Sophie Black: The Story of Songbird’s Crowdfunding Success

Last week filmmaker Sophie Black‘s crowdfunding campaign smashed through its target. I asked her to share the story of how Songbird, starring X Factor contestant Janet Devlin, raised its funds. And if you’re interested in contributing yourself, the campaign is still running here. Take it away Sophie…

In all honesty, I was dreading the thought of crowdfunding for Songbird. I’ve worked on more fundraising campaigns than I can count (for myself and on behalf of other directors) ever since the early days of the format. Back then, it still seemed unique and exciting, and it was a little easier to reach your goal. Nowadays, everyone and their dog seems to have a funding campaign, raising money for films, inventions, albums… even personal ventures such as holidays and weddings!

The market has become over-saturated, and it’s more likely that your campaign will get a reaction along the lines of ‘not another one!’ rather than the intrigued enthusiasm you’re looking for. I’ve seen a steady decline in the amount of funds I’ve been able to raise over the years; my most recent campaigns, for the films Ashes and Night Owls respectively, were only able to raise between £800 and £2000, and even those amounts came after a hard fight.

However, if you want to get a film made, and you can’t afford to finance it yourself, crowdfunding can be a lifeline. There are very few funding resources for independent films, particularly short ones, and when my traditional funding applications for Songbird all proved unsuccessful, I was left no choice but to face crowdfunding again.

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For me, there was one condition to running another campaign; I wanted someone attached with a fanbase. It’s clear by now that the most successful campaigns have someone involved with a good online following – be it the lead actor or even a director with a decent level of buzz around them. Another independent filmmaker I know, Helen Crevel, recently raised over £5000 in a couple of weeks because she had Doctor Who star Colin Baker attached to her film. And I’m sure we all remember how well Zach Braff’s fundraising campaign went, starting a chain of big-name campaigns.

Janet Devlin was a name that came up early on in pre-production for Songbird. Writer Tommy Draper had her in mind during some of the first drafts of the film, and I’d also been a fan of her music for a while, so I was aware of certain similarities between her and the lead character of Songbird, Jennifer. She also has a beautiful singing voice, so we knew that the musical elements of the film would be in safe hands. But, creative reasoning aside, if you had to just look at the casting from a business perspective, Janet has a huge online following across Youtube, Twitter and other social media, and her fans are very vocal and proactive in their support of her work. For all these reasons and more, we are very, very lucky to have Janet on board – and from the moment she announced her involvement in Songbird, the amount of interest in the film doubled – as did the amount of followers on the Triskelle Pictures Facebook page!

Even with those initial seeds sewn, myself and my team still launched the crowdfunding campaign with some trepidation. We had an early boost, as we were able to raise over £1000 within the first 24 hours. By the next day, we were on £1500… and then it stayed around that mark for about a week. An early sense of security was immediately replaced by doubt and fear, as well as emails from backers asking what would happen if we didn’t reach our target. There was always a certain amount we needed to raise in order to make the film, and as we’d set up our Indiegogo campaign to give us whatever funds we raised, even if it was too little, we were putting ourselves at risk of a fall.

Between myself and my core team, we had managed to raise a small amount of the budget ourselves before the campaign started (less than £1000) so we were able to drip-feed this into the campaign on and off in small amounts to keep it appearing active when we needed to. But we tried to keep the momentum going in other ways; as well as the standard social media posts morning, noon and night (the ‘bugging’ element of crowdfunding that no one really likes!), producer Laura Cann contacted relevant online magazines who might be interested in the campaign – fans of independent filmmaking as well as fantasy – and we both posted the campaign in relevant Facebook groups and forums.

We also maintained interest in the film by releasing new videos about it every time we hit a certain benchmark in our funding campaign (£500, £1000, £2500 etc). For added intrigue, we kept the title and content of each video secret until the subsequent one had been released. This was a technique director Neil Oseman and I first used during the post-production funding campaigns for Stop/Eject; it worked well then, and gave our followers some nice insights into the production, so I was keen to do it again. But there was one mistake we made back then that I didn’t learn from; once again, I didn’t get all of the videos ready ahead of the funding campaign. I did the first two/three, thinking we’d have plenty of time before the next target was reached. What happened next scuppered that plan…

Although the first surge of donations was unexpected, the people who donated were, to a degree, ‘accounted for’: they were people we knew, people who had supported our campaigns before, or film fans keen to find out more about a new film. These are your target audience for a standard fundraising campaign, and the type of people you usually expect (or rather, hope) will donate.

