It takes a crowd

“Crowdfunding” is an ubiquitous buzzword among young creative types. But how much do online platforms like Kickstarter really help? Georgia Popplewell talks to Caribbean filmmakers and artists about their crowdfunding experiences

Illustration by Shalini Seereeram

If you’re one of those people who spend too much time surfing the Web, you may have heard about the man who raised US$55,492 on a website called Kickstarter, to make potato salad. The individual, aptly named Zack Danger Brown, mounted the campaign as a joke, and plans to donate the money to charity, but his stunt does demonstrate the weird potential of the phenomenon known as crowdfunding — the practice of funding a project or venture by raising small amounts of money from a large number of people via the Internet.

“Crowdfunding” is a newish word — it entered the pages of the Oxford English Dictionary only in 2011 — for the online manifestation of an idea that’s as old as the hills. It’s certainly not unknown in the Caribbean, where a lack of formal funding in areas like healthcare has often caused people to turn to their communities for support. The fundraising cake sale or concert put on to help pay for somebody’s surgery or repair a school — those are examples of crowdfunding, of a sort.

A search on crowdfunding web sites like Kickstarter, Indiegogo, or GoFundMe for Caribbean projects doesn’t yield much — which is unsurprising, given the size of the region, and the fact that anyone who ventures onto these platforms is casting their project or product into the fray alongside thousands of others with higher profiles and larger, savvier networks. And, as is often the case with online financial transactions, there are barriers to entry for people from certain countries. Kickstarter, for instance, allows only people with bank accounts in a handful of developed nations to launch projects.

Canada-based Trinidadian Ian Harnarine was one of the early Caribbean filmmakers to test the crowdfunding waters, putting his narrative short Doubles With Slight Pepper on Kickstarter in 2011. “Quite frankly, it was the only way Doubles With Slight Pepper could have been made,” says Harnarine. “I personally don’t have the money to pay for a film, and I didn’t know anyone that would be willing to fund the entire project. But I’m really lucky to know a few people that do want to help me, and have $50 or $100 that they would be willing to donate.” Harnarine surpassed his Kickstarter fundraising target of US$10,000 by $300, raising funds from forty-eight backers.

Another early Kickstarter user was St Lucia-based Guyanese Onel Sanford Belle, who ran a successful crowdfunding campaign for her film Everyday Heroes in 2011, raising more than the US$9,000 she needed to complete the project.

Like Harnarine, Surinamese Ida Does went the crowdfunding route for her film Poetry Is an Island out of necessity, but also because of the bureaucracy involved in applying for grants. “I don’t like to deal with a lot of paper and fill in the forms,” says Does, whose film is about celebrated poet Derek Walcott. Some startup funding from Aruba and from the Dutch embassy in Trinidad helped Does make two trips to St Lucia to shoot the film. Still needing funds to edit the work, she launched an Indiegogo campaign with a target of US$35,000. Thanks to its subject matter, the project attracted Caribbean-wide support.

Trinidadian Mariel Brown mounted two Indiegogo campaign in 2013 for her film Kingston Shottas. “I thought it would be hard to raise funds in Trinidad for a film about Jamaican artists,” says Brown, who has also had some success raising funds in Trinidad for documentary projects on local themes. “And I knew it would be hard to raise funds in Jamaica with the financial situation there.” Brown’s first campaign raised enough to do some preliminary shooting and produce a fundraising demo, which she used in the second campaign.

Besides films, Caribbean people have also crowdfunded contemporary art projects. Trinidadian artists Alicia Milne and Luis Vasquez La Roche fundraised on Indiegogo to finance an arts residency in Amsterdam. Jamaican Deborah Anzinger funded two artist residencies at her NLS art space in Kingston through Kickstarter. “We could’ve done a fundraiser event, but then you have overhead costs to deal with,” says Anzinger. “With Kickstarter or Indiegogo, you set up something that gives people the opportunity to invest.”

As anyone who has crowdfunded will tell you, it’s not a matter of putting your campaign out there and watching it go viral as the money flows in. Competition on crowdfunding platforms is stiff, and getting your project noticed involves ensuring that it’s well designed, from the standpoint of content and visual appeal, as well as the “rewards” or perks you offer your backers. And that’s only the beginning.

“It’s a machine, and you have to feed it,” says Mariel Brown of the regular progress updates that any good crowdfunder posts in order to keep backers informed and involved.

Ian Harnarine admits it was more work than he expected. “I did everything: creating videos and posts, writing personal emails asking people for support, writing personal emails once they did contribute. The tail end of the campaign happened while we were in production. Shooting the film while still running the campaign was incredibly exhausting.”

Even Onel Sanford Belle, who was able to capitalise on her visibility as anchor of the evening news on St Lucian television station DBS, points out that “you can’t assume you just launch a campaign and share the link. You have to work that link — you have to remember people. And you have to find the right balance between spamming and reminding.”

Ida Does also put more time than expected into her Indiegogo campaign. “Although I have to say that it brought us a lot,” she adds. “The whole process was fun because every time you got a notice of a new funder, even if it’s only $5, you’re happy that people are willing to support you. That was the main energy that kept us going.”

One obstacle that practically everyone who has crowdfunded in the Caribbean has encountered is the reluctance of some Caribbean people to use online funding platforms. “A lot of people don’t have credit cards. And if they do, they don’t want to use them online — even some very sophisticated people I know,” says Brown. Sanford Belle had backers who didn’t necessarily want to be identified.

Both Does and Alicia Milne met their fundraising targets, though that isn’t reflected on their Indiegogo campaign pages. “Some weren’t comfortable contributing online, but still wanted to contribute in person, so we made that happen,” said Milne.

Some of Does’s larger sponsors preferred to pay directly, but she says even though not all of her funding came through Indiegogo, the campaign was still a great promotional tool — perhaps a critical one, in the context of the so-called “attention economy.” “It’s become a marketing tool to build and make use of an audience, fan base and customers,” says Harnarine. “Increasingly, it’s becoming harder for people without a built-in audience or without prior experience to fund their projects.”

Harnarine believes crowdfunding is fading out. “I have seen so many campaigns fail recently, because everyone has ‘funding fatigue.’ My Facebook timeline is filled with people crowdfunding for films, music, books, trips, businesses, video games, food, etc.”

Brown, whose film Kingston Shottas is on hold as she seeks further funding to continue, agrees. “I don’t think that crowdfunding on traditional websites is necessarily the panacea people have in mind,” she says. Brown believes a film-specific crowdfunding platform called Seed&Spark might point to a way forward, especially for Caribbean film. In addition to funds, Seed&Spark allows backers to provide goods and services. “If I could put on my campaign that I need a beach house in Mayaro for three days to shoot this scene,” says Brown, “perhaps people would be more receptive to giving that kind of thing.”