The Brooklyn 100: Dan Schoenbrun, Liz Cook, George Schmalz, Kickstarter

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In a relatively short span of time, Kickstarter has completed changed the way movies are funded—and thus made, exhibited, talked about. But it’s still an evolving model. Respectively specializing in narrative, nonfiction and genre films, Schoenbrun, Cook and Schmalz work with Kickstarter filmmakers on their campaigns, which means crafting an identity for a project, and building and sustaining an audience—and are branching out into a more public role, facilitating programs and mentorship opportunities to further democratize the whole damn project.
What’s your favorite place in Brooklyn to go to the movies?
Dan Schoenbrun: It’s a tie between BAM and Williamsburg’s Spectacle Theater. Those two couldn’t be more different—one’s a decades-old institution and the other’s a 28-seat DIY upstart run out of a renovated bodega. But both are next level in their total dedication to adventurous, boundary-pushing programming.
Can you explain to our readers what you do, as one of the heads of the “film outreach” team at Kickstarter? What sort of advice and support do Kickstarting filmmakers need, and how do you try to steer them?
Dan Schoenbrun: I describe my job as being the voice of Kickstarter in the film world, and the voice of the film world here at Kickstarter. I try to understand the challenges that filmmakers face in today’s landscape, and then help empower them to address these challenges and get new things made. Day-to-day, I’m mainly working directly with filmmakers on new campaigns, helping them to strategize about the best path forward for their film on Kickstarter.
How much more scalable is the Kickstarter model? Both in terms of the scope and visibility of projects being funded (I recall some surprise when the new MST3K began crowdfunding), and in terms of what it’s possible to raise money for (production, post-production, distribution)? How much more do you think Kickstarter can do?
Dan Schoenbrun: So far we’ve raised over $2 billion for artists and helped over 100,000 new projects come to life. It took us four years to raise that first billion and just a year and a half to raise the second. So we know that the model is only growing, and that we’ve only just begun to scratch the surface of what’s possible on Kickstarter. In the film category alone we’ve seen projects for production, distribution, film festivals, restoring old films, taking films on live tours, and in one case, forcing censors to watch paint dry. I’m a firm believer that there’s no formal limit to what you can make using this model, and that the next big success will be something so outside the box and innovative that we never could have predicted it.
Is there ever a risk, in crowdfunding campaigns, of a pitch and finished work being too insular, too much of a closed loop between artist and audience? How do you guard against that?
Dan Schoenbrun: I think generally speaking the opposite holds true—that the audience you build on Kickstarter become the ambassadors that will spread the word about your project outwards to new communities. If you can really make your Kickstarter backers feel like one big family working together to make this film possible, by the time it’s done and ready to get out into the world, they’ll feel a real emotional bond to the project, almost like they’re collaborators. From there, it’s the job of the creator to inspire those backers to spread the word about the film, to activate each to help you reach a larger audience.
Are there tangible benefits to having Kickstarter’s headquarters in Brooklyn?
Dan Schoenbrun: Absolutely!! Brooklyn is a massive cultural hub, and increasingly, the place where young artists are living and working, whether their focus is music, art, film, or some other medium. Kickstarter is really a worldwide company in that we serve a much larger creative community than the one housed in our borough. So I’m constantly traveling and connecting with filmmakers across the US, Europe, and beyond. But having such a vibrant and inspiring creative community in our backyard certainly helps!!
Nonfiction film is a wide-ranging category, encompassing a wide variety of formal and aesthetic approaches as much a wide variety of subject matter. Am I right in presuming that this field requires a similarly wide variety of approaches to crowdfunding? I can see it being easier, perhaps, to pitch a documentary investigating a specific political issue or profiling a musician, than to pitch a ‘hybrid’ film offering a poetic take on a specific place, or ‘blurring the line between fiction and nonfiction’ or whatever. But perhaps that’s naive of me…
Liz Cook: The wide variety of documentary films we see on Kickstarter mirrors the diversity of stories we see in the world around us. While the audiences for each film might vary radically from film to film, there are certain elements of running a Kickstarter campaign that ring true regardless of the story you are crafting. Authenticity of the creative voice behind the project, clarity of purpose, and offering a meaningful exchange with your audience through this process are all things I see on successfully funded projects.
What are the specific challenges of working with theaters crowdfunding for restoration projects? What sort of strategies to do you use to ensure that Kickstarter support carries over to actual patronage, once the work is completed?
George Schmalz: Movie theaters are an important part of the film ecosystem on Kickstarter and come built in with a passionate base of supporters and audiences. We love working with campaigns to help upgrade projection systems, screens, seats, lobbies, and more to give film audiences the best experiences possible. Last October, we hosted our 5th annual Kickstarter Film Festival in 32 cities nationwide and some of the theaters in the festival were actually Kickstarter creators.

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