Power to the People: Elisabeth Holm

Elisabeth Holm spent three years leading Kickstarter's film team. Now the crowdfunding maven and producer of festival darling Obvious Child offers advice on getting the most out of your campaign.

For a producer, Elisabeth Holm is in an advantageous place. After spending three years as head of Kickstarter’s film team, Holm left her enviable gig of helping filmmakers find financial backing for their projects to do the same for her own. Her latest project is Obvious Child, a romantic comedy starring Saturday Night Live alum Jenny Slate that received a $37,000 boost thanks to a Kickstarter campaign Holm and the OC crew ran in January.

Kickstarter’s total pledges crossed $1.1 billion this year for creative projects with more than $102 million pledged exclusive to independent film projects as of January 2013. Seven films supported by the platform have garnered Oscar nominations and a growing number of both indie and well-known directors make use of Kickstarter’s enormous reach each year.

For the Obvious Child team, a successful crowdfunding campaign meant a boon to the film’s post-production and premiere budget as well as establishing a built-in audience for the project upon its release. Having a producer who had already spent years seeing the good, the bad, and the just plain weird of Kickstarter was a significant help. Here’s Holm’s perspective on why the Obvious Child campaign was a hit and how your crowdfunding campaign can be too.

Elisabeth HolmElisabeth HolmGet In Media: What did you do to ensure that the Obvious Child campaign was successful?

Elisabeth Holm: For every project, whether it’s film and video or any other creative category, it ultimately just comes down to really passionately and authentically telling your story. I think that Kickstarter is a storytelling platform and through your project video, through the rewards that you offer, through the way you write about the project, and the way you build and engage your audience, it’s all an opportunity to tell the story, not of the film itself, but really the making of that film, who you are as an artist, where you are in the process of making something, and really inviting people to be a part of it. For filmmakers, very often the project video can be likened to a little more of like a director’s statement or an [electronic press kit]. It’s not so much about a slick trailer of a finished movie as much as it’s about in three or four minutes concisely telling the story of how you came to this project and why you’re passionate about it.

GIM: How did you come to Obvious Child? What was your biggest challenge when doing it?

EH: I came to the project about three years ago. I had seen the short version of the film, which I really loved, and was just kind of inspired by and excited to work with a filmmaker who was telling this story in this way. I worked with [director Gillian Robespierre] to continue to develop the script for about a year and a half and then we went out for financing and went through the casting process and prep and production last spring. We edited all summer and fall and just premiered at Sundance this past January.

The biggest challenge … she had this incredible film that I so loved and thinking about how to expand from a short into a feature, thinking about how not to just open the short up and add 65 minutes of jokes, but really develop the story, develop the characters, figure out the arc and the conflicts and really flesh all of that out while still maintaining what is so lovely and charming and smart about the original work, I think was a really interesting challenge and I think we did it. Hopefully other people will agree when they see the film.

GIM: So much of the success of any crowdfunding campaign is the ability to connect with an audience on a very personal level. How can filmmakers do that?

EH: I think that Kickstarter is absolutely integral to your grassroots marketing and outreach and the way that you build and engage an audience. It’s an opportunity to get started on that legwork early and think about this question of who’s my audience and how do I find them? Backers on Kickstarter are motivated to pledge because they believe in you. They believe in the project. They’re excited about seeing this thing brought to life. They want the cool rewards, but they’re not in it for an ROI. It’s not about return on investment or the commercial viability of a project, even though some of these projects go on to be very commercially successful. At the heart of it is that passion and that authentic storytelling and the connection to the creators. Those are the things to really be communicating rather than say, “This is a financially viable thing” or “This has some really snazzy actor.” It’s really about that passion and that heart of why you feel like this is the story that you have to tell.

GIM: When new filmmakers are launching their campaigns, are there any tools they can use to estimate how much they can raise or how long their campaign should go?

EH: As far as duration, you can be live anywhere from one to 60 days. We recommend around 30 as having the highest success rate. When I first started working at Kickstarter, you could actually be live anywhere from one to 90 days. We found that 90 had the lowest success rate by far and so we lopped it off at 60. … Sometimes people think more time equals more money, in general we’ve seen that about a month is the best amount time to do it.

