For five years, Erin Gleeson and Benjamin O'Brien have been producing a surreal children's show, Showbeast, and posting episodes online. Billed as "a show to feel weird about," their Web series makes Pee-Wee's Playhouse seem straight-laced thanks to its peculiar puppets, plotlines involving mustache removal or Magic 8 Ball fortune-telling, dreamlike digital animation, and wacky cameos by the likes of Dan Deacon. It isn't the sort of project a network gets behind or a foundation funds.
In fact, its creators work day jobs to support themselves and cover the cost of the equipment and the many costumes, sets, and puppets needed for the show. Like many artists, they also had to confront the fact that they were essentially giving away their work. "We want Showbeast to be our job," says Gleeson. "It's great that you can have an audience, that people from all over can see our videos and comment on them—that's fantastic. But in terms of making a living, it's really hard."
For years, Gleeson saw little opportunity to expand Showbeast into the long-form, sitcom-style production she had always envisioned. But that changed after fellow Showbeast collaborator Stefani Levin helped raise $5,000 for an experimental theater production with Kickstarter, an online fundraising platform. Inspired, Gleeson launched her own Kickstarter campaign to fund a 30-minute pilot episode of Showbeast.
Thanks to 65 backers contributing between $5 and $100, Gleeson and crew raised the needed money ($2,200) in a month's time. Gleeson found soliciting donations via the Internet to be a more "gentle" process than approaching funders with hat in hand. Kickstarter, she says, allowed her group to be "persistent, but not annoying."
The Internet has long been heralded as a game-changing force for the arts industry, but, for many creative types, it's been mostly responsible for the proliferation of piracy, illegal downloading, and wreaking havoc on established business models. Still, the feeling that its egalitarian nature could produce unique opportunities for emerging artists has persisted, and now, Kickstarter has begun to fulfill that promise. A high-tech take on arts patronage, Kickstarter is being used by Baltimore artists to bankroll a diverse array of projects that might not otherwise get funding—from a documentary film about urban dirt-bike riders to Showbeast.
Buck Jabaily, director of the Greater Baltimore Cultural Alliance, has watched Kickstarter work its way into the local arts scene, and he's even contributed money to a few projects himself. He's observed that it has been most popular among groups with no fundraising experience.
"It's a standard grassroots movement," says Jabaily. "When you begin a nonprofit project, you write letters to everyone you know. But artists can be reluctant to ask each other for money. This is a different system, a really effective avenue for emerging artists to raise money on their terms."
Here's how it works: first, artists apply to have a project featured on the Kickstarter website, declaring a specific amount of money they would like to raise and explaining precisely how it would be spent. If the Manhattan-based Kickstarter's staff approves the pitch, the artist creates a project page, which outlines the idea and offers a list of suggested donations with different enticements attached to each.
In many cases, this starts with modest donors receiving a copy of the final product (maybe a DVD, CD, or gadget) and more substantial donors getting their name in the credits or even their initials tattooed on the artist's body. Local filmmaker Matt Porterfield recently raised over $40,000 for his next movie, and four backers paid $1,000 for the tattooed initials.
And time is of the essence, because every Kickstarter campaign sets a specific deadline up to 60 days from the launch, and the money is collected only if the fundraising goal is met within that time frame. Kickstarter charges a nominal fee, as does Amazon Payments, the company that collects the funds. In the last two years, this new patronage model has raised more than $40 million [ed. note: as of 1/14/12, the figure has increased to more than $130 million] dollars nationwide.
Lotfy Nathan, a MICA graduate and aspiring filmmaker, first heard about the site early last summer, while working on Twelve O'Clock in Baltimore, a documentary about inner-city dirt-bike riders.
"In the span of a couple weeks, I heard good things about [Kickstarter] from friends in New York, Oakland, and Baltimore," recalls Nathan, who'd been working on his movie in fits and starts since 2008. "I was paying out of pocket for the movie, and there was virtually no money. For the most part, it's extremely hard with a first-time project to get industry people to pay into it before it's done."
It's also hard when the film explores an aspect of urban culture that isn't particularly well known and will likely appeal to a niche audience. Nathan's film features young, African-American men racing dirt bikes and four-wheelers through city streets and highlights their complex relationship with the police, who are not allowed to pursue the riders despite the fact that they are breaking the law.