But behind the scenes, Janet’s fans had been slowly sharing the campaign page on social media, and the amount of ‘tweets’ and ‘mentions’ had grown steadily. Tommy helped aid this by making a list of people he noticed regularly shared Janet-related news, and he encouraged them by contacting them and thanking them, or by asking them directly to contribute. Janet and her team had also been working hard, not just behind-the-scenes but in effective public posts; as well as sharing her fans’ tweets, Janet posted a photo of herself writing the songs for Songbird, with a link to the campaign in the comments below. This gained more attention than any repetitive sharing of the campaign page alone would do.

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Eight days into the Songbird campaign, we were stuck at around the £1500 mark still. I was producing a corporate shoot in the middle of a field that day, with minimal signal, so I didn’t pay much attention to my phone or the campaign. It didn’t seem overly active at the time. By the time I got signal again, we had nearly reached our target. We had suddenly had a surge of big donations – some in the £100s, as we had received on day one, but even a couple of £1000s. Two days later, we had not only reached our goal, but we had surpassed it by £2000. As I write this, the current total is just over £10,000. We asked for £7,500.

Getting more than you ask for isn’t all fun and games; it means that the cut Indiegogo (or whichever hosting site you use) will be much bigger, so you need to prepare yourself for that. Also, unless you double your budget, your new funds won’t be enough to boost every department of production, so you need to be clever about how you spend it. It can be good to think about things you didn’t have before, that you can now afford (most people forget to budget for post-production and festival entry fees in their initial budget. Going over target can enable you to think about that properly for the first time) rather than upgrading elements you already had. The other, final downside is that you need to be careful about where you put the money once it’s ready to be transferred; you can’t have amounts as big as £10,000 moving around your bank account without making sure its accounted for down the line!

But, these minor inconvenient truths aside, my team and I are of course ecstatic about having smashed our goal. We’re beyond-words grateful for all the support we have received so far. We went from being rejected for funding to raising 134% of our budget within a fortnight. And, with the unpredictable nature of crowdfunding, all I can say in conclusion is that it’s down to three things: 1) having a popular name in the lead role, 2) my core crew working damn hard every day, and 3) a good old dollop of flukey good luck on the end. Having Janet’s fan base behind us is a privilege, but I like to think that personally keeping a good online presence and supporting other independent filmmakers over the years might have given us a boost too, even if it was on a smaller scale. Because the first person who donates to your campaign – be them your friend, your colleague or even your Mum – is just as important as the person who takes you over your target.

Sophie Black: The Story of Songbird’s Crowdfunding Success

Stop/Eject with Cast Commentary

Following on from last week’s filmmakers commentary, today I’ve posted the cast commentary for Stop/Eject on YouTube. It features Georgina Sherrington, Oliver Park and Therese Collins all chatting about the film as it unrolls before their eyes. Click the annotations in the video to access a commentary-less version if you haven’t seen Stop/Eject before.

Stop/Eject with Cast Commentary

Last Week of Preproduction on A Cautionary Tale

Amelia's dress, designed and made by Sophie Black
Amelia’s dress, designed and made by Sophie Black

We’re less than one week out from shooting A Cautionary Tale, with many aspects of the production coming together nicely, but others proving more challenging.

Regular readers may recall that after Stop/Eject, a project where the last few weeks of preproduction were marred by both lead actors and many crew pulling out, I vowed never again to make a film where people weren’t paid. (Puppet films excepted.) When I took on A Cautionary Tale, I figured this rule didn’t apply. After all, it wasn’t “my” film; I didn’t originate it, and I wasn’t producing it, so it wasn’t my call whether people were paid or not.

I was disappointed, but not surprised, when our lead actor pulled out about ten days ago, after being offered a lucrative alternative. Just like on Stop/Eject, it has proven very hard to find a suitable replacement, someone willing to travel way outside of London, for no money, for “just another” short film. And the search continues.

Another hiccup has been the cinematography. By mutual agreement, the DP who I originally selected left the project about a week ago. The lesson learned here is that, just like an actor, a DP must be right for the project. If you are working with limited resources, you need someone who relishes the challenge, rather than feeling restricted by it. Alex Nevill has stepped up to the plate, and I’m sure he’ll do a terrific job.

The knock-on effect has been that only today have we been able to start confirming equipment hires. For a while it looked like we might have to shoot on a DSLR, but Alex has been able to get us a great deal on a Red One MX.

