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.
With the title of The Dancer and The Composer having now transitioned into Back To 1, I still had a long uphill climb ahead of me. Producer #1 and the distributor wanted me to hire a casting director so we could attach name talent to the movie. The problem was, I didn’t have any money to do that. Everything I had was spent on the trailer, pitch package, and their “services.” I had hired them to help me acquire the needed funds to do what they were asking me to do.
I emailed a top producer I had worked for in the past as a dancer asking him if this kind of trial of getting a movie going was normal. I told him everything that was going on and the budget level I was attempting to raise. He said something that shocked me. Your budget is in the wonky area. You’d be better off with a higher budget to gain interest. A higher budget? I would love to have a higher budget, but I had been told for years the budget was too high and to get it to one million, which was still, unrealistic at the time. I was in the wonky area…what?
I was told investors were willing to bet bigger for a bigger return if you could find the right ones. With my current budget, the risk was either too high or not worth the returns. Attaining a higher budget would be easier if I myself had more recognition, and actually knew people willing to take this kind of risk.
The overall answer I got was, “There’s no normal way to get a movie going, and yes it can be extremely difficult. Even getting established star representatives to call top producers back is a challenge because they’re in such demand.”
This didn’t ease my concerns as much as I wanted, but it was comforting to know that even at the higher levels they were still facing a version of the same trials I was.
I attended the market again at the end of 2015 with Producer #1, and met a lot of filmmakers who were either looking to sell a finished movie, with no name talent, or get a movie financed like me. I asked the ones that had the finished movie how they financed it and they said, the dreaded word… “Crowdfunding.”
The First Crowdfunding Campaign
Already this journey has taken me to places I never ever thought I would go. I had never run a crowdfunding campaign before. Didn’t know anything about it. The last time I raised money for anything was in middle school selling wrapping paper and I never sold enough to get the top prizes. I did sell enough to go for a ride in a Hummer limo during seventh or eighth grade. That was fun.
Producer #1 was all for doing a crowdfunding campaign for Back To 1 and boasted about their 5,000 friends on Facebook that they could share the campaign with who would donate. That was a bigger reach than what I had in 2015. Probably 400 hundred friends, out of which I mainly talked to roughly fifteen on a consistent basis.
I didn’t have money to hire a campaign manager, so I had to design the entire thing myself. Crowdfunding campaigns are interesting, and of course you study the successful ones and see what perks they did, t-shirts, copies of the movie, red carpet premieres, etc.
I designed a logo with the Back To 1 letters as notes on sheet music with a treble clef. I personally liked the design, never knowing it would cause problems when printing it across a zipper on a ridiculously comfortable hoodie.
All the print shops wanted me to change the design as it “wouldn’t work across the zipper.” So I was told. The zipper caused gaps in the logo. Funny thing, one of the print shops tried to prove it to me by printing one up, to which I replied, just fill the gaps with a Q-tip by dabbling in whatever ink material was used. I didn’t know how I came up with this, sure enough it worked and looked fantastic. What I liked about the design was all the backers that would get the hoodie would also have the story on their chest. When the zipper was open, the logo would break, like the main character in the story. That was a subtle thing I loved about the hoodie.
I designed the entire campaign myself, posters, t-shirts, hoodies, pictures, graphs for the budget, and ultimately decided to set the goal amount to $50,000. Producer #1, the distributor and I felt that was a realistic goal to use, and then stretch it higher when the goal was achieved. That was an option provided by the service Indiegogo. First hitting the goal of 50,000 would gain more interest and traction on the internet and then I could extend the campaign for others to donate, while I resumed the search for investors with proof of what was raised. That was the plan anyway. We chose Indiegogo as it allowed us the option to keep the funds, even if the goal wasn’t met.
I figured with Producer #1’s 5,000 facebook following we’d hit the goal easily. If everyone of his followers donated $10 we’d hit the goal…the joke was on me. I just didn’t know it yet.
Research showed that crowdfunding campaigns that have a team working with them are more likely to succeed than ones that don’t. So I recruited my mother, one of her co-workers, and two others to help promote the campaign, post updates and photos at certain times, etc. I didn’t have enough to hire a professional.
I hired the same dancer from the proof of concept trailer, and the same actor that portrayed the composer to shoot a little campaign video, recorded some dialogue from the script using actor friends, filmed my interview, filmed Producer #1’s interview, edited the entire thing together, and launched the Indiegogo campaign on May 17th, 2016.
