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?
"Kickstarter tells you to construct campaigns around fields of definites," Cook says. "That's family and friends. And we kind of reached a little outside of what we thought we could get in the community—what we knew we could get from that direct group of support. We set our goal beyond."
Smetanka also hoped to tap World War I buffs. But the average World War I buff might not be an avid Facebooker. "I think of my dad who's 76, and this is the kind of project he'd be pretty excited aboutif only he knew how to turn on a computer," Smetanka says. So he wrote letters to World War I organizations, people who make replica firearms and uniforms, historical societies and university departments, hoping to coax them to his Kickstarter page. The director of one World War I organization gave him a pointer. "He said, 'Look, if you want to reach potential backers with money, you've got to get airplanes in there, because people who are interested in World War I, if they are at all, it's because of airplanes.'"
Smetanka had tried to avoid airplanes in his film; they seemed like they might be too much work on top of his already painstaking silhouette process. But, he says, "I spent a weekend cutting out biplanes and making a little slideshow."
He doesn't know if that moved any supporters—ultimately, he didn't get much response from World War I buffs, he says, although what he got seemed enthusiastic—but it pushed him. Now he had biplanes involved, and his WWI landscape was going to be that much more layered. "It made me get a lot of work on the movie done—and not to mention all these things Patrick and I did: the bunker diaries and the updates. Thinking farther down the road with an eye toward DVD extras, we have this bizarre little satchel of artifacts that is sort of funny and stands by itself."
War by other means
The Kickstarter campaign for Smetanka's WWI film started feeling, aptly enough, like a political campaign or a battle. He and Cook would meet to strategize at the back of Le Petit Outre, the bakery where they both pull shifts, or at Smetanka's house in the North Hills. "It was like a war room," says Cook. "We'd just sit there and wrack our brains about what we're going to do the next week out."
How could they reach more people?
Kickstarter has a couple of ways of driving traffic to its site. One is to list staff picks of projects.
Each episode of "The Bunker Diaries" continued to narrate the trials and tribulations of Smetanka's Kickstarter campaign. "We were really putting pressure on them for a Memorial Day feature," he says. "We were kind of fighting to get them to notice us and at the same time we were sort of fighting a campaign against the exhaustion of being in this campaign, like, 'Oh! Will it ever end?'" he says melodramatically. "'I don't know!'... Those ended up being really fun, but for me that kind of felt like a response to the whole ordeal of Kickstarter at that point. We weren't being petty or snipey, but I could definitely read between the lines and see that I was struggling with the whole process of having this thing take over my life."
Smetanka took a family vacation to the Oregon coast in the last week of his campaign. Even with Cook at the wheel, it seemed like a crazy time to be away. He was $17,000 short of his goal. The campaign had started with a spike in contributions and then plateaued. Though he was able to relax most days in Oregon, he says, it was hard not to check in at the local library every few days to see if he was actually going to raise the money to make his film. "It turns your email into a crack-like experience where you look at it every five minutes to see if you have new backers."
He set up a Plan B: He made a deal with his sister that, if needed, she'd loan him up to $5,000 to make the goal.
"You get into this campaign," he says. "And of course, it makes you want it really badly. You want it so badly that at the end, you find yourself prepared to make really strange decisions, like 'I can hawk one of my kids.'" He laughs. "Well, not that extreme, but you do find yourself making really big Plan Bs that aren't really compatible with your project. It definitely messes with your head."
Meanwhile, on Facebook, there was a flutter of people sharing Smetanka's project. Cook says that people who had been talking about donating to it suddenly realized it was now or never. "I would love to write a psychology thesis on this platform," he says. "That last week alone is fascinating, it's amazing what happened. That was the most movement I'd ever seen in the last week of one of my campaigns."
With 72 hours to go, there were still several thousand dollars to be raised. Would they make it?
"There's this great thing that happens where people jump in at the 11th hour to be the hero," says Cook. "They want to feel like they single-handedly brought this over the finish line."
They came in $2,000 over their goal.
"It's a feeling I've always craved," Smetanka says, "having some kind of security or padding for a project. It's that shoulder, that break that a lot of artists dream of, where you can tune out the rest of the world and finally work on this thing that's moved upstairs in your head and won't leave. And to get it, and to finally dawn on you that you got it, is pretty astonishing."
