No one has it all figured out yet…although you’d be the most popular person on the planet if you could come up with that magical combination that would guarantee a successful campaign.
There’s a wide variety of projects and causes that use crowdfunding, and we obviously can’t cover everything in a short blog (or even a long one!). Instead, let’s take a look at one little corner of the crowdfunding craze: Star Trek fan films.
But before I begin, a quick disclaimer. I just know I’m gonna miss something. Someone is going to post a comment saying, “Hey, what about…?” and list their favorite fan film campaign(s). Despite my best efforts to make this article as complete as possible, there’s so darn many of these campaigns! I purposefully left a few out because they raised so little money or had so few donors as to not justify taking up the space to write about them. And yes, I’m sure I’ll simply miss something because I’m just one guy doing research in my spare time while also raising a five-year-old! That said…
From the earliest days, Star Trek fan films had relied on the kindness of donors—whether it was passing the hat among the volunteers who came to help out on a shoot, getting the occasional gift card from Lowe’s or Home Depot, or begging for donations via Paypal on the “Support Us” page of the various fan film websites. This kind of ad-hoc outreach for donations went on for over a decade until the arrival of a new game-changing website: Kickstarter!
Kickstarter debuted in April of 2009 with a revolutionary business model. They would provide the platform for people to raise funds for projects that wouldn’t normally get enough funding: art and music projects, independent films, software, hardware, video games, fashion…the list went on and on. The idea was that people with cutting edge ideas could explain their concept online, set a monetary goal of how much they needed to make it happen, provide a financial justification for that number, and use the back-end services of Kickstarter to take credit card donations, tally them, and keep a record of donors so as to offer perks to those who contributed at different monetary levels. Kickstarter would take 5% of the total, the payment processor would take another 3-5%, and the project originator would get the rest.
There was only one catch: you had to generate enough donations to make your goal before your deadline. If you said you needed $20,000 in 30 days and you only got to $19,000…you received nothing. If you reached or surpassed your goal in time, then all your donors’ would be charged at that point. So deciding on proper goal levels and fundraising periods was critically important.
Kickstarter got off to a strong start and rocketed upward from there. In 2010, nearly 4,000 projects were successfully funded with more than $26 million pledged. In 2011, the number of projects tripled and the amount raised quadrupled to $100 million! And 2012 blew past those numbers with nearly $320 million pledged!
And it was in 2012 that Star Trek fan films finally took notice of Kickstarter and gave it a try. In January, a project called Star Trek: Excalibur tried to raise $75,000. They wound up with just $2,164 from 47 backers. Strike one.
In February, Star Trek: Secret Voyage tried to do a Kickstarter campaign…this time with a much more modest goal of $5,000. Their result was terribly disappointing: just $70 from two donors. Strike two.
What these experiences taught fan films was an important early lesson: if you build it, they will not necessarily come. Kickstarters were a very new thing for people. Not only did you have to bring potential donors to your Kickstarter page, you also had to A) explain what a “Kickstarter” was, and B) convince them that you weren’t just going to take their money and buy a sailboat.
Fans finally began to understand and accept Kickstarter later in 2012 when Star Trek: Renegades did a campaign. Not just another anonymous fan film, Renegades featured an attention-getting cast that included Walter Koenig, Tim Russ, Robert Picardo, Ethan Phillips, and other veteran Trek actors. Also, the production team had already proven themselves in the making of Star Trek: Of Gods and Men five years earlier. So this time, fans had a better idea of what they were donating to, and there was more excitement. That, combined with a concerted marketing effort and creative perks for donors, allowed Renegades to generate more than $242,000 from 2,367 backers in 60 days!
The Kickstarter genie was now out of the bottle.
Even though I said I was going to concentrate on Star Trek fan films, I need to mention one important exception. In April of 2013, 91,585 donors raised more than $5.7 million on Kickstarter for a new Veronica Mars movie project…a new record for Kickstarter in the “Film” category. In fact, they raised the first $2 million in just 11 hours!!! This wasn’t just a fan film but rather a continuation of the series by the creators (with the blessing of Warner Brothers). But to the entertainment industry at large, it seemed like the world of film production was changing forever. If fans could fund the properties they loved to the tune of millions, suddenly the big film studios wouldn’t be holding all the cards. The future seemed very bright for the world of fan-funded films.