[Predicting how much a campaign can raise] is tricky. None of us has this crystal ball to compute exactly the right amount because you have this many Facebook “likes” or that many followers or this specific percentage of your budget. I think one of the best resources on Kickstarter is the fact that you see all of the projects and see what’s been done before and learn a lot from the peers and community. In general, of the successfully funded film projects we’ve seen on Kickstarter, I think the average is around $12,000, which is fairly low, but that’s also because a lot of those films are short films where they’re setting $5,000, $10,000, $20,000 goals and that accounts for a lot of their budget. On the features side of things, we tend to see a lot of features raising more like between $20,000 and $50,000.

It’s important to keep in mind that only about 1 percent of films raise $100,000 or higher. That’s definitely achievable, but also ambitious. Thinking about things like the fact that $25 is the most common pledge or $70 is about the average [across all backers]. When you think about $70 being the average, think about, “Am I sending this to my 20 closest friends? A network of 200 people? Am I really going to do my outreach and push this project out to see a few thousand people back this project?” That can kind of give you a rough ballpark of what you should be thinking. It’s really a combination of what you need and what feels achievable.

GIM: Crowdfunding campaigns are also predicated on how well you can promote the campaign itself. For Obvious Child, how did you handle the promotional aspect of getting word about the campaign?

EH: We did sort of a mix of sending out emails, posting on Facebook, posting on Twitter, reaching out to individual blogs and press that we thought were either interested in the romantic comedy aspect [of the film] or our lead actress Jenny Slate or fans of the 2009 short film Obvious Child. We tried to think about all the different access points to what is compelling about the story we’re telling and the way we’re telling it. We reached out to our cast and crew to connect with their own networks and thinking about how it takes a village to make a movie.

Thinking about our project updates of little short videos and interesting anecdotes about the making of the film, continuing to share that throughout the course of the campaign, and then thinking a lot about rewards. What are creative and engaging things that people respond to? What are the things that they want to see? What do they actually want to be a part of? Jenny Slate has a lot of fans and one of our rewards was offering that Jenny would record your voice mail in the voice of Marcel the Shell [a character that appears in a stop motion animation short voiced by Slate]. The writer/director, Gillian Robespierre, and I are born and raised New Yorkers and are obsessed with romantic comedies and the film is a romantic comedy, so we had a Valentine’s Day walking tour in New York where we take you to our favorite rom-com spots like Katz’s Delicatessen from When Harry Met Sally or the bridge in the poster of Woody Allen’s Manhattan.

GIM: For this film, Kickstarter funds were just a portion of the overall film funding. Is that an important thing for filmmakers to keep in mind?

EH: Of the 13,000 films we’ve seen successfully funded on Kickstarter, they raise a really broad range, whether it’s a few hundred or several thousand or hundreds of thousands or even over a million [dollars]. Very often, [Kickstarter is] a piece of the pie in conjunction with equity or grants or government money or other ways that folks get funds. You’re really thinking about isolating [the Kickstarter campaign to specific pieces of the project]. Maybe it’s raising funds for a specific aspect of post-production or certain production equipment or you’re raising [prints and advertising] for the release. I’ve seen campaigns get as specific as, “We’re doing this car crash and the funds are for special effects so it doesn’t look cheesy” or it’s a documentary in early days of development and they’re really just raising funds to go out and shoot for a couple of months and figure out what their film is and what they have. I think it’s important to isolate all the various stages of the process of making a film and try and target and focus on one of those.

GIM: In your opinion, is there a best time within a project’s timeline to raise funds? For example, is there a difference between raising funds for a new project versus one that’s in post-production?

EH: It really depends on the project. We’ve definitely seen projects come anywhere from development through distribution or sometimes it’s an old film that comes for restoration or to make a special edition DVD. What’s most important is, when is the right time in your own life to devote time and energy to doing this? When do you feel like you have the materials you need to tell a compelling story? Sometimes in the development stages, Kickstarter can be a really great proof of concept to say to other investors, “There’s a real audience for this. There’s a market for this. People care about this thing” and then the funds kind of get matched that way afterward. Other times you have everybody come to the table already and you’re really just looking for that last piece of the puzzle. I think both are equally valid. It’s most important that you have the time and energy and elements to tell a good story, whether that’s at the beginning or end of the process.

Catch Obvious Child in theaters nationwide.

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