Why Doesn’t Crowdfunding Work for Toronto Theatre?

With Toronto Fringe just recently wrapped up and SummerWorks just around the corner, it seems like I’ve been deluged with small theatre project fundraising campaigns, most employing the online IndieGogo/Kickstarter model that has become so popular in the last few years.

But a review of Toronto Indiegogo campaigns shows that most theatre campaigns are not as successful as one might suspect. A recent Torontoist article asked the question Why Isn’t Crowdfunding Working for Toronto’s Food Industry? – so why not ask the same question about out theatre scene?

Is this healthy for the Toronto Theatre community, or for theatre in general? Theatre has always depended on patrons, but are our appeals becoming too ubiquitous, desperate, or downright obnoxious? What implications lurk for artists when these appeals become so common?

The Backlash Has Begun

Much has been written about the backlash against Kickstarter – beyond BlogTO’s article linked above. The Kickstarter backlash gained steam with the successful Veronica Mars campaign – which raised $5 million so upstart film company Warner Brothers could make a movie about a little-known TV show that aired for three seasons. And it was kicked in high-gear when Zach Braff announced his own campaign to raise $2 million to shoot a “tonal sequel” to his successful directorial debut. Many pundits asked, why are rich people with access to their own capital and investors begging the fans to finance a for-profit enterprise that they’ll then have no stake in?

And then there’s the ridicule: The Onion has Brendan Fraser applying for one Kickstarter. And Jon Lajoie created this:

But it’s not just successful Hollywood artists who are feeling the sting of the crowdfunding backlash. In fact, those artists are usually successful. As many pixels have been spent criticizing indie musicians who are crowd-funding for all sorts of projects, including tour support and recording albums.

Has the crowdfunding backlash hit the Toronto theatre scene?

Does crowdfunding exhaust the audience?

Fundraising itself is not going to disappear from the theatre world. It is, unfortunately, a reality that much theatrical production is not directly sustainable from the box office – particularly if one wants to make tickets available at competitive prices, or accessible to the less well-heeled. Moreover, even when applying for government/private sector grants, it’s often a requirement that the producer demonstrate that it has fundraised a certain percentage of the budget.

As a producer, I’ve always been skeptical about throwing fundraising events. They command a lot of time and resources to do well, and are often as financially risky as creating the show itself. Moreover, I suspect they contribute to an audience fatigue as we ask our fans and supporters to come out and spend time and money at another one of our events.

Kickstarter mitigates some of this by taking the risk of losses out of the fundraising equation (although it does cost 9% of your total raised in commissions and fees). They’re also much simpler to set up and launch than a major event (although the most successful campaigns typically have a fair amount of thought and work put into their design, video components, and social media advertizing). But it still contributes to the fatigue of asking your fans and supporters for more money. This is amplified when you notice that within the small indie theatre fan community, the same people are being hit up multiple times for lots of different campaigns.

FULL DISCLOSURE: I’ve run two “Chip In” campaigns for my shows in the past. The first was to help my company travel to Ireland, where we’d been invited to perform at a festival where it was known that we wouldn’t earn enough money to cover our expenses. The second was a more modest campaign to help finance some expensive elements of a show I was putting on at the Toronto Fringe. While they didn’t meet their full goals, they did help finance those shows and I’m very grateful for the contributions. But my experience also showed me some important limitations of this model, particularly on the repeat attempt.

Are we making a compelling case for donations?

I think one of the problems with the ubiquity of these crowdfunding campaigns is that it throws into stark relief those artists who simply don’t make a compelling case for donations. In a perfect world, I’d hope that audiences simply decide to give to other projects, but I suspect that instead a large number of them walk away with a negative impression of fundraising campaigns and artists in general.

I’m probably going to ruffle some feathers by discussing specific campaigns in this section, but I think the illustration is necessary. Please understand, I fully implicate myself with my company’s previous campaigns as well, but I think pointing to a wider trend is important.

Consider the case of Ecce Homo Theatre. A year later, I still can’t understand the logic of their campaign to raise $6000 for its production of Of A Monstrous Child: A Gaga Musical as part of Buddies’ 2012-13 season. In the campaign, they note that the company has already secured $100,000 in government grants, but they just needed a little bit more to make the show. I have no idea what the financial arrangement was with Buddies in Bad Times Theatre for their co-pro/presentation, but I imagine that the company was also given its performance/rehearsal space, and some cut (or all?) of the ticket sales, which wouldn’t have been insignificant – Ecce Homo claims the run was sold out.

Hitting up fans for a little bit more cash when you’re also flaunting how successful you’ve been at getting the kind of support most artists only dream of… well, it certainly rubbed me the wrong way. I can only imagine what the general audience thought. Moreover, it was clear that this project was going ahead whether Ecce Homo raised the money or not, so this looked a bit like gravy on the budget. Perhaps that explains why the company – which has more than a few fans – was only able to raise $1875 of its goal. (Not that that’s anything to sneeze at! Again, many artists would be grateful to raise that much on Indiegogo campaign. Heck, I’ve produced shows – including my first multicity tour – on less than $1875!)

Or maybe I’m just ignorant. Richard Ouzounian referred to Ecce Homo’s technical budget as “a shoestring” in his review of the show. It just seems that if you’re going to say $100,000+ isn’t enough to produce your show, you should probably try to justify that to the people you’re asking from. I imagine most people would think $100,000 is already a lot of money.

During Pride, whenever you visited Buddiesinbadtimes.com, you were confronted with this pop-up campaign ask:


The campaign is an implicit ask for $50,000 for… well, it’s not at all clear what they need $50,000 for. We’re asked to “imagine” what Buddies could do with $50,000. But I haven’t the foggiest idea what they would do with it. They could launch an after-school program for queer youth, it could be for some unspecified capital project, or they could give Artistic Director Brendan Healy a $50,000 raise so that he’s making almost half what Matthew Jocelyn makes at CanStage.

For the record, I know Buddies does many, many great things, that it operates on a miniscule budget relative to what it does, and has many oustanding capital needs. But in particular, as this campaign is directed at people who are not really familiar with Buddies – those who really only go for the Pride events – wouldn’t it have been smart to suggest what the money is needed for? Instead, it simply says that your gift makes you “part of something special” [what?] and “make[s] a statement” [to whom?].

Moreover, this ask popped up just when a visitor is going to buddiesinbadtimes.com – presumably with the intention of browsing Pride events and purchasing tickets. Why would you put your ask for money in the way of someone who is already trying to give you money for the main service you’re providing? (A better place to put the ask might have been after the tickets have been selected but before the transaction is completed – ie, when my wallet’s already out).

Kickstarter on the Fringe Part 1: Our asks are too big

Scoping out the Indiegogo page for Canada, I found at least fifteen groups raising money for Toronto Fringe Festival and SummerWorks shows. Most are asking for between $1000-2000. Not all give a breakdown of what expenses they’re hoping to cover, but most say they need to cover rehearsal spaces, sets and costumes, and advertising. