It works like this. Let's say I need $5,000 to make my documentary about the life of Charles Nelson Reilly. I launch a Kickstarter campaign, ask for pledges, and set a deadline by which the $5,000 needs to be accumulated. People can donate as little or as much money as they want, using a credit card and Amazon's secure payment system. (Amazon and Kickstarter are buddies.) But here's the twist: The donors' credit cards aren't actually charged until the deadline arrives -- and even then only if we've reached $5,000 in pledges. If we haven't, nobody pays anything, and that's the end of it, except for my sadness over not being able to bring Mr. Nelson Reilly's life to the big screen.
You can see the advantages here. As a donor, you don't have to pay anything right now, and maybe not ever. That's appealing. If they don't get enough pledges to fund the project, you're off the hook, but you still get the good karma points for offering.
As a filmmaker, I'm able to gauge interest in my project without wasting anyone's money. Since it's an all-or-nothing system, I can find out if it's even possible to raise $5,000 without any risk. It's better than a regular "pledge" system, where people say, "Sure, I'll give you $50 on June 1!," and then change their minds when you come around to collect it. With Kickstarter, you provide your payment info when you pledge, and if the minimum is reached by the deadline, your credit card gets charged. (Kickstarter does give donors a way to cancel their pledges before the day of reckoning, in case you have a financial emergency, or you realize you got wasted one night and pledged money to a hundred different projects in a fit of drunken philanthropy.)
There are several hundred projects on Kickstarter right now, about 300 of them in the Film/Video category. Lots of documentaries. The minimum pledge is usually about $5. There are usually perks for donating, like the tote bag you get when you pledge to PBS. If you have $20 to throw around -- or, more to the point, if you'll have $20 to throw around when the deadline arrives! -- you could donate to a few different projects. You can search projects by keyword to look for topics that are particularly meaningful for you, or search for the name of your city to see if someone local needs help. If you really want to feel good about yourself, use the "Ending Soon" filter and find something whose deadline is fast approaching and only needs a little more money to make it. You could be the hero who puts it over the top! They'll sing folk songs about you!
A casual stroll through the projects shows that many of the films have already been shot and now need money for post-production. That's the case with Melvin, a feature by Austin-based Chris Ohlson, who has co-produced SXSW films like The Overbrook Brothers and Lovers of Hate. Or there's How Do You Write a Joe Schermann Song?, a movie musical that Gary King hopes to shoot this summer. The minimum pledge is a buck. A buck! Surely you have a dollar for Gary. Or The Guarani Project, a documentary that will bring attention to an aquifer in South America that could solve the world's water-shortage problems. (Full disclosure: One of the Kickstarter projects is The Adults in the Room, a narrative/documentary hybrid in which I appear, briefly, in one of the documentary scenes. I think the water movie might be a more worthy cause, though.)
Kickstarter is only for creative projects like movies, not "important" things like raising money for orphans or helping disaster victims. So, yeah, if you have to choose between helping somebody make a movie and donating to a humanitarian organization, I'd go with the latter. But many of us can afford to do both, especially when we're talking about $5 at a time. For a lot of these ambitious guys and gals, making a movie is their lifelong dream. Wouldn't it be kind of awesome to help them do it?
By the way, if anyone has a film-related Kickstarter success story to share, let us know! Kickstarter been around for a year, so I suspect we'll start seeing movies soon that were partially funded this way.