The Five: Five Questions to ask about Bay Area Theatre Crowdsourcing.

Anthony R. Miller is back with part 2 of his crowdsourcing lists. This week, he asks questions.

This was only going to be one list, I was just going to make a list of crowdsourcing campaigns that I wanted to draw attention to. However, having just helped run my first Kickstarter campaign, and after looking at so many incredible campaigns, I began to see the enormity of all this. Crowdsourcing is only going to get bigger, and that could be a great thing or a terrible thing. It depends on where we go with it.  So here are five questions to ask about crowdsourcing before jumping in.

Why should I do a crowdsourcing campaign?

You should do it because you can, because you want to put something into the world. To put it in the most idealistic terms; crowdsourcing sites like Kickstarter and Indie Go-Go allow anybody with a computer and a smart phone to reach out to the world at large and say “This is my idea, please give me money.”  You no longer have to pitch your idea to a producer who will ask you to cut it to 4 characters and 90 minutes with no intermission. You don’t need to Kevin Smith-it and rack up thousands of dollars in credit card debt, you don’t need to be independently wealthy, and you no longer need to float your budget on ticket revenue alone. More and more people will self-produce, more artists have a shot at telling their story, and it will be told the way they want. Dreams are gonna come true! Hooray! Arts Funding for all, right? Well, sorta. Because everybody can attempt crowdsourcing to make their project happen, they do. And, despite most theatrical ventures asking for funding in the Bay being very good causes, not everyone makes goal. So in addition to doing it because you can, do it because you need to. Which brings us to:

Why shouldn’t I?

You shouldn’t if you don’t need to. To take an example from the Indie-film world, a few years back, Filmmaker Kevin Smith considered crowd sourcing his film, Tusk. He eventually went the traditional route of finding a producer to finance the film for the simple fact that he could. He felt that people that can find funding in ways other than crowdsourcing, should do it and leave that money for the people who need it. I’m not going to give criteria on who does or doesn’t qualify; but if you have the resources to produce without crowdsourcing, you probably aught to. When talking with folks who have run campaigns to fund a show, they all find the experience exhausting and scary. Crowdsourcing shouldn’t be seen as an easier route, but simply A route; grants, angel donors, or producers who want to support your vision are certainly less abundant (A strong reason why crowdsourcing is necessary) but they’re still there.

What’s the difference between Indie Go-Go and Kickstarter?

Oh there’s a few, but the one I’ll talk about is that of Fixed Funding vs Flexible Funding.

Kickstarter is solely fixed funding, so if you don’t make your goal, you get nothing. Indie Go-Go is the increasingly Arts-friendly of the two, this is in part due to its flexible funding model, an option in which you can still get some of them money you raised even if you don’t make goal (IGG takes a bigger cut in this case.). This is pretty awesome for self-producers; making 2000 is still pretty darn helpful even if you didn’t raise 4000. Now, there is larger debate about the “message” or “Urgency” that comes from Kickstarters’ Fixed Funding. It can be argued that by going the “All or Nothing” route it says that you’re not messin’ around, or it makes making goal all the more urgent. This is based on the notion a person is less inclined to give if they know they get money no matter what. Obviously, there are good reasons for both, in the end it’s your call. One sweet thing about flexible funding is that you get charged to your card right then, not on the day the campaign ends, so you don’t have to make sure you keep $25 dollars on your bank card for 20 days.

Are we all non-profits now?

If you’ve ever received a phone call from your local non-profit theatre asking for a donation, you’ve heard the phrase; “Ticket sales only cover 50 percent of our operating costs”. Even the big kids on the playground like Berkeley Rep and ACT rely on a strong donor base to cover operating and artistic costs. So if crowdsourcing is allowing independent producers to do the same thing, are we all essentially operating as non-profits? In a reductive way yes, we’re all doing it for the same reason, to put on a high quality show without charging everyone 100 dollars a ticket. But what we don’t have that the big kids do are Development Departments, brilliant people who have incredible ideas on how to raise money, and the resources to carry them out. Kickstarter and Indie Go-Go give us the ability to be our own development departments, we provide perks for donors, have a database of donor information, and it allows us to keep in contact with all of them. Now there are other things (besides being a registered 501c) that make you a non-profit, like a mission statement outlining a desire to play a strong role in the community as well as a plan for exactly how you plan to do so. And yes, documentation proving you actually did give back in a quantifiable way. So if we are going to operate and fund our projects like a non-profit theater, then we have to decide if we’re going to do work that serves our community in some way or give back in ways above and beyond just putting on a great show. (Spoiler Alert: The ones that do, often make goal, I’ve given to several campaigns not because I was dying to see the show, but just because I felt like this show needed to exist.) But should we all be non-profits? Maybe, or maybe not. Non-profit regional theatres had to switch their models for fundraising in the mid-sixties when the Ford Foundation ceased its proverbial showering of money on them. They then became far more dependent on individual donors, and it worked great when rich people cared about theatre. The model that worked for 50 years isn’t working as well anymore for a barrage of reasons. So, being an actual non-profit isn’t exactly a sweet deal either. The pain in the ass about those darn development departments is that you in fact have to raise more money, not for production costs, but to pay for your development department. There is something to be said for making a profit, or at least attempting to.

Is it sustainable?

