ReelChanges site ends its tryout of crowd-funding for producers
ReelChanges.org, a nonprofit website created to help documentary-makers raise production money directly from future viewers, went offline in February after demonstrating that producers with a plaintive video preview on the Web still must apply lots of promotional elbow grease to find their own web angels.
That was clear from page-views accumulated by the site's pitch for Intrepid Journal: From WWII to 9-11, a two-hour doc that Maryland Public Television plans to make about the eventful career of a World War II aircraft carrier (Current, March 30, 2009).
Traffic on the page flat-lined during most of the project's seven months online. The exception: about 10 days when Intrepid Journal got more than 90 percent of its pledges, according to a recent report to CPB provided to Current by ReelChanges creator Hal Plotkin.
During those days in April 2009, the U.S.S. Intrepid commanded its full attention-getting firepower, including a barrage of on-air spots on MPT and a targeted e-mail marketing blitz, funded as an experiment by CPB's Public Media Innovation Fund. The on-air spot and a preview created for the website did help bring some 8,000 unique visitors to the site; they stayed an average of 3 minutes each.
But that much attention was not enough. Eighty-nine visitors pledged funds — only one of them from an extensive online ad campaign donated by Google. Altogether, the pledges came to $4,530 — visibly short of the $200,000 wanted to shot the last interviews and edit a massive trove of footage into a two-hour film.
MPT continues to seek donors for the film on its own website. Philip Marshall, e.p. of national productions at MPT, says he'll continue to try crowd-funding, but with more targeted outreach for donations. He plans to use Facebook ads to reach politically aware viewers from both the right and the left would be interested in the ship's role as a tool of U.S. foreign policy for six presidents, from WWII through the Bay of Pigs, Vietnam and the Cold War, with a brief revivial as an FBI headquarters in Manhattan after the 9/11 attacks. He also has access to another promising target audience — nearly 400,000 former crew members of the carrier, though the older veterans were not ideal prospects for online donation.
Passion drives crowd-funding
Marshall expects that crowd-funding won't work for some kinds of projects, such as the possible FoodSense documentary series with food commentator Phil Lempert. The series piloted by MPT aims for a balanced treatment of the fiery issues of food safety and genetic modification. Marshall says Monsanto, a major maker of agrichemicals and modified seeds, funded the pilot but won't fund the series.
Crowd-funding would work much better, Marshall says, for the indie documentary Food Inc., with what he regards as an "extremely biased" critique of agribusiness, or for a strong film taking the opposite, pro-business approach. "My problem is that I keep to the middle," he says, "and it's never 'truth' enough for one side or the other."
Several producers did better in their experience with ReelChanges, Plotkin says. Their doc projects were saturated with passion.
One was Yoav Potash, a filmmaker in Santa Fe, N.M., who advised Plotkin and his programmers on the Indian subcontinent about how ReelChanges should work.
The $14,000 that Potash raised on the site for his film Crime After Crime was not a big slice of the eventual six-figure budget. However, it was handy to raise it at an early stage of production, and that made him look industrious to grantmakers, he says.
His feature-length doc about domestic violence and murder apparently doesn't end too happily, but the filmmaking venture did.
Potash got coveted aid from the Sundance Documentary Fund and sold rights to the Oprah Winfrey Network. His costs are covered and Oprah's fee gives him some pay for five years' work on the film. Next month the film will receive a Henry Hampton Award from the Council on Foundations.
ReelChanges also helped Potash with a lower-budget doc, Food Stamped, raising $3,500 — about half of its cash costs.
For Potash, and for the MPT doc as well, the key ingredients were intensive outreach efforts, including many screenings of Potash's works in progress. If he couldn't collect a pledge at a screening, he could refer attendees to the site for another look at footage.
"There was a belief years ago you could put up a website and somehow attract money ... and word would spread through the Internet." It doesn't often work out that way.
ReelChanges helped producers raise between $150,000 and $175,000, all told, in its two years' of operation, Plotkin estimates. He'll have precise numbers in time for a federal tax filing.
Plotkin says California filmmaker and psychiatrist Donald Goldmacher may have raised the largest sum, more than $50,000, for his documentary, Heist, which objects to pro-business policies including low corporate income taxes.
Other websites continue to do crowdfunding. Kickstarter indicates that it has raised $50,000 to $100,000 budgets for at least a handful of films, though Plotkin points out that it charges a fees for projects (it's 5 percent plus as much as 5 percent for Amazon's funding services). And Spot.us — a financially independent site that shares a nonprofit fiscal sponsor with ReelChanges — is doing well at crowdfunding for journalistic projects, says founder David Cohn.
Plotkin is disappointed that he couldn't make it easier for viewers to give a lift to docs they'd like to watch. But in 2009, after ReelChanges had been online for a year, he had to go with another personal passion — education reform — when the White House offered him a job at the Department of Education.
He didn't have the time to manage the site or the money to keep it going. Even after advertising for someone to adopt his baby, Plotkin couldn't find an adoptive idealist. So he put ReelChanges on ice and paid out the proceeds due to all but one producer — who will soon get a $100 check. He'd still like someone to revive the idled site.
"We gave it a good try with the resources we had," he says, "and at least we went down swinging."
This article has been expanded to include information available after print publication.
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