How Kickstarter Topped $100M in Documentary Financing (and 10 Unusual Films That Benefited)

'Finders Keepers'

'Finders Keepers,' a Sundance sensation that traces the fight over a severed foot, is among the movies that raised money on the crowdfunding site.

A version of this story first appeared in the May 29 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

A man uses goat testicles to cure impotence. An 80-year-old dresses up as Big Bird. And two guys battle over the rights to, um, a severed foot. Those are just three of the most unusual documentaries to have raised money on Kickstarter, which this month crossed $100 million pledged to documentaries.

"It's really become something of a norm for documentary filmmakers to use Kickstarter at some point in their process," says the company’s film outreach lead Dan Schoenbrun. Six years since Perry Chen, Charles Adler and CEO Yancey Strickler founded the site, Kickstarter has hosted campaigns for over 4,500 films, not all of them oddities: They include Oscar winners (the short Inocente) and nominees (eight total, most recently the feature Finding Vivian Maier) and films from top documentarians like D.A. Pennebaker and Restrepo's Sebastian Junger.

"The documentary community has come to Kickstarter from the very beginning," says Schoenbrun. The site's biggest year for documentary funding so far was 2012, with $25,059,937 pledged and 1,096 films funded, and in the following years it received similar totals. The numbers reflect Kickstarter's overall growth in film, which was highest in 2013 with $85,660,162 for campaigns including The Veronica Mars Movie and projects by Zach Braff and Spike Lee.

Schoenbrun says filmmakers rarely bankroll their entire project via the platform. Instead most turn to Kickstarter for production or postproduction. "I think it really speaks to the documentary process, which I think for so many films can be years if not decades long. Putting together a film and following your subjects can really stretch on," says Schoenbrun. "Documentary filmmakers, more often than narrative, find themselves needing to sort of replenish and sustain themselves over a number of years."

Others use the site to fund the distribution of their films, either theatrically or through touring. Schoenbrun points to the Sundance-premiered The Black Panthers: Vanguards of the Revolution and director Stanley Nelson's Kickstarter campaign for a theatrical release targeting cities with diverse populations including Baltimore and Ferguson.

"I think it's one of the misconceptions of the platform that it's an alternative, that it's instead of traditional financing methods," says Schoenbrun. "You're raising a portion for a specific need."

Finding Vivian Maier's John Maloof and Charlie Siskel raised most of their budget on Kickstarter and paid the rest themselves. "I don’t know that we would’ve put in our own money to the extent that we did had we not gotten that initial substantial funding," says Siskel. “Not only did the money allow us to actually shoot, but it created a strong fan base for the film." They raised $105,042 for the film, over five times their funding goal, for expenses including a trip to France to visit the childhood home of their subject, a Chicago nanny and prolific street photographer in the mid-20th century. "It allowed us to be independent, to not have secured funding from some single source or single benefactor," says Siskel.

So what makes a doc a Kickstarter hit? Schoenbrun says the best-funded projects correspond to communities like social groups or fans of a film or TV show. Case in point: The second-highest-funded doc on the site, with $322,022, is BronyCon, which was released in 2013 with the new title Bronies: The Extremely Unexpected Adult Fans of My Little Pony.

There are exceptions: Schoenbrun points to the Sundance-premiered Finders Keepers, the story of a North Carolina fight over ownership of a severed leg. "It's not something where they've tapped into the amputated leg community," says Schoenbrun. "But the story was so wild and presented in an entertaining way that it resonated in the same way it resonated with audiences in the world."

Schoenbrun says the site doesn’t only raise money for films, it builds them audiences of devoted donors. He recalls a friend who financed her first doc with Kickstarter, but not her second: "She told me she didn’t realize it until the premiere, but she actually felt lonely."

And Kickstarter success can renew industry interest in a documentary, like when the Joan Didion doc We Tell Ourselves Stories in Order to Live reached its funding goal in one day. Says Schoenbrun, "[The producers] told us that literally the day they launched and hit their goal, they got phone calls from everyone they'd been trying to get meetings with for two years."

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