How a small documentary project grew into the most-crowdfunded film of 2012.
IgnitionDeck’s first release was funded by a small group of makers and entrepreneurs that were eager for a self-hosted crowdfunding solution, so much so that they donated time and money in order to help get it off the ground. One of these early supporters was Neverending Light Productions, a successful documentary film crew that sought to crowdfund their next effort, Sirius.
From April to June of 2012, Sirius ran a crowdfunding campaign on both Kickstarter and their own IgnitionDeck-powered site. They continued collecting funds for Sirius during production and wound up raising a total of $520,000, of which $463,000 was raised on their own website. In total they had 3,800 backers and a film premier in Los Angeles just 1 year after their crowdfunding campaign had begun.
What is The Sirius Documentary?
Sirius is a feature-length documentary directed by Amardeep Kaleka that follows Dr. Steven Greer, an emergency room doctor turned UFO researcher, as he struggles to disclose top secret information about classified energy & propulsion techniques.
“We’d lose far less in fees…”
Two and a half weeks prior to the start of their campaign for Sirius, Neverending Light Productions sat down to burn the midnight oil and get all of their networks together and lay down the infrastructure for their campaign. “We drafted our major strategy for the campaign – everything from the hard financials to mapping the story” said Laurie Knapp, Post Production Lead at Neverending Lights.
Laurie and her team realized quickly during the brainstorming sessions, that they could stand to keep a lot more of their raise in house if they did it on their own site. “IgnitionDeck allowed us to incorporate a crowdfunding platform that emulated Kickstarter on our own custom site.”
With this control, the Neverending Light team “…was able to take advantage of our existing networks to populate social media and blogs…“ and thus ensure their existing networks and fans made their pledges on their home site. “We’d lose far less in fees, get access to the money right away – no matter the goal outcome – and be able to create our site with all our own images and content.”
At the same time, they knew that Kickstarter could bring them an audience they might not reach otherwise. So they set up a small Kickstarter campaign, ultimately netting an additional 50K in addition to the 460K+ raised on their own WordPress crowdfunding site.
The Dawn of Self-Hosted Crowdfunding
Neverending Light decided to crowdfund on their own site and on Kickstarter because, to their knowledge, something like that had not really been attempted in the world of crowdfunding yet.
Building on their own site they said, “…would allow us to get more creative with imagery and messaging”. They worked to pack their site full of background information, create frequent update videos (that they prepared ahead of time), shareable memes and imagery, and other things that their social media team put together. In other words, self-hosted crowdfunding allowed them to control the manner and message in which they marketed their project.
Controlling the message, and as a result, creating buzz, guaranteed that every update on their campaign reached an ever-expanding network of donors. This, in turn, also created the entire platform for which their film grew. Because of this early process of getting the word out, when Sirius premiered a year later they “made back our full spend within 72 hours of online sales.”
After almost 3 weeks of hard work, and some all-nighters, they pulled the trigger on the the launch. As Laurie puts it “I was at home when I flipped the switch on it. After it went live, I drove to work – about 25 minutes away. After I parked, I thought I would check the campaign and see if anyone had actually donated yet. So I opened up the app, checked the account… and saw we’d already raised $7,000.”
That hard work certainly paid off, as once their content hit their networks, things took off. “It was like our audience had never seen anything like it before”. By the end of that first day, they’d hit over $40,000 raised. It was then, Laurie says, “I knew that we had definitely made the right decision.”
The Ups and Downs
As with any crowdfunding campaign, Sirius experienced its peaks and falls periodically. At those times, the Neverending Light team “…had to create new types of content to re-invigorate our crowd, and also push our social media team into overdrive to expand our crowd.”
On top of those usual peaks and falls, Laurie and her team experienced a major setback at the hands of PayPal. They chose to begin using funds once the first 30 days had passed so that they could get a head start on production. A lot of pre-production was depending on the timing and amount of those withdrawals.
“So imagine our horror when PayPal sent us an alert saying they were locking our account. “
The Neverending Light team was told that since this was a crowdfunding project, they were “…selling promises, not products”. Due to the PayPal customer protection policy, they couldn’t release their funds until the movie was made and the purchases of promises were guaranteed.
With production nearly stalled, the Sirius production team spent about 3 months in phone conferences trying to convince the PayPal legal team that they can’t make a movie without the money raised to fund it. Nothing convinced PayPal of Neverending Light’s true intentions, and in order to bring in needed funds “ we quickly searched for another solution, and ended up stumbling across WePay. They understood crowd funding and promised to never pull anything like PayPal had.”
Sirius was able to get rolling again with funding continuing to come in via WePay. And aside from the “…tragedy with PayPal…”, Laurie says they wouldn’t change anything else about how they did it.
How It All Paid Off
Sirius ultimately broke documentary crowdfund records, and launched the Neverending Light team “…into the crowd as the go-to crowd-funding guys”.
When Sirius premiered, it made back their full spend within 72 hours of online sales. So, not only did they crowdfund the production of their documentary and cover those costs, delivering the film to everyone that contributed to the campaign in the early days – they also made back that money and more via online sales, in only 3 days!
Neverending Light went on to run a few more campaigns after this one, and ultimately started consulting others on everything they’d learned through a new company called Rainmakr. “There are a ton of people out there with amazing ideas that won’t get heard unless they present them correctly, in front of the right people.”
We asked Laurie what some of those lessons were, and she shared some great ones.
Be prepared for a new full-time job.
Make sure your networks are in place before you start, and never stop coming up with new ways to energize them.
If you’re not good at video production, hire a team to help you. Likewise for graphics.
You’ll want to find people capable of creating online media that’s so engaging, it’ll pull people in and go viral.
Don’t be afraid to ask for what you want! A lot of people get nervous asking friends and family for donations, but they’ll appreciate you being direct.
Keep it interesting. Everyone eventually shuts down when they hear the same “ask” over and over again.
Keep your crowdfund as nail-biting and competitive as an athletic event, though, and you’ll keep everyone excited all the way through.