ReelChanges tests ‘crowdfunding’ of pubTV production
Reelchanges.org, a showcase created to raise production money online for filmmakers’ works in progress, has teamed up with Maryland Public Television to test whether “crowdfunding” will work for public TV documentaries.
With help from a CPB grant, MPT has fine-tuned its pitch for donations backing its documentary Intrepid Journal: From WWII to 9-11, about the not-so-smooth sailing of a World War II aircraft carrier that recently underwent a major restoration as a naval museum docked in Manhattan.
Two additional MPT productions — on Chesapeake Bay water quality and on the military service of African-Americans — also will be featured on the site in a tryout backed last year with a $45,000 grant from CPB’s Public Media Innovation Fund.
Working on the project with MPT are consultant Jim Russell, longtime top producer of public radio’s Marketplace, and the radio program’s original editor, Hal Plotkin, who founded ReelChanges.org last year.
Plotkin, chief executive officer of the California-based nonprofit Center for Media Change, has adapted the online fundraising techniques that worked so well for President Obama’s political campaign. ReelChanges creates a way for individuals to directly support media they care about. The center also operates Spot.Us, a website backed by the Knight Foundation that raises funds for news coverage of topics of interest to local communities.
“My own research and gut told me that to get people to press the ‘donate’ button, we need to use the most persuasive medium that we had,” said Plotkin. “Nothing moves people like film, if it’s done well. That’s the goal here — to get the public moving in support of public media.”
ReelChanges also features other independent projects not involved with the CPB test, including a film by Frederick Marx, one of the indie filmmakers who brought Hoop Dreams to PBS. Marx is seeking completion funds for a documentary about two Buddhist monks working to educate poor children in a remote region of India.
By building a website for crowdfunded docs, Plotkin has set out to prove that “if you give power to people and let them make decisions about which media is produced, they will contribute,” Russell said. Through crowdfunding,
ReelChanges creates direct links between media-makers and would-be backers, shifting the power to make decisions in traditional media, he said. “That’s what’s going on with this that’s so exciting.”
The ReelChanges webpage for Intrepid Journal features a video of producer/director Philip Marshall describing the film and asking for donations to help finish it. But the stars of the clip are veterans and their stirring, plain-spoken testimony about the passing of World War II sailors and their sacrifices in military service.
Behold, the pitch trailer
Like station pitchmen in an end-of-year appeal on public TV, Marshall ratchets up the urgency: “Here I am today with over 160 hours for material shot and . . . we don’t have the money to finish,” he says. “So I need to ask you right now for your help. We need $200,000 to finish this program, and only you can help make it happen. You literally have the ability to be the decision-maker and determine if this film gets made or put on the shelf.”
“If I can’t begin editing the program soon, it may never be finished or broadcast, and that’s two-and-a half years of work that will be wasted,” Marshall says. “That’s tough enough — but what’s killing me most is having to face those vets.”
Plotkin calls the video a “pitch trailer,” but instead of creating the passive expectation of a “coming attraction” movie trailer, it’s “crafted in such a way as to appeal to the public for their involvement.”
Russell, in consultation with MPT, planned the script to make personal connections among filmmaker, content and prospective donor. But he deliberately tried to edit out any vestige of a public TV pledge drive. “That’s the last thing that people want to see,” Russell said. By taking a different approach to pitching, the crowdfunding appeals will be less likely to undercut stations’ traditional on-air fundraising techniques, he said.
The ReelChanges web page for Intrepid Journal lets visitors embed the video on their choice of social-network websites. It offers contributors orange click-through “Fund it now” buttons and a list of thank-you gifts. For donating $10, for example, donors will be credited on the film’s official website; for $500, they’ll get a pair of tickets to a screening; for $5,000, they’ll get a screen credit at the beginning and end of the film.
Although the producer says his goal for Intrepid Journal is $200,000, MPT and Plotkin set their own target far lower—at $25,000. “We expect to exceed that,” Plotkin said. As of last week, the site had raised $470 for the film.
To drive traffic to the site, MPT invites its viewers to “preview and support” new MPT programs by visiting mpt.org/reelchanges. The network runs the promos after broadcasts of local productions.
The project will test methods for targeting appeals to special-interest groups such as the Intrepid Crew Members Association, according to Plotkin. Google also provided $10,000 for an ad campaign on its search pages.
Success in crowdfunding involves more than “putting something up and making a good spiel,” said Rob Shuman, president of MPT. The project will test which types of programs are best suited to this type of fundraising, how to connect with potential donors through a mixture of social networking and viral marketing, and how to target and reach groups of individuals highly interested in a program’s topic. “There’s a lot of detail to this to make it successful or not,” he said.
Ready to try something new
Station development professionals know a lot about this kind of direct fundraising through careful analysis of pledge drives, and historically public broadcasting has given stations the exclusive right to appeal for donations on the air.
Pacifica Radio pioneered pledging in the early 1950s, and San Francisco’s KQED held the first on-air fundraising auction in 1955. While producers often raise funds through deals to sell videos after broadcasts of their work, they’ve generally had to keep their production fundraising off the air. In public radio, top independent producers such as Ira Glass, the Kitchen Sisters and David Isay now solicit contributions from their listeners and fans in various ways off-air.
In 2005 Boston’s WGBH tried raising production money online, creating a website to benefit a documentary project about adoption. But the station eventually abandoned the experiment and returned contributors’ money, according to Judith Vecchione, executive producer of national productions.
The adoption project encountered several problems, including bad timing. Its website launched just before Hurricane Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast, directing public attention and charitable gifts toward disaster relief. “No one was paying attention to any appeals except for those responding to Katrina,” Vecchione said. The adoption film, which failed to raise matching money for a CPB grant, was shelved.
Vecchione still believes pubcasters could raise production money online. “We were in the early days of trying to figure out how to access the communities of interest” on the topic of adoption, she said. Social networks that now help propel web-based fundraising appeals — such as Facebook and Twitter — were not available during WGBH’s project.
Execs at major-market public TV stations also see strong fundraising prospects in viral web-based appeals. The Major Market Group, which comprises pubTV’s largest stations, provided a small grant to cover the cost of creating the video-embedding setup and other social-networking tools for MPT’s ReelChanges experiment.
Shuman, a former MMG chair, said the affinity group backed the project in recognition that public TV needs to develop techniques for viral marketing and community building. Problems with public TV’s on-air fundraising, he said, go beyond the economic recession, and station leaders know that pubTV needs to adapt.
“The problems we’re facing right now are not just in terms of this downturn,” Shuman said. “We’re all pledging too much, and we all know the impact that too much pledging has. We have to find new ways of engaging our communities.”
Shuman said he’s not worried about potentially “cannibalizing” member support for MPT’s broadcast service by inviting donors to contribute to specific programs. “As long as we’re going at it in a thoughtful way, experimentation makes sense,” he said.
He believes that local programming and outreach motivate MPT viewers to donate in the first place, and the experience of helping to bring a film to air by contributing will deepen their commitment. “I feel passionate about this, and I contributed,” he says, speaking as a crowdfunder and viewer. “Here it is on MPT, and — by golly! — my name is on it as a supporter.”
Web page posted March 30, 2009
Copyright 2009 by Current LLC
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