As the news of Veronica Mars’ wild success spread, an ambitious Kickstarter was launched to adapt the sci-fi book series “Star Wolf” by Star Trek writer David Gerrold (“The Trouble With Tribbles” and other episodes). But the exuberance over Veronica Mars resulted in a wildly unrealistic goal of $650,000 in one month being set for the “Star Wolf” campaign. They still managed an impressive $89,000 (thanks to public endorsements by the likes of Leonard Nimoy), but a new lesson was learned: don’t get greedy. But even more important: know your fan base, and make sure your fan base knows you. As popular as David Gerrold was to Trek fans, there wasn’t enough familiarity with his “Star Wolf” series to be able to generate even six figures of donations.
Learning from these lessons and wanting to give it a go, the fan series Star Trek Continues launched a 30-day Kickstarter (what they called a “Kirkstarter”) in October of 2013 trying to raise money for their second episode, “Lolani” and two additional episodes. They did a lot of things right. First, they included their first, very impressive episode, “Pilgrim of Eternity” on their Kickstarter page. This showed what they could do (much as Renegades’ predecessor Of Gods and Men had done). Also, they set a “manageable” goal of $100,000. Too much? Perhaps. But they marketed the living daylights out of their campaign, posting updates daily (sometimes multiple updates each day!), and a month later, they had taken in $126,000 from nearly 3,000 backers.
Then came 2014 and Prelude to Axanar. Alec Peters had also learned the lessons of the Kickstarter…especially when you have nothing to show yet. Ultimately, his full-length Star Trek: Axanar film would require hundreds of thousands of dollars to produce (possibly more). But that money wasn’t going to come out of nowhere. Like Renegades and Star Trek Continues, Axanar needed to show what it could do. So Alec decided to first attempt a small Kickstarter to raise enough money to make a short documentary-style film that would be called Prelude to Axanar and show what they could accomplish with a little money (so they could justify asking for a LOT of money next).
That first Kickstarter campaign began in March 2014 and set a humble goal of $10,000. A short “talking head” video featured Alec Peters, Director Christian Gossett, and most notably, actor Richard Hatch (plus a few others) talking excitedly about the project and the professionals who were coming on board. There were also eye-catching 3D effects shots done by Tobias Richter scattered throughout the video. The concept was a fresh one in fan films, and along with some majestic, driving music, the video and the project itself really got people’s pulses pounding.
Hoping for $20,000 but not wanting to risk missing the mark and getting nothing (which is why they set a goal of only $10,000), the Axanar folks were stunned (in the best way!) when they reached $10,000 in the first day! Thirty days later, they finished at $101,000 from 2,123 donors. This allowed them to make the 20-minute Prelude to Axanar. That, in turn, allowed them to make history.
But we’ll get to that in a moment. First, there were a few other notable Trek fan series that also held Kickstarters in early 2014 worth mentioning. The first was a production called Star Trek: Equinox. It featured two major Trek guest stars in leading roles: John Savage reprising his Voyager role of a time-displaced Captain Rudy Ransom and Gary Lockwood returning as Gary Mitchell from the TOS pilot “Where No Man Has Gone Before.” Figuring that having Trek veterans in their cast would be a guarantee of big bucks from donors, Equinox started up a Kickstarter on March 26 with an extremely ambitious goal of $230,000. Ten days later, having raised a meager $6,500 from just 28 donors and figuring they’d never make it to their goal, they canceled the Kickstarter.
Four days later, Equinox launched a new Kickstarter with a more modest goal: $20,000 to film an extended trailer (much like Axanar had done the previous month) to be filmed on the Farragut Films TOS sets in Georgia. Unfortunately, fans still weren’t convinced. Equinox’s second Kickstarter attempt failed to fund after 30 days, reaching only $7,700 from just 44 donors. The lesson here: just because you have veteran Star Trek actors in your film doesn’t guarantee funding. Also, Equinox was pretty light on updates during those 30 days, and while marketing efforts were made, they just weren’t particularly effective.
Now, it could also be argued that fans had just put $100,000 into Prelude to Axanar in March and were tapped out, and that’s why a Kickstarter in April was destined to fail. Perhaps. But just ten days after Equinox began their second Kickstarter campaign, another fan production, Star Trek: Horizon, began one of their own. Horizon was going to be the first ever Enterprise-era fan film, telling a 2-hour story set during the Romulan War in Archer’s time. They had already filmed a good deal of live action footage and VFX, and their Kickstarter was focused primarily on raising enough money to buy digital memory storage, purchase additional computers for 3D rendering, and material for more costumes. And perhaps it was the fact that they’d already “proved” themselves by filming multiple scenes that made their Kickstarter more successful than Equinox, despite having no veteran Trek actors in their cast. Horizon set a goal of just $10,000 and raised $22,600 from 366 backers.
