The realities of crowd-funding, part 1

Cover-aGoing against my better judgment (that’s screaming at me, “Jon, stop typing NOW!”), I’m going to jump head first into the latest controversy surrounding a recent comment claiming that Axanar has “poisoned the well” for all other fan films.

Buckle up, folks!

First, a little background for those of you scratching your heads and wondering what in the name of Surak I’m talking about. By now, most of you know that Axanar got sued for copyright infringement by Paramount and CBS in late December and, instead of rolling over and begging for mercy, doubled-down and hired a top intellectual property law firm to defend them pro bono. This only served to make the whole case even more prominent in both the news media and among Trek fans in general.

Second, at the beginning of March, Star Trek Continues launched their third crowd-funding campaign, deciding this time to switch from Kickstarter to Indiegogo. The primary reason for the switch, most observers believed, was that Indiegogo allows campaigns to keep whatever funds they generate, regardless of whether or not a project reaches its donation goal. Kickstarter, the other major crowd-funding platform for projects, requires a campaign to reach or surpass their stated goal or else the project gets NOTHING. That’s the risk of using Kickstarter, and several Trek fan film projects have wound up with zero when they failed to reach their posted contribution goals.

A good example of this frustration came last June when the start-up fan series Star Trek: Captain Pike generated a very impressive $77K in pledges on Kickstarter. However, despite raising an amount that would make most other fan series green with envy (many smaller productions struggle just to get to $10K or $20K), Captain Pike end up with zilch because they’d set their Kickstarter goal at an ambitious (too ambitious, it turned out) $112K. Missing their goal meant that $77K disappeared—POOF! Pike later switched over to Indiegogo and raised about the same amount over two campaigns, but this time they got to keep it.

So why doesn’t everyone switch over from Kickstarter to Indiegogo? An increasing number of Trek fan films have done just that. But there’s still some big reasons to think twice before making the move:

1) Kickstarter has TRIPLE the site visitors that Indiegogo has. This recent article from last November estimates that Indiegogo gets about 9 million unique visitors a month while Kickstarter reports 25-27 million.

2) Indiegogo also has more campaigns active at any given time (about 10,000) than Kickstarter (about 6,000), so there’s more competition for the donors’ attention (and dollars!) on Indiegogo. And with fewer donors visiting Indiegogo in the first place, that’s a recipe for lower crowd-funding totals right there.

3) Also from the same article I referenced above: “The media loves Kickstarter…so it does get way more coverage than Indiegogo. The reason for this infatuation is Kickstarter’s strict quality controlled image. They deliver higher quality products so journalistic types don’t have to wade through campaign after campaign of rubbish to find a story. This means that, on Kickstarter, your campaign has more opportunities to garner a bit of press coverage. Big advantage.”

Third, Star Trek Continues set a very ambitious goal of $350K for their latest crowd-funding campaign on Indiegogo. Their reasoning seemed logical. Their first Kickstarter campaign in late 2013 set a goal of $100K and raised $126K in thirty days. Their next Kickstarter (“Kirkstarter 2.0,” they called it) in early 2015 also set a goal of $100K and blew past it for an eye-popping total of $214.5K in just thirty days! That extra money allowed STC to construct a dazzlingly accurate Engineering set and fund three additional episodes.

How awesome is this?!?!?

So logically, considering that they had climbed from $126K to $214K over their first two campaigns, their third would be on track to break $300K, right? And heck, why not set a slightly higher goal of $350K? After all, switching to Indiegogo meant that STC would keep whatever they generated, even if they just missed the $350K goal.

But they didn’t “just miss it.” Even with a 60-day campaign period (twice the length of each of their Kickstarters), STC’s Inidiegogo campaign has fallen waaaaay short. With just a week left to go, they’ve managed to raise only $150K from 1,741 backers. (Their first campaign had 3,000 donors and their second had 2,600.)

Before I continue, I need to make a VITALLY IMPORTANT statement:


I’m a donor to STC. I gave $100 to their latest Indiegogo campaign. I recently wrote a very glowing 3-part feature article  about the history of STC and encouraged donations to their campaign.

I also love Axanar. Despite the “feud” between the two showrunners, Axanar’s Alec Peters and STC’s Vic Mignogna, I admire and like them both. Hey, it’s a free country, and if I choose not to hate someone’s guts, that’s my right, y’know?

Can’t we all just get along?

All kidding aside, I really do respect the passion, talent, and commitment of both show-runners and both projects, and I wish we could all just get along. Barring that, though, I just wish there was less trash talk.

And let’s face it, there’s been a LOT of friction between Alec and Vic over the past few years.  But to be honest, I don’t recall ever hearing a podcast interview or reading any public statement where Alec has torn down STC in any way (Vic yes, STC no). I know Alec thinks Axanar is better in many ways than STC, but that’s hardly going to do more harm than the head of the Coca Cola Bottling Company saying he thinks Coke is better than Pepsi.  The vast majority of Alec’s comments about STC itself have been extremely complimentary.

And that brings us to last week…

Well-4Vic Mignogna did a podcast interview on April 22 where he spoke about STC but also commented at length on the lawsuit that Axanar is currently having with CBS and Paramount.

