Financing your important are your friends?

(still from Leon Cheo's 'Three Sisters')

As filmmakers, your ‘normal’ friends’ reaction to knowing that you make films never fails to bring about a sense of dejavu. ‘Wow! You are a movie director! Can you invite me to your opening?’ Or ‘Can you cast me in a role?’ What they may not know is that you are about to get as dirty as a coal miner and as sleepless as a military general at war (with time). So you innocently follow up that comment with a question, ’Can you contribute a little to my film?’ This time, the answer that you get is likely to be a bit more varied.

‘Yes of course! You are so talented!

‘How much do you need?’

‘What’s the movie about?’

‘Can I see the script?’

‘Who are you selling it to?’

‘You should approach MDA, nowadays, they sponsor movies right?’

So do trust and friendship go in parallel? There seems to be a big question mark here. I can be your good friend but I may not employ you to work for me or I may not put money into your business. For Olivia Griselda, Jasmine Teh, Leon Cheo and Kenny Gee, they each have a story to tell in terms of getting help from friends. The common thread among them is that they all have films that have been crowdfunded. Each brought to light some wisdom about getting money on your own and of course, from friends.

Olivia Griselda and Jasmine Teh are 2 recent SMU graduates and they recently completed ‘Alice wants a date’, a YouTube series about a 22-year-old girl who creates seven online dating profiles in her quest to find her ideal man. This seven-episode web series successfully raised US$3,156 through crowdfunding platform Indiegogo.

On the set of 'Help Alice find Love!'

Olivia and Jasmine’s case demonstrate why crowdfunding works better if you are into making videos and short films suited for a more casual and fun-living audience like YouTube. Many of us have definitely seen some well-made YouTube videos and wonder where the makers got their money from.
Olivia and Jasmine hatched an idea about women who want to date men, inspired by an 80s dating video in The Ellen Show and wanted it to be a fun and easily accessible video like ‘Shit Singaporean Girlfriends say’ and the likes.

There were several funding options they considered including getting sponsors or a government grant. Getting sponsors meant offering sponsors opportunities for product placements in the video. ‘Shit Singaporean Girlfriends say’ struck such a deal with its sponsors. However, in Olivia and Jasmine’s case, their lack of a comprehensive portfolio made it difficult to get the attention of sponsors. Government grants required a long and arduous application process, which could take months, defeating the spontaneity of the idea.

So it came down to seeking friends. Many of them supported the idea in spirit but when it came to parting with their money, they were hesitant until they see something concrete or substantial, which is a chicken and egg situation, really. Eventually having chanced up a crowdfunding campaign video by Kenny Gee, titled ‘The Body’, they got inspired and decided to give crowdfunding a try. Here’s their crowdfunding video:

The result? They exceeded their funding target of US$3,000 in 18 days, less than the 21 days they had originally planned. The funders were a varied lot, consisting of friends, strangers from Hong Kong, US and Canada, as well as people in the arts, design, fashion circle, who could identify with what they were trying to do.

Kenny Gee, their source inspiration, set a much higher benchmark for crowdfunding. He aimed to raise US$20,000 for his short film ‘The Body’. In the end, he exceeded it by a considerable US$9000. Indiewire ( called it “Project of the Day - A Crime Drama with One of the Best Crowdfunding Videos We’ve Ever Seen”. It was Indiewire’s ‘Project of the week and month – Feb 2013’ Indiegogo called it the “Most creative & brilliant campaign Video of all time!”.

One look at his Indiegogo crowdfunding is telling. ‘The Body’ has an elaborate crowdfunding plan. There are altogether 8 plans to choose from ranging from a $10 to a $2000 donation. Each donation comes with different gifts, which include autographed posters, limited-edition DVDs and even an EP (Executive Producer)-class visit to the filming set! What’s most convincing about Kenny’s campaign is the consistent theatrics he injects into every communicating outlet from the project description to the self-introduction and of course, the arresting teaser clip.

You might think a video like this would speak for itself. However, it was friends and family who got the engine started. In the early stages of the campaign, people who funded Kenny’s project were mostly those from my immediate network - family, classmates from film school, friends old and new, ex-colleagues, teachers, and even acquaintances over the years.

After the initial period, the campaign kind of died for a while before the coming back in a big way when the Indiegogo and Indiewire websites wrote about and publicized the project. This second phase of contributions was the real deal, for contributions came from all over the world, and especially the US, where people are very interested in crowdfunding at the moment. Among the biggest funders included a producer based in LA.

Kenny shares that the biggest lesson he learnt is that you cannot try and predict where your next donation is going to come from.

In his experience, everybody he thought would come out and donate if they had the chance did not. Instead, he received ridiculously generous donations from people he least expected, including old friends he had not seen in years or complete strangers.

It seems long lost friends will save your life one day. According to Olivia and Jasmine, friends whom they have not met for 20 years would put money into their production while convincing people close to them to contribute was sometimes like moving a rock. However, they add that they felt the friends who did not contribute chose this stance not because they did not trust the filmmakers, but more because they could not identify with what they were doing. 

The team behind 'The Body' deep in pre-production discussion

Another filmmaker Leon Cheo, had a very different experience with crowd-funding and dealing with friends and family (check out what he did here). Leon was a pioneer in using crowdfunding to raise money for his production back in 2010. He decided to put on his entrepreneurial hat when he did not manage to get a grant for his short film. And his crowdfunding plan was hatched as a result. The campaign seemed to be pitched at a different level as compared to Kenny’s. While Kenny’s campaign seems geared to reach everyone and anyone, Leon’s campaign has a warmer, cosier, ‘friends, let’s get connected!’ feel about it.

The biggest group of contributors for Leon turned out to be his friends and family and they were mostly from Singapore. He also had a few friends from the US and Europe who contributed. There were some strangers too who contributed small to moderate amounts. Leon is thankful that he his friends and family trusted him well enough to help him achieve his funding goal.

What could be some of the factors that set the experience of Leon, Olivia and Jasmine and Kenny apart, in terms of getting donations from friends? Among them, Leon has been involved in the filmmaking scene for a longer period of time and has built a stronger social circle of friends who are also in the industry and community and understand the business and ideals of filmmaking. Perhaps for that reason, Leon did not encounter the ‘I trust you as a friend but I do not understand your business’ response.

The morale of the story seems to be – the success of raising money for your film from friends, relatives and family depends on the quality of your friendship. From the experiences of the filmmakers, there are so many ways you could (pardon me for the awful-sounding verb) categorise your friends. They could be close friends, distant friends, long-lost friends, industry friends, non-industry friends, parallel-industry friends, ex-classmates, ex-colleagues, random rich banker friend who knows nuts about the movie business but thinks it’s cool you are becoming a movie director, and the list goes on…. Basically, there are so many circumstances that make certain groups of friends want to donate more or donate less. It is important not to take things too personally.

All three projects mentioned here happen to be short-form productions. Kenny feels that crowdfunding is a practice suited to smaller projects, not just in terms of scope, but also in terms of the stature of the filmmaker involved. Raising money for features will be a different ball game in itself. There are producers who are excellent financing machines and can connect you to the right people. With a good proposal, a smile of confidence and a firm handshake, you will not lose sleep over which friends you need to get close to or mend bridges with. You will truly be able to live up to the glamorous ideal of a ‘movie director’ your friends have labeled you with. All these and perhaps more……. Until one day, you are realize, you are still short a couple of thousand dollars.

So keep that phonebook no matter what!

Written by Jeremy Sing
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