Anatomy Of A Successfully Crowdfunded Documentary Film’s Kickstarter Campaign

This in-depth article is a post-mortem of 2015’s successful Kickstarter campaign for the A Tale Of Two Rivers film project.

I’ll be looking at every element of the campaign – financial details included – and sharing some of the insights we learned along the way about running successful crowdfunding campaigns.

The campaign aimed to raise post-production funds for two feature-length adventure films, of which the first, Karun: Misadventures On Iran’s Longest River, is released on Monday 16th November 2015.

The Target

My colleague Leon and I discussed our financial target at length before committing to it. For both of us, having assessed our audience size and done some back-of-an-envelope maths, our gut feeling was that a figure of around £25,000 would be challenging but probably achievable.

If each backer put in an average of £40, we’d need 625 people on board. That’s about double the number of people who backed my previous campaign. My mailing list and social media reach had doubled since then, and we had Leon’s to factor in too.

But there would be plenty of crossover. We also felt that we had a more difficult project to pitch than Janapar, which had had years to accumulate a long back-story and an eager audience, and besides had much more universal appeal (everyone likes a love story!).

Finally, we’d need to offer rewards that would attract a higher pledge amount than just a single DVD or digital file and bring the average pledge up.

However! Drawing up a full budget for every industry-standard process a film goes through (offline edit, compose, voiceover, graphical effects, sound edit, mix, grade, online edit, delivery), and then adding in a budget for associated costs and reward delivery (equipment hire, software licenses, hard drives, travel, living expenses, courier costs, DVD authoring and replication, postcard printing, postage and packing, etc) spat out a figure of more like £40,000.

Oh dear.

£40,000 would be a pathetic budget for even a single one-hour TV production. This was for two films.

We desperately needed to cut the budget down to something achievable. Better to make the films on a shoestring than fail to meet the target and have no films at all!

To that end, we cut out all but the most meagre contributions to our own living costs, dropped various later elements of post-production, and concentrated on the film editing and the reward delivery – the meat and potatoes of the project. Bespoke music, professional grading and sound editing, motion graphics, and a living wage could wait – and in the meantime we would look for alternative sources of finance for these elements of the project.

By revising the budget thus, cutting some very generous deals with editors, and offering to pay portions of certain peoples’ fees later on out of any future revenue from the films, we managed to get the figure down to £23,500 – still a ludicrous amount of money compared to the figures that we as skinflint adventurers were used to working with, but something we figured might just be achievable.

The Approach

Leon and I both believe in the power of good, honest storytelling. It’s why we make factual films in the first place, and it’s particularly true for these two films, both of which have much bigger messages than the journeys themselves would suggest.

We had a tricky project to articulate here, however, because by having to explain upfront that there were two films to be made concurrently, we would diminish the power of the stories themselves.

It would have been much more practical to make the two films separately and run a single campaign for each. Personal reasons played a large part in the decision to combine them – we both needed to get the two films made by the summer, and we were both acutely aware of the timeliness of the stories. As well as that, we both had plans for what would come next, and so the need to actually finish something we’d started was high on the priority list!

We finally decided to highlight the films’ transcending of simple adventure and having present-day social relevance beyond the journeys they were based on – something that was true for both films. This has become even more true in the short time since the campaign was conceived: Iran now looks posed to make a return to the world stage, and our intel suggests that the Santa Cruz dam construction teams are already moving in, despite a Supreme Court hearing in Buenos Aires having supposedly stalled the project.

This approach would be a turn-off for people who were only interested in one of the two films and didn’t want to wade through the campaign to figure out how to get it, and also for those who just wanted vicarious armchair adventure and weren’t interested in anything ‘important’.

We also ran the risk of coming across as a bit too worthy, picturing cynics scoffing in front of their laptops as we tried to make out that our holiday videos were somehow going to change the world.

But we eventually realised the only authentic way to pitch this campaign would be to stick to our true values, stand up for our ambitions, and then see whether or not the world outside would take any notice. (And you did. Phew!)

The Plan

Successfully reaching our goal would depend on us going beyond our existing audiences. We planned in advance for this, identifying aspects of the two films that would connect with other niches and then looking for connections to influential publishers in that field.

Some examples of this included:

(We also pitched the environmental story from Patagonia to various UK media outlets, none of whom have yet reported on it, but without success – a shame, given the magnitude of the project.)

The aim of this was not necessarily to generate donations but to build a wider awareness of the ongoing story of campaign – at the end of which a magic thing called ‘urgency’ would kick in (i.e. “oh bugger, we’re about to run out of time and we’re still nearly £10,000 short!”) and we could justify drawing attention to that fact.

