Running a Crowdfunding Campaign: An Interview with Liz Manashil

Running a Crowdfunding Campaign: An Interview with Liz Manashil

Liz Manashil is an independent feature filmmaker who works in artist support. She managed Sundance's Creative Distribution Initiative during its entire tenure and now consults with her fellow filmmakers (independently and through The Film Collaborative) on how best to navigate the labyrinthine-like world of distribution. She is incredibly proud to have contributed to both the Distributor Fact Sheet and the Distributor Report Card and is in the process of making and documenting the making of her third feature—a horror comedy called Best Friends Forever—and has just produced her second child. She lives in Los Angeles with her partner, son, daughter and dog, Laura Palmer.

Now in pre-production for her third feature film, the writer/director/producer tells me all about her experience with crowdfunding campaigns to help get the movies made.

Jessica Hobbs: Tell me a little about your background as an indie filmmaker and distribution consultant.

Liz Manashil: I’ve made two other feature films that I wrote, directed, cast, and I was one of the key producers. I couldn’t have done it without the teammates I had, and the reason I took on so many roles was because of our very low budget. I didn’t feel like I was in a place to demand anything of anyone, and was always grateful to any contribution anyone gave to those films.

Both of the films were funded through crowdfunding, credit cards, and personal finances, and for the second film, a large chunk of the budget was from the revenue of the first film, which I never treated as my money, I always treated it as money that would go to the next project.

In parallel, I’ve had a career in artist support, working at Sundance and as a distribution and crowdfunding consultant, I ran a self-distribution fellowship, and now I’m a producers’ rep. All of that data helps me figure out exactly how to create models where I’m hoping to reward my cast and crew for participating in another Liz Manashil venture.

JH: You’ve produced and directed two feature films using crowdfunding and are now launching a new campaign for feature film number three. Why crowdfunding?

LM: With the first campaign in 2012, we raised $36,000 and it was really the only option. I went to USC film school, but I wasn’t connected in any way to investors or financiers, and I didn’t know how to pitch what I was doing. I learned that pitching is just talking to someone about what your project is. I thought it was some terrifying formal experience! But, you learn. So, I needed crowdfunding in 2012, and it accounted for more than a third of the budget, but in addition, it got the attention of colleagues in my network who either wanted to invest or could help me find an investor. So, it wasn’t just financial need, it was a marketing effort and a way to connect me with the two equity investors I had on that first feature.

Then for the second feature, I had a lack of confidence about pitching to financiers, even after the first feature had done pretty well. But we raised less, and it didn’t connect us to investors this time. Basically, I turn to crowdfunding when I feel like I’ve exhausted other options and to inject some energy and fuel into the pre-production phase where you need momentum. I think crowdfunding gives you a massive amount of momentum.

JH: How are you going to run this campaign compared with the first two?

LM: What I learned on my second campaign is that I set my goal too low. I felt greedy crowdfunding only a couple years after the first campaign. People shouldn’t feel this way, but I felt greedy, so I set the target to be $15,000 when we needed a lot more. Momentum slowed almost immediately when we reached that goal.

What I took from that is that you have to message as much as possible about stretch goals and how you’re setting the goal to be safe, but what you really need is X amount and to keep pushing more and more at the end and not give up. So, that’s going to be a big part of the message in this campaign.

We’ll set a goal of $20,000 to $25,000, which is really high, but we need like $200,000. So, I’m going to treat it as if that $20-$25k is just the first step to keep communicating that we’d love additional support.

JH: What is a stretch goal?

LM: Once you hit your target, a stretch goal is anything you’re asking for past that target. You’ll see campaigns say, “If we hit our first stretch goal, we’ll release a teaser of our movie, then if we hit our second stretch goal, we’ll have a pizza party” or something. So, you have to bake in more assets, events, and momentum for after the campaign is successful to keep incentivizing extra money to be gathered.

JH: A lot of filmmakers look for a hook to their presentations to draw the interest of a large audience. How did you decide to narrow down your “angle”?

LM: I was the crowdfunding consultant at Sundance, so I’ve seen a lot of these campaigns, and I’ve advised people on how to do this, but it’s really hard. I can advise and look at someone else’s career and create that perspective. It’s difficult when I turn my eyes to myself.

In terms of advice I’ve given to other creators, it’s about the individual. It’s about the person who’s the most passionate, pleading, fighting, vying in their video to show the audience how much this project means to them.

We have some great assets to our project: it’s a horror film, I always work with female or non-binary identifying crew and cast, and this film is supposed to be made in the least toxic, most transparent way possible. I’ve been documenting the development process [on Patreon] for over a year now and try to memorialize every moment of making this movie, but the most important thing is for me to tap into the scary, squishy, vulnerable side on camera, directly into the lens, saying “I’ve worked on this film for years, this is why I care about it, this is what I’ve sacrificed, why I’m dedicating the next few years to it, please join us.”

JH: I love that you have this documentation process on Patreon. Will you be using that with your crowdfunding updates as well?

LM: I feel so grateful to anyone who has joined the Patreon. They’re part of a community, we’re exchanging resources and talking about our projects, and I find it holds me accountable to report back to them. I want to see if there’s a way to integrate them, where if you donate [on Kickstarter] you get grandmothered into the Patreon campaign. I will ask permission from the Patreon community, because they’ve invested energy into it, and I don’t want to hand off recorded conversations we’ve had to strangers just because it works well as a Kickstarter incentive. But I want to find a way to grow the Patreon community while offering something valuable to Kickstarter donors as well. So, I’m trying to figure out a way for them to overlap with the consent of everyone in the Patreon.

