The Spike Lee Guide to Crowdfunding

Spike Lee had a hissy fit on Bloomberg TV.

Well, not really a full blown hissy fit. More of a “frank and open” exchange of views. To be honest, Trish Regan started the interview with a kind of “When did you stop beating your wife” approach. Reporters like getting Lee stoked up because it makes for good television. Having watched the reporter and Spike Lee routine in person, I’m quite aware that the results are guaranteed.

So let’s just clear up a few points. Yes, Spike Lee is running a Kickstarter campaign in order to rise $1,250,000 for his next film. Yes, he is another celebrity using Kickstarter. Yes, it is starting to get crowded with famous names over there. This has made some people mad at Lee. This is what prompted the opening question from Regan. Gee, anger is sometimes like the downside to the great circle of life.

However, Kickstarter is open to everyone and anyone. Any Joe Schmo alive can go on it and pitch. I’m not even sure about the “alive” part. Either way, Lee (and many other well-known people) can use it for fund raising. I have my own critical attitudes and concerns about the emerging high profile names barnstorming this system, but even famous people are allowed to go out there and make a pitch. So get used to it.

Likewise, Lee has a valid point about the current state of Hollywood financing. Hollywood does not want to make movies that cost less than $150 million and anyone, no matter how famous, who wants to do a movie for a mere couple of million bucks is just out of luck. Currently, most executives won’t even take a phone call if there aren’t seven zeroes attached to the price tag. So it is no surprise that Lee has turned to crowdfunding. It makes more sense than selling tube socks.

But what is unique is Lee’s approach to the process. Normally a filmmaker pitching on a crowdfunding site has to work at building a community of supporters. They have to woo the potential donors with fascinating details about the intended project. They build a strong web presence that links together Facebook and Twitter and other web sites in an attempt to create a strong and positive sense of engagement.

I don’t want this to sound like criticism or anything, and maybe I’m missing something, but basically Spike Lee’s Kickstarter campaign is something like: “I’m Spike Lee. Give me money. ” OK, it’s a little more complicated than that, but not by much. He is also offering old two-bit promotional stuff from such earlier movies as Mo’ Better Blues and School Daze. I am old enough to remember these films. Most people cruising through Kickstarter are not that old. I see a problem.

Actually, I see lots of problems. Usually the filmmaker wants (even needs) to pitch the movie like a crazy person. They have to tell the potential donors what the sucker is about and hope to intrigue folks into that magical state where they helplessly mutter “Tell me more!” Lee doesn’t tell you a damn thing. He vaguely implies that it might be kind of a horror/vampire/romantic something or other. But it ain’t no Blackula. Of course, that has left some of us assuming that it is going to be more like Vampire in Brooklyn (ironically, I’m one of only three people in North America who liked that film).

So basically, the pitch that Lee presents is based solely on the idea that it will be a Spike Lee movie. He is pressing extremely hard on his name value. He has successfully met his goal within the last stretch. But he has also presented a fantastic set of negative examples on how a person should not go about the crowdfunding process. Quick note: it is my understanding that I caught up with his Kickstarter page after he revamped it. Good grief!  I’m not sure if I even want to know what the first version was like.

But it is an incredible “teaching” moment. Many fine pieces have been written about everything Lee should have done from Aisha Harris’ excellent read at Slate to Bryce J. Renninger’s piece at IndieWire on the revamping of the campaign. It’s kind of like Crowdfunding 101 with Lee presenting a barely illustrated (he’s not much on the image thing) guide to everything you can do wrong.

For example, you can’t base a crowdfunding campaign solely on name value. It doesn’t matter if you are Ed Wood or Federico Fellini, your name by itself doesn’t mean squat. You have to build a community that extends beyond yourself. You have to connect and network. It’s all part of letting people feel somehow included into the project. Remember, they are giving the money not to you but to your project.

You also have to give them a good sense of what the movie is about. You don’t have to tell them everything. But heck, you can’t expect people to give you money for a pig in a poke. A lot of people are not going to feel thrilled with simply giving you money for. . . er, whatever. But they might be excited at helping to finance a film that sounds like it could be good. Maybe something they will want to see. So you want to share some details with them.

Take time to study some of the more successful Kickstarter campaigns, such as the one for Fire City: the Interpreter of Signs. Notice how much effort they are putting into luring and intriguing the potential donors. Also notice how they are offering more in return than just minor publicity gimmicks from movies made over 25 years ago (sorry Spike, but when I saw the so-called goodies you were offering to your donors, all I could think was “Oh for God sakes’!  Get real!”).

People do not put money into a crowdfunding project because they have to. They will only put money into your project because they want to. You have to convince them that they want to do it.

And you have to do it with a smile. It’s called salesmanship.

-Dennis Toth Copyright (C) 2013 All Rights Reserved