There are two important things to mention here:

  1. Our top priority was writing stuff that these new readers, many of who wouldn’t have come across us before, would actually find useful and entertaining and relevant, regardless of whether they became backers. Incidentally, this helps explain why writing to bloggers or websites or newspapers and saying “hey, can you promote my thing please?” does not work. Audiences form when there’s something worth looking at, and an endless stream of advertisements is simply damaging to a publisher worth his or her salt.
  2. Most of these publishing opportunities came through existing personal connections that Leon and I had made by being active participants in the worlds of outdoor adventure, travel, writing, filmmaking and ‘unconventional living’, to which we are constantly contributing anyway. People who already understand where you’re coming from are a lot more likely to help you get where you’re trying to go.

The success of strategies like this is, of course, very difficult to measure. Given more resources, more time, and someone who actually knew what they were doing, we might have co-ordinated all of this much further in advance, and reached more people as a result. But as we all know, the perfect circumstances do not exist!

One last-minute addition proved pivotal.

Last year we’d spent a month making a 15-minute version of Karun, one of the films we hoped to make a full-length version of. Having already premiered it at the Adventure Film Festival Gala in January, and on the tour that followed, we realised there was nothing stopping us publishing it online for free.

This would both give us the chance to show the side of Iran we’d always wanted to bring to light and draw attention to the Kickstarter campaign at the same time.

It worked far, far better than we could have anticipated, with nearly 2,000 people signing up to watch the free short film – people who we could then follow up with by email when the Kickstarter campaign was launched. An alternative option to access the film – to ‘pay with a Tweet’ or Facebook post – helped increase the exposure of the film on social media. We also received no end of positive feedback on the short film itself, which was encouraging in many ways.

The Campaign

For the majority of the campaign we were expecting to fail. The first day was disappointing, both in terms of pledges and publicity, and the days that followed were no different. Most successful campaigns follow a predictable pattern of a surge at the beginning, a slump in the middle, and another big spike at the end. Ours began with a trickle and slowly began to level out. The projections did not look good.

Not only that, but our peers also seemed divided in their faith in us. We did receive a huge amount of very gratefully-received help, both solicited and unsolicited, yet we also received a surprising amount of criticism and even a few suggestions for how we might do it differently “when we failed to reach our target”. In the words of one commenter (posted well before the deadline), “why did you think you could raise so much money in such a short amount of time?”

Indeed, what had we done wrong? In retrospect, the answer to this question could easily come in the form of a list.

  • We had spent almost no time building anticipation, having only decided to run a Kickstarter campaign about 3 weeks before we launched it.
  • We had achieved only a partial publicity plan, which was haphazard rather than timed to correspond with the campaign’s launch.
  • We’d set the duration at 2 weeks in an attempt to avoid the mid-campaign slump, but only succeeded in lowering the chances we’d make the target in time.
  • And we felt that we’d fundamentally missed the mark with the angle we’d taken in the campaign video and in the text that accompanied it, in which we seemed to spend more time explaining why there were two completely different films combined into one project than building a compelling case for either individual film to be made.

The first 11 days of the 14-day campaign, then, were underwritten with a kind of stress and anxiety I hope never to feel again. It is difficult to carry on when your gut is telling you that every step you take is merely bringing you closer to failure. Despite this, we plodded steadfastly on with our plans. And we gradually began to see results.

Many campaigners mistakenly think that success during the campaign itself comes down to how persistently you can beg for money. But rather than simply bombarding a combined ~12,000 Twitter followers and ~11,000 newsletter subscribers with repeated pleas for donations, we instead published a series of articles and stories that would stand alone as being worth reading, and draw attention to them instead. Each such piece would link appropriately and naturally to the campaign.

My own blog audience (hi!) is used to regular and rambling doses of my innermost thoughts (thanks for being patient with this, guys). So my articles touched on why I’d waited 4 years since making my last film, why I’d chosen to combine cycling with new modes of transport, how Kickstarter seemed to have changed since I’d last run a campaign, and how adventuring had prompted me to make films about the social and cultural aspects of journeys rather than the usual heroics of adventure itself, as well as Q&A pieces derived from questions I’d received.

Alongside this, Leon published pieces on making journeys more meaningful via your chosen mode of transport, a piece explaining the microadventure filmmaking weekends we were offering in more detail, two photo essays from the Rio Santa Cruz expedition, and a massive article on filmmaking equipment for DIY adventure films.

