Harmony: How to Film Your First Feature After Your Crowdfund Fails (Miserably)

3 years ago, over a frisbee toss at a July 4th barbeque, I pitched a story to my friend and screenwriter Micah McFarland that would eventually become our first feature film Harmony. Originally conceived as a no-budget sci-fi horror film to be shot the following year, neither of us could have imagined the gauntlet we were to go through, with only our belief in the idea keeping us from totally giving up.

What follows is a story of frustration, setbacks, recognizing your mistakes, and listening to your gut.

The Exposition

Along with a few other filmmakers, Micah and I are part of Hand Me Down Films, a production company based right outside of Washington D.C. Created to distribute all our creative content under one name, up until now we’ve mainly focused on creating short films and music videos for the internet and festivals. From the very beginning though, producing a feature has always been the dream. And in fact, the first project the team ever produced together was a 56 minute “almost-feature” made for $6,000 that has thankfully been seen by less than a hundred people.

To be clear from the start, Hand Me Down Films does NOT pay our bills. I currently work as a DP for a small but successful DC production company that focuses on documentaries, government, corporate and nonprofit video. You know those videos you see in museum installations? Yeah, I shoot those.

Micah lives and works in LA, handling web design for a tech company while pursuing a screenwriting career. Just like most of you out there, we’re working the normal job as we chase the filmmaker’s dream.

Alright, back to the story.

Sophia (Marili Mejias)

The (Initial) Plan

After quickly nailing down characters and an outline together, Micah and I split off. While he went off to write the first draft of the script, I pulled together a business plan. In general terms, here’s how it went:

Having had previous success on Kickstarter with our past projects, but looking to kick this production up a notch and bring in some real investors, my idea was to do both, half crowdfund, half investors, to reach a goal of $50,000.

The first stage of the plan would be the crowdfunding campaign. Along with organizing the usual tiered perks, we wanted to write and shoot a short film to wrap the whole campaign around and introduce the concept of the feature. What better way to show our resolve and capability in pulling a production together, right?

Once the campaign had finished, we would then source the rest of our budget from our investors, already armed with half the money, a successful crowdfund, and a proof of concept to show them, not to mention HMD’s past work. What more could a potential investor want? Basically, they would be investing $25,000, but the ROI would be for a film double that. I also structured the business plan to target multiple investors. This way, more investors could put in less money, opening the investment opportunity up to more people, and giving us more flexibility if someone were to pull out (which happened).

And having done my distribution research, on top of having a few colleagues who had already gone through the hoops, I was sure we could at least get the film onto iTunes to potentially start making the investment back.

For a super low-budget first feature, I thought it was a pretty solid plan…

The Reality

Here’s where we start getting into the “lessons learned”.

As soon as I had completed the business plan, before we even set about the crowdfunding campaign, I reached out to investors. Low and behold, practically everyone on our list said “yes”. Good start, yeah?

But here’s the problem we didn’t think through. Those folks on our list, why did we approach them in the first place? Because they had been our biggest donors on past crowdfunding campaigns. We wanted them to invest so they could be apart of any potential success the film would have later and not just receive a perk for their donation.

Our second problem was the script. In taking a year to figure out draft one, it had ballooned beyond the initial no-budget idea. Multiple characters had been added, the setting had been widely expanded, and lots of action had been written in. Scenes that originally were meant to be small and intimate now had big, complicated sci-fi tech elements. Our finale called for hundreds of extras, all taking part in a mass rebellion, which our main characters had to race through to survive. The script had inflated beyond the scope of production. Thing is, neither Micah or I saw it.

After a long and intense year of working on the script, just the two of us, we couldn’t see the forest through the trees. Our plan was still for a $50,000 film, but our script no longer reflected that. And because of this misperception, I quickly started hitting walls.

Erik (Mark Frazier) with Sophia (Marili Mejias) in our cafeteria set

Self-inflicted Frustration

To help pull production together, I decided to reach out beyond the HMD team to our old film school. I pitched our story and the collaboration to the dean, who thought it a good idea. In essence, we’d be able to utilize a young, highly skilled crew and the department’s resources while the students would gain the firsthand experience of working on a professional indie film set for two weeks.

But from the outset, the misperception of our own project reared it’s ugly head. From the very first meeting with the film department there was miscommunication and confusion; for reasons I couldn’t comprehend at the time. Elements of the script that seemed so miniscule to me caused endless debates in the room. They would say “here’s how I think we should handle this element” and I would reply “don’t worry about that element, we’re not going to do it” or “think smaller; remember this is gonna be super indie.” After hours of this, I would leave our meetings super frustrated and feeling like a total idiot, thinking “all their ideas are too big for this film.” Why was this so difficult for them?

