28 September 2010

When backers revolt

Today was a rather, uh, interesting day in the indie film world.

OpenIndie, one of the very first success stories of crowdfunding when they raised $12k almost a year ago(!), came under pretty heavy fire when they announced that they would be converting to an Open Source model.

It's a pretty complicated thing and I don't thing anyone totally has a grasp on what the hell happened, but we do know this:

1. They raised about $12k. The site opened, but it's still in Beta. The front page still says they're closed.

2. Arin Crumley gave a speech at DIY Days that wowed some, but rubbed others the wrong way. (Full disclosure: I found it to be a pretty bad omen that a website with a goal of helping content creators would use piracy to make their point.)

3. Nothing happened. Pretty much radio silence for a couple of months.

4. Then, the open source thing. I can think of 3 different people today alone who have called this "a crowdfunding cautionary tale".

The reasoning for the big gaps in information? "It can be extremely hard balancing a passion project such as this with paying the bills and making films."

If you're reading this blog, you already know what I'm about to say. That's a really fucking terrible excuse. You're just asking for trouble.

Beyond that, I'm not going to pretend to know who's right. Really, it doesn't matter. Backers are angry. They feel duped. Whether or not they're right is pretty irrelevant. It's turned into something of a PR nightmare for Arin and Kieran. These things happen.

More importantly, what does this tell us about the backer/creator relationship? I think, maybe, a couple of things.

Communicate

I've said it before, and I'll say it again: none of these people have to give you any money. No one owes you this. So you have to fall all over yourself to be thankful. But, beyond that, you need to keep people in the loop. Share the triumphs and struggles of the project with them. Keep them informed as often as possible.

Really, they're partners in the project with them, so you probably don't need to be emailing them every day like you are the people who are working with you on the project directly, but you need to give them updates. Act as if they collective group is your Executive Producer. Would you leave them in the dark for 3 months? Of course not.

It's kind of basic stuff. If you aren't branding yourself, someone else will do it for you. In this case, it's your audience branding you as absentee. And that's when minds start to wander.

Be Specific

Part of OpenIndie's problem was their goal was kind of nebulous. There was going to be a webpage and some other stuff and there was something about screenings, but little of that was super concrete. So there's more wiggle room on what constitutes a met goal.

That can be good, except a lot of people maybe read into the campaign more than the creators intended. Do you see how this is also a communication problem?

Is failure an option?

That's one thing I've been wondering ever since I met my Kickstarter goal: what happens if I fail? There's millions of ways a film project can fall apart, despite everyone's best intentions. That any of them get made at all is a miracle. And when there's not a lot of money involved? Even more so.

One thing that terrified me about the Up Country campaign was the potential fallout from failure. I'd lose all the goodwill I've built up in the film community. I had all these nightmares about how upset everyone would be. I don't even know some of these people!

The terror kept me going. The project almost fell apart several times, but I just couldn't let it go. That's probably a hidden advantage to these campaigns: you can't give up.

But, in light of today, I'm wondering if you can fail. What happens? Are you stoned in the public square? Are you never allowed to make a film again? Do people make nasty comments about you on Twitter? I don't know, but I think what I do know is that the severity of your punishment depends on how you campaign and how you communicate with your backers.

If you all of a sudden one day tell them that you've decided not to make a feature, but will use their money to make a trailer instead, in order to raise money for a feature, that's not going to go over too well. However, if you keep your audience informed and they watch you fail...it's probably going to work out a lot better for you in the long run.

Earlier today, the always-compelling Sheri Candler posed this question to me on Twitter (@shericandler):

do donors want to fund your story or you as a director? Does the success of the film matter foremost? do they only want perks?

I think the answer is "yes". A good campaign is going to attract all of the above. It's your job to keep all of those factions happy, as best you can. So make sure you actually mail out all the perks (and let people know when they'll be coming). Give progress updates at regular interval. Don't give anyone a chance to think you've taken their money to Vegas (unless, of course, that was part of the campaign). And if you're making a film, make the best motherfucking film you can make.

At minimum, you owe them that.

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