It can be. One thing that stood out to me in all my research was that for every SF Theatre campaign I saw, I knew somebody running it, or I had seen a show in the space. The Bay is a Small community, if you add up all the campaigns that have happened, are happening, and will be happening soon you have about 400K in money being asked for in SF theatre alone. Now that’s not much if you’re Reading Rainbow or Pebble Watch, but if you’re putting on your show in a local 60-seat black box, costume shopping in your own closets, and having lofty goals of paying people something- as Jesse Pinkman would say; “That’s mad cheddar Mr. White”. So it looks like everybody is asking for the same money. That’s half true; there is definitely a community of people that are always going to give $25, $50 because they want to help their theatre scene. As more campaigns spring up, folks won’t be able to fund everybody they want, or as much as they want. That however, is not the whole story. Each campaign is different; they are done by different people, for different plays, theaters, festivals, and dream projects. We all have a circle of friends and family that get turned to for help. This option however, has its limits, your friends and family may start to raise an eye brow when you’re on your third dream project in a year. Also, each project has its own base of people, fans who will be exclusively interested in that project theme (this base wants to feel involved, so make sure to give them cool perks to keep them feeling wholly invested). The point is that it’s not one source of money, it’s several, or at least it better be. Crowdsourcing allows us to cull every resource into one place. What will make this viable is not depending on one source. Before going into a project, look at your existing resources and build around those. What will also help keep this movement going, is giving back; promote other campaigns and donate to them. Finally, what will make this sustainable is working towards needing it less, don’t ask for your whole budget, be smart with your money, and don’t settle for breaking even, make money so you can do another show without a Kickstarter campaign. (Or at least wait a year or two.) Small companies and independent producers in the Bay are seeing a world of opportunities in crowdsourcing, and that’s a good thing. But with great fundraising power, comes great responsibility. The idealist in me is very excited; the pessimist has a lot of questions.

Anthony R. Miller is local playwright, director, producer and that guy who won’t stop calling about renewing you theatre subscription. His show; TERROR-RAMA opens this October at the Exit.

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3 comments on “The Five: Five Questions to ask about Bay Area Theatre Crowdsourcing.

  1. bjwany says:

    I’m curious what folks think of other fundraising models out there.

    For instance, I just learned of Crowdtilt (https://www.crowdtilt.com/home) from local playwright/screenwriter, Julie Jigour, who is raising funds to make a short film called “Paper Umbrellas” (https://www.crowdtilt.com/campaigns/paper-umbrellas/description). Crowdtilt is similar in that is an online platform where individuals, groups, or nonprofits can raise funds. However, it combines fixed and flexible funding.

    So, to use Julie’s project as an example, she needs a bare minimum of $3,000 to make the film and that’s where the funding will “tilt” and credit cards will be charged. In other words, she has to get to at least that level to receive the funding. However, you can also work in what’s called a “stretch goal” to your Crowdtilt campaign, where if you are able to go over the bare minimum the “extra” funds will allow you to do things that would be nice to incorporate (a lot of times this covers stipends for all people involved in the project or special equipment, etc.). Incidentally, Indiegogo works somewhat similarly in that if you reach your goal, they only charge 4%, but if you don’t reach your goal, they take out 9%. By contrast, Kickstarter takes out 5% if you reach your goal (but then again, you’re not getting any funding if you don’t make your goal). Once a project “tilts” on Crowdtilt, it takes out 2.5%.

    The difference between Crowdtilt and platforms like Kickstarter and Indiegogo, is that Crowdtilt DOES NOT offer incentives for various levels of funding. It is purely a fundraising campaign, in the true sense of the word. Kickstarter and Indiegogo are based more on an investor model, where if I contribute to projects on Indiegogo or Kickstarter, I’m a partial investor in the project’s success. I know it doesn’t always feel that way depending on the campaign, but that really is the model. The idea is “Backing a project is more than just giving someone money”. But I wonder if that is truly the case. How does the idea of being an “investor” in an artistic project — specifically theatrical productions — generate widespread interest in a project? I’m honestly genuinely curious whether any theater maker has had success in attracting new donors/contributors/investors to their projects by starting a Kickstarter/Indiegogo campaign.

    Speaking for myself, there are very few incentives that small theater projects on Kickstarter/Indiegogo can offer me that inspire me to give to the campaign other than tickets. I’m not saying I’m picky or stingy, but if I’m going to support them, I’m going to support them regardless of what they’re offering. When I know the person, I’m just supporting because I believe in them and want to see their project do well. I really don’t care whether I get thanked online or get tickets ahead of the show, etc. I care more that they will be able to actually produce their show. I would be surprised if other people contributing are doing it for the incentives as well.

    So, who are the incentives for? Are they for people outside our social circle who we don’t know? And if that’s the case, does this mean that we use Kickstarter/Indiegogo for reasons other than to raise money? For example, to raise visibility about the project. Or, is using crowdsourcing campaigns simply a workaround because we haven’t really had a convenient way to raise funds online from our peer groups? Perhaps having the Kickstarter/Indiegogo campaign is a necessary step to be seen as a legitimate project for folks to contribute to.

  2. […] read Allison Page’s and Anthony Miller’s recent critiques of crowdfunding with interest, because at the time they were posted, I was […]

  3. […] Shit got real. At the time, there was a glut of theatrical crowdsourcing campaigns in the Bay, so I wrote two articles on it. It seemed every dream project, theater renovation, and fledgling theatre company with an […]

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