take to heart. I remember an early blog post by you two about how you contributed to select campaigns in the mild hope that that kindness would be returned and spruiked by the other film maker when the time came for your campaign. I think it’s that community spirit and backing that we all hope for, but is carried by the kind of people you are. Genuine. You two and JVB, are truly genuine. And that’s backable. :)

  8. Zak Forsman

    I think the part of this article that really struck a chord with me was this notion of people positioning themselves as experts in a field where they’ve had one or two instances of moderate success. I’m always willing to share freely what I’ve learned but even now, six months later, I preface it by saying “things have changed since I ran my campaign”. But more to the point, I hold a VERY healthy disrespect for anyone who tries to take advantage of filmmakers’ hopes and dreams to bolster their own career as an “expert”.

    Recently, I came across a film screening series that holds workshops on how to make a short for no money. Taught by a person who has made a single short film, for no money, and who now charges fellow filmmakers hundreds of dollars to attend a workshop to gain insights into how to do what he did – which if you follow the track record of the movie, is essentially nothing. This is a particular breed of scumbag that deserves our scrutiny.

    When it comes to these faux experts and consultants (aka parasites), trying to siphon money off a class of artists who historically have none, I have little patience. And I’d encourage my friends to be mindful that a few insights doled out via social media each day do not constitute a real track record or experience. Look for the results. If there are none then what they posit is unproven and not worthy of the hit to your credit card. I’m going to reach back a few decades to a word I haven’t had the opportunity to use in a long time: they’re what we used to call out as ‘posers’. And they’re not helping. They’re a distraction.

    So rounding back to this article… thank you Julie and Jessica for sharing all that you’ve learned. The anecdotes and lessons come from a real place and we’re all hugely appreciative that you take the time to contribute something of substance to our community. You lead by example and give freely. And do it all with a special brand of wit that makes the rest of us envious. Looking forward to seeing more from you…

  9. Kim Garland

    I’m shooting for my first crowd-funding campaign this year and the timing for this column is super appreciated. I can’t wait for more of them and to learn from your experiences. I’ve also decided to go for the take-my-writing-career-by-the-reigns approach and produce my own work. Best decision I ever made!

    PS I love me some Kfink!

  10. R_Slaughter

    Nicely done Julie. Your advice is sound for any fundraising campaign or friend-raising campaign and I hope people take it to heart. Keep up the good work!

  11. kingisafinkkingisafink Post author

    Jeanne, your Kickstarter campaign is going to rock. Can’t wait to see how you raise the bar.

    Zak, thanks for the support. Just trying to impress you, yo.

    Jeff, thanks! Good luck as you plan for your campaign. It’s a lot of hard work, but I’ll share as much as I can to help you feel as prepared as possible. If you have any specific questions, share in the comments, and I’ll try to address sooner than later!

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