Tomorrow our loyal band of runners and production assistants begins cleaning out the cottage at Newstead Abbey. On Tuesday, the art department led by Amy Nicholson will descend on the location and begin the huge task of painting and dressing it to become a writer’s study from 1903. Then, over the course of our three-day shoot, Amy’s team will have to redress it three times to bring it through the twentieth century to the present day.

Despite all the drama, I’m looking forward to the shoot. Many of the crew have worked with me before, including gaffer Colin Smith, costumer Sophie Black, sound mixer David Bekkevold, and of course Amy, and I know they’ll do me proud. And I’m sure there will be new great working relationships forged in the white heat (or more literally, freezing cold) of A Cautionary Tale’s shoot too. Stay tuned.

Last Week of Preproduction on A Cautionary Tale

The Advantages of Regional Filmmaking

guardianSeveral years ago The Guardian wrote a lovely big article about me under the headline “The Spielberg of Hereford”. I had just completed Soul Searcher, a feature-length fantasy-action movie shot in this sleepy backwater of the rural West Midlands. The project had not been without its challenges – from a malfunctioning camera to a striking stunt team – but shooting in the provinces wasn’t one of them.

Yes, on the face of it, basing yourself away from the vast majority of actors, crew and facilities is inconvenient. I have long since accepted that my casting calls mentioning a shoot far outside the M25 will get a limited response, and that I will have to travel to London to hold auditions.

Crewing can seem similarly problematic, but in fact there are many excellent TV and film technicians hidden away in rural areas, constantly driving to London to work, but keen to be involved in anything more local if they get half a chance. It’s a novelty, and that’s an advantage.

Some of the cast of The Beacon atop the titular Worcestershire hill during filming in 2001
Some of the cast of The Beacon atop the titular Worcestershire hill during filming in 2001

Londoners can often be cynical about filming; it’s a business like any other. Most locations in the capital will whip out a rate card at the first whiff of a scouting crew. But out in the sticks, many property owners will let you shoot on their premises free of charge for the rare glamour of a brush with the film business. On Soul Searcher I only had to pay for a single location. At least two others told me they would charge me, but never did. Their accounts departments presumably had no procedure or precedent for raising an invoice for location fees, and so overlooked it.

The savings a regional producer makes on locations are often countered by an increased travel and accommodation budget. But there are benefits to this accommodation that, to my mind, outweigh the financial burden. A cast and crew staying away from home together will bond far more than one that scatters to the four corners of the tube map every night. This means improved morale and more realistic on-screen relationships between actors.

Stop/Eject on BBC East Midlands Today
Stop/Eject on BBC East Midlands Today

Regional filmmaking has more potential now than it’s ever had. Established networks like Talent Circle may remain London-centric, but social media enables us to connect quickly with others in our area – Shooting People’s regional “Shooters in the Pub” Facebook pages, for example, or Herefordshire Media Network, through which I found the editor for my last short film, Stop/Eject. And in an age when everyone’s looking for a hook for their crowdfunding campaign, the declaration “shooting in YOUR home town” can help you connect to potential sponsors.

Finally, regional press will often jump on local film projects, providing great free advertising for your crowdfunding campaign, cast/crew call or screening. I’ve appeared on BBC Midlands Today on three separate occasions, but I can’t imagine BBC London News covering yet another struggling filmmaker. And would “The Spielberg of Hackney” have been so newsworthy to The Guardian? I suspect not.

If you’re interested in the potential of regional film and TV production, the Herefordshire Media Network will be hosting a panel discussion on this subject at the Borderlines Film Festival next month.

The Advantages of Regional Filmmaking

Ten Tips for Running Auditions

With the casting for A Cautionary Tale fresh in my mind, here are a few tips on running auditions.

  1. Send all your auditionees the full script and/or audition sides in advance. Whether they read it all and how much they prepare will tell you a lot about their attitude to their craft and their enthusiasm for this particular role.
  2. Bring an assistant. If actor #2 turns up while actor #1 is mid-audition, it helps a lot to have someone to greet them.
  3. Make sure that the venue you’re using has an anteroom or corridor for people to wait in.
  4. Take signs (and Blutak) to direct people to the right room within the building.
  5. There will be no-shows. C’est la vie.
  6. Introduce yourself and the project before the reading, but don’t waffle because the more you keep the actor in suspense, the more nervous they will be when they finally get to read.
  7. If you’re filming the auditions, which I recommend, you should have a separate person doing that, so that you the director can watch and judge the performance with your naked eye.
  8. Check the actor’s ability to take direction by having them read a second time with a different emotional emphasis or motivation.
  9. Use an improv or two to gauge the actor’s creativity and get a sense of what they can do outside the confines of the sides.
  10. Take the time to answer any questions the actor may have about your previous experience. Remember that it’s just as much about whether they want to work with you as it is about whether you want to work with them.

