Last week on Fan Film Friday: Kickstarter debuted in 2009, and by 2012, Star Trek fan films had started to use the service to generate donations from enthusiastic supporters. Although some film projects like Veronica Mars managed to generate as much as $5.7 million, Trek fan films didn’t come close to those large amounts. Nevertheless, it was still a game-changer for fan films, as most didn’t need funding in the millions. For some, totals in the thousands, or even tens of thousands, was just fine. A few even made it into the hundreds of thousands, with the record being held by Axanar’s summer 2014 Kickstarter campaign which raised $638,000 from 8,500 backers.
Indeed, between 2012 and 2014, nearly $1.2 million dollars in donations were made to various Star Trek fan film projects, and it was beginning to look like a gold rush in the Wild West. But how much longer would fans continue to throw their money at every project that asked for a hand-out? Was this a bottomless well of crowd funding, or would fans’ wallets soon start getting lighter and tighter?
As 2015 rolled around, we would begin getting our answer…
The year began with a bang as Star Trek Continues (STC) launched their second major Kickstarter, which they cleverly dubbed their Kirkstarter 2.0. At the end of 2013, STC had done a campaign that set a goal of $100,000 and raised $126,000 from 3,000 backers to fund three episodes. In the interim, they had produced and released two of those episodes (and filmed the third), including the amazing “Fairest of Them All,” a sequel to the TOS episode “Mirror, Mirror.” Enthusiasm for STC had reached a new high point, and within 24 hours of kicking off their second Kirkstarter, over $44,000 in donations had come in! By the end of the 30 days, STC had more than doubled their initial goal of $100,000 to reach an eye-popping $214,500 from 2,600 donors. And five of those were $10,000 backers! Donor fatigue? What donor fatigue??? It was looking like 2015 would be the best year ever for fan films to crowdfund.
Or would it?
On March 3rd, a brand new fan film endeavor launched their first Kickstarter campaign: Star Trek Anthology. Their idea was to do a Twilight Zone style series following different storylines simultaneously: “Starship Challenger,” “Assignment: Earth,” and “Mother” (about a family-run cargo ship) would be some of the initial tent poles. Creator James Bray even managed to film some footage and produce some special effects, showing what he and his team could do.
Unfortunately, things didn’t turn out all that well, and much of the hope for a 2015 fan film “gold rush” fizzled when Star Trek Anthology, with a goal of only $7,500, wound up with a meager $792 from 23 backers after 30 days. They’re still moving forward with the series, but Kickstarter didn’t prove to be much help to them.
Another Kickstarter disappointment came with a campaign that began on March 26 for Star Trek: First Frontier. It was intended to be a full-length fan film about the first captain of the USS Enterprise NCC-1701, Robert April, and his crew. It would have sets reminiscent of Trek’s first pilot, “The Cage,” and begin with the Enterprise under construction in space dock. Show runner Kenny Smith owned the sci-fi convention company I-Con and had big plans to bring on Emmy-nominated Lee Stringer (of Voyager and BSG) to do visual effects and also to build an 11-foot physical model of the original Enterprise for VFX that looked closer to how they looked back in the 1960s.
With a goal of $130,000, Kenny decided to cancel the campaign on May 2 after generating only $30,000 from just 67 backers. Instead, Kenny announced that he would self-fund the project, and he’s aiming for a release around the time of Trek’s 50th anniversary later on this year. (In fact, I’m looking very much forward to doing a Fan Film Friday about his fascinating project!)
Not all of the news was bad for fan films trying to fund after STC’s successful Kickstarter. Star Trek: Equinox, which had twice before in the previous year failed to reach its goal, decided to try a very modest Kickstarter, this time with a $5,000 goal. The idea was to simply fund a short trailer that would use the 14 hours of raw footage they’d shot on the Star Trek: New Voyages TOS sets in upstate New York, along with the many completed special effects. Hopefully, like Prelude to Axanar had done, the completed “proof-of-concept” trailer would generate more excitement (and donations!) from fans further on down the road. This time they succeeded. Forty-nine backers pledged $6,250 to their Kickstarter.
Not so lucky, however, was another start-up fan film series: Star Trek: Captain Pike. Having never produced a completed fan film before, Pike set an ambitious Kickstarter goal of $112,000. They had a number of big names attached to their project, including Walter Koenig from TOS, Linda Park from Enterprise, Robert Picardo from Voyager, and Chase Masterson from DS9… all playing new characters. Other big-name stars with Trek resumes included Ray Wise (TNG, VOY, and also Twin Peaks), Bruce Davison (VOY, ENT, and also Lost and X-Men), and Dwight Schultz (Lt. Barclay on TNG and VOY and also Murdock from The A-Team).
