Hot on the heels of Mark Duplass’ inspiring keynote address at SXSW, which if you haven’t checked it out you most certainly should, I wanted to talk with an up-and-coming filmmaker who really is living by the “be your own cavalry” credo. Kit Williamson is definitely his own cavalry.
In the past two years he has finished grad school, kickstarted and secured distribution for two seasons of a successful web series, and has more than a few projects in the pipeline. If you watch Mad Men, you might remember him as Ed during the 2013-2014 season. You also might know him from Eastsiders, the web series he kickstarted, produced, wrote, and starred in. He just recently wrapped production on season 2 of Eastsiders and was kind enough to slow down for a moment and share some of his experiences in the world of crowdfunding with us.
For those of us who might be troglodytes living under a rock, can you explain what “crowdfunding” is?
Crowdfunding refers to using websites like Kickstarter, Indiegogo or Seed & Spark to finance projects through donations from friends, family and fans. This method has been taking the indie film world by storm, as it allows for filmmakers to push forward projects that may fall outside of what networks and studios typically greenlight.
People mostly hear about the viral success stories--Veronica Mars, Zach Braff, Potato Salad (yes, someone raised money to make potato salad)-- but it's also a really useful tool for short films and passion projects, provided you go into it with the right mindset and a firm grasp on your project's prospects.
Is there any particular platform that you've had success with?
I've crowdfunded two seasons of my show "EastSiders" on Kickstarter, which is different from Indiegogo primarily because it's all or nothing-- if you don't meet your goal by the end of the campaign you don't get to keep anything. It helps create urgency about a campaign, and is best for projects that need everything they are asking in order to make the finished project.
The first season of EastSiders had a goal of $15,000 and we raised nearly $26,000. The second season had a goal of $125,000 and we raised $153,000. I've also been a producer on two features that raised $130,000 and $80,000 this year, Kiss Me, Kill Me and Retake. I was able to help the team apply the lessons I'd learned from my campaigns and I was thrilled to see them both exceed their goals.
So you know a little about how this is done...
There's definitely a method that people can follow, but no matter what your campaign has going for it, it's going to require a lot of hard work and personal sacrifice to raise that kind of money.
No doubt. Before you kickstarted EastSiders, you shot the first two episodes on a shoestring budget. Did you attempt any more traditional forms of financing before pursuing crowdfunding?
I used my own money to shoot the first two episodes and called in every favor I could from acting for free (and sometimes holding the boom) in my friends' projects. My goals were pretty simple-- I wanted to make a quality project and put it online to see if people responded to it.
Without an established identity, a web show is unlikely to make money and therefore highly unlikely to attract investment. Now that we're two seasons in and have secured licensing and distribution deals it's a different story, but as soon as I saw the response the first two episodes were getting I knew we needed to crowd-fund a full season.
It plays a lot more like a feature when it’s all said and done. Did you conceptualize it that way before converting it into a web series?
It's definitely a web series first and foremost, but I had both distribution options in mind when I was writing it, in part because I had hoped to someday distribute it as a movie (which we're doing now on VOD and DVD through Wolfe Video) and also because the structure was useful in developing a satisfying arc for the characters.
The second season is much longer and plays like a half-season pickup of a cable show-- 6 half hour episodes that can be cut into 12 shorter webisodes. We may cut a feature version as well, depending on our distribution deals.
I also just wrapped production on a lesbian web series I directed and co-wrote with Julia Ehringer called Girls Like Magic, which could also be described as a feature film broken into 7 vignettes.
I think it's a great model for microbudget filmmakers looking to make their first movie. Mark Duplass recently gave a speech at SXSW that really resonated with me-- I think in addition to exploring VOD I'd encourage people to take advantage of the PR opportunities that creating a web series can create. Why not kill two birds with one stone?
You are busy. And talk about being your own cavalry… You mentioned VOD distribution deals with Wolfe, but you originally were picked up by LOGO, yes?
That's right. We launched the first two episodes on YouTube and then were contacted by LOGO about premiering the rest of the season on their digital platform. They also broadcast the show on their cable channel.
For those that might not know, Eastsiders is a darkly comedic exploration of the aftermath of an affair on a gay couple in the Silverlake neighborhood of Los Angeles. Despite it being focused primarily on gay characters, it seems to have found a strong foothold with many straight viewers. This is somewhat atypical when it comes to “gay” media. Why do you think you’ve been so successful is crossing that divide?
I never thought of it as a "gay" series-- I just set out to tell a story. I think a lot of gay representation is really tentative and afraid to present flawed, interesting characters. That or it's just gay for gay's sake and there's not much substance to the story beyond sexy pandering. I also think it helped us a lot to have great actors who have diverse followings.
You do have a stellar cast. How does it feel to see Constance Wu blowing up the way she is?
I'm so excited to see the success she's having with Fresh Off The Boat, and in such a radically different character from Kathy on "EastSiders." Kathy's a drunk hipster mess and to see her seamlessly transform into a reserved mother of three is such a testament to her talent.
I actually wrote the part with her in mind, in part because at the time she didn't think of herself as a comedic actress.
She's just phenomenal. Both on EastSiders and Fresh Off The Boat. But, back to business... Did your funding strategy shift at all when you were putting together season 2? You mentioned a much bigger budget. How did your outreach change? And what was the most difficult challenge you faced the second time around?
We definitely had to go outside of our existing fanbase to raise the money for the second season. That meant putting together a really exciting promo package with new cast members, doing a lot of press outreach, asking other content creators for help and also emailing everyone I'd ever met. Yes, pretty much everyone. My partner/Executive Producer John Halbach (who also plays Ian in the show) and I rented an office space and clocked twelve hour days the entire campaign.
The first campaign was kind of a fairy tale-- we reached our goal in 4 days. The second campaign we really had to work for it.
I assume, since you're not a dinosaur, that you utilized the hell out of social media. What sort of dedicated presence did you have to have during your fundraising campaign?
It's the only way to do it. There's a direct correlation between the number of shares and the number of backers. We had over 4,000 shares of our campaign page and over 1,000 backers. You just have to put your nose to the grindstone and keep trying new things.
So is there anything vital you'd like to pass on to anyone attempting to crowdfund their project, be it their first short or third feature?
Be realistic about your campaign--are media outlets going to cover this? It's not enough that you're making a good movie--it needs to be obvious in your elevator pitch WHY you are pursuing crowdfunding. There's no shame in admitting your short film is only going to attract money from friends and family--being objective will help you set a realistic goal. I think it's a big risk to try to raise more than $20,000 for this kind of project unless you are very well connected, or part of a very committed team. That said, whichever category your project falls into, be prepared to work your ass off.
You’re a guy who likes to must stay busy. What’s next in the pipeline for you?
I'm finishing up post on EastSiders and Girls Like Magic this month, and later this year I am going into production on an indie feature about pharmaceutical drug reps and doctors treating HIV patients in the free clinic system called Pharmacopoeia. In the meantime, I'm putting the finishing touches on a new business venture -- a series of online training courses designed to help actors create their own work. It's called The Actors' Online Film School and we'll be rolling out new videos and courses over the next six months.
Kit’s working all the time but you can definitely follow him on Twitter at @kitwilliamson for updates on all his current ventures and pictures of his amazing cat, Albee. If you’re interested in checking out EastSiders, it’s available for purchase and rent at: http://eastsiderstheseries.com/