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FILMMAKER: Karl Stelter
STORY: How I Found a Story Worth Telling, Then Crowdfunded $11K to Make It
In my first article, I shared my origin story, how I came to be in LA, and then (6 years later), finally started writing something that mattered to me.
In this entry, I’ll be diving into how I found that story, why I chose crowdfunding, and how I raised $11,000 towards the first real short film I’ve ever made.
Finding a Story vs Finding Your Voice
First off, I want to touch on two super frustrating parts of getting started with telling your own stories.
The first is constantly feeling like you have no fresh ideas. And the second is when people tell you to work on "developing your own unique voice."
Ironically, both of these challenges combine into one magnificent feedback loop of bullshit. The only difference is... one's a story you tell yourself, and the other's a story from the people around you.
Let's dissect this a bit.
If you feel like you have no ideas, it’s likely because you’re focused on finding an original concept instead of something that matters to you.
The former is virtually impossible.
Hell, as humans we've basically been telling each other the same stories, with the same themes, since we lived in caves.
So the chances of you coming up with something truly original, something that's never been done before, are slim to say the least.
Luckily, that doesn't matter in the slightest.
No matter who you are, or what you've done in your life, I guarantee you can pinpoint something meaningful to you, then tell a story about it.
Is love your answer? Or art? Is family? Travel? Faith? In-N-Out?
Doesn’t matter what it is. As long as you're genuinely passionate about it, you’ll have a perspective.
And if you have a perspective, that's the first step in telling a story that will feelunique and resonate with people, even if the concept has been done a thousand times over.
As for trying to "develop your own voice," what ends up happening is that you’ll try your hardest to be unique... but not necessarily you.
So at best, you’ll invent an inauthentic permutation of yourself. At worst, you’ll be a copycat of someone else being a copycat.
And nothing turns off audiences faster than a story with no perspective, that's clearly copying some "flavor of the month" trend.
So my humble advice? If you want to make work that matters, ask a question about life that scares you. Even better: ask something you don’t know the answer to AND that scares you.
I have faith you’ll come up with something. Now follow that question wherever it may lead.
Finding The Story for "The Long Goodbye"
I’ve been obsessed with time since I can remember—how to spend it properly, what actually matters, why we’re here. Like I said, ask big questions.
So when I first noticed my Grandpapa’s health start to decline in small ways about 3 years ago, I fought to make up time. I wanted to get to know him better, and by extension, the rest of me and my wife’s grandparents as well.
And I felt the best way to do this would be a short documentary, where I’d drive or fly out to each grandparent, and record a ~3hour interview with each of them.
So I prepared pages of questions, things I’d always wanted to ask but never could at Christmas or Thanksgiving, and readied myself for a series of deep conversations.
This is where I discovered two things…
First - as the grandkid, I’d assumed that they were waiting on me my entire life to have this epiphany and want to get to know them better, and all I’d have to do is ask. Turns out that was a pretty self-centered way to think, and evolving a relationship to have deeper conversations can’t be done at the flick of a switch.
But it did change things. Through each of the interviews, I was able to learn more than just stories of their lives, but how they felt about their lives.
And the one thing I remember most clearly, is how when my Grandmama was talking (she always does most of the talking), my Grandpapa just sat there listening. Quieter than usual.
The way he watched her was simply... peaceful.
As I tried to get him to talk, and he’d kindly oblige, what I really heard was how he’d accomplished what he wanted to in life. He was happy. He was in love with my Grandmama, and loved the life they had together. She was his everything.
And to put it simply: he was also ready to go.
Which leads to the second thing I discovered: this was not a documentary film. It wasn’t a film at all. It was just for me and my family, and would serve as a beautiful way to remember them.
Getting to see my grandparents that way was a very rare moment of foresight and luck, and something I became very passionate about sharing. I wanted people to have that moment the way I did, that catharsis before it was too late. Before they got the phone call they knew would be coming some day.
Crowdfunding and the Master Plan
Sure - cash is great. Cash is necessary. And we raised $11,000 towards The Long Goodbye.
But if that’s all you’re viewing your crowdfunding campaign as—a quick cash infusion—you’re going to fail, your friends will hate you, and you’ll never do it again.
So what’s more important than the money? Awareness.
After all, what good is a film you put your heart and soul into if no one sees it?
So I did a LOT of research on different sites, including following + analyzing multiple campaigns to see what people did that I liked and didn’t like. How you could post updates and not have them feel spammy. And yes, how to ask for money.
And surprise, surprise: you receive by giving.
GIVE people so much value in your campaign that they can’t help but feel good about supporting you. Make them feel like it’s a steal. If you’re a process person like me, share everything you can about the process so they feel like they’re in it with you.
But most of all, just make them feel.
And the site that I felt best represented my approach was Seed & Spark, who also has this kickass tutorial series on crowdfunding that I took furious notes on.
They believe crowdfunding is a tool to build an audience first and foremost, and having gone through the entire experience, I can tell you they are right. They also have some silly stat like 80% of all campaigns are successful on their platform.
So yeah - crowdfunding doesn’t have to be a ‘one and done’ deal where you burn up all your favors. In fact, it can be the springboard to your next films if you put the time, heart and hustle into it!
If you're interested, you can dissect our campaign here.
4 Personal Crowdfunding Takeaways
Having now gone through the entire process, here are the top things I learned:
Crowdfunding is WORK
Like, full-time-job status work. I spent the entire month of crowdfunding glued to my computer, direct emailing, posting updates, and generally doing ALL the social media things I could think of to add value to people.
Crowdfunding adds LEGITIMACY
Perhaps the most unexpected bonus of running a successful crowdfunding campaign was actually leveraging it to get production assets on board.
A few examples: when location scouting for the house, we’d reach out and share the campaign with the owners so they knew up front what we were aiming for, and they felt comfortable with us filming.
We got a real hospital location on-board because they connected with our story. And I used it to pitch a rental house and get Zeiss Master Prime Anamorphics for a hell of a rate.
Crowdfunding Generates Conversation
Not just about the film - but people now have a focal point of what to ask you when they see you. When friends and family saw me, it was no longer “how are you doing?” “Oh, good. Busy” but “How’s the film coming?”
Crowdfunding changed the way people looked at my career, and when the film came out people watched it.
Crowdfunding is the Long Play
Because I paid attention to Seed&Spark’s advice to grow relationships with my audience, after releasing the film people were excited about what would be next - and made it clear they would love to be involved.
So yeah - I’d highly recommend it. But only if you’re willing to do the work.
In the next installment, we'll talk about how I put together a world class team to help me bring The Long Goodbye to life. Talk soon.