Filming dirt bikers doing wheelies through busy intersections is not easy or cheap, so Nathan applied to Kickstarter and was accepted. He decided on a target of $12,000 and made his pitch to potential donors with a five-minute trailer that went through many revisions. "It was definitely a lot of work to make a good pitch," says Nathan. "I had to think a lot about the best way to package the film for people who knew nothing about it."
Nathan offered a variety of enticements to his backers, from a "Thanks!" ($5 or more) and a DVD of the finished film ($25 or more) to a DVD, film poster, and limited-edition book ($500 or more) or an associate producer credit, flight to the U.S. premiere, dinner with the director, and other goodies ($6,000 or more). He met his goal and attracted over 200 backers, including one at the $6,000 level.
Having a project accepted to Kickstarter is hardly a guaranteed payday. Less than half of the campaigns launched meet their goal by the deadline, and, at any given time, there are roughly 3,000 campaigns underway, with about 100 in Baltimore. That's why it's important for the artists themselves to become their own PR department, using Facebook, Twitter, and their personal websites to direct potential funders to their Kickstarter page.
Most of them will be forced to expand their contacts beyond family and friends. "Most of the people we know are pretty broke," Gleeson notes, "but they might want to pass on the link, and who knows how many more people would see it?"
Nathan recalls that the mother of a classmate was so excited about his documentary that she advocated vigorously for the film, on and off the Internet. In fact, Nathan says she secured some very generous donors that he otherwise wouldn't have encountered.
Such networking speaks to another positive aspect of a successful Kickstarter campaign. In Nathan's case, not only did 206 people pledge money to his project, it also received over 7,600 "likes" on Facebook— a pretty impressive feat for a debut film that's yet to be released. "What was really remarkable was the contacts afterwards," he adds, telling of an experienced audio engineer from Los Angeles who wrote to offer help on the sound for the final project, and about being invited to the Second Annual Kickstarter Film Festival, which screens clips from 16 films that utilized the site.
After the screening, a rep from the Copenhagen International Film Festival invited Nathan to show the finished documentary at next year's festival, giving him even more motivation to finish the project.
Overall, Nathan describes a feeling of gratitude and a strong desire to meet his backers' expectations after they've expressed belief in his vision. "I know I have 200-plus people definitely waiting to see it, and that's a really great incentive," he says.
The Showbeast campaign ended last September, and the pilot episode is only partly finished. Gleeson says there are still some puppets to be built and scenes to be shot.
Both groups are understandably wary of sounding even a little bit ungrateful about any aspect of their experience and tread lightly when prompted to discuss ways the experience fell short or might be improved. Nathan notes that "the Kickstarter money didn't solve everything" and says he expects to be putting up more of his own money before he's through. "It alleviated costs for a while," he says, "but as soon as we got the $12,000, we had to spend $1,000 of it on a new hard drive. Making a movie is full of things like that."
Nathan, Gleeson, and Levin would definitely use Kickstarter again—in fact, Gleeson successfully funded a radio show she's developing with a separate campaign—though they all feel it wouldn't be right to do another campaign for the same project. When asked how she sees Showbeast making money going forward, Gleeson says, "[The pilot] is a leaping off point. From here, we can hopefully raise money in other ways, selling DVDs or T-shirts."
The notion of achieving self-sufficiency seems pretty implicit in Kickstarter culture—after all, the entire concept is the venture-capital model brought to independent artists. But the fact that it's merely felt and not codified into the process qualifies as a radical departure. In fact, Kickstarter doesn't explicitly require (or even overtly encourage) a project to deliver the kind of return on investment that is usually the entire raison d'etre of venture capitalism.
And no matter how the funded project performs financially, the drama fostered by Kickstarter's most important ingredient—the almost insidiously clever deadline mechanic—creates a unique bonding experience between the artists and their audience. Kickstarter draws together people who make and enjoy art, in ways that excite both groups.
"It's almost like a social psychology experiment," says Levin. "You can have a website with a button to contribute money, but Kickstarter provides a lot of legitimacy, using a consistent format, curating who gets accepted, and really playing up the urgency—it makes it much more appealing for people to donate."