In 2016, Kiwi indie film STRAY broke crowdfunding records by raising over $125,000 for the project - the most ever raised on the Arts Foundation’s Boosted platform for any artistic project. This month, the film hits the red carpet as one of 12 films selected for world premier in the main competition of the prestigious Moscow International Film Festival.
STRAY’s campaign records include the most donors to support any project on Boosted, the most ever raised for an artistic project of any medium on Boosted, and the most ever raised for a New Zealand film via donations on any crowdfunding platform.
We asked writer, director and producer Dustin Feneley, how he, along with producer Desray Armstrong and associate producer Sez Niederer, none of whom were ‘marketeers’ and all of whom had zero experience in crowdfunding, managed to mobilise a community of donors.
1. Choose your platform carefully
The team behind STRAY considered Indiegogo and Kickstarter with their advantages of a broad international reach and ability to incentivise donors with merchandise, but ultimately it was homegrown Boosted that won their vote - thanks to its NFP status enabling donors to get a 33 per cent tax rebate.
We were the first of any kind of artistic project in any medium to go for 75K on Boosted
But their goal was ambitious. “We were the first of any kind of artistic project in any medium to go for 75K on Boosted. We were initially nervous about it being a kiwi-only platform, we thought maybe we needed the international reach and branding of Kickstarter. With Boosted, we knew we’d need to drive 95% of the traffic with our own comms. Ultimately we decided that the 33 per cent tax credit would be more attractive to our donors.”
2. Go beyond your own networks
The average target amount on Boosted is around the 5k mark, which Dustin says, for some projects, could potentially be reached through family, friends and peers. With such an ambitious target, the STRAY team knew they would need to go beyond their existing networks.
“We decided to approach arts patrons in New Zealand, some of whom were well-known philanthropists. We contacted them personally, as we felt they might appreciate the kind of film that STRAY was going to be and that they might back it.”
The team also noticed a spike in donations after sending out a media release announcing they had hit their initial target of 75K and breaking the first record at that time - it was no longer just another crowdfunding campaign.
“If there’s something newsworthy, use it.”
3. Have a long lead
“We ran a huge lead time - way more than Boosted usually recommend.” says Dustin. From December to the April launch of the campaign, the team of three, plus associate producer Alix Whittaker, started cold calling “a massive number” of prospective donors in the arts patron community in New Zealand, following up with an email and further information.
“A good portion of those people would write back a friendly email saying ‘this project looks great, please let me know when the campaign is live’. We had people committing well before the launch, which is key if you want to go for a big amount in 30 days.”
Weeks before we went live we had people verbally saying - ‘this looks great, I want to donate, please send me the link when you’re live’
4. Get organised
The project had a detailed Boosted page for the 30 day period of the live campaign, but in the lead up to it going live, the team introduced potential donors to the project with a comprehensive project overview document - “It was like a pitch document, and a lookbook, in absence of the platform website being live.”
It was sent out after each phone call to a potential donor, well in advance of the campaign start date - providing even more detail than what would eventually be able to fit on the campaign page.
“We wanted people to have something substantial they could read in their own time. People are busy and need that time to consider things properly. And we didn't want to put a full plot synopsis online - but we could put that in a confidential PDF.”
The result? “Weeks before we went live we had people verbally saying - ‘this looks great, I want to donate, please send me the link when you’re live’.”
“This project has been my baby for many years and we knew it needed to be filmed in winter, so we needed to be ready to shoot in August 2016. I’d had the idea for the film since 2008 so by 2016 it was do or die, the stakes were so high because I knew my passion could wane if I didn’t do it now.“
It was both a crazy commitment of faith, says Dustin, and the team “deciding to shoot with whatever we had.”
But the team was experienced, and was pragmatic about the amount they needed.
“We had already invested so much emotion, time and our own money by that point - we just had to make the film by any means necessary.”
We had already invested so much emotion, time and our own money by that point - we just had to make the film by any means necessary.
6. Call, follow up (and follow up again)
“We followed up with people multiple times,” says Dustin, something they did with rigour. “We learnt that you usually need to remind someone who is predisposed to donate to you - someone to whom your project is completely their taste - three times, because they're busy and time poor.”
With their ambitious targets and the fact they were also going beyond their ‘friendly’ circle of donors, the team decided to double that follow up figure. “There was no real case study available for us in New Zealand.”
7. Be thick skinned
If you’re driven to make something succeed, you’re going to have to cope with rejection. “A lot of people are not going to be interested in your project at all - it's just not their cup of tea, or you're going to catch them at a bad time.”
“If you just keep calling and emailing enough people though, you’ll get there. It’s kind of a numbers game.”