They had a cool logo, cool perks, and they planned to save money by shooting on James Cawley’s New Voyages TOS sets in upstate New York. But it was all still plans. Fans didn’t see much concrete other than pre-recorded promos from the actors and creators involved. And although they all sounded extremely enthusiastic, at the deadline of their campaign on June 3, Captain Pike missed their goal by about 33%, raising only $77,000 from 665 backers.
Was fan money finally running out? With the exception of the STC Kirkstarter in January, the other major campaigns had failed to reach their goals (except for the ultra-low $5,000 set by Equinox). Maybe the well had run dry…
Not entirely. Just as Captain Pike was finishing its campaign, Star Trek: New Voyages returned to the Kickstarter world on June 3 with a goal of $20,000. The previous year they had set a goal of $10,000 and reached a very impressive $65,000 from 1,100 backers. This year they also surpassed their goal, although not by as much. They managed $50,000 from 788 donors… still a reason to celebrate, but the numbers were now noticeably decreasing year-over-year. Would this downward trend continue?
Alec Peters didn’t think so.
It was almost time for Axanar to hold its most ambitious crowdfunding campaign to date. The previous year, they had set a goal of $250,000 and, with the help of two Facebook posts from George Takei to his 8.5 million followers, Axanar had instead raised an amazing $638,000! This year, there were whispers that Axanar might even reach a million dollars in a single campaign. Alec Peters was already coordinating with George Takei and his husband Brad Altman beforehand to set up supportive Facebook posts to boost this campaign. Ambitious marketing plans abounded, convention booths were booked, podcasts prepared, and Axanar supporters were lined up to blanket social media.
At the last moment, Alec Peters made a surprising announcement: Axanar would SWITCH from Kickstarter to Indiegogo. The main difference between the two crowdfunding services was that, unlike Kickstarter, Indiegogo did not require a project to meet their financial goal in order to receive the money raised. Set a goal of $25,000 and only make $5,000 or even just $500? No problem! Keep what you raise (minus the fees, of course). For this reason, some donors were a little more wary of Indiegogo, as there was more of a chance you’d donate to a flop that didn’t raise enough and would never be able to complete their undertaking — and you’d still be out your money! Kickstarter’s requirement to reach your goal minimized this unpleasant scenario and made donors more comfortable.
At the end of 2014, The Red Shirt Diaries had held a successful Indiegogo campaign, and a month before Axanar’s 2015 campaign, the Captain Pike series had made the jump to Indiegogo and finally gotten funded. They exceeded their $50,000 by $10,000 with 611 backers, letting them begin production on the first 30-minute act of their 90-minute pilot. So it wasn’t unprecedented for a Trek fan series to switch over to Indiegogo. But there was still a risk that donors in the numbers that Axanar needed might not be as comfortable with Indiegogo as they’d been with Kickstarter.
Kickstarter was offering Axanar a chance to be one of the featured projects on their home page, which would be a great advantage. But Indiegogo also courted Alec and his team earnestly, offering them discounts on fees along with a special three-day “pre-launch” period open only to previous donors. This would seed their new campaign with contributions from existing donors who would be offered exclusive perks and let Axanar’s campaign launch with numbers much higher than zero.
And it worked amazingly well! Pre-launching on July 8, 2015, the campaign crossed $100,000 in just seven hours, and by the time the campaign opened to the general public, the total was already above $168,000. A day later, it crossed $200,000… all while San Diego Comic Con was still going on with Team Axanar in attendance.
Again, all the stops were pulled out: podcasts, social media, new perks, and of course, George Takei. There was also a special, all new three-minute completed scene from the final Axanar film, directed by Robert Meyer Burnett and featuring Gary Graham as Ambassador Soval walking the streets of Vulcan. The VFX were amazing, and the musical score hauntingly exotic. This was a taste of what the final film would look like, and fans were obviously excited… euphoric even!
With donations pouring in, the original $250,000 goal was reached in less than two weeks, but the real goal was higher. $330,000 would allow for the first half-hour of the final 2-hour film to be produced. $660,000 would get Axanar to the halfway point. And $1.3 million would finish it in just one crowdfunding campaign! Would that even be possible?
Well, no. In fact, things began to slow down after the first week, and the $330,000 milestone wasn’t reached until July 31, with just over a week left in the campaign. At the end of the 30 days, Axanar had taken in about $475,000 in donations from 7,400 backers — certainly nothing to sneeze at, but it was less than Axanar had made the previous summer… and they’d gone into this campaign hoping to break their previous record.
Was donor fatigue finally settling in? It’s hard to say. In the month just before Axanar held its Indiegogo campaign, Adam Nimoy (son of Leonard Nimoy) held a Kickstarter to fund a “Spockumentary” about his father’s life. Although not a fan film in the strictest sense, For the Love of Spock drew from the same potential donor base. Adam Nimoy set a $600,000 goal and raised over $660,000 from 9,400 backers. Axanar (which had supported Nimoy’s campaign by encouraging donations to it) started its own campaign only one week after Nimoy’s ended. Did that have an impact on Axanar’s Indiegogo totals? Quite possibly.