Now, before I start commenting on Vic’s comments, let me just say in fairness to him that, up until recently, Vic has not been vocal (either in interviews or his own postings) in blaming Axanar for the disappointing donation totals of STC’s latest campaign. I can only imagine how the frustration must have been growing for everyone on the STC team. They weren’t just falling a little short; they were falling a lot short, and that’s got to feel at least somewhat demoralizing for one of the undisputed leaders of the Star Trek fan film world. If I were Vic, I’d want to find something or someone to blame, too. And at least in this podcast interview, and also in a recent video message to donors from the top of Vasquez Rocks, Vic chose to point that finger of blame directly at Axanar.

Admittedly, Vic never mentioned Axanar by name, but his true meaning was pretty obvious from remarks like this: “Well, it’s not been going as good as we had hoped, and I’m fairly certain, as are most of our production team that the reason for that is the ‘other production’—that shall not be named—who behaved in such a way that they brought down a lawsuit on themselves. And I think it’s really poisoned the well for the rest of us.”

Now, leaving aside for the moment the irony that such a comment is, itself, poisoning the well against Axanar, let me say that—and here’s where I’m gonna piss off half of the people reading this—Vic is not entirely wrong. (There, I’ve said it.) And now I’m going to piss off everyone who just cheered my last comment: Vic is also failing to acknowledge a number of other significant factors that likely have themselves contributed to the disappointing crowd-funding result, at least in my opinion (which I am going to justify with examples in just a moment).

First, though, let’s give Vic his due and admit that Axanar probably shot the sheriff…

What I mean by that is that, although there is no way to know for certain if the lawsuit specifically made anyone say, “No way, I’m not giving my money to another Trek fan film because they’re all going to be shut down…” it would still be naïve for any of us to assume that didn’t happen at all. Heck, even I had that concern when I decided to give my hundred bucks to STC last month. In my case, it was a risk I was willing to take because of my love and support for the series. But then again, I’m not struggling to pay my rent, and I can afford to roll the dice on backing fan films I want to see. Others might not be so lucky, optimistic, or committed.

Now, let’s leave aside for a moment the fact that, if you’re going to simply blame Axanar for the lawsuit, then you’re kinda giving CBS and Paramount a free pass…since they were the ones who decided to file the complaint and scare the dickens out of the fan donors.  But that’s splitting hairs.  Let’s just give Vic the benefit of the doubt and say that the Axanar lawsuit probably didn’t help the world of fan films continue to make money from enthusiastic fans hand-over-fist.

But I can’t let Vic’s statements blaming it all on the lawsuit stand alone when there’s also a number of truths that might be inconvenient but really need to be stated and heard (well, read) by people before they drink any more anti-Axanar Kool-Aid.

Well-5And this is where I explain why Axanar didn’t shoot the deputy…

First up, as I stated previously, Indiegogo has only one-third of the visitors as Kickstarter. So that’s already going to affect the number of backers one gets…it has to! Sure, STC and other fan films do their best to attract potential donors directly to their campaign pages, but there’s also a number of donors who just come across the page, often while visiting another crowd-funding campaign page and seeing recommendations at the top of the page. With fewer site visitors overall, there’s less chance of folks just wandering in to have a look.

Second, as the article I referenced earlier stated, the general media is less likely to cover Indiegogo campaigns than it is Kickstarters. Now maybe it’s just me, but I can’t remember seeing as much media coverage for STC this time out beyond podcasts and blogs (which hit relatively small and focused audiences). Granted, it could be that the Axanar lawsuit has been sucking the air out of the room, but one would think that the news media, when writing those lawsuit articles, would also want to cover other major fan projects that were still actively seeking financial backing…rounding out the news story. If reporters simply checked out Kickstarter and not Indiegogo, they would not have found an active campaign from STC.

The third point that needs to be made—and this is really important, folks—is that there was a decline in crowd-funding totals that started many months BEFORE the lawsuit was ever filed. As I recounted in a recent Fan Film Friday blog I posted for the Axanar website back in January on the history of Trek crowd-funding, between 2012 and 2014, there was a veritable “gold rush” of donations to Trek fan films resulting in nearly $1.2 million being collected. In fact, Axanar had taken in more than half of that haul and was gearing up for a new summer campaign in 2015.

But Axanar switched from Kickstarter to Indiegogo, and after raising $638K the previous summer on Kickstarter, their next campaign on Indiegogo took in only $475K and had 25% fewer backers than had donated the previous summer.

Okay, maybe the recent drop-off in fan donations wasn’t quite THIS bad…

But it wasn’t just Axanar seeing a drop off. Star Trek: New Voyages had raised $65K from 1,100 donors on Kickstarter in 2014. But in 2015, they only hit $50,000 from less than 800 donors. And they used Kickstarter for both campaigns.