For thirty days I ran the campaign, and it didn’t do much, at all. There wasn’t traction, there wasn’t anything to report or have the team do. I stressed out, feeling the clock ticking down. I contacted dancers, friends, everyone I knew asking them to donate, grab a perk, spend the amount of a coffee. It was ridiculously tough.
“If I donate, can I be in the movie?” was asked of me all the time. I couldn’t promise that, especially because of how slow the funding was going, the goal wasn’t going to be reached in time.
On the other hand, people I hadn’t spoken to in years, and some strangers, donated way more than I thought. I was shocked, humbled, and grateful for their generosity, but it didn’t light a spark for the campaign. I had the option to extend the campaign for another thirty days and I did. Over the course of 60 days The campaign raised $11,150 total. Far less than the goal of $50,000, and far less than had been calculated based on the team involved.
I was mortified, depressed, and felt I had alienated family and friends, trying my best to make this campaign hit the goal. There wasn’t a large enough reach.
What was worse was, it wasn’t until the campaign had ended that people asked if they could donate. The campaign was closed.
With what was raised I set out to create all clothing, hat, and poster perks. I mailed them, and sometimes hand delivered them to backers. The remaining funds that were left weren’t enough to get the movie going. Music still needed to be made, but I didn’t have enough to hire the music team to make more songs, and somehow I still needed to hire a casting director.
There was one good seed that came from the crowdfunding campaign. The day the campaign launched I was contacted by an actor friend, whom I had worked with, and ended up taking acting class with. This person had been part of a huge Disney franchise, had a phenomenal singing voice, performed all over South America on tour, and had the right look for the composer character. I got a text from him saying, “I’d like to throw my name in the hat for the character of Jack.”
I leapt out of my seat, contacted the choreographers immediately who had worked with him already, they were thrilled at his interest, and I wanted to say yes to him right away. I contacted Producer #1, as well as the distributor, to tell them the news, and they said, “Let’s wait and see who else is interested.”
…Are you kidding me? I had a superbly talented actor, who was a name, WANTING to be in the movie! You couldn’t buy this even if you had hundreds of millions dollars. Plus this person was more relevant than the past three films Producer #1 was involved in and had a bigger rating on IMDB, as well as a following. What the hell was happening?
Against my better judgement, I listened to Producer #1 and the distributor, and decided to wait until we had a casting director on board.
The 2nd/Mini Crowdfunding campaign
I began to feel a little lost, heartbroken, as I was pretty much back at square one after sixty days trying to reach the goal. I went through every depressing emotion you could think of for a multitude of reasons. All the time, all the effort, the planning, the meetings, it didn’t work.
My personal life felt like it was in shambles, I didn’t know how to talk to people anymore, and was pretty sure they didn’t want to hear from me either. Some…I was perfectly okay with not hearing from.
The one thing that had worked was, I had raised some funds for the movie. Since finishing the first draft of the story in 2013, rewriting in 2015, and launching the Indiegogo campaign in 2016, I had actually raised funds for the movie.
I thought that if I wasn’t restricted by the 30 or 60 day time limit of an Indiegogo campaign I would have a platform open for donations for people who wanted to see the movie. So I searched the internet, knowing people ran donation options on their own website, charity’s, anything, and opened a donation page on the backto1film.com website not long after the first campaign. This was in 2016.
Spreading the word
The choice to run my own no time limit donation page showed how much I didn’t know about web design, search engine optimization, let alone social media. I’m a filmmaker, a storyteller, not a web designer. I joined and posted the page in Facebook groups that had thousands of followers, literally nothing improved.
I had taught myself how to accept donations on a website but abandoned the idea about a month later as the reach was non-existent and I wasn’t going to ask my friends all over again. It was too humiliating. I would have to find another way.
On a positive note, people who got the hoodie from the first campaign, loved it. So I was happy they were happy with the quality of the product. But the most important perk I had to deliver was still a long way away, the movie.
It took a lot to try to look at my next steps with a glass half full mentality. I felt like I was walking in an endless desert and running out of water, fast, with no destination in sight.
I spent sixty days in a row, raised a few thousand dollars, and had to find a casting director willing to reach out to talent representatives to have their clients attach to the movie with no funds to make a proper offer. That was the path ahead of me and I was dreading every step of it.
The Journey To 1 Million continues with THE CASTING DIRECTOR FIASCO.
For more about Back To 1 be sure to check out backto1film.com