Skip to main content

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...

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.

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!