JH: What does it mean to have a fiscal sponsor on a crowdfunding campaign?

LM: If you have a fiscal sponsor, it allows you to fundraise from individuals who want a tax break. It’s a little confusing because when these platforms first came out, crowdfunding money was treated as a gift, then it turned into taxable funds shortly thereafter. But in the beginning, some people weren’t taxed on crowdfunding campaigns because the government didn’t know how to treat those funds.

Now you can run it in association with a fiscal sponsorship, but then you’re having money taken out on every end. Kickstarter takes 5% for its fee, then Stripe has a fee for credit-card processing, then the fiscal sponsor will take 5% to 8% as well. And if you have someone who really wants that tax break, you should have them donate to you outside of the campaign, they will still, for sure, get their write off.

JH: What are some ways to market and promote a crowdfunding campaign?

LM: I’m a big fan of newsletters. You give your audience a head’s up that the campaign is coming, you do a countdown, you launch, and you send a few during the campaign. I know people who do personal emails. I just gave money to a Kickstarter that sends out emails every single day, which is a lot, and it’s annoying to me, but it got me to donate around day ten. So, it is effective, and it made it seem like they were putting in the work. I’ve done a comedy show to draw attention, I’ve done a spin-a-thon, I’ve done social-media posts related to the number of days we have left: If we have 400 days left, I’ll find facts related to the number 400.

The issue is not that people aren’t generous and kind, the issue is that social media moves fast, people have 45 things they’re doing with their day, and you just need to remind them. Also, a lot of people forget this, but if someone donates to my campaign, I’m just as excited about $1 as $10, $20, $30, whatever. Many people have different messages for different tiers. If it’s $1 they get a brief message of “Thanks so much, follow me on social media.” No, no, no, no. That person just gave a dollar out of their wallet to you. I find that if I express how grateful I am as soon as possible, publicly and privately, when you get to a point in your campaign where you need a certain amount of money to get over the edge, you can go back and say, “If every one of you gave $14 more, we’d hit our target.”

It’s relationship building, so I think that’s a big part of drawing attention to your campaign, treating every person who chooses to give you money as a hero, because they are a hero. It’s a heroic gesture.

JH: What do you say to people who are held back by that fear of seeming greedy or annoying or are just hesitant to ask?

LM: Put yourself in their shoes. I donate to a lot of crowdfunding campaigns. Why should I assume no one would donate to mine? Why is it greedy for me to ask, but not for someone else to ask? My presumption is that individuals who feel greedy or anxious don’t put those same charged emotions on other people. So, remind yourself that people are kind, and they really are generous. All my friends from high school, college, and grad school got way better jobs than I did, so asking for $10 is not the most horrific thing in the world.

JH: What happens if a campaign doesn’t meet its goal?

LM: There’s no way we won’t hit our goal, because if we’re at $0 at the end of the campaign, my husband and I will put in our own money. If someone doesn’t meet their goal on Kickstarter, they get $0. On Seed & Spark, you have to hit 75% or 80%, and I think it’s the same for Indiegogo. Kickstarter has an all-or-nothing approach, which I think is beautiful. It’s scary, it’s dramatic, and it puts a lot of pressure on a campaign, but it also incentivizes people in a different way because they know you’ll lose everything. But never pick a goal that you can’t safely supplement yourself, if you need to.

JH: How much of a film’s overall budget do you try to raise through crowdfunding?

LM: As much as you can. I had a kid seven months ago. I had many ambitions for this film prior to having my second child, but I am hit with the wall that is 24 hours in one day. I did pitch traditional investors, and most, if not all of them, were not interested.

For me, crowdfunding is a way to get money in the back for this film, but it’s also a way to promote and activate this campaign, so I can try to find more people to hear about this project. I’m not networking or going to a lot of events, it’s difficult for me to do that with two children. And to be honest I hate doing those things anyway, so it’s not the end of the world that I can’t go out for drinks every night. So, I’m trying to raise as much as possible through Kickstarter, but also to incentivize equity investors.

If I come to the table with half our budget raised and say it’s all soft money that’s non-recoupable, and if they put in the rest of the budget, all I have to do is make up the other half in order to pay them back. If I chose to, I could give everything made at the box office to the investor. The quickest way to make an investor whole is to have some soft money in the account. Additionally, crowdfunded money can even be used to pay back investors, if necessary.

JH: Any other thoughts for filmmakers looking to crowdfund a project?

LM: I really like crowdfunding. I think other people look at is as a terrible, overwhelming chore, but I look at it as something very exciting and fun. It’s a surprise party every day. “Wait, you like me and want to give me money for this movie? That’s amazing!”

I really enjoy the process of seeing so many people be so generous in helping me make my dreams come true. If I can encourage other people to see it that way, rather than as a terrifying thing where you have to put yourself out there and face rejection, maybe we have a little bit more of a substantive, supportive community putting money into the arts.

Think of it as a joyful experience.

*Feature Photo: Liz Manashil

Jessica Hobbs is a film, TV and nonfiction writer with a love of the strange and unusual. Her first book, The Witch and Other Tales of the American Gothic, debuted in 2023. She lives in Laurel Canyon.
More posts by Jessica Hobbs.
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