'Little Miss Sunshine' Producer: What They Don't Tell You About Crowdfunding (Guest Column)

Tomi Um

Kickstarter vs. Indiegogo? Hire a social media expert? How do you get on the "front page"? David Friendly, writing for The Hollywood Reporter, shares the lessons from his first foray into raising money online for his sneaker documentary: "Turns out I suck at crowdfunding."

This story first appeared in the Nov. 15 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

In this town, where the brag frequently exceeds the swag, some transparency is a healthy thing from a producer. Turns out, at least on day 32 of a 60-day campaign, I suck at crowdfunding.

A bit of background: I'm producing and directing (along with my co-director Mick Partridge) my first documentary, Sneakerheadz, which focuses on the colorful world of people who obsessively collect "kicks" (tennis shoes in the old days). Our movie will feature interviews with famous collectors, athletes, fashion designers who work in the space and just regular folks who collect. Fortunately, this is a low-budget show, and we have almost all of our money in the can. But a few months ago, our team discussed the idea of raising another $100,000 for expensive elements like music and clip clearances. The sneaker explosion evolved from the natural intersection of hoops and hip-hop, and songs from Drake or Kanye don't come cheap.

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Early on, we realized there were only a couple serious options on where to launch. Most people have heard of Kickstarter, which has launched more than 50,000 campaigns. The lesser-known site is Indiegogo. Think of it as Avis once was to Hertz: As No. 2, they try harder. More important, the rules differ. At Kickstarter, you create a financial goal, and if you don't hit your target, you don't get to keep what you raised. At Indie, you keep whatever comes in. Both take a cut of what you raise (at Indiegogo, it's 4 percent; at Kickstarter, it's 5 percent; both sites offer contributors only "premiums," not an investment in the film).

Additionally, while Kickstarter offers no one you can discuss your campaign with (you are responsible for uploading all content and graphics, etc., digitally), at Indie there was someone to talk to. After a good call with a young executive named Marc, we opted for Avis. He promised the crack PR department would promote the film and arrange for interviews with magazines and websites that cater to the kicks crowd.

Next we realized we needed a two-minute teaser film to show what the movie was all about. This would go alongside some text describing the doc and a list of perks we'd be offering. For the teaser, we spent a few hundred dollars and shot some cool footage in and around Melrose and Fairfax, the L.A. neighborhood known for sneaker boutiques like Flight Club and Undefeated. We added an interview with our narrator, DJ Skee, and our editor put together a nifty sneaker montage at the end. Voila, we were in business. Or so we thought.

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Think of a crowdfunding site as a digital lemonade stand. You can have the prettiest sign and the freshest juice, but you need a whole lot of cars to come by to sell any lemonade. When I was 7 years old in Riverdale, N.Y., I had such a stand. One day, a red convertible stopped, and Roger Maris, a Yankees legend, bought a cup and gave me an autograph. In the world of crowdfunding, you can't count on Roger Maris stopping by. Marc noted that it's not so much about the page you put up but the traffic your site attracts. As Johnny Carson used to say, "I did not know that …"

Once the site was live, money did come in. The first dollars came from my dermatologist, who also happens to be one of my closest friends since fifth grade. I don't think of him as a sneaker head, but there's apparently a lot of money in Botox, and he's generous. My mother kicked in a nice sum and is now getting a pair of custom kicks we're making for just 100 donors. Can't wait to see her in her new Nikes at her upcoming 90th birthday celebration.

All told, the 13 early adopters gave about $10,000 -- a mere 10 percent of our goal. Enter social media expert Patrick, whom we brought on to help us boost traffic. We had to pay him, of course, which ate into our funds raised. Patrick generated hundreds of tweets and retweets aimed at the sneaker bloggers and retail sites like Sneaker Pimps and Nice Kicks. I sent out what I thought was a polite link to our site to all 6,000 contacts in my computer. Some emails came back with a kind response like, "Good luck with the project"; some came back with that annoying "undeliverable" message because the recipient thought I was proffering Viagra. In one case, an old friend emailed that his son was a major sneaker head and that he wanted to potentially invest. Hopefully, he will join in a bigger scale.

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A word of caution: If you have dreams of your project getting on the coveted "front page" of the site, don't bother. In a cruel irony, the front page is reserved for the projects with the most eyeballs, measured by something inexplicably called the "Gogofactor." It's a bit of the old chicken and egg question.

But back to those premiums. For just $100, you can get a T-shirt and a commemorative snap-back cap. For $1,000, you can be the proud owner of a custom pair of Nike Airs with the Sneakerheadz logo. Who knows, they could be a genuine collector's item soon. Come on, we've still got time until the Nov. 30 deadline. If you get the urge, here's the link, or email Sneakerheadz@indiegogo.com.

We may add fresh lemonade as one of the premiums tomorrow.

David T. Friendly is the Oscar-nominated producer of Little Miss Sunshine.