At Play: Kickstarter is a Web site for the starving artist

By Mike Musgrove
Sunday, March 7, 2010

Baltimore-based director Matt Porterfield was overjoyed to find out that his latest film was accepted by the Berlin Film Festival. But there was one not-so-trivial problem: He didn't have any money to finish the editing and sound work.

Even a plane ticket to Germany would have been out of the question for Porterfield. He had maxed out his credit cards to make "Putty Hill," a beautifully shot and largely improvised story about a group of Baltimore kids who come together to attend the funeral of a friend who died of a drug overdose.

During this exciting yet desperate time, one of the film's producers heard about Kickstarter, a Web site that connects creative people with sympathetic audiences and potential contributors. Post a convincing pitch at the site, and you might raise enough money to write that book or finance that art project.

That is exactly what the "Putty Hill" team did. Working quickly, Porterfield and his colleagues scrambled to post a presentation in which they would ask the site's visitors to contribute a few dollars toward helping him and the film reach the festival in February.

In the three-minute video clip, Porterfield addresses the camera directly. "It's hard to ask for money in this way," he says. "But to see a vision realized sometimes takes an effort like this." Images from the unfinished movie and its set help tell, and sell, the director's story.

Kickstarter campaigns work a bit like a public radio fundraising drive. Pledge a certain amount of money and the organizers promise to send something in return, whether it's a mug or a signed DVD. To encourage people to reach into their pockets, Porterfield's team offered up signed movie posters and personal tours of the film's locales in Baltimore.

Each Kickstarter project has to meet a self-assigned dollar target by a self-assigned deadline. If a project does not meet its goal, no money is exchanged. The Putty Hill team asked the anonymous, Web-surfing masses to contribute $10,000. As the director's plea made the rounds through Facebook and Twitter, the campaign reached $20,624, from 180 backers.

"Putty Hill" producer Steve Holmgren said he wasn't sure how else he could have come up with the money. And on a personal level, he said, the support from Kickstarter users is worth more to him than the dollar amount that was raised. "It's much more satisfying than getting a $20,000 check from a production company that's going to put its name on it and take control of the project," he said.

So far, about 650 projects have been funded through Kickstarter, said the site's co-founder Yancey Strickler, though an equal number of projects have not met their funding targets. More than 60,000 people have pledged to contribute to projects, in a total dollar amount measured in the millions. The site takes a 5 percent cut of projects that are funded.

Strickler, who grew up near Blacksburg, Va., said that people give money to Kickstarter projects for some of the same reasons they shop at a local farmer's market: The transaction just feels more meaningful, for one thing.

"We're all used to buying a CD or DVD, but there's not a lot of emotional engagement with that," said Strickler, who gets about 100 e-mails a day from people hoping to use the site as a platform. "With Kickstarter, it's a much deeper connection."

Katie Williams, 22, of Hanover, Md., who has pledged money to about 15 campaigns at the site, said pretty much the same thing. "You do kind of get a warm, fuzzy feeling that you're helping someone out," she said. "At the end of the day, I'm not going to miss five dollars or so, but that five dollars might help somebody meet their life goals."

Certainly there's no lack of projects from which to choose. At the moment on Kickstarter, an artist is making a pitch for a quirky video game he wants to make. Elsewhere on the site, cartoonist Ted Rall is seeking to raise $10,000 so that he can travel to Afghanistan, where he hopes to observe and write about everyday life there. A Washington-based band called DeVille recently used the site to raise $3,000 toward making its first album.

As for Porterfield, the Berlin festival was a success. The film has landed distribution interest in Germany, Austria and Switzerland.

There's only one problem. To get to the venues in those countries, he's going to need more money to secure music rights and to pay for a new print of the film. Maybe Kickstarter visitors will be able to dig a little deeper.

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