The true story of acquiring the funds for the full dance/drama/musical feature film Back To 1.
by Doug Penikas
The reason I decided to share this journey is to inform filmmakers of the potential challenges they may face making their own independent films. So many factors come into play and it is easy to get lost in the different promises that are presented to you by people willing to help for a price. I hope my experience is educational and eye-opening to others.
The entire point of making Back To 1 was to make it as a professionally as possible. To go through the proper channels, acquire the funds, cast the actors, and make the movie. By the year 2017 I had been guided down this twisted rabbit hole of doing things completely out of order and being assured, “That’s how it’s done.”
In this new attempt to get the movie funded, I set up auditions myself at a dance studio which has since closed down. Running auditions at a dance studio was more affordable than other casting studio rentals. Plus, this was a dance movie after all, so it made sense. It was also pretty central for the majority of dancer/actors I had selected to come in for a full day of casting.
I saw people every ten minutes for the entire day, and even had two actor friends come in to read opposite specific roles. I had been on so many auditions that I discovered it was helpful for the audition to have a great reader opposite the actor auditioning. Sure enough it enhanced every actor’s audition having a good reader to do the audition scene with them.
I narrowed the ballerina role down to two actors. Both great and very different. The second female lead role had a clear winner, and all the other roles would require me to keep looking.
I studied the actor’s tapes, conversed with everyone that had helped me with the casting day and made my choices for the two female leads.
I was thrilled. I now had name talent choices, on video. All I had to do was officially cast them. So I went to Producer #1, and the distributor, to say…
“Look, I have name talent, now. Contact your investors so we can get this movie made.”
I showed them the audition tapes of Drew and the two leading ladies.
“Let’s get bigger names cast in the roles,” I was told.
Whaaaaaaaaaaat? I literally have three actors willing to be the leads that are name talent! They have been part of huge franchises, adored by people around the world. This is a win!
“They’re not big enough for the budget level,” I was told.
You’ve got to be kidding me. Each of the talent that was interested in being cast had a higher popularity rating on IMDB than the majority of the films these people represented. I mention this, as it was one of the important factors they kept mentioning to me.
According to what I learned from the numbers people, I had done what they had asked me to do, I found name talent with good numbers! It was time for the people I hired to hold up the their end of the bargain. Every single time it was their turn to help the project, they wouldn’t. If it is a really simple phone call to your investors, for a project that you found and expect to have producer credit on, pick up the phone and call them.
“The cast has no film numbers to generate value. We don’t know how to calculate their TV numbers. There’s no oversees movie release numbers,” I was told.
After two years of this and finally narrowing down what these “number people” were really after. I was exhausted by the conversation.
“Come back to us when you have name talent or 30%-50% of the budget in place. Until then I can’t contact anyone,” Producer #1 said.
I had hired Producer #1 to help me contact investors and talent in the first place. I had hired Producer #1 to produce results. Not tell me to do it all. Knowing that I didn’t have those kinds of connections, that they proudly touted in their seminar, I finally accepted the fact that they weren’t actually doing anything on their end. Ultimately, they were just charging me to talk to them, while I did all the work.
Maybe I’m a slow learner. I must be. Even though plenty of movies were being released with no name talent attached to Netflix and Amazon films, etc. I was still being force fed, “Come back when you have name talent attached, and or 30%-50% of the budget in place.”
It takes nothing to say one thing compared to actually doing that one thing. It was a massive disappointment to have people take money saying they’d help and not actually help. I do believe they thought they were, but actions always speak louder than words, or in this case lack of action.
The other annoying realization I had was that if I went somewhere else, for instance another producer or production company, to ask for help contacting investors and talent, I’d get the exact same response.
So, where was I to go? What was I to do? I had a great script, some original songs, a proof of concept trailer that people loved, three recognizable TV name talent actors wanting to be the leads, and a realistic budget that was a massive savings compared to regular studio movies. Up until this point in the journey of funding Back To 1, only one thing had worked. The Indiegogo crowdfunding campaign.
When I did that, I had no name actors attached to the project. So, if I did another it would be different. The reach would be wider, and with the experience of the first one under my belt, another would turn out much better results.
Of course, I had to ask for the actor’s approval as I would never do anything using their image without their approval.
I spoke to each of them separately, telling them what had happened with Producer #1 and the distributor, and that I no longer believed they would help the project move forward.
I told the actors I’d like them to be the face of the campaign, mainly because I used my face with the first campaign and that didn’t seem to have an impact on friends and colleagues. I would film everything, design the campaign, the perks, I’d do everything. The only thing I would need from the actors is for them to interact with potential backers as prizes, post on their social media when the campaign went live a few times, and that was pretty much it. I figured a few minutes out of their day to shoot a thank you selfie video and post wouldn’t be a big ask. I would take care of logistics of everything else with the help of some family and returning team members from the first campaign.
