Christina Raia — Filmmaker, Educator & Crowdfunding Expert

“You never know where learning something or meeting someone new could lead. It’s all about being curious and open to new possibilities.”

Vaishnavi Sundar
Mar 25, 2020 · 13 min read
Christina Raia

1) Could you tell our readers a bit about yourself — where did you grow up, what were your earliest memories of watching/thinking about films?

I grew up on Long Island in New York. My mom was born in Trinidad and moved to Queens when she was 14. We moved around Queens and Long Island quite a bit before I began elementary school but I spent most of my childhood living in Long Beach. Movies were a huge part of my childhood. My mom was a single parent, so she worked quite a bit. I spent a lot of time watching movies both on my own and as a family with my mom and my brother. We weren’t able to take family vacations or spend too much time together for long stretches, but watching movies and TV was a kind of bonding time for us. One of my favorite things growing up was watching The Twilight Zone marathon on Sci-Fi with my family. Anyone who has watched my body of work as a whole can probably see that influence.

Movies for me were a form of escape and wonder. I loved the way you could immerse yourself in someone else’s experience.

2) I understand that you started making films at a very young age, what lured you to filmmaking?

Movies for me were a form of escape and wonder. I watched so many, and across vastly different genres. I loved the way you could immerse yourself in someone else’s experience and how movies, especially horror movies, stayed with you long after you had watched them. I had no connection to the industry or filmmaking. No one paved that path for me. I just knew how movies made me feel, and I felt like I had stories to tell. I started out writing short stories when I was very young and eventually wrote a screenplay when I was 9 (it was only 11 pages and formatted incorrectly, but I envisioned it as a feature). I made my friends rehearse for the roles I had cast them in even though I had no access to a video camera. I just felt like one day I’d have one. It wasn’t until Christmas when I was 13 when my mom had saved up to get me my camcorder that I started shooting stuff. I started to understand the power of a lens and deciding what gets placed in a frame. It gave me a sense of agency, which I was lacking in my life at that point, where I had a lot of family obligations and things in my life already decided for me. I began making little films and the rest is history.

3) What is the story behind CongestedCat? The name and the work.

CongestedCat is my production company. We produce narrative content as well as run IndieWorks, a monthly screening series where we support and showcase the short films of other local filmmakers. We don’t do work for hire, so we’re just an umbrella brand for the creative work we conceive and collaborate on together. We’ve made over a dozen shorts, two features, and a web series.

In 2011, I was a junior in college in Manhattan and started making shorts outside of school projects. My childhood friend Chris Carroll was an art student at another school upstate and we were collaborating on little things whenever he made his way into the City. We decided to come up with a name to brand the projects we worked on together. As multi-hyphenate people, both in terms of our multi-ethnic backgrounds and our tendency to wear multiple hats within artforms, we felt like we had a fresh perspective to bring to filmmaking. The name was born out of wanting to match our names C and C. And when thinking about what else we had in common, cats kept coming up. Chris sort of jokingly put “c cat” into Google and the first thing that dropped down was “congested cat.” We laughed about it at first; but the more we said it, the more it kind of fit the offbeat nature of the work we were doing. And we figured no one would forget it if they heard it. A year later, I crowdfunded my first feature and needed to incorporate the business, so we decided to lean into the name and start building a recognizable brand. Chris has since moved on to focus on fashion photography and the company is now co-owned by my main producing collaborator Kelsey Rauber, and our team is made up of 5 other creators we met through school and production work, Ryan Kramer, Matt Gershowitz, Dani Thomas, Ricardo Manigat, and Kimberly Drew Whiten. As a multicultural and inclusive team, we’re especially interested in representing intersectional identities, both onscreen and in our hiring practices. We primarily focus on comedy and horror content, using genre as a lens to explore social structures and shine a light on underrepresented perspectives.

Ultimately, a lot of our work is designed to pull you in with fun premises and genre angles but leave you with socially conscious questions or issues to consider or reflect on.

4) You have been an eager advocate of community building. What do you see as the merits of bringing a community together, while the whole world is just going on about their films?

