A few years ago, a talented director and photographer named Anna Fischer came to me with a great idea. Anna had been documenting the recreational costuming subculture in North America at costume, animation and science fiction conventions all across the country for about fifteen years. The bulk of recreational costuming (also called “cosplay”; see below) happens at these conventions, which are almost always in urban areas. As a result, most of Anna’s work, and the work of other costuming documentarians was shot mostly in and around convention centers and hotels. Anna’s proposal was to take the show on the road. Instead of shooting at a convention center, why not bring costumers out into the great outdoors and shoot an art project in the high desert of northern Arizona and southern Utah?
Recreational costuming, commonly known as “cosplay” (from “costume play”), is a popular hobby across the world. Cosplayers build costumes based on their favorite characters from films, novels, cartoons and comic books, and then come together at conventions to trade tips, show off, and enter costume competitions. Though the hobby in its organized form originated at science fiction conventions in the United States in the 1930s, it didn’t achieve popularity in this country until it was exported to Japan in the 1970s, and then re-imported to the US via Japanese animation fans in the early-to-mid 1990s.
As a long-time fan of costuming, the concept excited me. As a producer of low- and microbudget commercial films, I had some doubts. I knew how logistically challenging and expensive shooting on location could be. Anna had huge ideas: desert vistas, waterfalls, dramatic sunsets and snowy mountaintops. Even though scenery is free, getting a cast and crew to the scenery isn’t. Neither Anna nor I are independently wealthy, so how could we afford to fund such an ambitious production?
Cosplay is a popular hobby, but in the grand scheme of things it is still a fairly niche interest that does not have massive commercial appeal. This project didn’t have much chance of making a profit, so trying to fund the shoot by selling it to a studio or deep-pocketed private investor would be very difficult.
Enter the Crowd
Our solution was to try a then-novel form of creative fundraising: Crowdfunding. Specifically, Anna decided that we would use a Kickstarter campaign to finance our project. Crowdfunding seemed like an excellent fit for several reasons: it would would allow us to access the cosplay hobbyist and fan market directly. Instead of trying to land one or two big investors, crowdfunding would let us try to recruit dozens or hundreds of small investors. Asking someone for a thousand dollars is tough, but asking 50 people for twenty bucks is a lot easier and more likely to succeed. Offer them so-called backer rewards for contributing to your project, something like a postcard or sticker in exchange for their $20, and it makes it even more likely still.
Another advantage was that even though our backers would be investors of a sort, they wouldn’t exercise creative or logistical control in the way that a studio or single private investor might. Yes, the crowd in a crowdfunded project is ultimately your client, but in most cases they don’t get to dictate what you do, or why. They give you money to execute your vision and trust you to hold up your part of the deal.
I advised Anna to set our sights pretty low. Nobody that we knew of had tried to crowdfund a cosplay project of this scope before, and we had no idea what the potential market for something like this was. I was also concerned about our ability to create and fulfill our backer rewards, which were initially small photo prints, postcards and photobooklets.
I sketched out a very modest version of the project, with a commensurately modest budget: two crew members and two costumers would travel in a rental car. We would cover airfare and a hotel room, but not meals or other day-to-day expenses. We would shoot with equipment that we already owned, so no equipment rental fees, and with such a small crew we could probably avoid needing to purchase permits by being too small and agile for the authorities to notice. Factoring in the cost of backer rewards (more on that later), our total budget would be about $3,000 dollars.
Anna’s vision was a lot grander than what $3,000 dollars could buy, but she understood why we needed to set our sights realistically. She also asked me to sketch out larger-budget versions of the shoot. What could $4,000 buy us? What about if we doubled our goal and raised $6,000? I privately thought that doubling our goal was wildly unrealistic, so when Anna asked me to do a $10,000 version of the budget — more than triple our goal — I thought she was aiming for the sky!
What I had not anticipated was the crowdfunding campaign going viral.
It’s tough to anticipate what will and won’t go viral on the Internet. Some people think it’s just a matter of luck — a bolt of lightning hits the zeitgeist at just the right moment and suddenly your hashtag is trending on social media and Ellen Degeneres is on the phone asking you if you’re free tomorrow afternoon. While there is some truth to the idea that viral success is inherently unpredictable, there are things you can do to increase your chances of success. You may not be able to predict when and where lightning will strike, but you can make sure you’re out there in the thunderstorm with an iron key tied to your kite when it does.
