A guest post from director Leslie Harris. I asked Leslie to participate in this series because to me she represents what the older generation of film directors is facing. The way things are being done now is VERY different to the early and mid ’90s when film financing and large distribution deals were plentiful. A time when her Sundance winning film had a full and celebrated release on the Miramax label. New developments like social media, digital self distribution, and the idea that a creator has to gather an audience and build a personal brand have left some of the older generation shaking their heads. Leslie is diving right in and running a Kickstarter campaign for a new film and I applaud her willingness to experiment and adapt her previous experience to this new world of film finance and distribution.

Even though I have made a feature film before, the Sundance Special Jury Prize winner Just Another Girl on the I.R.T. released by Miramax in 1993, no matter how many films you have made, most filmmakers will tell you making another feature is like starting over from scratch.

Leslie Harris IRT

When my film was released in the 90’s, it was a boom for independent film financing and distribution and somewhat a Renaissance for the indie African-American filmmakers too. Unfortunately, the boom was mainly for the young, hot, male directors not women. Black women both in front of and behind the camera, well… we were practically non-existent except for a few of us.

Fast forward to today, sure there are more Black actresses working, but not in all genres and the recent controversy about the lack of Black Women on Saturday Night Live exemplifies what we’re facing. The numbers are even more embarrassingly low for Black women behind the camera. There’s a lot of work to do to make a change and that’s why I came to crowdfunding. I think crowdfunding works best for filmmakers who have been ignored by traditional film financing sources and have something passionate to say. Projects that artists can take straight to the audience and encourage their support rather than to studios and investors purely looking at the bottom line. My new film, I Love Cinema, is a satirical comedy about sex, race and politics in a ‘so-called’ post-racial world. The story is about Professor Layla Laneaux, sophisticated, educated and African-American. Layla is obsessed with cinema both in the classroom and the bedroom, but the Professor’s film fantasy world is shattered by racial controversy and a media circus all seemingly out to get her.

The same skills that I learned in the go-go 90’s of indie film are still useful to me today. My experience applying and receiving grants from National Endowment for the Arts, American Film Institute and New York State Council on the Arts is helpful because I had to convince people in a concise way that my story is viable and worth funding. Back then, I put together a reel and wrote the grant application. I also approached people like filmmaker Michael Moore and author Terry McMillan, who both supported Just Another Girl on the I.R.T with a check. Now my reel is a pitch video and my written application is the text on my Kickstarter page. In a way, I have already run a sort of Kickstarter, but now I need to reach many more people about my film idea and need to use all of the new tools available to me.

Social media and the internet are basically the heart of a crowdfunding effort…Facebook, Twitter, Instagram etc.  I have learned the value of having a great team of people to help with social media, though I found my team mid-way through my campaign…a mistake! You’ll make mistakes, but doing crowdfunding is relatively new so it is a learning process.  I was so happy to find committed young people, especially women, who were internet savvy and happy to volunteer. Search around, it may take a bit of time to find the right person, but there is someone out there to help. My interns are learning new skills that will help them in their careers in film because I think crowdfunding sites for moviemakers is the wave of the future for financing. I couldn’t do this campaign alone. I have learned having your film on a crowdfunding site is similar to making a really small indie film…you have to have a team.

And ya gotta be passionate and tenacious because crowdfunding is a lot of work! I’ve gotten very little sleep, about four hours a night. But my sleep deprivation didn’t just occur during the 30-Days while my project has been live. I’ve been preparing for this campaign for months prior to the launch. First, I did my research about crowdfunding wherever I could find information from blogs, advice from other filmmakers who have done crowdfunding and even You Tube videos to see what worked and what didn’t. I didn’t want to copy what someone else was doing because, in my opinion, every project is unique and your video has to reflect your particular film. I looked at production techniques and editing transitions. For example, it’s effective to use dissolves for this format if you have a one camera set up when one person is talking directly to the potential backers. If you’re not experienced in front of the camera, and most filmmakers aren’t…it’s going to be hard not to flub a line and I flubbed a lot of ‘em! Remember, there are limitations. You can’t use copyrighted material or music in your video unless it is cleared and you have to have permission to use it. So be really creative. Keep your video short 2-3 minutes unless the subject and tone calls for something longer. For example a documentary fundraising video might be 5 minutes or longer because you have a lot of material and it may take a bit longer for the story to unfold with a doc.

Let’s be honest reaching your goal is tough. My advice is to be ultra conservative in determining your goal. Mine is set for $35,000. The style and tone of your pitch video also depends on whether you’re asking for funds in pre-production, production or post. Are you trying to get something new off of the ground or something almost finished into the world?

Remember you have to offer perks and that means you have to produce them and deliver them in a timely manner (don’t forget postage costs!) and make your backers happy. Offer great rewards that are really interesting and valuable, but don’t cost much to produce. For example, I am offering a Production Journal as one of my rewards that will detail my experiences on set during production. It is something I would probably be writing anyway. How much will it cost you to make a T-Shirt? How many do you plan to sell? How much is shipping to India?  I had to use my 9th Grade math skills a lot while deciding what rewards I would offer.

Yes, raising funds this way is a tremendous amount of work.  While I’ve launched, there is still a lot more to do during the campaign. Update! Update and Update!  I keep my page current with photos, links, video and press…Indiewire’s Shadow and Act did a great piece on our film. This experience for me has been exciting. It’s new. Implementing the social media, creating a video that is spread around the world is very cool!  I’m a storyteller. The crowd-funding process is all about telling a story.  Ask yourself…why does my film deserve funding? Put yourself in the role of a backer.

Who knows if I’m going to make my goal…so take what I have written with a grain of salt, it’s just one experience. For me, it’s been rewarding already. I’ve reconnected with many friends and colleagues. Actress, Jennifer Williams, and my production team have been wonderful in making the video.  I couldn’t have done this without my Editor, Jack Haigis. My producer, Erwin Wilson has been at my side all the way. Great people who supported the project… and that’s gold! I’ve met and worked with great women who are savvy in social media. I know I am doing my best. I can always sleep after December 8th the last day of my campaign. So wish me luck and stop by my Kickstarter page. I could really use your support!

November 29th, 2013

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