Moviemakers Hal and Marilyn Weiner thought they had all the ingredients for an attention-grabbing fundraising campaign for their newest documentary, “Extreme Realities.”
Matt Damon was narrating the film, which features interviews with big names such as New York Times columnists Paul Krugman, a Nobel Prize-winning economist, and Tom Friedman, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist. The Weiners have a prolific track record — together, they have had 255 documentaries, four television series and three feature films broadcast on NBC or PBS.
If they had been looking for large grants or investors, their recipe was one that had worked in the past. But in the world of crowdfunding, where artists and entrepreneurs can raise money from large group of small donors online, having big names on board wasn’t enough — and therein lies a lesson about the challenges of this new method of financing.
The Weiners, District residents, have been making films for the past 40 years. So far, their environment-focused documentaries have been funded by nonprofits and grants, such as the Science Educational Partnership Award supported by the National Institutes of Health. But a shrinking supply of grants and heightened competition from other filmmakers prompted the Weiners to try crowdfunding for their 256th documentary.
“Funding for PBS has been difficult lately,” Marilyn Weiner said. “Using crowdfunding is an interesting way for producers to get their message out and tell their story.”
“Extreme Realities,” the 13th installment of the Weiners’ PBS series, “Journey to Planet Earth,” connects climate change to political consequences. The Weiners had already secured about $250,000 from various foundations, including the Wallace Genetic Foundation, a District-based nonprofit supporting agricultural research.
But they still needed at least $75,000 more. So last month, they made a page on Kickstarter, an online crowdfunding platform, requesting that amount. Donors would receive perks depending on the size of their donation, such as a script signed by the Weiners for $25, or lunch with the moviemakers and an opportunity to attend the narration session with Damon for $10,000.
Their Kickstarter page featured a six-minute trailer with clips from Damon, Friedman and Krugman, among others, as well as a written appeal for donations. The film, the Weiners wrote, aims to answer questions such as “How soon before severe drought and famine in Africa will cause global food shortages?” and how much of the “$10-20 billion generated each year by illegal poaching can be linked to terrorist groups such as al-Qaeda?”
They had 45 days to raise the money — Kickstarter returns funds to donors if the goal isn’t met by the deadline. So they set to work, using Twitter and Facebook to promote the documentary. It wasn’t easy — neither of them were very comfortable using social media, Marilyn Weiner said.
“We’re newbies,” she said. “We’re like the kids that are starting out, which is kind of amusing because here we are with 250 documentaries to our name.”
The two devoted hours every day to publicizing the campaign. “It was just short of debilitating,” Hal Weiner said. They tweeted at environmental organizations such as GreenPeace and the Sierra Club — some of whom re-tweeted their campaign page to hundreds of thousands of followers. They posted on their Facebook pages and e-mailed industry contacts.
Especially when crowdfunding films, targeting an audience passionate about the film’s topic is more effective than broad social media blasts, according to Kiley Kraskouskas, president and executive producer of Thinking Forward Media, a District-based media company which conducts crowdfunding seminars.
“It’s about the niche — finding a niche audience that really believes already in a project. It’s not about pleasing everybody,” she said. Those who are already interested in a film’s topic are more likely to contribute, she added.
Despite their social media efforts, the Weiners found 22 hours before the campaign ended they had only raised about $45,000 from about 190 backers, almost half of whom were their personal contacts.
“We’ve been around for so long. Sometimes you get funding or you don’t get funding. But we were disappointed because we’d spent six weeks on this thing,” Hal Weiner said.
In the campaign’s final hours, the Weiners had a change of luck. They received an unsolicited message from an international corporation offering to cover the $30,000 gap.
“They were on a long list of people and environmental organizations we’d asked to spread the word. They went ahead and contacted us and said, ‘How do we help you make this happen?’” Marilyn Weiner said.
But because Kickstarter prohibits donations of more than $10,000, the company couldn’t make the contribution on the platform. The pledges the Weiners had already raised on Kickstarter weren’t accepted, as they hadn’t met the goal. The Weiners sent an e-mail request to donors asking that those who contributed on Kickstarter donate the returned funds instead to South Carolina Educational TV, a non-profit based in Columbia, S.C., which had offered to accept the donations. The funds would be tax-deductible and eventually re-directed to the Weiners.
More than 85 percent of the Kickstarter donors have already agreed, and they expect more to do so, Marilyn Weiner said.
“Some people were so relieved [to donate to South Carolina ETV]. Kickstarter can be tricky, and it’s not exactly intuitive,” Marilyn Weiner said, noting that several potential donors hadn’t contributed because they didn’t want to do it publicly on Kickstarter’s online platform.
Though they’re not sure they would use crowdfunding again, if they did, they’d devote more time to targeted social media, Hal Weiner said. “We would have done more social media overseas — Europe is particularly ‘green.’ It’s not a wedge issue there,” he said, noting that a handful of the Kickstarter donations came from environmentally conscious people in the United Kingdom and the Netherlands.
In a difficult financial environment, filmmakers will likely have to get creative, raising money piecemeal and doing as much production as possible on minimal funds, Marilyn Weiner said. “The model we used before, where you get all the funding [before production] worked in the past. It’s not ideal to start production before you have the funding, but on the other hand, if you wait, you’re waiting for an awful long time.”
Now that they’ve secured almost all of their budget, the Weiners are diving into production. In a couple of months, once they’re done filming, they’ll schedule narration sessions with Damon, and are hoping to air the documentary in the spring of next year.
This story has been updated to reflect new information about the $30,000 donation.
“We’ve been around for so long. Sometimes you get funding or you don’t get funding. But we were disappointed because we’d spent six weeks on this thing.”
— Hal Weiner