In our case, the real secret of our success was that we had a lot of social capital to spend. Anna had been out there in the costuming community building our reputation, making contacts and collecting favors for decades. People knew Anna’s name. They liked her, trusted her work and knew that she has a relentless work ethic. We cashed in some favors to get some positive coverage in the hobbyist press, then asked our friends and colleagues to post those stories to their social media to get the word out.
Additionally, because Anna and I were known to be competent and reliable, we were able to sign some of the most recognizable and highest-profile models in the hobby to feature in the project. This had the effect of multiplying our reach several-fold, since each model had a substantial following of his or her own to spread and reinforce our message. It’s a sad truth that as famous and talented the people behind the camera might be, the talent that works in front of the camera will almost always have a bigger draw.
So we made the most out of our resources and hoped we’d get lucky, and we did. In the end, we raised just shy of $27,000 dollars-- almost nine times our initial goal.
Be Careful What You Wish For
When we met our goal, we were thrilled. Then, we watched our total funding double, then triple, then quadruple and it just kept going. When we blew past $10,000 dollars in just a couple of days, we began to add stretch goals to the project. In crowdfunding, a stretch goal is a promise that you make to your backers, that if you exceed your initial funding by a sufficient amount, you will expand or enhance your project.
As the money rolled in Anna started to go a little wild with our stretch goals: more backer rewards, more cast, more crew, more crazy locations, more equipment. We added a reward tier so that one deep-pocketed backer could, for enough money, be allowed to tag along on the shoot like a tourist. We’d rent a boat, and if we hit an even higher target, we’d rent two boats. We’d shoot in medium format and HD. We’d ship some truly extravagant and outrageous costumes across the country.
In the end, we wound up with five crew members, twelve models (each with multiple costumes), two full-size passenger vans, two boats, a whole lot of high-end rental gear and a tough five-day shooting schedule.
This is a rough breakdown of how we spent our budget
+$26,649.00 total budget
-$2,669 Kickstarter and Amazon processing fees
-$4.3K Kickstarter backer rewards
-$1K backer reward shipping
-$520 XL costume shipping
-$2.8K land transportation
-$4.1K boat rental, fuel, waste disposal, marina fees
-$1.1K shooting permits for state and federal parks
-$2K transportation, permits, monitors for Navajo Nation locations
-$500 commercial shoot insurance
-$1.4K camera gear rental and insurance
-$1K petty cash
-$900 miscellaneous pre- and post-production expenses including website design and hosting
All labor from cast and talent was donated.
Still, every step of the way, I kept my eye on the bottom line. Anna was the creative driving force, but I made sure that the books stayed balanced and the logistics remained feasible. Ultimately, as producer, that was my job--to be the brakes on this ride, to figure out how to stretch a dollar to meet Anna’s vision, to know when I could and tell her no when I couldn’t. For the most part, I was successful. Our shooting schedule was ambitious, but it was doable. We were able to afford every promise that we made and I ensured we had a financial buffer for if and when something went wrong.
But I had made a terrible mistake.
In the Mix
On any shoot, you have to expect the unexpected. Whether you want to call it Murphy’s law, bad luck, or just the universe’s inexorable march towards a state of entropy, inevitably something is going to go wrong. Part of being a good producer is the ability to anticipate the problems you can predict and adapt on the fly to those you can’t.
On a crowdfunded project, you have the additional responsibility of keeping your backers informed of your progress — your backers are your investors and your patrons. They understand when things go wrong, especially if you’re up-front with them about the risks beforehand, but they will not tolerate being kept out of the loop. Whether it’s a success or a setback, they want to know about it. We had several ways to communicate with our backers — Kickstarter itself, a private blog, Twitter and email — and we used them.
No, failing to keep the backers informed was not my terrible mistake.
When one of our most popular and prominent models decided to flake out on the shoot with less than 24-hours notice because she had gotten a better offer elsewhere, we rewrote our shooting schedule on the fly. We had listed flaky talent in the “risks and challenges” section of our crowdfunding page, and I had the model in question write an apology to her fans on our behalf. This was a significant blow, and I’ll never work with that particular model again no matter how many social media followers she has, but it was a contingency we had planned for.