A few weeks after Axanar’s campaign finished, a new Trek Star fan film, Pacific 201, launched a Kickstarter with a $20,000 goal. Their concept was new and fresh to fan films: tell a story set just forty years after the Romulan war when Earth was still reeling but finally deciding to go back to exploration. The USS Pacific NCC-201 would be the first new Starfleet vessel sent on an exploratory mission in a generation. There was a lot of fan support for this film, including many supportive posts from Alec Peters of Axanar (fan films are very mutually supportive!). In the end, 442 backers donated $26,000.
As 2015 entered its final quarter, I wondered whether fan donors were finally running out of money, or if this pit was truly bottomless. And so I watched five different campaigns happen almost back-to-back (some simultaneously)… and saw some fascinating results.
The first was the 500-pound gorilla known as Star Trek: Renegades, directed by Tim Russ and staring a plethora of big-name Trek veteran actors (including Walter Koenig playing Chekov). Earlier in the summer, Renegades had released their very impressive 90-minute pilot. Now in November, they were trying to fund episodes 2 and 3, and they set their Kickstarter goal at a very ambitious $350,000. Like Axanar, they really expected to generate a LOT more than that, listing stretch goals to over a million dollars. Instead, they barely made their goal. With just two days left, they still needed $25,000! Fortunately, they reached their goal with just 30 hours to spare and finished at $378,000 from 3,400 backers.
Starting just three days after Renegades did, Captain Pike was coming back to the well with another $50,000 Indiegogo campaign. This time, they were looking for funding to help them complete the VFX and postproduction on their first act (which they’d just finished filming). But fans weren’t biting much. They took in only $24,000, but one donor pledged $10,000 and another gave $6,000. If you subtract these two huge donation, then 141 donors gave barely $8,000 in 30 days.
As an interesting comparison, Axanar generated about $5,000 during that same period even though their campaign had technically ended months before. The reason is that Indiegogo allows campaigns that reach their goal to keep running in “in demand” mode… and Axanar had been taking in about $20,000/month even without actively promoting its Indiegogo campaign until finally closing it in early January.
As a way of explaining the relatively disappointing response to these two campaigns, some have suggested that asking for donations at the end of the year is a bad idea because everyone is spending on Christmas presents and vacations. And that might be valid… except for one VERY notable exception: Mystery Science Theater 3000. On November 10, the original creators of the sci-fi comedy series from the 1990s wanted to bring the series back… with a Kickstarter goal of (wait for it!) $2 million! Holy Crow!!! But while Renegades struggled for a month just to make it to $350,000, MST3K raised $1 million on their very first day! This would let them produce three full episodes. But they had stretch goals, and after just one short month, MST3K had set a new Kickstarter record in the “Film” category with an amazing $5.76 million from 48,000 backers! This surpassed the previous record holder, Veronica Mars, by $60,000 and would allow them to make an entire 12-episode season. Plus they also raised an additional $600,000 outside of Kickstarter!
November a bad month for Kickstarters? I think not!
A friend of mine asked why MST3K did sooo much better than any Star Trek fan film… and I have a few theories. The first is that this is a project from the actual creators of the show, not just fans. The same was true of Veronica Mars. As good as some fan films are, they’re still just fan films. Second, there has been no new MST3K since 1999 (although Rifftrax has been filling the hole somewhat –ed). That’s a decade and a half without the show. Although Star Trek was gone for four years before the JJ reboot, by the first Trek fan film Kickstarter in 2012, Star Trek was back in force with a new movie due out the following summer. And third, maybe there are just more fans of MST3K than of Star Trek (say it ain’t so!). Or maybe it just went viral.
One last Kickstarter ended the year, and it was a real nail-biter! Despite the runaway success of MST3K’s campaign (or possibly because of it), Starship Farragut nearly missed the $15,000 goal of a Kickstarter they began on December 1. With just four days to go, they were still $5,000 short! But Christmas came late for Farragut, and just after Santa finished his deliveries for the year, fans came through at the last minute and pushed Farragut to $15,787 with 207 backers. Whew!
With fan series like Farragut and Renegades coming so close to missing their goals and getting nothing, I find myself wondering if any other fan series will follow Axanar and Captain Pike in making the switch from Kickstarter to Indiegogo. Star Trek Continues has already announced that their next crowdfunding campaign will take place on Indiegogo. Perhaps Kickstarter will finally loosen their rules about reaching a goal in order to collect. Only time will tell.
Whatever the case, the final lesson we can take from this about crowdfunding is just how much we still don’t know about how to make a campaign hit a home run. Sure, there’s a lot of ingredients: a good concept, good team, a kick-ass sample of the production, exciting perks, huge social media support, and outside marketing efforts. Having big stars can help, but not always. Having a fresh idea can help, but not always.
And sometimes you just need luck.