All three actors agreed, and I went to work on designing a new Indiegogo campaign for three months.
The 3rd attempt at Crowdfunding
It was now two years after the first Indiegogo campaign, and I’m already feeling sick to my stomach fearing the definition of insanity, but this time would be different. I had a cast now, and not unknowns. They all had been part of big projects that were beloved by fans, and each of their stars were only growing, and still are to this day.
I first went to work on designing a new mock-up of the campaign that I would show the actors before actually uploading everything to Indiegogo. I needed new photos, a new logo for t-shirt and hoodie designs, as I didn’t want to go through the drama of the old logo design across the zipper again. I added new perks, beanies, bottles, tank tops, private screenings, etc. Even had some other perks set up on the side to add during the campaign. The design process took me about a month to complete. I showed the mock up to the actors and they all approved, as that was the deal.
I then wrote out a campaign video script that would feature all three of the actors. I didn’t have enough money to actually shoot scenes from the movie with them. Instead I had enough to pay them for gas to meet in Culver City, where I did the previous two table reads. That had a big enough area where I could set up the backdrop, lights, and camera without having to rent a studio somewhere in LA. I would’ve loved to do that, but again, due to my previous mistakes, I had to make it work with nothing.
I tried to schedule all the actors on the same day, but Drew wasn’t available. So I scheduled the two leading ladies for one day, and would figure out something with Drew later.
The first actor to film the video was the one that was going to play the ballerina role. The leading lady. Before we began, each actor would have to sign an image release allowing me to use their image associated with Back To 1. Then we got to filming their segment for the video. It went pretty well, with a few laughs, some outtakes, and I was really looking forward to working with them on the actual movie in the future. When the leading lady finished, the second leading lady arrived. I got some quick footage of the two of them in the same frame just being silly on camera for social media content to help promote the campaign before it launched. I believe that was the first time the two leading ladies had met each other.
Then it was around noon and I filmed the second leading lady’s segment to which we had tons of laughs. Both actors were fantastic people and I was even more delighted to have the opportunity to work with them on the film in the future. With both ladies’ footage for the video captured, I packed up the equipment, and headed home to edit the footage. Three days later I was contacted by Drew letting me know he was available that day.
I repacked the car and drove up to his place. It was quite funny carrying a 9 foot long backdrop on the sidewalk of a busy street to his place. We moved some furniture around and set everything up for his portion of the video. I did my best to match the lighting so it would look like all three actors were filmed on the same day. It turned out well. Again, tons of laughs, and I couldn’t have been more happy with the cast I’d chosen for this movie.
I edited the video together, and Bryan Arata, the composer, made some original music for the campaign video, I showed it to all the cast members individually and they approved it. Now it was time to start gaining interest online.
I set the launch date for the new Indiegogo campaign to be June 4th, 2018, and gave myself a month to promote it ahead of time. A big discussion I had with multiple people was what the goal should be. After the first campaign barely crossing the ten thousand mark for a 50,000 goal, It was tricky to decide on a reasonable goal for this new campaign. So much creative work had been done, and I still expected to be negotiating with potential investors when we hit whatever the goal would become.
It was a tough decision for the goal. I felt if it was pretty low we’d hit it easily, however it wouldn’t be very helpful to keep the project going forward unless we could stretch it. Also, I was advised that a lower goal gave the impression it wasn’t that serious of a movie. After careful discussion with financial people and against my better judgement, the goal was set at $250,000. This would definitely help me get the original album made in demo form, allow me to make some offers to more talent for the supporting roles, as well as pay for whatever perks needed to be made. Once we’d hit $250,000, I was informed that more people would take financial interest in the movie. The goal still wouldn’t be enough to actually start making the movie right away, but it would be enough to get people interested. This was the main purpose, anyway. Hit the goal, manufacture clothing and bottle perks right away, work on the album, and get meetings with actual accredited investors to invest in the movie so we could raise the full budget. It’s been done before many times.
I began doing early promotion on social media with an email sign-up for people to be notified when the campaign went live. As I started promoting I began getting spammed by online publicity sites, and one sent a very personal message asking if I’d hire them to help send out press releases because they were a fan of one of the actors. They offered me what I thought was a fair price, and I hired them for the flat fee they asked for. They were tasked with creating a press release, which I pretty much wrote, and to release it on the day we launched, June 4th, 2018.
The Deadline Article
If you do any research about promoting a crowdfunding campaign you’ll quickly come across sites saying contact local papers, etc. Basically spread the word anyway you can. I decided, what the heck?…I’ll contact some of the top Hollywood papers too, and see if I get any hits.