No, failing to anticipate no-show talent was not my terrible mistake.
During the aquatic leg of our shoot, one of our boats grounded itself on a sandbank deep in a remote canyon, out of reach of cellphones and radio. Unfortunately, I did not have a contingency plan in place for a shipwreck, but we managed to work around it. Our cast and crew got some downtime while I took the other boat back to civilization for help. It threw our schedule off by eight hours and caused some consternation in the cast, especially when we started to run low on Goldfish crackers and peanut butter sandwiches, but we worked around those challenges. Thanks to some late-night white-knuckle driving, we still made it to the next shooting location in time to catch the morning golden hour.
No, failing to handle a minor shipwreck on my watch was not my terrible mistake.
Overall, despite shipwrecks and wasps and heat stroke and a concussion or two, the shoot was a great success. We got all of the shots that we wanted to get, and everyone made it out with the same number of fingers and toes as they had going in.
The Terrible Mistake
The terrible mistake actually had nothing to do with the shoot itself. It had to do with what came afterwards, after we got back home. You see, I had failed to account correctly for our backer rewards. I don’t mean financially — I had created budgeting spreadsheets that automatically deducted the cost of rewards for each backer’s pledge and they all balanced. As an aside, if I have one tip for aspiring producers out there, it’s to become an expert with Microsoft Excel. Spreadsheets are your best friend. I had also priced out the cost of producing prints, photo booklets, stickers and so on with several different vendors and accounted for packaging and shipping fees.
No, my mistake was thinking that fulfilling $27,000 dollars worth of backer rewards was just going to be just like fulfilling $3,000 dollars of backer rewards, only it would take a little longer. This proved to be an awful miscalculation.
At first, when we were shooting for $3,000 dollars in backing, I had anticipated we’d have at most, 150 backers. Collating 150 sets of postcards, booklets and prints, then shipping and packing them is something that three people can reasonably do in a living room in an afternoon or two of envelope stuffing. This is what I had anticipated and budgeted for. It was basically an afterthought.
When we ended up with 700 backers instead of 150, I thought that the amount of work would scale linearly. Perhaps instead of taking an afternoon or two, it might take an entire long weekend, or two weekends at most. I added a month to our production schedule just to be safe and thought we’d be fine. I was very wrong.
What I had not taken into consideration was that when we had started adding stretch goals, we also added additional reward options, like a free die-cut sticker for the first 100 backers, various different print size options including poster-sized museum-quality photoprints, personalized postcards and behind-the-scenes polaroids and other souvenirs from the set. In the end, instead of 150 backers with a fairly simple set of rewards, we ended up with over 700 backers, each of whom had with a dizzying array of different deliverables. We didn’t have enough space, time, manpower or an efficient system in place to keep everything straight. It turns out that the work it took to fulfil 700 backer rewards didn’t scale up linearly from 150. It scaled exponentially.
We were victims of our own success. The fulfilment process we had thought would take weeks ended up taking months instead. Some backers got incomplete reward packages, or the wrong package altogether. Eventually, we figured everything out and every backer got what they were promised, but it took way too long and there was a lot of dissatisfaction all around. While there were some setbacks not related to my failure to anticipate our needs, like the company we contracted to produce our photobook going out of business after taking our deposit but before delivering any products, the bulk of the delay was on us. More accurately, it was on me for not realizing the logistics of the reward fulfilment was beyond our scope. It turns out that I’m a competent, professional producer, but as a crowdfunding project manager I was caught unprepared and found wanting.
Today, you can hire various companies that you can contract to manage your crowdfunding reward fulfilment and I would strongly recommend using them. Back when Anna and I ran our project, that wasn’t an option, and so we managed to burn a lot of the social capital we had spent decades accumulating. Crowdfunding can be a powerful tool to pay for your next project, but it can be more complicated than traditional funding opportunities. Like the old saying goes: if you think hiring a professional is expensive, try hiring an amateur.
Mike VanHelder is a working writer, photographer and videographer in Philadelphia, PA.