How do you like to run auditions? Any tips you could add to these?

Casting for The Beacon, way back in 2001
Casting for The Beacon, way back in 2001

Ten Tips for Running Auditions

Oliver Park Interview

A new Stop/Eject behind-the-scenes video has been released, featuring an interview with leading man Oliver Park.

Thanks to Sophie for editing this video. You can visit Oliver’s website at oliverpark.co.uk and remember you can watch the trailer for Stop/Eject and help the film get completed over at stopejectmovie.com

Oliver Park Interview

Bhasker Patel Wastes My Time

Bhasker Patel
Bhasker Patel

This is Bhasker Patel. Yes, he’s that guy from off of Eastenders.

Last autumn, when I posted the first casting call for Stop/Eject, Bhasker applied. At the time I envisaged the Shopkeeper as a little old man, so Bhasker fit the bill and I invited him to audition. He said he couldn’t make it because he was needed on the set of Eastenders.

Later I put out a call for Dan, aged 25-35. Bhasker applied again.

Then I put out a call for Old Kate, an elderly woman. Once again, Bhasker applied.

In fact, every casting call I put out for Stop/Eject (and I put out a lot, because as you know we had horrendous trouble getting – and keeping – a cast) Bhasker applied to.

This is a waste of my time and his. You apply for a role, it turns out you can’t make the audition – fine, could happen to anyone. You apply for a role you’re clearly unsuitable for – definitely comes across as desperate, but worse things have happened. You apply multiple times to the same film for roles you don’t fit when you know you probably don’t have time to audition anyway – clearly you’re not actually reading the breakdowns.

And he’s not the only one. Don’t even get me started on composers, many of whom seem to spend far more time writing spam than music. (Sorry to those composers I actually work with. You are lovely. Don’t ever change.)

Rant over.

Actually, those puppy-dog eyes staring out at me from Bhasker’s headshot make me feel like quite an arse for bashing him. Sorry dude. You’re probably quite a nice guy. Maybe someone hacked your email account? You should look into that.

Bhasker Patel Wastes My Time

T minus two days

Sophie's partly dressed living room. Well, not her living room. The living room she designed.
Sophie’s partly dressed living room. Well, not her living room. The living room she designed.

Hooray, I’m finally looking forward to the shoot! On Tuesday I cast a new Dan – Oliver Park – which was the last major hurdle to overcome before production. Our crew is all in place, all the minor roles are cast but one, all the locations and props are lined up, and the costumes and set are nearly finished.

So it’s looking good. It has been a real struggle getting to this point though. More than half the original cast and crew have had to be replaced – mostly due to them getting booked in the last couple of weeks for paying jobs that clash, though in a couple of cases due to hospitalisation! If you’re a veteran Neil Oseman blog reader you’ll have heard of The Curse of Soul Searcher. This is The Curse of Stop/Eject.

Painting the bedroom
Painting the bedroom

In all seriousness, I don’t think I’ll ever make another film (except simple ones like The Picnic) unless there’s money to pay everyone. It just isn’t worth the stress and hassle caused by having to re-cast and re-crew when people pull out. It’s actually got easier to find people the closer we’ve got to the shoot, presumably because people can be more sure that they won’t be doing any paid work on the shooting dates, but aside from anything else it’s a nightmare for the costume department when they don’t know their lead actors’ sizes until a few days before the shoot.

Staining the alcove
Staining the alcove

Sophie has been very busy this week, building the alcove set and painting and dressing some of the upstairs rooms at Magpie, not to mention doing calligraphy on 600 cassette inlays.

Katie has been running around the charity shops of Hereford, looking for the last few bits and pieces, and dying and altering things here at home.

I’ve been drawing up the schedule, going through storyboards with Rick (the camera op), chasing things up, getting paperwork in order and talking to the actors about their characters.

Weather forecast
Weather forecast

I’m so glad we didn’t shoot Stop/Eject last October. We are a million times better prepared now. The only thing that doesn’t look like it’s going to co-operate is the weather.

