'Dear Mr. Watterson': How Doc on Cult of 'Calvin & Hobbes' Beat the Odds

Bill Watterson

A new film about the reclusive Bill Watterson's beloved comic strip is a DIY success story.

In 2007, Dear Mr. Watterson was nothing more than a passion project director Joel Schroeder worked on between freelance editing jobs. "Our budget was zero, so it was whatever I could afford to spend every given month," Schroeder tells The Hollywood Reporter. "Then in fall of 2009, we heard about this thing called Kickstarter."

Kickstarter had only gone live in April of that year and Schroeder, like everyone, was new to the crowdfunding world: "At the time, we naively thought the longer we let it run the better the chances we'd have of meeting our goal." Schroeder and his team hoped to raise $12,000 in 90 days and were shocked to hit their goal in 12 days, collecting nearly $25,000 by the end of the campaign.

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"That changed everything -- it widened the scope of the film, it heightened expectations and suddenly we had 359 backers who were expecting us to turn it into a film, instead of it being something a few us worked on during our spare time."

What those who funded Dear Mr. Watterson's initial Kickstarter proved to Schroeder was that there was an audience for his film. "We knew people loved Calvin and Hobbes, but we didn't know they'd give their hard earned cash to a stranger to make a film about it."

With money for travel and equipment, Schroeder hit the road with a renewed sense of purpose: "I wanted to make a film that explored the impact of the strip, but to also have some humanity in it. Looking back, there's nothing from my childhood that has such resonance and meaning." To show his personal experiences with the strip were universal, Schroeder returned to social media to connect with fans and gather their stories, many of which are featured in the film's fan tribute montage.

When it came time to finish, a second Kickstarter campaign launched and ultimately raised an additional $96,000. It was around this time that Schroeder downloaded the documentary Indie Game from VHX, a company giving filmmakers the ability to do high-end distribution from their own websites. For Schroeder, who admits he wasn't even dreaming of the possibility of a theatrical release, this was the final piece of the puzzle: "That was the first time I saw that distribution was accessible for someone like me, who had never made a film before and didn't know how to navigate distribution."

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A film made with the devoted fan in mind is often given the disparaging label of niche, but as VHX's head of business development Adam Klaff puts it, "Niche is the new mainstream." He goes on to explain, "These communities are online, and it doesn't cost anything to reach them. You don't have to have an outdoor advertising campaign. You don't have to spend money on TV publicity. You just need really great materials, and the audience will find you."

To illustrate this, Klaff points to how Dear Mr. Watterson's Kickstarter campaign was shared across the Calvin and Hobbes online community, and the fact its trailer rose to the front page of Reddit within two hours of hitting the web. He also believes this is why DIY filmmakers like Schroeder are the best marketers and distributors of their films.

"If a distributor buys your movie at a festival, they are going to do the same thing that Joel is doing: They're going to market it using the mailing list and social media, and they're not necessarily going to do a better job than the filmmaker. That's the beautiful thing; the wall has come down in terms of access to people. So if you just know your audience and are smart about positioning your film, the sky's the limit in terms of your success online."

Schroeder adds, "I know my audience better than anyone else at this point. I am a Calvin and Hobbes fan. We're not all the same, but I do feel like I have a good feel for what a typical fan is interested in. This movie was made from a fan's perspective. And after making this film for six years and thinking about Calvin and Hobbes every day, I would like to think I have good instincts of how to reach my audience."

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One aspect that's fascinating about Schroeder's fan-like approach is he didn't choose to search for the elusive Bill Watterson, the J.D. Salinger-like mastermind behind Calvin and Hobbes who doesn't speak or appear publicly. Instead he tried to answer the question of why Watterson's "simple" comic strip still means so much to its ever growing fan base. When Schroeder brought the film to Watterson's supposed hometown of Cleveland (it is not publicly known where exactly the famous cartoonist lives) he invited Watterson "knowing full well that he wouldn't accept, but it was also an opportunity to offer a DVD to him."

When asked if he knows if Watterson saw the film, Schroeder, who insists he never spoke to the cartoonist, becomes a little cagey. "What I can say is he appreciated the choices I made to make it less intrusive. That for me was validation of how we went about making the film."

Dear Mr. Watterson opens today at The Laemmle NoHo7 in Los Angeles and Cinema Village in New York, along with limited engagements in Toronto and Sante Fe. It also will be available OnDemand today and can be ordered from the film's website via VHX.