Filmmaking is a collaborative art form. There’s no way to effectively do it completely alone. So, I think the community is inherently built into the medium. But the film industry is built on gatekeepers and exclusion. It conditions filmmakers to desperately want to get in and tells them they can, but gives everyone who doesn’t already have some sort of access the wrong directions and hides the keys from them. Community is what combats that, I feel. Without community, we’re all a bit adrift in the dark, unsure of what steps to take next, thinking we’re competing with each other when we could be building awareness and momentum together. Community offers a support system and a way to keep learning from each other, both through feedback and just watching what our peers are doing with their resources & ingenuity. So I try to facilitate community building as much as possible through the many hats I wear.

5) Not everyone is lucky to turn their passion into a career, but you have done it. Could you talk about your role in Seed & Spark, and how you landed a job that literally pays to make films?

Well, it’s kind of a long story because I wasn’t necessarily pursuing the career I have now. I first crowdfunded in 2011. That was fairly early. Not too many filmmakers were trying it yet. I was in school and surrounded by peers who had parents who could pay for their films. I didn’t have that luxury. I needed to figure out how I could pay for my first real short without maxing out a credit card (and not being able to pay it off later). I came across a Kickstarter campaign and ended up doing a deep dive into all the film campaigns I could find, trying to dissect the successful and unsuccessful campaigns to get a sense of what they were doing right and wrong. I decided to try crowdfunding and realized that it, while extremely hard and a lot of work, is a viable way to raise funds if you don’t have access to people who can write big checks. I had a small, successful campaign for that short and then did it again for my first feature in 2012. I then began being invited to speak on panels about crowdfunding because no one understood how to do it effectively yet, specifically through an audience and not just friends and family. And then in 2013, I met Seed&Spark founder and CEO Emily Best at a networking event where she gave a brief talk on how Seed&Spark came to be. Seed&Spark was about six months old at that point and this was my first time hearing of it. I loved the way she spoke about the platform, as a tool to build an audience, not just raise funds. So I introduced myself to her and we generally stayed in touch. I also ended up on a few panels with Erica Anderson, who was one of the founding members and head of crowdfunding at the time; and through that, I started to realize the company ideology matched my own. So in 2014, I switched platforms for my third campaign and became a vocal advocate for the platform and the team behind it.

Then in early 2016, Erica reached out asking if I’d be interested in joining the team, teaching workshops on behalf of the company. That quickly turned into working as a crowdfunding specialist who gave campaign feedback on the platform. I did that for 2 years but what I loved was the education piece. I was teaching over 50 workshops a year because I was the company’s main east coast representative. So when the opportunity to become head of education presented itself, I jumped at it. I’ve now been with the company for over 4 years, and my role involves creating a curriculum around creator sustainability, building relationships with organizations and venues that support creators to program our educational offerings, and training other creators to teach our workshops. As I said, I didn’t know that becoming an expert about this new, niche fundraising method back in 2011 for my creative endeavors would turn into a career that allows me to keep making my work while supporting other filmmakers to create theirs. It’s a path I don’t think people can follow. But that’s something I see all the time. There’s no clear path that works for everyone in the creative world. You never know where learning something or meeting someone new could lead. It’s all about being curious and open to new possibilities.

CR at a speaking event

6) You champion crowdfunding by setting your films as an example. When you started, surely crowdfunding as a model for films hadn’t emerged, how do you see it now, and what’s the future of it?

The industry and technology are rapidly changing, so it’s hard to predict the future of anything. But I think crowdfunding will continue to be a big part of how films get made and seen. When crowdfunding first started, it was pretty novel. People contributed to the kind of unusual opportunity to say they helped make a movie. Then there was a big boom around 2014 where it felt like everyone was crowdfunding and it became of oversaturated. And then in 2016-ish, it kind of evened out where people realized it’s a lot of work and not just easy money. (There is no “if you build it, they will come.”) But the people who get it are now really able to utilize it; they’re realizing it is a path to having a career without going through traditional gatekeepers. Ultimately, crowdfunding doesn’t fix society’s ills. Some people will always have more access to money and/or power, so it will always be a bit easier for some to raise larger amounts of money. But as long as the internet allows people to engage with strangers, then crowdfunding will continue to be a tool for anyone from any kind of background to find people who want to see what they want to make and make content through and for those people.

A rookie mistake I made was begging for help. I framed my first campaign around the idea that “for just what you spend on a cup of coffee one morning, you could help us make this movie” But that wasn’t an effective strategy.

7) What’s the rookie mistake that you learned from while raising funds for your films? I’m sure it will benefit a lot of aspiring filmmakers.

