Crowdfunding For Filmmakers: How To Create Irresistible Incentives

December 1, 2016

Crowdfunding incentives (perks/rewards) are the muscle and might behind an indie film campaign. Lately, however, I see filmmakers getting less and less creative and innovative with them, so I’m sharing Chapter Fourteen of Crowdfunding for Filmmakers – 2nd Edition exclusively with Filmmaking Stuff so you’ll know that there is more than one way to incentivize your audience to become backers.

 

Incentives: Make Them About Your Film  and Its Contributors

The real muscles behind crowdfunding are the incentives and the fundamental concept that if you give me money, you get something in return. And while there’s nothing wrong with offering what I call standard definition incentives, which are the more typical merchandise like T-shirts, digital downloads, DVD and Blu-ray copies of the finished film, signed posters, PDF scripts, and associate and executive producer credit in your film, it’s much better to think outside the money box and get Hi-Def(experiential) and 3-D! (personal) with your incentives. Examples of each include experiences like advance tickets to red-carpet screenings and customized voice-mail greetings recorded by one of the actors in your film.

 

Let’s have a look at these three types of crowdfunding incentives in more detail.

 

Standard Definition (Mandatory) Incentives

Standard definition incentives are exactly what it says — standard. I also call these “mandatory merch” because they are the kinds of items your audience will most likely expect to receive. If they’re funding a film campaign, they expect a copy of the film they’re funding. Things like signed scripts and posters, mugs, T-shirts, and any other merchandise you can emblazon with your film’s title and sell are all standard. If you think your audience will want them, offer them.

The most important thing here is to price these items accordingly, keeping in mind the phrase “more value for less money.” There’s a perceived value to each of these items; as I mentioned earlier, a DVD isn’t worth a $50 bill, but one signed by the director and the cast now has added value. A digital download is not worth $25 (at the time of this writing, the iTunes standard price for a Hollywood movie was $14.99), but a live stream of the film a week before its official release? That’s certainly worth $25, because it gives early access to your contributors for opting in long before the film’s finished.

 

Crowdfunding For Filmmakers: How To Create Irresistible Incentives

Now, if you can get away with keeping your standard definition perks digital only, you’ll find yourself in a much better place when fulfillment time comes around, when you need to deliver on all the perks you promised. I learned the hard way how expensive a run of 100 T-shirts can be, which is why you’ll see most T-shirts on crowdfunding sites going for $65 and up. But if you don’t sell a certain number of those shirts, you ultimately will lose some funding that could be going to your film because you’ll still need to fulfill T-shirts or mugs at 500 units or 5 units.

Hi-Def (Experiential) Incentives

 

High definition (Hi-Def/HD or experiential) incentives go the extra mile for your potential contributors. They give them access to experiences they otherwise would not be given if it weren’t for this crowdfunding campaign for your film. Again, these are things like advance screenings of your film, visits to the set, and even getting killed on screen by a Tyrannosaurus Rex. (Yes, that last one is a real perk — just ask the filmmakers behind the campaign for Iron Sky: The Coming Race.)

 

One of the greatest examples of Hi-Def access like no other is the Indiegogo for Life Itself, the documentary about the life of Roger Ebert. Through strategic partnerships with VHX, a premiere online distribution platform, and the Sundance Film Festival, where the film had its world premiere, the filmmakers were able to offer their Indiegogo backers the chance to screen the film at home while the film premiered in Park City, Utah — something that had never been done before. And how much did the campaign owners behind Life Itself’s campaign charge for this privilege, you ask? Only $25 got you a code to stream the film live from Sundance, so it’s no wonder they sold 474 of the “Pre-Theatrical Stream” perks alone.

 

One thing you want to do is keep up-to-date with the changing trends and technologies of the time, especially as it pertains to crowdfunding and filmmaking. For instance, once upon a time a Skype conversation with the film’s director was a high-value Hi-Def perk. But Skype, and even Google Hangouts to an extent, are not as cutting edge as they used to be and are quickly being replaced by broadcast platforms like Periscope, Meerkat, and even Hang w/, which Alan Tudyk and Nathan Fillion used exclusively to connect with their fans and backers during their Indiegogo for their geek-centric web series Con Man. You would want to offer up those in place of the more old-school methods of live streaming that are not as relevant today as they were yesterday.

3-D! (Personalized) Incentives

 

I’ve only ever seen three movies in 3-D –– one good, and one not so good, and one whose 3-D effects didn’t add much to the movie. The good one was James Cameron’s Avatar. I was completely immersed in every facet of the film. Most recently I saw Star Wars: The Force Awakens in IMAX 3-D, then I saw it in 2-D. The third dimension didn’t help make Episode VII any better than it naturally is.  The not-so-good one I watched was 2011’s Green Lantern movie starring Ryan Reynolds, and that’s probably all I need to say about that.

The difference is that with Avatar, I was pulled into a story so strange and magnificent that I couldn’t help but marvel at all the fantastical elements of Pandora bursting with life all around me. The way a good 3-D movie brings you into the world of the film, so does a good 3-D! crowdfunding incentive pull you deeper into the world of the movie you’re seeking funding for.