In terms of social media, I continued publishing on Instagram the series of photos from Iran that I’d begun publishing late last year, with a note on the existence of the campaign attached to each.

As well as that, we both spent way too much time on Facebook and Twitter, responding to questions, thanking the great many friends and acquaintances who helped our efforts by spreading the word, and generally trying to engage with the slowly-building buzz around the campaign.

We both put together a short series of email updates for each of our mailing lists, firstly announcing the project, and then drawing attention to the content we were publishing about it, and finally drawing attention to the impending deadline in the least irritating way we could manage (given that such emails are always irritating).

We really didn’t want to force anyone to support us; rather, we wanted to educate people over time as to what it was we were trying to achieve, present pledging as an option, then point out the time-sensitive nature of things at an appropriate moment – at which point those following the campaign could either take it or leave it.

While all this was happening, the total slowly meandered upwards, which was at least some reassurance that we hadn’t got it totally wrong. A few big pledges for the higher-level rewards really helped things here; these came mainly out of making direct contact with specific individuals, which really was time well spent.

But with 3 days left on the clock, we were still only 67% funded, needing nearly £10,000 in additional pledges over the Easter weekend to fulfil our already stripped-down budget for the films.

The last weekend would be critical.

And I would be spending it at a wedding in Shropshire, where they hadn’t yet discovered the Internet.

The Result

It is difficult to explain what happened next. Well – I can describe it, but that isn’t the same as explaining it:

  • On Easter Saturday the total jumped from 67% to 78% while I was dancing badly in a barn.
  • On Easter Sunday the total jumped from 78% to 88% while I was nursing a hangover.
  • On Easter Monday, the last day, all hell broke loose on the internet while I was sitting with my laptop on a doorstep in Somerset, alternating between catching up with friends I hadn’t seen for months and watching the total go from 88% towards 100% in just a couple of hours.

Our backers broke the target just after 1pm – to which my emotional response was a massive sigh of relief and a lot of unexpected giggling, as if I’d spent the previous two weeks in some kind of surreal and enclosing maze and had finally managed to escape. I don’t think my friends quite realised what had just happened (then again, it was just a thought in my head and some numbers on a screen – it’s good to keep these things in context).

By the time the campaign ended at midnight, the total stood at 112%, with just under £6,000 pledged on the last day of the campaign. And I went to bed feeling only gratitude towards the 662 people who had made it possible for us to sit down and get these films made. (I say ‘bed’, it was actually a Therm-a-Rest on Leon’s living room floor. Oh, the glamour.)

How much did the fact that it was a public holiday (an accidental side effect of pushing the campaign back a week) have to do with people’s ability to engage? How much did the complex nature of the project cause people to ruminate over their decision to back us until later on? We’ll never know.

What does seem apparent is that we had, by the final day, reached a kind of tipping point at which everyone who had been sitting on the fence realised that this thing was actually going to happen, and that time was running out to get involved. Leon and I both sent out a final email newsletter and put a tenner each into ‘boosting’ a Facebook update to make sure everyone got reminded of what was happening. But really we’d done all we could by this point; all we could do was sit back and watch.

The campaign played out in a way that broke many of the usual patterns of a crowdfunding campaign. Thank goodness this was the case! Despite the fears of a lot of people (ourselves included) that we were going to fail, we made the target with a good chunk of cash to put towards future finishing costs.

It is an unbelievable privilege to know that we will be able to spend the spring concentrating exclusively on delivering the best films we can possibly make, safe in the knowledge that the financial aspect of the project is secure. From here on, it’s all about creativity, experimentation, reliving and recreating these two unforgettable journeys, and seeing the films through to completion.

Crowdfunding Tools

We used the following tools to make this campaign happen:

  • Google Calendar for shared scheduling
  • Google Drive for collaborating on copy, budgets and contact sheets
  • FreedCamp for shared online project management
  • Adobe Premiere Pro CC for editing the campaign video
  • WordPress for managing a variety of websites, including karunfilm.com
  • Weebly for quickly creating some more websites, including riosantacruzfilm.com
  • Mailchimp for taking email signups, automating followups and delivering newsletters
  • Tweetdeck for keeping track of Twitter activity
  • Buffer for scheduling Tweets while dancing badly at weddings
  • FocusWriter and SelfControl for creating undisturbed writing time

Check out the original campaign on the Kickstarter page. The first of the two finished films, Karun: Misadventures On Iran’s Longest River, is out on Monday 16th November 2015.