Upping the ante
Doug Hawes-Davis's All the Labor is a music documentary about Austin band The Gourds, which also has a hearty following in Missoula. Hawes-Davis is a Missoula-based filmmaker and co-founder of High Plains Films, known for documentaries such as Libby, MT, Facing the Storm, This is Nowhere and Brave New West, as well as founding the Big Sky Documentary Film Festival. And he's a Gourds fan; he saw their second Missoula show, in 2001, when they played the now-defunct Blue Heron, and was hooked. When he heard a rough mix of their album Old Mad Joy a couple of years ago, he got to talking with the band about a documentary.
He started filming All the Labor late last summer. He and a crew toured with the band, collecting commentary by band members, concert footage, archival images and candid, entertaining behind-the-scenes footage that captures the irreverent quintet wonderfully. He started a Kickstarter campaign in May, hoping to raise $45,000.
From the beginning, Hawes-Davis had banked on Kickstarter for funding. But it wasn't carefree. He'd already mounted one Kickstarter campaign, to raise money to distribute Facing the Storm, his bison documentary, and it had failed, although the film ended up on PBS and won a regional Emmy. Likely, the pitch to contribute to distribute a film wasn't as enticing as one to help fund the making of one, he says, and he didn't put much effort into Kickstarter campaign updates. But it was all new to him then.
Hawes-Davis, who is 43, started his company High Plains Films, located in downtown Missoula, in 1992. He was used to seeking foundation grants to make his films. He and his High Plains partner, Drury Gunn Carr, would begin a project and try to keep it afloat with money from contract film work for groups such as the Sierra Club, and with sheer frugality. Any money they made from their films went to the making of their next one. "It's not really a great, sustainable model, but it sort of got us by," Hawes-Davis says, at least until the market for DVDs of films began to dry up.
That's when he took a closer look at Kickstarter. He saw how it had helped Missoula director Damon Ristau raise money to make the documentary The Bus. That one was ideal for Kickstarter. There are organized fans of VW buses, whose dedication Ristau examines in his film. There aren't many foundations that would give a grant to make a film like that, but there were plenty of individuals who might.
Hawes-Davis wanted to connect with Gourds fans, among others. The band was at a perfect crossroads. They'd just signed with the renowned blues and alt-country Vanguard label but hadn't blown up to the point where it might have been harder for Hawes-Davis to film them. And the band, which is Southern-flavored, more moonshine than fine wine, is endearingly quirky. "They're not the sort of instant, you know, Jack Johnson melody," says Hawes-Davis. "They take a little bit of time to grow on you, and I know from being a fanatic music fan, that's the music that sticks with me much longer than the pop melody."
Having already shot footage for the film, Hawes-Davis sunk his time into editing portions of it for Kickstarter updates. "It was far, far more work just to set up Kickstarter than I thought it was going to be," he says. "To decide on the amount. To decide what the awards were going to be. ... It was as much as writing a grant proposal, for sure."
His rewards—or incentives—for contributors started with a thank-you email and a place on a donor wall at $5. At $15, you got a thank-you postcard. At $25, you got a Gourds CD. At $30, $50, $75 and $100, you got DVDs and Blu-Ray HD films and movie posters. "When we started, I thought, well, there's only one way this is going to get funded, and that's if I can essentially pre-sell the DVD to Gourds fans." As the campaign went along, he began to see that there were High Plains Films fans contributing as well.
There were obstacles. The Gourds worried that the Kickstarter campaign might seem as if they were exploiting their fans. Until several days before the campaign began, The Gourds's manager was trying to find another way to fund the film, through big donors. When that didn't work, Hawes-Davis says, the manager said, "Let's Kickstart this thing."
Still, Hawes-Davis fretted. "If my Kickstarter campaign fails, not only do I not get the money and I look like a failure, The Gourds look like a failure," he says, adding, however, that the band never told him that. Still, "They were in somewhat disbelief that we could ever raise so much money this way, and so that was a lot of added pressure."
On the final day, the campaign had raised $47,000$2,000 over goal. It was more money than Hawes-Davis had ever gotten from a single funding source.
Patrick Cook has also managed a Kickstarter campaign for Missoula's Stellarondo. The quintet—an art-folk group that uses glockenspiel, pedal steel and musical saw, among an array of instruments—lately has been playing their sweet-and-dark, high-lonesome songs in conjunction with readings from author Rick Bass. Recently, Bass and the band headed to Portland, Ore., where they recorded an album of stories and instrumentals. They decided to try to fund the endeavor with Kickstarter.
Stellarondo hired Cook and another Kickstarter aficionado, Caitlin Hofmeister (who also co-managed the Winter in the Blood Kickstarter campaign), to manage their effort, with a target of $8,000.