8. Communicate your passion
People care about passion so you really need to communicate your passion for your project in your cold call, email and appeal video. If you’re passionate and driven, people will respond.
You also need to put someone on camera, says Dustin, and that person needs to inspire people and make people believe that you’re actually going to get your project completed.
9. Offer something of value
While you can’t offer merchandise to donors using Boosted, it’s important to offer something, says Dustin. Donors of $100 or more got their names on the end credits of STRAY. Key supporters (those who donated $1K or more) got an even bigger credit. Key supporters will also be invited to a special New Zealand screening with cast, crew and investors.
Everyone wants to back a winner. We went full noise to tap into that.
10. Leverage the FOMO* and the snowball effects
“Everyone wants to back a winner,” says Dustin. “We went full noise to tap into that.”
Though he says the community of philanthropists and arts patrons is relatively small in New Zealand, thanks to the team’s organisation and legwork, many people in their target community had already heard about the project from their friends.
One of New Zealand’s most notable arts patrons, Dame Jenny Gibbs, backed the film as a significant match donor and many leading film industry practitioners, including Taika Waititi, Sam Neill, Jan Chapman, Bruce Beresford, Alison Maclean, Bridget Ikin and Robert Connolly made personal donations.
“Often when people see notable arts patrons donating (via the tile on the campaign page), I think that also triggers other people in that community to commit.”
*FOMO = Fear Of Missing Out
11. Thank everybody
The team made it a policy to respond to every enquiry and donation within 24 hours because they were incredibly grateful for every donation. Research also shows that this responsive communication increases the chances of a donor spreading the news about a campaign.
12. Channel your untapped inner entrepreneur
It’s incumbent on all of us to be entrepreneurial, says Dustin.
“In doing this crowdfunding campaign, as well as by actually making my first feature, I’ve become a lot more business-minded - I’ve become a producer out of necessity. I’ve realised actually I’m okay with the entrepreneurial stuff and it’s not going to sully my artistic practice.
“The conventional way of financing films is becoming increasingly difficult for arthouse films so it’s good to be entrepreneurial and exercise that muscle. I never thought I’d be talented or skilled at being an entrepreneur in the arts before I actually tried it.
“I’d recommend anyone who’s interested to just give it a go. You might surprise yourself.”
The Big Idea team thanks Dustin, Desray and Sez for sharing these insightful tips with New Zealand’s arts community and wishes you a tremendous time at the festival this month!
ABOUT THE MOSCOW INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL
Moscow International Film Festival is the world’s second oldest film festival, and one of only a handful of A-list film festivals, accredited by FIAPF (International Federation of Film Producers Association). Other A-list festivals include Cannes, Venice, and Berlin.
STRAY is the first New Zealand feature film ever to be selected for Moscow in the festival’s long history.
ABOUT THE FILM
STRAY is the highly anticipated debut feature film from award-winning writer/director Dustin Feneley.
In a cold and remote landscape, two strangers struggle to repair their broken pasts. A young man is on parole after serving time for attempting to murder the man who killed his girlfriend in a hit and run. A woman is released from a psychiatric facility far from her homeland. These two damaged strangers cross paths in the mountains in winter and fall into a complex intimate relationship, putting to the test their capacity to trust and heal.
STRAY is a compelling arthouse drama about two alienated people who, through their chance connection, ultimately find strength to move on with their lives. The film, set in winter in the stunning Southern Alps of New Zealand, was predominantly shot in Central and North Otago, with additional photography shot in Auckland, Wellington and the Cook Strait.
ABOUT THE FILMMAKING TEAM
The filmmaking team behind STRAY comprises award-winning talent in front of and behind the camera, including writer/director/producer Dustin Feneley (Snow, Hawker), producer Desray Armstrong (Meathead, Ellen is Leaving), and cinematographer Ari Wegner (Lady Macbeth, The Kettering Incident, The Girlfriend Experience Season 2). In the lead roles are NZ rising star Kieran Charnock (The Rehearsal), and Kosovar actress Arta Dobroshi who came to international prominence in the Dardenne brothers' film Lorna's Silence in which she played the title role to great acclaim.
STRAY is the third collaboration between Ari Wegner and director Dustin Feneley, having previously worked together on short films Hawker and Eskimo Kiss.
A number of the team members will be attending the World Premiere of STRAY at the Moscow International Film Festival from April 19-26.
Dustin Feneley – Writer/Director/Producer
Desray Armstrong – Producer
Sez Niederer – Associate Producer
Alix Whittaker – Associate Producer
Kieran Charnock – Lead Actor
Arta Dobroshi – Lead Actress
Ari Wegner – Cinematographer