A timeless example of a 3-D! incentive is Cerise’s acrostic poem perk, which isn’t even listed on the campaign. Originally, I only offered a social media shout-out at the $10 level. When I saw it wasn’t selling well, Marinell suggested I write each backer a poem at the $10 level and up, since I’m a poet and Cerise is a film about words.

 

After a little protest — I was worried I’d have to write fifty poems — I decided to write each of my backers a poem using the most important word they’ll ever have: their own names. This forged an instant connection to Cerise and to myself. And for the record, I ended writing over 100 of these personalized poems, and it was worth every line.

Years later, I still see some contributors, now friends of mine, using the poems I wrote for them as their profile pictures all across social media, since Marinell formatted each one in Photoshop so that we could then post them on every backer’s Facebook wall individually.

 

Another Indiegogo that offered a similar 3-D! perk is the one for Twenty Million People, a feature-length film by Michael Ferrell, Devin Sanchez, and Chris Pine. At the $25 contribution level, Michael would write his backers a choose-your-own-adventure style romantic comedy. Twenty Million Peoplecenters on the idea that it’s difficult to find that special someone in the midst of a city twenty million people strong. Michael, the film’s writer and director, would draft up a first act in second-person narration and offer you a choice at the end of it. Once you figure out how you’d like to proceed, he’d then write a second act based around that decision and give you one final choice to make that will lead to a well-deserved denouement of your making.

 

What’s also great about this particular incentive is that it fits in with the overall theme of the film. In fact, over 100 of the campaign’s 137 backers chose incentives at $25 and above. That’s over 100 rom-coms written and over 100 funders who now have a deeper connection to Michael’s film because they are part of the “twenty million people” who make up the title of the film.

 

Around Here, a science-fiction film by Tim Sparks about an Afghanistan war veteran who finds solace in an extraordinary encounter in Colorado, is another prime example of a campaign that goes the distance for its contributors. For a $20 contribution, Tim would write and record a brief ukulele song for his backers. Granted, there may be no ukulele score in Around Here when it’s done, but Tim gives us a glimpse into his world, not only as a filmmaker crowdfunding his latest movie, but also as a musician.

I’ve given you a lot of examples of 3-D! incentives because they are the most difficult ones to come up with when planning out an indie film’s crowdfunding campaign, but they are the most important kind of rewards to offer. Even I fell into the black-and-white world of mundane incentives. Many of Cerise’s perks are pretty standard definition with a few Hi-Def ones thrown in: At the $50 level, I offered a T-shirt that says “I spelt Cerise” and a signed copy of the DVD; at $100, contributors could visit the set as an associate producer (and enjoy a classic Jersey meal on me at a local diner, which is borderline personal since I offer a small bit of myself, with my being Greek and New Jersey being the diner capital of the world); and at $500, contributors not only got awarded the title of executive producer, but they also received an invitation to a private screening of Cerise in New York City.

It’s important to keep a couple of things in mind. First, the film you’re crowdfunding probably won’t be the last film you ever make, which means you’ll need funding for future projects, and crowdfunding will certainly be an option, especially in the wake of the JOBS Act and equity crowdfunding (which I talk more about in Chapter Thirty-Six). Second, you’re not only crowdfunding for funds, but you’re crowdsourcing an audience as well, and by creating a personal connection with your contributors, they will be more likely to contribute to another of your subsequent campaigns. So the question to ask yourself really isn’t how much you want to make this particular film, but how much you want to be a filmmaker.

 

Once you find out what the phrase “Go Hi-Def or go home” actually means and how time-consuming getting personal actually is, you’ll understand why a lot of campaigners choose to stick to standard definition incentives, especially in the midst of a day job, family obligations, house chores, and just having a social life. But you get out what you put in with crowdfunding an indie film, so I recommend you give more of yourself to get the most for your film.

Now, I may not believe that restored Hi-Def digital transfers make much difference in all those old films I prefer over today’s fast paced CGI spectaculars, but I definitely believe that not all of your incentives have to be 100% 3-D! If there’s just one portion of your rewards that offers contributors a bit of insight into you as a person and filmmaker, or that makes them feel more deeply connected to you and your film, then any standard definition incentive becomes all the more valuable. [More about this in the book itself!]

 

Lastly, make your incentives about your contributors. Think about the most beloved holidays in the US, like Christmas, Valentine’s Day, and Easter. As much as we’d like to think they’re all about giving, they’re really not. People like to receive things. Yes, some people do contribute without much care about what they’ll get in return, but these altruistic Bruce Wayne types come around once in a dark night. You will ultimately receive a tweet or email from a contributor asking where that T-shirt he paid for is or when she’ll get the DVD she spent $50 on. This is all fine and normal. Crowdfunding is about the crowd, after all.

*      *      *

There you have it –– my three types of crowdfunding incentives I first outlined during my TEDx talk.

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