(This is being crossposted between my weblog and my kickstarter campaign for my three documentaries currently in production.)
So, Kickstarters are now simply “part of the landscape” of filmmaking, just like it became part of the landscape of an awful lot of things out there which were previously cases of passing the hat, sinking personal cost, or otherwise having to squeeze blood out of the social network’s stone. I’ve heard countless rough plans that get a Kickstarter thrown into the mix like some sort of financial MSG that will paper over the small cracks here and there and get the intended show (or product, or event) on the road.
So, in the years hence, I’ve seen Kickstarter used for dozens of films, including a good bushel of ones that I’ve backed in some small or large way. And I have something entirely unhelpful to report:
Film Kickstarters almost always end in heartbreak.
Now, let me be clear, I don’t mean they don’t get finished. They most certainly do, to the vast majority. Before I switched over almost exclusively to the “digital download” option for kickstarters, I built up a pretty tidy set of Blu-Ray and DVD sets with the names of the documentaries I backed (I almost always back documentaries exclusively) and those things are done, done, done. And well made! Enjoyable.
But what almost always seems to happen is that down in the clutch, at that point where the films are somewhere in the twilight zone between final mixdown and the copies (digital or physical) fly out into the world, there’s a rapid breakdown of communication and happiness between the backers and the creators. Almost every time.
I don’t think I can solve this problem, per se, but I can mention it and mention what I’m doing, which is likely not going to work for anybody else in this situation.
Pulling my long-dormant mass communications degree from decades-old muck, I’ll say that films in the digital era are subject to a few properties that make them very different than, say, music albums or software programs. This especially comes into play with the concept of “release”.
It’s a given that in the digital world we live in, a thing that’s a bitstream that is somewhere in the Internet is officially all over the Internet. This is both delightful (the file can go everywhere) and to some, terrifying (the file can go everywhere). This property is out there and it is permanent – no amount of coming up with idiotic gatekeeping streams or anti-copying measures are going to stop a file in the wild from being a file in the wild everywhere. (Unless it’s boring or broken.)
With music albums, you can release what counts for “singles” now – single .mp3 files of one song on the album, maybe the one you want heavily rotated or available. You don’t have the full album out there, and you get to still choose when the whole thing goes online. (A couple album kickstarters I’ve backed have released singles before release, for example.) And with software, there’s always “demos” that you can put out, which let you play the first level or some aspect of the program without it all being out there. (Some entities can be lazy and just “tie off” the content, which means it’s trivial to unlock and get the full version, but that’s the lazy group’s fault, not the fault of the nature of what’s being done.)
But with films, you kind of have to do an all-or-nothing deal. You throw the movie out into the world, or you don’t. You can argue about the bonus features and the packaging, but the central X minutes of film are not something easily put out as a “single” or in a “demo mode”.
Oh, sure, you can have trailers, and selected scenes released, but that’s not the same as releasing the whole movie, at least to many backers. It’s out or it’s not.
Therefore, in that moment when the film is nearly done, and the backers who have so generously given money to see the film hit that point are waiting, the filmmakers find themselves seeking some level of professional distribution. And if you want old-school “waiting for this internet to go away”, you definitely are going to find a lot of that in professional distribution.
So right then, in that critical point which should be a celebration, is when there is awful heartbreak. All true examples:
- The film is shown at a premiere of a major event relevant to the next step of getting distributed. The backers, not shown the film first, are furious.
- The film is finished, but can’t be released for X amount of months while the distributors grind through their “process” which is like putting a ship in a bottle. Backers, furious.
- Components of the film or the things that were previously available to see are taken down so the distributors can have all the control of how the film will be promoted. Backers. Furious.
- Digital copies are available before physical copies, which are often backed at a higher rate. The backers who did physical copies are completely furious that the “deluxe” edition didn’t arrive before the casuals could watch it in digital form.
And so on, through many iterations and variations.
The thing is, I think the patient may be terminal – I think in that period between “oh man, we have a movie” and the movie hits hands, there’s so much going on in the way of ensuring the content is paid for, not duplicated, not out of the control of the people who want to get recompense for the finished effort. But at the same time, the number of folks who are expecting it at the first few seconds of availability can be significant and large.
I’ve seriously watched this so many times, it’s almost become an expected milestone for me when these projects wind down into “finished”. But for the backers who are only backing that particular film, it can seem a horrible shock that the film got shown at Maybe-Get-Your-Film-Sold Fest instead of online-debuted to the backers only. Or the aforementioned physical-comes-after-online orders. Or any of the other pitfalls.
There’s several solutions. They’re all pretty crazy. I’m trying one myself.
As each of the documentaries I’m working on are finished, I’m releasing them online as pretty much fast as possible. I’ll make sure the backers have access to everything. I’m not going to play games with holding stuff back.
The physical, deluxe editions will have components of the physical products that will make them interesting and enjoyable on their own, but not controlled by being able to see or not see the movies and the content. I am working on them as separate, involved endeavors.
But I’m nuts. I don’t like the whole “sign your work away to a distributor” thing, and my particular project is so over-time that I feel very beholden to getting it into hands the second it’s out there. It’s also my 4th (through 6th) rodeo; I’m happy to change things up.
But my contention stands: Films are difficult things to not get through a kickstarter without broken hearts. I don’t know how to walk it back, and I don’t know what people can do, other than be super educating at the start of a campaign so backers (and creators) are not heartbroken at the end.