A rookie mistake I made was begging for help. I framed my first campaign around the idea that “for just what you spend on a cup of coffee one morning, you could help us make this movie” But that wasn’t an effective strategy because

a) no one wants to be shamed for how they spend their money
b) it’s not motivating to imply that people need to sacrifice something to help make a project.

I quickly ditched that pleading and shifted to inclusive language that was like, “join us in making something… become part of … participate in…,” and I educated people on what their money would go towards. When I focused on the end product they’d get to see and say they helped make, as well as the exclusive, behind the scenes experience I was offering them, that’s when I found success.

8) Could you talk about IndieWorks? How do you find time to do all that you do? In essence, do you have any time management tips for other filmmakers who wear many hats?

IndieWorks is a screening & community-building series showcasing short films by New York-based filmmakers one Tuesday out of every month. Now concluding our seventh year, we have screened nearly 400 shorts and provided a platform to over 300 local filmmakers. We always aim to create an inclusive, accessible and inspiring environment that will spark thoughtful discussion and future collaboration and support. Our screenings are always free to attend and our Q&As are always highly personalized.

IndieWorks started when I had a lot more time on my hands. I was an instructor for a mobile film workshop that just required me to work one or two weeks out of each month. Now I work full-time at Seed&Spark in addition to my production work, but I’ve made it a priority to continue IndieWorks. To do this, I have to be organized. I have a robust to-do list that’s synced with my online calendar; it spells out everything I need to accomplish in the immediate future with clear deadlines. And I make a handwritten task list every day that breaks down what I have to get done specifically that day. Because I have a job that’s in a different time zone and is so intertwined with my overall creative aspirations, it works for me to be working throughout the day rather than a clear 9 to 5 structure.

CR & her team

I’m not a morning person, so the morning is my time to get centered and just be for a bit. And then I’m essentially working all day until sometimes 1 am. But it’s never non-stop. I tend to time block. I give myself a certain amount of time to focus on each project per day, as well as breaks to go for a walk outside or watch something funny or listen to music. I wish I had some secret for having more hours in the day or something like that, but it comes down to me not being a good sleeper and generally liking the work that I do, so not minding that it’s what’s on my mind from the moment I wake up to the moment I go to sleep. Whether or not that’s a healthy life lived overall, I couldn’t say.

The Indieworks/CongestedCat Team

And I should say that for IndieWorks specifically, a huge factor has been adding to the team. Ryan Kramer, who’s a core CongestedCat team member, has stepped up to assist me much more over the past few years. I used to be the first to screen all films and dump them into categories for the other screeners; he now does that and sometimes takes over some of the back and forth with the filmmakers. And at each event, we’re a team of 7 who all have very clearly defined roles that we’ve already prepared for, so it’s just about executing every month. It is kind of like production in that most of the work is in the prep and our prep is a well-oiled machine at this point, going on 8 years in.

9) What’s your latest film about, and could you talk about your female-majority crew?

I directed two short films last year. Both have unexpected genre angles but in very different ways. One is titled “Affliction;” it’s a chilling drama about a confrontation between two coworkers, and the film tackles the timely topic of consent. The other is titled “Game Brunch,” and is a comedy-of-errors about a couple hosting a brunch. It’s mainly meant to make you laugh but also has a bit of commentary on representation.

10) What’s next for all your projects? Be it S&S, Indieworks and CongestedCat?

Both shorts are hitting the festival circuit this year. With the uncertainty of our current times due to the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s hard to plan for the rest of the year right now. A lot of my focus at the moment is on maintaining what we’ve built, both in terms of Seed&Spark’s educational programming and IndieWorks’ monthly events, in a world where people can’t gather in groups for a while. I’m hoping to keep building community and finding ways to empower other creators to get their content made.

Vaishnavi is a writer, self-taught filmmaker among other things. You can read all of her work by signing up for her newsletter.

Women Making Films Pub

This is the official blog site for WMF.

Women Making Films Pub

This is the official blog site for WMF. A global community for female filmmakers with members from 20 countries. Come together — collaborate — create. Founded by @vaishax.

Vaishnavi Sundar

Written by

Writer. Self-taught filmmaker. Animal lover. I always put Women First. Wiki: bit.ly/vaishax

Women Making Films Pub

This is the official blog site for WMF. A global community for female filmmakers with members from 20 countries. Come together — collaborate — create. Founded by @vaishax.

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