Crowdfunding case study: Sheffield Doc/Fest

Posted on January 21, 2013 by Charlie Phillips

Categories: Pop-up and Event Cinema, Training & Conferences

Following Tilly’s introduction to crowdfunding essentials last week, we invited Charlie Phillips of Sheffield Doc/Fest to share some tips from their experience with a crowdfunding campaign…

We just raised nearly $28,000 (£17,000) on IndieGoGo for our 20th anniversary festival, thanks to the generosity of 350 of our best friends, fans and supporters.  It was very hard work though, so if you’re considering crowdfunding for your festival or event too, I thought I’d spread some useful tips on what worked and what didn’t and how to make it work.

The fact we hit our target was obviously great. Though quite a typical target for a crowdfunded film, it was unchartered territory for an event, especially a UK one, to set a target like that. The motivations are very different for a contributor to a film (where it feels like the team behind it are poverty-stricken and deserving) and a festival/event (where at least we have jobs and there’s a perception from some that we’re rolling in public money) so in retrospect it was quite ambitious to go for $25k in those circumstances, but that makes it even more awesome that we managed to do it.

It was great publicity for ourselves as innovators and supporters of new ways of getting creative work made and seen – I’ve been touring the world for the last 3 years preaching the wonderfulness of crowdfunding so it was necessary and very pleasing to try it ourselves and put our necks on the line and prove that it can work. There’s an accountability and transparency inherent to crowdfunding and that tallies perfectly with our ethos as a festival which is democratic, transparent and DIY. It’s hard to prove that to people beyond mere words, but I hope we did it here, if only to a small extent.

It really proved to us how devoted our community of Doc/Fest-goers are – you need a set of obsessive people to make your campaign work and the 351 funders we got comprised lots of people who Doc/Fest had helped in the past to get deals and jobs, or who had just had a really good time here. Obviously we don’t do those things on the basis that people owe us something back, but it’s so lovely to hear from our people how much they feel we’ve enriched their lives. Forget the money, feeling that love from those people and the amazing comments they sent us, that was the most triumphant and inspiring thing.

In terms of what didn’t work, it is so much hard work. A few of us spent day after day writing and phoning people and reminding them to contribute. You need to keep plugging away at it and you need to be shameless about asking for help, and that’s hard and requires overcoming a (very English) psychological barrier of not ordinarily wanting to ask for assistance. It worked in the end, but it was impossible not to get disheartened when we were a long way off with a few days to go. With crowdfunding, the money rolls in right at the end, but it doesn’t half give you a heart attack.

Also, not all of our perks proved popular – some were replaced with others towards the end of the campaign. It’s so hard to know what motivates people – even though I’ve always preached the gospel that you offer contributors something that money can’t buy, I realised that you still don’t know for sure what individual contributors regard as being special – it’s not monetary value and it’s not necessarily a special experience (e.g. a tour of Chatsworth or a Firewalk), it proved to be the random Doc/Fest merchandise and general ephemera that they liked.

Strangely, pulling in our celebrity contacts had little effect – almost none. So tweets from Stephen Fry, Joan Rivers and Michael Moore brought in very little compared to our own tweets to people who’d been to the festival. This is not normally the case for crowdfunded films where a celebrity endorsement is golden.

If you’re a festival or cinema who wants to launch their own crowdfunding campaign, my biggest tip is simple – plan ahead! Be very clear about who you will be contacting and who will be contacting them. You need to write individual emails to a lot of people, and those need to be people who you have a long-term connection with. So in a way, you’re preparing for your campaign for years beforehand! Make lists of people to contact, from your mailing list, press, partner organisations – whoever. Make a schedule for who will write to them and when, when that person will follow up, and what you expect from the person you wrote to.

Think deeply about who you’ve helped in the past and what you can say to motivate them to respond to that feeling of gratitude in them. In particular, you can stimulate that feeling by contributing to campaigns yourself – it’s a good idea if you’re seen to contribute to others’ crowdfunding campaigns, or even just help promote them. Tit for tat works. More generally, if you’re seen to have been an innovator in the past rather than just picking up the crowdfunding baton for the sake of a bit of money, then that’s good – people will respond to your willingness to try new things always.

Plan the words of your call for contributions very carefully – make it fun and persuasive, don’t make it worthy or vague. Especially when you talk about what the money will go towards – the more specific the better. We were funding for our 20th anniversary and wanted to do some special events to mark the occasion like a screening in a cave – arguably even that wasn’t quite specific enough, but the more you can give people something tangible they will be able to see that goes above and beyond their normal expectations of your festival/event/cinema, the more they’re motivated. No-one wants to see their money disappear into a general slush fund, so make the money as ring fenced and specific as possible.

Make your video fun and something people will want to share. Ours was very silly, but people loved it – you saw us talking directly to camera, you saw the office, you saw our general sense of humour. Do that and people won’t even need to read your words. they’ll just want to help these loveable people on screen to do more loveable things.

Offer collectable ‘money can’t buy’ perks – it doesn’t need to be anything expensive. If you have old t-shirts, catalogues, bags, posters and other merch from past years at your festival/cinema then that’s great – people like vintage items, people like things that aren’t on sale anywhere. So think about what you have to hand that’s special. Think also about who you have in your circle of patrons, friends, customers, etc, who have something to offer – that could be a famous person signing a book, it could be someone you know who does hot air balloon rides, or a season ticket for a football team. Who do you know who could donate a one-off experience for free?

As to which platform I’d recommend, we’ve worked lots with IndieGoGo in the past and we’ve partnered with them to celebrate some great film projects on their site in the past. They’re really good people and easy to contact on a human one-to-one level for advice. At the time we launched, it was the only major crowdfunding site where UK projects could sign up without a US bank account. Now that Kickstarter have launched in the UK, this is different. We’d say that whether you go with IndieGoGo or Kickstarter, it doesn’t really matter because they both require you to do a whole load of marketing yourself and the ability to hit the target still relies upon your contacts and the quality of your campaign. BUT we would say to go with one of those two because people recognise them as trustworthy and you’re surrounded by lots of other great projects. If people are led to a site they don’t recognise or where there’s a whole lot of random projects, then it can confuse them – crowdfunders like familiarity. This might only account for you keeping £500 that you might otherwise lose on another site, but you need all the help you can get, so play it safe and go for one of those two we say.

Thanks Charlie! We’d love to hear of other cinemas and film festivals initiating crowdfunding campaigns. If you give it a whirl, let us know in the comments…

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