The first successful Missoula fundraising campaign using Kickstarter was titled "A Girl and Her Laser Cutter: A Story of Want and Desire." Andrea Leggitt, owner of one-woman business Salty and Sweet Design, makes silhouette mobiles of everything from bicycles to Day of the Dead-style skulls. She wanted a laser cutter, an expensive piece of machinery that would let her cut cleanly through mat and bamboo. Her goal was $2,500. At the end of 2010, Leggitt had raised $3,720.
Next came a Kickstarter campaign for alt-folk band Wartime Blues, which funded its recording project at $1,858, a little above its goal. Up-and-coming business Cairn Cartographics raised $5,704 on Kickstarter to map the Bob Marshall Wilderness. And then some larger projects arose: Filmmaker Damon Ristau raised $25,430 for his film The Bus, about the VW vehicle, which he showed at the Big Sky Documentary Film Festival in February to a crowd that included a lot of rabid VW bus fans. By the time the campaign for the feature film Winter In the Blood was funded at $67,223 in July 2011, artists in Missoula and many other places were starting to get the picture: Screw grant funding. Ask the masses and thou shalt receive.
Kickstarter, the crowd-sourcing online platform for creative projects from films to food endeavors to albums, books and more, was launched in 2008 by Yancey Strickler, Perry Chen and Charles Adler, from Manhattan's Lower East Side. Through the end of 2011, only about a dozen projects in Missoula were funded using it. But in just the first six months of 2012, over 20 projects in Missoula and 20 others within Montana have successfully reached their goals, as Kickstarter seems to be approaching a point of critical mass. Now, Montana artists and artisans are seeing a wide variety of their endeavors getting funded with the help of individual contributors, from an Indian food cart to an experimental airplane and from a punk album to a historical fiction project in the Arctic.
Local artists riding this wave seem to be both excited and apprehensive. In a society in which the axe often falls first on arts funding during a down economy, they wonder whether Kickstarter contributors are telling them something different about support for the arts. Yet they also wonder whether they might reach a saturation point with Kickstarter and crowd-funding. Still, for now, it's a strange and exhilarating new avenue to realize artistic vision, with interesting lessons to be learned along the way.
Life on the frontlines
Kickstarter (kickstarter.com) has guidelines for what it can be used to fund. For example, it can't be used for charities. Its focus is helping to fund individual creativity. Projects must fit into one of these categories: art, comics, dance, design, fashion, film, food, games, music, photography, publishing, technology and theater. They must have tangible goals. It can't be used to fund lifestyles—no asking for tuition or vacation money or the newest Apple device. And a project can't focus on firearms, as Kickstarter defines them, or alcohol, energy drinks, porn, infomercial products or hate speech. Project owners choose a deadline and a minimum of funds to raise; if the minimum isn't met by the deadline, no funds are collected. The all-or-nothing funding, coupled with contributors' ability to withdraw pledges during a campaign, adds suspense.
There's a practical reason Kickstarter is working for artists. Like start-up businesses, so many art projects—especially films—benefit from a chunk of upfront money. A Kickstarter page gives artists a place to imagine their projects, pitch them to the world and get financial backers, and to create something that already has fans.
Once you define your project, there are incentives to think about. The site is set up so that, in exchange for donating, people get something in return. For a small contribution, you might offer a simple, personal "thank you" postcard. A larger contribution might guarantee copies of the art project in the form of prints or albums or DVDs. And, in the case of some Missoula projects, musicians who want to back a friend's Kickstarter project have offered themselves: For a contribution such as $500 or $1,000, a contributor would get to book the band for a private function.
Artists don't get all of the money they raise. Kickstarter takes 5 percent off the top. Amazon, the online retailer, which processes the contributions, takes another 5 percent. And some artists are giving another cut to a campaign manager, a niche that Patrick Cook has carved out in Missoula.
Cook, 25, a guitarist and vocalist for the Missoula band Grandfatherglen and a filmmaker who's directed two music videos for on-the-rise Missoula musician David Boone, as well as directing and acting in theater, has managed three Kickstarter campaigns so far, which in part entails marketing themfinding ways to publicize them on social media, for exampleas well as handling email inquiries, setting up meetings with big potential partners, curating the Kickstarter page to keep it fresh and dynamic and laying the groundwork for post-Kickstarter funding. In return, he's been paid up to 10 percent of the funds an artist raises. Cook managed the Kickstarter campaign for Winter In the Blood, a Montana-made film of James Welch's novel, directed by Andrew and Alex Smith (The Slaughter Rule) and featuring actors such as David Morse (The Hurt Locker) and Dana Wheeler-Nicholson ("Friday Night Lights"). Cook was named an associate producer for his Kickstarter work on it.
Cook's most recent Kickstarter campaign was helping to raise $30,000 for filmmaker Andy Smetanka for And We Were Young, a feature-length animated film about American soldiers during World War I, based on journals, interviews and historical documents. Smetanka had already established himself as a silhouette artist and animator who's made music videos for the Decemberists and who recently traveled to New York to work on a project about bees with Isabella Rossellini. For And We Were Young, he created trailer-like teasers to update his Kickstarter campaign, with striking animations of soldiers sneaking through grass and blasting their bayonetted rifles into a beautifully ominous orange sky.
Cook took the updates a step further by conceiving and directing a series of old-timey-looking black-and-white videos called "The Bunker Diaries: Tales from the Western Front." Smetanka, dressed in a period uniform, sits in what looks like a bunker (actually, his root cellar) and narrates letters to his supporters. In the first episode, we see him rattled by an offscreen explosion. "Dear Friends of And We Were Young," he says: "It's not so bad, you know, life on the frontlines of the Kickstarter campaign. I think we're well on our way to our goal."
Cook worried that $30,000 might be setting the bar too high. The film would cost more than that, but would people be willing to give even that much?