Well, next lesson learned: If it’s on the page, it’s in the vision.

Of course they weren’t getting it! And I was a total idiot! They were following the script! When a script says “hundreds of people fight for their lives” a good producer is going to figure out how to get hundreds of people and a stunt coordinator (or five). When it says “futuristic body scanner” or “huge, advanced medical facility”, they’re going to suggest you hire a good production designer. None of these things were part of my vision of the film. But were they in the script? Yes.

Looking back now, the word “duh!” comes to my mind.

“No Go” on the Indiegogo

As my battles with the film department continued on, the HMD crew and I geared up for the crowdfunding campaign. Over the summer of 2016, while Micah soldiered on with the feature script, I wrote the short, pulled together a great cast of local DC actors and crew, and went about filming our proof of concept Harmony: Funded.

Filming the short ended up going fantastically well. Production took two full days with a cast six and a crew of nine. In fact it went so well that we brought over almost all our crew and two of our actors (Elliott Bales and Jessica Inzeo) when it came time to shoot the feature. Unfortunately with the campaign, I think we made another major error.

As a fail-safe, we decided to make the switch from Kickstarter to Indiegogo (which we had never used before). The move was a practical one. On Kickstarter, if we didn’t hit our crowdfund goal of $25,000 we wouldn’t get anything. On Indiegogo, while they take a larger percentage of your earnings, you still get to keep what you raise. Beyond this however, the two platforms have vast differences that I don’t think we properly took into account.

Let’s face it: Kickstarter is the big one. It was the first and raises the most. It’s the one everyone thinks of when the word “crowdfunding” comes up. And if my Dad can figure out how to donate through it, then it really is simple to use. And this perception of Kickstarter can bring it’s own perks to your project. There’s more traffic to stumble across your project, the site itself helps your project look more professional, and I believe the “all-or-nothing” method unconsciously tells your audience that you aren’t one to sacrifice quality. The stakes of a Kickstarter campaign light a fire under donors to not only support, but support as much as they can.

Indiegogo is a different animal. With a heavy non-profit focus, I find its “raise-what-you-can” method often works against narrative films that are trying to have high production value. If your donors know you’ll get some money, they’re less willing to donate all they can to see a project across the finish line. Film projects on Indiegogo also tend to have smaller campaign goals and the site and community is far less active.

Disappointment

With all these elements at play, and rushing to beat the holiday season, we went ahead with our Indiegogo campaign for Harmony in November of 2016. And just like the title says, it failed. Miserably.

Within two weeks of our four week campaign, we were only able to raise $500 dollars in funding and our short had only received three or four hundred views. So after practically no movement in week three, I decided to close the campaign down, end the collaboration with the film department, and go off to enjoy my holiday season unburdened of the project. Harmony finally seemed to be kaputt.

Or so I thought…

Slice and Dice

Even though the crowdfunding campaign totally tanked, over the 2016 holidays we received lots of positive feedback on the short film; specifically from our investors. With this unexpected gust of enthusiasm taking me into the new year, I once again called Micah and pitched him an alternate direction for Harmony: take it back to basics.

A.D and Producer Zach Griffin (left) and I

From January to May, with the short as our blueprint, we reconceived the entire script and production into what we called a “two-people-in-a-room” version of the film. In the script, multiple secondary characters were condensed, the many action set-pieces throughout were dropped, and an entirely new plot device was added to string the film together. Old scenes and sequences were re-written with a greater focus on character, tension, and suspense.

Scope was also heavily scaled back to fit our new $30,000 budget. First, production was split into two blocks, with Block #1’s focus on all scenes within the Harmony facility and Block #2’s on all the scenes without.

Our Sophia (Marili Mejias) waiting for us to set up…
this shot.

Because studio space is rare and highly expensive in the DC area, we opted instead to film in two enormous, open office spaces we found in Fairfax Virginia. By changing around the set-dec and our camera angles within these rooms, we could create the different spaces the script called for. Props and costumes were also designed to be as multipurpose as possible (and mainly purchased off Amazon). Equipment costs were kept to a minimum as practically all was secondary, non-essential equipment borrowed from my work. Cast was all local non-union or SAG-eligible talent, our skeleton crew consisted of eight, and daily fees were less than $125.

Example of set design in one of our office space “studios”

Lessons Learned

With everything in place, Harmony finally entered production of Block #1 this past Summer, August 2017. And while production had its own teachings awaiting me, that’s another future article for another future (but soon) time.

So, what’s the big lesson we learned from all this? Listen to your gut. Because there’s actually nothing new about this version of Harmony. It’s what we wanted to do from the very beginning; a no-budget sci-fi horror. We’ll be entering Block #2 production in March 2018 and by then, hopefully be even farther down this road and have many more lessons to share with you.