This will probably be my last post until after the shoot. We’ll try to update the Facebook page at least once a day, internet connection permitting, and rest assured we’ll be building up a tasty backlog of behind-the-scenes podcasts and blogs.

I want to start shooting tomorrow. I can’t wait two days. That’s how good I’m feeling about it right now.

T minus two days

T Minus One Week

Soul Searcher talk at Ort Cafe
Soul Searcher talk at Ort Cafe

Quite a manic, stressful week….

Tuesday afternoon’s auditions were enjoyable, but unfortunately I didn’t find anyone who was quite right for either of the roles. The threat of having to postpone the shoot started lurking around again. This is something I really wanted to avoid, because I didn’t want to mess everyone around again. And indeed we have avoided it, as I will shortly explain. (Just to be absolutely clear for any cast and crew who are reading, we are NOT postponing the shoot.)

On Wednesday I travelled to Birmingham for the final fundraising lecture. A small but interested audience listened to my ramblings and placed coinage in the sacred flashing bucket at the end of the night. Thanks to Ort Cafe for hosting the event, and to Brendan O’Neill for hosting me overnight.

Sophie and Therese (who’s playing Alice, the shopkeeper) put me in touch with some other possible actors and I met a couple in Birmingham on Thursday morning. Sophie also decided to try calling a more established actress to see if she was interested in the role…

…and she was, so I’m pleased to announce the casting of Georgina Sherrington, best known as the eponymous Worst Witch in ITV’s late nineties children’s TV series. I look forward to working with her.

As casting has been the main theme of my week, I thought I’d dedicate the rest of this post to answering the question: what am I looking for in an audition? Someone that will make my job as easy as possible. It sounds incredibly lazy now I’ve just written it, but it’s true.

Assuming a person is a competent actor with decent range, with some rehearsal time you should be able to mould them into any character. But rehearsal time is something you often don’t have on a micro-budget short, and you certainly haven’t got time to do a lot of experimenting with the actors on set. So if only for practical reasons, you want to cast someone who requires minimal direction.

Random photo of a cassette
Random photo of a cassette

I also tend to find that people who have the right look for a role are more likely to have the right personality and thus require less direction too.

Intelligence is also part of it. I always look very favourably on actors whose audition readings show they have fully understood the words they are saying. For example, when casting the lead role in Soul Searcher, there was a line in the audition sides that went: “I could count them all on the fingers of one hand.” Ray Bullock Jnr, who got the part, was the only auditionee who held up his hand when reading that line. A small thing, you might say, but I say it’s very telling.

Similarly, when Benedict Cumberbatch auditioned for Max in The Dark Side of the Earth‘s pilot, he was the only actor who read the word “galley” (meaning a kitchen on a ship) correctly, instead of assuming it was a typo for “gallery” like everyone else.

There are other things I’m looking for too, like screen presence, charisma (if appropriate, and it usually is in some form or another) and a personality that will be pleasant to work with, but essentially the ideal actor is the one who requires the least guidance to portray the character in my head and imbue the dialogue with the meaning I intended.

T Minus One Week

Ups and Downs

The hero tapes, beautifully labelled by Sophie
The hero tapes, beautifully labelled by Sophie

There was a glorious 48 hours about ten days ago when everything was going our way on Stop/Eject. We had all our key cast and crew, all our locations, most of our props and costumes and we seemed well on the way to getting everything we didn’t have in time for the shoot.

Then people started dropping out. First the lead actress, then a sound recordist, then the lead actor. This, unfortunately, is the way it goes when you can’t pay people. You can’t expect them to put the film first. No amount of advance planning can change that.

Alas, poor Daniel
Alas, poor Daniel

So on Tuesday I’m off to London (nine hours round trip on National Express – the closest you can get to hell on earth) to audition a new cast. Exciting, but scary because of the limited time remaining before we shoot.

And on Wednesday it’s up to Birmingham for the final fundraising lecture – 8:30pm at Ort Cafe, 500-506 Moseley Road, B12 9AH. Find out how my feature film Soul Searcher was financed, made and distributed, with plenty of clips, behind-the-scenes footage and amusing anecdotes. As usual entry is free, but donations will be welcomed.

And by the time that’s all over there will be little more than a week before we shoot.

Despite the setbacks I’m feeling pretty positive about the whole thing. Almost every aspect of the production has been improved by the postponement from last autumn – including the props, some of which you can see here. Roll on April 21st!

Ups and Downs