Almost immediately following this, Star Trek: New Voyages/Phase II (the granddaddy of Trek fan films…shot on physical TOS set recreations constructed by James Cawley in upstate New York) decided to hold their first Kickstarter. By this point, the venerable series had managed to produce ten impressive episodes in ten years and was well-known by fans. They decided to launch their first-ever Kickstarter on May 13, 2014. Despite their reputation, New Voyages/Phase II wanted to be careful not to set too high of goal level, so they attempted to get to just $10,000.
Instead, they raised $65,000 from 1,100 donors! The extra $55,000 meant that “stretch goals” could also be funded, including funding additional episodes of the series, a move of the current sets to a larger facility, and the construction of new sets. The team from New York was ecstatic.
It seemed that the Kickstarters being held by productions that had already produced impressive fan films (or at least quality footage) were doing the best. And indeed, that assumption was about to be proven correct in a HUGE way…
Jump ahead to July 25, 2014. The 20-minute Prelude to Axanar had now been completed (and of course, you’ve all seen it multiple times by now, right?) and premiered during San Diego Comic Con at a nearby theater. At the same time, the newest Kickstarter was launched, this time to fund the full Axanar feature (or more precisely, setting up the studio and sets for it).
Again, to make certain the goal wasn’t too high to reach, it was set at a modest $100,000 in 30 days. They needn’t have worried. Prelude to Axanar blew the minds of Trekkers everywhere, and within just the first 24 hours, $65,000 was raised! (It had taken New Voyages 30 days to get to that amount.) By the end of the first week of August, the total was over $200,000. In addition to having an impressive “proof of concept” film to dazzle donors, Axanar featured attractive perks, frequent updates, Facebook postings, short videos, and even a regular podcast to keep fans excited.
With less than two days to go before the Kickstarter deadline, Axanar’s total stood at a whopping $400,000. And that would have been considered staggeringly good, but then something even more amazing and totally unexpected happened: George Takei posted to his Facebook followers (all 8.5 million of them!) that they should check out the Axanar Kickstarter and donate to it if they wanted some real Star Trek. Donations began flooding in! Watching the Kickstarter page update in those final 24 hours was like watching the gas pump as you fill up your tank. One additional Facebook reminder from George later in the day, and Axanar rocketed upwards to finish at $638,000 from 8,500 backers…with the last $200,000 coming in the final 36 hours!!! This was a new Kickstarter record for any independent Star Trek film.
Two final campaigns finished off 2014. In September, another well-established Trek fan series, Starship Farragut, took its first plunge into Kickstarter crowdfunding with a campaign to raise $15,000 to fund their most ambitious episode yet, “The Crossing.” They started their Kickstarter on the 48th anniversary of Star Trek (September 8) and finished thirty days later with $20,000 from 320 donors.
And then in November, The Red Shirt Diaries became the first significant Star Trek fan film series to use Indiegogo instead of Kickstarter to fund their series. We’ll take a closer look at the differences between these two crowdfunding web services next week, but for now, it’s just worth mentioning that 2014 closed on a positive note, with Red Shirt Diaries setting a goal of $2,800 and actually hitting $4,800 from 152 donors in 30 days.
Despite a few misfires along the way, crowdfunding seemed to be the way to go for funding Trek fan films…with nearly $1.2 million total having been raised by the end of 2014! It seemed like a gold rush, and more and more fan film projects wanted in. But was it really a gold rush? Did fans have bottomless wallets…or was donor fatigue inevitable?
Next week on Fan Film Friday: We enter 2015 in a state of crowdfunding euphoria. But does it last? We’ll look into Kickstarter versus Indiegogo and see how the two fought over getting Axanar’s next summer campaign. We’ll also look at what happens when crowdfunding campaigns all crowd together and try to raise money from the same fans at the same time! And finally, can any independent film campaign possibly hope to break that $5.7 million record set by Veronica Mars? We’ll solve that mystery right here in just seven days!
Oh, and this Sunday is my 49th birthday! Yep, I was born just two days before fans first saw the Gorn.