Guest Post: Susan Youssef Crowdfunding Habibi on Kickstarter

by | June 8, 2011 | Case Studies, Marketing

In honor of the IFP Filmmaker Labs going on this week, today’s guest post is from Susan Youssef who was in the Narrative labs last year at IFP.  She learned about Kickstarter in the lab and decided to use it to raise money to finish her film.  She has generously outlined her story indicating what worked for her and what didn’t.

In December of 2010 I launched a Kickstarter campaign for my film Habibi, which is the first narrative feature shot in the Gaza Strip in over 15 years.

I waited until the absolute last minute to launch the campaign—when I needed the funds to finish the film.  I needed all the time I could get to achieve the following:  a) build a fan base that would support the film on Kickstarter, b) complete as much creative work as I could on the film in order to make it as credible as possible to that fan base, and c) seek out every other financing option available so that whatever amount I would raise on Kickstarter would be enough to accomplish my mission for the film.  I believed Kickstarter was a safe bet for financing Habibi because I had faith in the passion found in the activist base behind Gaza.  I also had faith in the friends of the project who had rallied around me during those nine years of making the film.

The amount I needed to complete the film was $15,000, which is on average about $5,000 more than what many filmmakers seek on Kickstarter.  These funds would go towards the on-line edit and color correction costs of finishing Habibi.

In the months prior to launching on Kickstarter I worked very hard at designing rewards suitable to the project. Habibi is a film about the graffiti poetry sprawling over the walls of Gaza.  Since I had a title designed by world-renowned artist Reza Abedini, I decided to make a poster with Abedini’s design, printed at the actual size of the poetry we had graffitied on the Palestinian walls. We also printed a poetry book that would feature the poetry along with images from the film.  I had made another film in Gaza, Forbidden to Wander, so I decided to include a DVD of that film as an item as well.  I also created a postcard with the key image from the film as a reward.  In comparison to other rewards offered by comparable projects at Kickstarter the Habibi rewards were expensive.  However, I wanted the film’s fans to really love the gifts.  I also wanted the rewards to represent the high quality that I envisioned for the film.   I wanted donors to feel even more excited to see the film after receiving their Habibi items, enough to tell their friends about it.

I had been advised by other Kickstarter veterans to shoot for $7,500 to a maximum of $10,000 as a donation goal.  I had also been advised that I should plan to throw in at least $2,500 of that goal myself through a loan from a family member or close friend.   Nevertheless, I decided to shoot for the $15,000 that I actually needed to finish the movie.  I believed that my film had a strong activist base that would willingly line up in support.

I designed my campaign to be 28 days long in order to meet the deadline that I had set for the on-line edit work.  This left my film on hold, waiting to be finished.  I believed that a completed film would be better received by sales agents and film festivals than a locked picture.  So, I was rushing to finish.  It never actually crossed my mind as an option to do a 90 day or longer Kickstarter campaign.  This was because I needed to finish the film as soon as possible, and I felt the urgency might push potential donors to act.

I decided to put up a trailer.  I am camera shy, so I didn’t feel comfortable just putting myself before the camera and asking for the money.  However, I believed in my trailer and I think that helped my Kickstarter campaign.  The trailer gave a sense of the rhythm and story of the film.  Most Kickstarter film campaigns that I had seen didn’t post trailers.  I needed to attract online traffic to Kickstarter, and I used my trailer to do this.

I started the Habibi donation/reward level at $10.  I felt that people who wanted to give would at least give $10.  I didn’t want to produce premiums for less than a $10 donation because I wanted to offer items that I would personally enjoy.  Anything less than $10 would amount to lost time and money.

In the first week of the campaign I sent an announcement out to my film’s subscriber list.  I also wrote to all of the Habibi Facebook fans, and I tweeted about the campaign daily.

The first few days of the campaign were grueling.  I noticed a trend that I was attracting $100 or more donations from a limited number of passionate donors, but not many at the $10 and $25 levels.  I was also surprised to find that instead of attracting money from the usual suspects–old friends and family members–I attracted support from many people whom I had never met before.

I decided that I needed to look at soliciting support as a full-time job, or my project might not make its goal.  I aggressively asked people who had large Facebook and Twitter followings to post a link to the campaign.  For every eight people whom I asked for help, one helped me.

Mid-way through the Kickstarter campaign I wound up sick in the hospital, resulting in the loss of a few days of promotion activity.  Fortunately, there were people writing to all their friends on my behalf, asking for help.  These people who took it upon themselves (without even asking me) to ask their friends to help me are the true heroes of my Kickstarter campaign.

During the last 72 hours of the campaign I don’t think I slept at all.  I was constantly looking online for new contacts to write to for help.  Then, with 24 hours to go the campaign turned out to be $2,000 short of its goal.  This was when three miracles happened.

A young woman in Qatar helped me make the $15,000 goal.  She pledged the exact amount I needed to get to $15,000.  I had contacts in Qatar because of a Habibi work-in-progress screening that had taken place three months prior.  Those contacts were now asking their friends to help Habibi.  That is how she learned about me and Habibi.

After I had made the $15,000 goal another young woman donated $1,000.  She was an assistant at a production company.  For over four years I had been speaking with her off and on while attempting to bring her production company on board as a producer for Habibi.  While it didn’t work out with the production company, all my efforts resulted in her becoming a fan of the film.

Finally, a whopping $5,000 came from a friend of a friend who had been promoting the film to everyone he knew.  That donor was a filmmaker himself and later told me that he gave to the film because he was impressed by the nine years I had put into making it.

When Kickstarter provided me with the statistics behind the campaign I was shocked to find that donors had come from all over the world:  Americans, Chinese, Finnish, Qatari, Jordanian, Brazilian, Kuwaiti, English, Cypriot, Dutch, French, New Zealander, Palestinian, German, Swiss, Canadian, Australian, Mexican, and Austrian.  I never thought the campaign would have had such diverse international support since Kickstarter is based in the United States.  Then again, Palestine is an international issue.

Getting funded wasn’t the only success I experienced with Kickstarter.  I made new friends that I now speak with regularly.  Most importantly, the Kickstarter campaign gave me faith that I would have a wide audience for the film.  Months before, Jon Reiss had suggested Kickstarter as a way to grow the film’s fan base.  I didn’t really understand how right he was about this until I actually conducted the campaign.

It is now three months since the campaign ended and I am still sending out Kickstarter rewards.  Thankfully, the donors have been patient.  One of the largest donors said “Don’t worry about the rewards!  Finish your movie first.”  So, that’s exactly what I did.

I would definitely recommend Kickstarter to other filmmakers—not just because of the financial support it provided to my film, but also because of the growth it created in the Habibi fan base.  I feel even more driven to work for my film’s release knowing that support for Habibi comes not only from Palestinians inside and outside the U.S., but also from people around the world, many of whom I met thanks to Kickstarter.

——-

Susan Youssef is a New York and Amsterdam-based filmmaker.  Habibi is her first feature.  The film is an IFP Lab Fellow, and has received support from grantors including Cinereach, The Princess Grace Foundation, Austin Film Society, Women in Film Foundation, and others.

You can learn more about Habibi at www.habibithefilm.com and on Facebook at http://on.fb.me/dTpFIZ.

Susan Youssef is on Twitter as @susanyoussef.