Donor fatigue? Possibly. Remember these were all half a year prior to the lawsuit. Other fan films struggled in 2015, as well. As I mentioned earlier, Captain Pike’s first Kickstarter failed completely. The same was true for Star Trek: Anthology, Star Trek: Equinox, and Star Trek: First Frontier. Of course, not every fan film campaign stumbled in 2015, though, but the ones that succeeded were taking in modest amounts. For example, after switching to Indiegogo, Captain Pike raised $65K, but a second follow-up campaign raised only $24K. Another start-up, Pacific 201, raised just $26K. And Equinox, when it did finally manage to fund, took in barely $6K.

And it wasn’t just the start-ups that were struggling in 2015. The high-flying Star Trek: Renegades had raised a total of $375K for their 90-minute pilot.   But when they returned to the Kickstarter well in November of last year with a goal of $350K, they only barely made it with just 30 hours to spare! Although Renegades finished with $387K, had you checked on them just two days earlier, you would have seen the team biting their fingernails nervously still $25K short of their goal.

Well-7Even more of a nail-biter was a final Kickstarter at the end of 2015 for Star Trek Continues’ “sister” series, Starship Farragut. Their Kickstarter campaign had a much less ambitious $15K goal, but with just four days left, they were still $5K short! Fans pulled through at the last moment and pushed them just past the goal line (by a meager $787. Even though Farragut is a well-established fan series with nearly a decade of episode releases, they barely limped to their crowd-funding goal.

And as I said, all this was BEFORE the Axanar lawsuit!

So for STC to assume they’d continue the upward slope in donations in 2015 that they’d enjoyed previously in 2013 and 2014 was kinda like a person buying a stock that was steadily gaining value over the past year or two and being surprised to find the stock suddenly under-performing. Or to be less tactful, at least in my humble opinion, the $350K goal might have been just a teensy-weensy bit over-optimistic.

And finally, there’s one last mitigating factor that Vic might not be seeing, but it was flashing at me like a flare on the highway. They say timing is everything. Some people suggested that the reason Renegades’ and Farragut’s recent campaigns struggled so much is they were both competing with the holiday gift-giving season. When nearly everyone is saving up to spend their money on Christmas or Hanukkah presents, there’s not much left over for Star Trek fan film contributions.

Well-8What does that have to do with a campaign that started on March 4? The answer: Tax Day. Here in America, April 15 (or this year, April 18) can drain one’s bank account faster than you can say, “Hey, that’s MY money!” Granted, not every fan film donor is a tax-paying American citizen, but according to Diana Kingsbury of Axanar, about 2/3 of donors to their latest campaign were U.S. residents. And while there’s no “perfect” time to hold a crowd-funding campaign, some parts of the year might be less effective than others…such as Christmas and the period just before and after Tax Day in the U.S. when people’s money might be otherwise spoken for.

When all is said and done, $150K (with nearly a week left to get that number higher) is nothing to sneeze at! That total actually places STC in second place as the MOST SUCCESSFUL fan Trek Indiegogo campaign to date, and sixth place overall if you count Kickstarters, as well. STC has raised more contributions than they did for their first campaign and has come close to reaching the amount they took in on their second campaign, despite switching over to Indiegogo AND the recent downward trends in fan donations PLUS scheduling right around U.S. Tax Day.

Now, had the well of donations truly been “poisoned,” then one might reasonably assume the donation damage would have been MUCH more severe. STC still managed to raise enough to film TEN episodes of Starship Farragut (or buy three new luxury sedans!). And while I realize that STC and Farragut are very different series with different costs and production values, I still think a little perspective is in order. Vic and his team are seeing the glass as extremely half empty right now, and mostly blaming Axanar for the lack of water.

Personally, I think the situation is much rosier than it appears…especially considering all the headwinds STC was sailing into! And that’s really the point I want to make today: while the Axanar lawsuit MIGHT be a factor in play at the moment, there may well be OTHER reasons for missing their very ambitious $350K goal. Especially salient: one can’t ignore the diminishing donation totals from campaigns that took place in the months before the lawsuit.

To conclude, I just want to congratulate STC and Vic Mignogna, and to thank them for all they have done. Despite what may seem like a disappointing donation total, the team should still feel proud, very proud for having raised so much in their latest crowd-funding campaign.

But please, to Vic and anyone else with something negative to say about any fan film or series: please don’t poison the well by accusing another fan project of poisoning the well. That really doesn’t help any of us.

To quote Benjamin Franklin: “We must all hang together, or assuredly we shall all hang separately!”

In two weeks (or thereabout) when I post Part 2: our focus on the realities of crowd-funding shifts to a lively discussion with the people behind some of the most successful Trek fan film campaigns to date.  What works best?  Where are the land-mines you should watch out for?  Which is a better choice of crowd-funding platform: Kickstarter or Indiegogo?  All this and more awaits!

3 thoughts on “The realities of crowd-funding, part 1”

  1. Awesome article. So many want to focus on one cause for a problem when in reality there are multiple contributing factors. Best of luck to all fan films everywhere! These are labors of love and deserve respect.

  2. I know that in the past year, I’ve donated less than previously, too. I bought a house, have my fiancee living with me, am planning for our largely self-funded wedding, etc. There’s less disposable cash. Doesn’t mean I support these productions any less. If anything, I support them more, because they are bringing me the Star Trek I want to see.

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