Filmmaker Ian McCluskey, the director of "Summer Snapshot," talks about the precarious nature of documentary funding, and why he never sees his audience as just viewers.
Reel NW: Making films is expensive, right? You funded “Summer Snapshot”” partially through Kickstarter. How did you get the idea?
Making films is indeed expensive. “Summer Snapshot” started as a personal project. I'd finished a 1-hour documentary (“Eloquent Nude,” 2007) that had taken me two years to make. I was ready to conceive a film that I could do purely for aesthetic and artistic expression without financial or commercial limitations. “Summer Snapshot” is a simple story of a summer day, and as such, the practical elements are fairly minimal. I rounded up some friends, a thrift-store super-8 camera, and revisited a favorite swimming hole on Mt. Hood's Sandy River.
Even though the concept of the film was fairly simple, costs can add up. As far as pre-production, I assembled a cast and crew who were eager to be part of the project and pitch in. We rounded up props from friends and family - like the red backpack and the wood-paneled Wagoneer were donated for the effort. The costumes were from personal collections or vintage shops, and a few great scores from Goodwill. We worked really hard to ask for donations and support, and secured $50 gift certificates at Fred Meyer and Trader Joe's, which helped with craft services. Most "low-budget" films never account for all the small costs, but even driving out to scout a location becomes a cost.
Even pinching every penny, I laid out about $1,000 out-of-pocket. I knew we were going to need some more funds. I applied to a regional arts council for a project grant. We all had a very good feeling about our chances. I'd applied for and received that specific grant before and even served on the grant panel in the past. We'd put together a really strong proposal with a lot of detail and support. It really felt like a solid match. Unfortunately, we didn't get the grant.
Luckily, at the time, Kickstarter was just coming up. One of the founders was in Portland, and a friend of a friend knew him. We soon had an invitation.
Reel NW: How did you raise money for your films in the past?
In the past, I've raised funds for documentary projects through grant writing and individual donations. We've held screenings, house parties, auctions, backyard BBQs, art shows, benefit concerts, and special events. It's always, always been a challenge.
There are so few grants that support documentary work. Individual donations have always been hard, especially in the last decade of economic recession.
I'll soon be raising funds for my next documentary project, a 1-hour film, and as much as I believe in the story and the artistic value of the story, the fundraising is daunting. I'm genuinely hopeful, but braced for the reality of the challenge.
Reel NW: You exceeded your fundraising goal by more than $2K. How did that happen? Did you know all the backers?
The thing with Kickstarter is that you set a funding goal. If you make it, then you collect those pledges; if you come even a dollar short, you don't collect anything. It's an "all or nothing at all" system. So, there's a real strategy in setting the goal. If you ask too high, you might bomb. Yet, if you ask too low, you can shoot yourself in the foot. If you set an easy target and reach it, the drama is gone and there is no longer a perceived need.
The day we launched our campaign, I remember asking my team if $2,000 didn't seem a bit high. Should we drop it to $1,500, I asked them, just to be safe? They pushed for $2,000, and so that's what we asked for. We reached that in less than 48 hours. We even were featured on the front page of Kickstarter as a "pick" by day three. It was really amazing.The first donors were from our friends and family, of course. The "home" team. But soon we got backers from across the country.
Eventually we hit $4,000. In hindsight, we wished we'd shot for 5k. We just might have gotten that. And truthfully, 5k was far more realistic in terms of the funds we really needed.
Reel NW: How much did the Kickstarter campaign end up covering your costs?
In addition to the $4,000 we raised in cash through Kickstarter, we raised 3x that in in-kind support.
I am truly amazed and deeply grateful for the amount of contributed support to “Summer Snapshot.” The cast and crew volunteered their time and talents. This included the amazing work of audio post-remixing of Eric Stolberg from Digital One in Portland and the color grading from Seattle's John Davidson. The entire soundtrack - composed, performed and arranged by The Dimes - was also pro bono. Kodak cut us a break on film, and a family-owned photo store in Kansas, Dwayne's (the last developer of Kodachrome), developed all our reels of super-8 film for free.
However, even with all this love, there were some hard costs we just couldn't avoid. With our Kickstarter support and in-kind contributors, we were basically able to get the film completed and a DVD made. However, the real costs were about to hit. We were hit with huge costs in mastering and shipping; the more popular the film became, the more those costs went up, well beyond our humble Kickstarter budget. We needed to master the film to different formats, including HDCAM SR, HDCAM, Digi Beta, DigiBeta PAL, DCP, BluRay, and MOV. At one point, we had five tapes, two flash drives, and two BluRays out in circulation at various film festivals around the world.
In the end, “Summer Snapshot” screened on four continents, in nearly 20 different countries, in more than 50 international film festivals.
Reel NW: Do sites like Kickstarter change the way you think about your audience – since some of the audience essentially helped bring the film to life?
How we felt about our audience has always been from the grassroots level. Every film I've made has been possible only through the kindness of volunteers and individual donors, so I think I've always seen the audience as more than simply viewers. They truly are the reason I can make films. Whether someone is offering $50 of their hard-earned money to help go toward the budget, or offering to volunteer their time or talents, they are part of the film. It's not just my film, as the director, but all our work, as a creative team. I can recall the first meetings with the cast and crew. I promised them that whatever we did was going to be beautiful, the kind of film they'd be proud of, and that it would have high artistic integrity. So from the very beginning, every single person who was part of the film was an investor in it; my obligation to them was to make good on my promise.
I feel fortunate to have started my film career right at the emergence of DIY digital media and hybrid distribution models. Over the past decade, there has been a broader change across all media where the audience is not only self-curating their media experiences, but interacting with media and engaging in media. As audiences become media participants, I think media literacy has become elevated. This is a new and exciting challenge for filmmakers, because it means you can't just rely on conventions, and you can't underestimate the intelligence of the audience. So to stay relevant and keep an audience you have to always be pushing the form and craft. This is exciting to me because it allows me to try out new things.
“Summer Snapshot” was a way for me to mix old and new film technique and technology. It was shot in Super-8 but edited in HD. The film is set in the past, yet we hear younger contemporary voices. There is no mention of time, location, names, etc. And we never see a talking head. In many ways this is breaking some of the fundamental rules of documentary. What we wanted to create, instead of a who-what-when story was a reflection on a mood or a feeling of carefree freedom that comes in the fleeting window between youth and adulthood. The film essentially relies upon the audience inserting themselves and their own nostalgia into the film. It's really stepping beyond presenting a story to an audience member, but rather inviting them to come into the film and create their own experience.