Deadline got back to me, and told me they don’t promote crowdfunding campaigns. I was bummed, and then was asked to tell the very nice lady on the phone a little more about the project. I said the actors were attached but we had no official start date yet as we were still on the funding hunt. I was asked to write a little summary about the movie and who was going to be involved and sent it to them. A few days later, I woke up to a bunch of emails and texts from industry friends asking how I got the article on Deadline. Even my agent asked me how I did it…I asked, was told no, and never expected it to go up. There was no mention of the crowdfunding campaign, just a simple article about who was involved and the actors that were attached. Still…shout out to Deadline for even doing that. You will get a scoop on any of my future projects!
The launch June 4th, 2018
The day had finally arrived, the campaign went live…and…and…it was worse than the first one. The person that had been hired and paid to send out the press release completely missed the launch date.
The campaign just wouldn’t budge as expected. The actors did post on social media, but it wasn’t making any dents. I added a $1 donation option called, “I just want to see the movie” just to see if that would change anything.
It was actually incredibly humbling. It didn’t matter how much was donated anymore, any donation was like winning the lottery. As it should be. For some reason I had my heart set on giving out the clothing bundle perks, probably because I thought they were awesome and knew the quality of the materials were really comfortable. However, by this time, I ended up jumping for joy whenever someone even saw the campaign. After about fifteen days the campaign peeked at just over $5,000. I ran weekly contests with some cool prizes, and that didn’t make much of a dent either.
A turn for the better
I started doing shoutouts on Twitter, “Next person to donate a dollar to the campaign would get a shout out on the Back To 1 social media pages.”
All of a sudden a $300 donation came through. That was the exact amount of a clothing perk bundle and I reached out to this backer wanting to double check if they meant to get a clothing perk. Nope, they strictly wanted to donate. They were a fan of Drew and one of the leading ladies, and thought the movie was a great project. It was definitely a spark of hope.
Since the original plan hadn’t really worked, I began asking the actors if they’d be willing to do Twitter shoutout’s as well. Thankfully they did, and that started gaining some more traction on the Indiegogo campaign.
I was thrilled when we surpassed the $11,150 that I had raised in the first Indiegogo campaign two years prior. I ended up asking on Twitter what other perks potential backers might like. Signed merchandise was the biggest request. Since that wasn’t part of the original plan, I had to get that approved by the actors. The entire point of me running the campaign was so the actors could go about their lives. Luckily, the actors agreed and I added two new perks, a signed storyboard, and signed keyframe art.
The artwork was beautiful, but didn’t really gain much interest. I decided to include it in the bundles to make the bundles more enticing, and that seemed to gain more traction, but the 30 day campaign was running out of time. We were nowhere near the needed goal, and I seriously considered refunding all donations and ending the campaign after the thirty days.
I had reached out to the top backers at the time letting them know, that even with the current amount raised, it would barely cover manufacturing and shipping costs of the clothing and bottle perks. I even created a poll on Twitter and Instagram asking new backers if they thought the campaign should be extended for another thirty days. I did have that option still.
I was informed by one of the top backers that they would donate another sizable amount if I extended the campaign and created a specific introduction perk with myself and the choreographers. I really didn’t believe this would happen, so I created the perk anyway, and maybe five minutes later…Ding! New donation. I think I froze in shock that the donation happened, so I extended the campaign for another thirty days.
The new campaign approach
For the next thirty days I literally had no life. The original plan for the campaign hadn’t worked at all, and I had to keep this campaign going, so we could reach the goal. There wasn’t time to prep anything new, or bring on extra help. The clock was ticking and there was still a long way to go to get close to the goal.
I did ask the cast to do some more selfie videos about the campaign, and even had backers and fans submit questions to be answered by all of us involved. I forwarded the questions to the cast and they kindly video’d themselves with their answers. I edited the video together as fast as I could and uploaded it. People enjoyed it. I even did a special surprise Skype video for a friend who was big fan of Drew’s in Australia. The second female lead was also part of the video, as the main lead wasn’t available.
I did the biggest push I could think of for the remaining days of the campaign and it finally closed with a total raised of $40,221 of the $250,000 goal. This was actually good as it allowed me to begin working on the full album as well as create all clothing, bottle, and art perks for the new backers.
BIG TIP* for anyone who decides to mail large prints of concept art to backers…don’t mail in tubes. Don’t do it. It costs waaaaaaay more.
I was completely exhausted and certain I had annoyed the actors having bugged them about the campaign so much due to the original plan not working. Alas, there was no time to rest. The order for the perks had been placed, and it was time to begin work on the full album for Back To 1 with Bryan Arata and the lyricist.
The Journey To 1 Million continues with CREATING THE DEMO ALBUM AND SEEKING INVESTORS
For more about Back To 1 be sure to check out backto1film.com