Kickstarter: How I Funded My Documentary

Finding Underwriting for PBS

When PBS came back to me and said, “We love your doc,” I was delighted. It took seven years to make Space Shuttle Columbia: Mission of Hope, (working title An Article of Hope) and now the film would finally get on television.  That was the good news.  But the tough news was public television relies on underwriting to pay for programming, and they very nicely said, “Let us know when you find the funding.”  With that I set out on a near 3-year journey to raise a lot of money.

We knocked on all kinds of doors from corporate, to foundations, to large religious groups and individuals who had the financial means to help.  But we kept coming up empty.  I consulted a number of people, and along the way I made friends with a couple of folks who were really savvy in business.  They kept saying I should run a Kickstarter campaign to raise a portion of the funding.  The idea was to at least get some of the money we needed in the bank, then the incentive would be there for others to jump in.  We would Kickstart the funding.

Kickstarter is a brilliant way to tap the Internet and social media to raise money for projects.  Most campaigns are from the arts, filmmakers looking for just enough to get their projects made.  Most tend to be very small budgets, much less than we needed.  Here’s how it works: You set a funding goal, and decide how long you think it will take to raise the money. If you hit the goal, you get the money, if you don’t, then you get nothing and nobody gets charged for their pledge, which is put on a credit card.  Kickstarter takes a percentage of each pledge depending on the size. It took some convincing but my advisors finally talked me into it, urging me to go for broke, $50,000.00 which was a little less than half of what we projected we needed for PBS.  It was risky because that was much higher than the average Kickstarter campaign.  But, we figured we had nothing to lose.

Before jumping in I did plenty of research.  I quickly discovered that the most successful campaigns were well designed with specific goals and a purpose to each part of the funding effort.  In my research I actually found a paper someone had written on how to mount a successful campaign.  The key to Kickstarter I learned is to spread the word as far and wide as you can by using social media as the vehicle. But social media was not only for spreading the word, it also served to keep people who have already given money engaged so they will continue to help.  The idea is to give people a sense of ownership; your supporters are now part of your project and have a vested interest in seeing you succeed.

I studied dozens of current campaigns, I watched their video appeals, and I looked at the incentive items they offered at various gift levels to entice people to give money.  I learned that people hate putting up money without getting something in return, and since there is no tax write off for a Kickstarter pledge, the incentive to give had to be creative.

After shooting and editing the video appeal to post on the site (ours was a bit more polished than most), and coming up with the incentive levels and a few creative gifts like your name listed on our web site, ( or a special download copy of the doc, or for a big contributors, a Director chair with your name on it. The more you give, the more thank you items you get. We were ready to launch.

Phase One: - Kickoff

The first step was to put up the site, then alert everyone I could think of to invite them to visit Kickstarter.  We used the documentary Facebook page, Twitter, personal web sites, email, and I even used a “lifeline,” I phoned a few friends.  The appeal had a very deliberate message, check out the site, help us out by giving a few bucks, then help spread the word using your Facebook page, Twitter, and email to help get the conversation going.  To my surprise we got off to a fast start as word spread quickly.  Kickstarter meantime sent us reports tracking the traffic on the site, showing how people got to us either from a web link, Facebook link, or Google.  That information came in handy as we analyzed the way the word was getting out there.

Phase Two: Re-engagement

Shortly after the initial flurry the traffic started to slow dramatically.  There was no need for alarm however, my research revealed this was normal, which is why it was so important to keep people following our progress. To get people back, Kickstarter urges you send out an occasional update on the campaign in the form a blast email to everyone who contributed so far.  But I had some reservations, we all get way too much spam and I didn’t want Kickstarter to become part of the pesky pile of trash emails that can fill up an inbox.  So I decided the limit the updates, which meant each update had to be carefully crafted. When I screened the doc with audiences, I learned that people loved to know how the film came together.  So rather than an appeal for money or help, I wrote about how we made the documentary, giving people a peak behind the scenes with stories about the production.  Toward the end of each update I then appealed to help keep things going.  In some updates I even attached behind the scenes production photos.  Another update detailed a particular scene in the film and an explanation about a production technique or two.  I had a couple with video attached.  At the end of most updates I previewed what I would discuss in my next update, “some video of scenes that were left on the cutting room floor,” or “my favorite shot in the documentary.”  The end tease was so successful; I had people asking me when was the next update coming?

A turning point came when I was able spread the campaign around the globe. The documentary had been featured at a film festival in Hong Kong (we won Best Film honors) and I was a guest of the festival.  While in Hong Kong I made an appearance on a talk show on the English-speaking network radio station. I decided to ring up the radio host to let him know that we were mounting this unusual funding campaign in America to bring the documentary to television.  Within minutes of receiving my email I was back on the air live via phone.  It was great, but not the end, I wanted more out of the interview so I quickly put together a Kickstarter update to our supporters and attached a tape of the interview and how the campaign had gone global, the momentum was building.

Phase Three: The finish line

The updates, the radio show, and some mentions here and there were paying off.  The pace was picking up and contributions were coming from across the country.  We reached out to organizations, just about everywhere and everyone and most were happy to spread the word.  A couple of supporters actually logged on and gave more money.  As the deadline approached we were close, one final burst of promotion and we made the goal!  In fact, we went past the goal raising $52,175.00.  My friends who convinced me to take the chance on Kickstarter thought we should have set a higher goal.  But the Kickstarter campaign did more than meet the goal, it helped build the momentum we hoped for, and became the underwriting base that allowed us to approach individual contributors to underwrite the remaining funds.

The success was in the research and the planning.  Just like any marketing campaign with a deliberate purpose, a carefully planned strategy and goal.


Space Shuttle Columbia: Mission of Hope is currently airing at various times on public television stations around the U.S. over the next three years. You can see the trailer at: You can also purchase a copy of the film at:


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