Using Kickstarter "felt a little bit like going out on a limb to ask for money," says Stellarondo guitarist and singer Caroline Keys. "But Patrick and Caitlin, those two are a savvy, incredibly talented team. I feel like a Kickstarter campaign run entirely by [us] would not necessarily be done so well. Those two had done all their homework, all the research about which weeks are slump weeks and which weeks are big weeks. So we kind of had this experience where we were close to it but we didn't have our hands on every knob and button during the process."
Stellarondo is a classic shoestring operation. When they went to play a show recently in Astoria, Ore., for example, they found themselves without a place to crash for the night. Their original hosts had cats, and Travis Yost, their upright bassist, is allergic to cats. Their Plan B crash pad also had cats. So did the Plan C. Discouraged, driving up the gloomy Oregon coast, they caught sight of a hotel at the end of a pier. Keys and Bass asked if they could exchange a night in the hotel for a night of music and storytelling. "They said, 'We never do anything like this. Yes!'" recalls Keys. "It wasn't an immediate yes—we had to do some talking. They gave us a room and we all put on bathrobes and went and played in the lobby" for two other musicians who'd been booked for the night, the front desk staff and couple from Kansas City. "The front desk worker, one of them, was just in tears by the end," Keys says. "We just got a glorious letter from the hotel saying how deeply affected everyone was by our visit. ... They're trying to figure out how to get us back there." The next night, they played in a 200-seat auditorium for eight people. "That's just how it goes," says Keys, not sounding disappointed at all.
In the Portland studio, while making their album, they checked on the Kickstarter campaign when they could. "There were different levels of panic among us," Keys says. "There were some moments where we were trying to figure out how we would get it done if we didn't hit our goal."
When they returned to Missoula, the band dispersed, but they all checked Kickstarter"some of us daily," says Keys.
Three days before their deadline, they reached their goal.
"It's like many things in life," Keys says. "There's no horn section blowing behind you when you reach your goal. It just happens. And then people kept giving. The spirit of that was pretty overwhelming. And still is. This thing we're doing is going to exist because we asked."
The money will fund the mixing, mastering and duplication of the album and the album art. It also will help cover the cost of traveling to Portland and of studio time.
At the end of their campaign, Stellarondo, Cook and Hofmeister drove up to the Yaak Valley and celebrated in the way you'd hope a wildly creative Montana band would: After a dinner of elk burgers and rhubarb pie, they visited the Yaak cemetery, then hiked in pouring rain to the Canadian border, where they set up a movie camera and staged a defection.
"So many people are taking advantage of this," Keys says of Kickstarter. "Aside from the fundraising aspect of it, there's this kind of beautiful publicity thing about it. Now there's so many people who know about projects that are out there, whether or not they've helped fund them."
Patrick Cook calls this Kickstarter era a goldrush. And as in a goldrush, ultimately, there might be a few big winners and a lot of losers. A list of the saddest Kickstarter projects on Buzzfeed.com, for example, includes a T-shirt that says "I Love You Mom," which raised $0 of its $120 goal; a one-man concert detailing a personal journey through harmonica and sword fighting; a $270,000 World Trade Center replica memorial to be built in St. Louis; and a "realistic" dating board game called Single Again. On the other end, a campaign for the Pebble Technology customizable watch for Android and iPhone raised over $10 million. In Kalispell, John McGinnis raised $95,000 to build a futuristic-looking, energy-efficient airplane.
What could Kickstarter still do for technology, art and design? What if, instead of investing in politicians to change the world, people looked to artists?
Andy Smetanka considers that and chuckles. "Finally," he says, "the artists get all this money and the politicians will have to have bake sales."
• Freeload is a gritty, thoughtful documentary-in-progress by filmmaker Dan Skaggs who has spent the last year hopping trains and capturing the dreams and tribulations of fringe characters who live their lives on the rails. Last day to support: July 16.
• Missoula’s Josh Farmer—an accomplished musician who cooly blends jazz, rock, funk and soul—is heading into the studio with his band to make an EP, and the $5,500 he needs will go toward mixing, mastering, studio time, production and promotion. Last day to support: July 8.
• Tyson Ballew of Tummy Rock Records is making a 7-inch record for $600 featuring the Portland punk bands Andrew Link, Metallica 300 and King Elephant, a loud and fast Missoula band with members from Blackfeet rez rabble rousers Goddammitboyhowdy. Last day to support: July 7.
• Missoula’s Lynda DeBerry has been traveling to Guatemala to restore the Concha Acustica, a theater where she hopes to produce a play called “The Happy Prince” starring local Guatemalan actors. She needs $2,000. Last day to support: June 25.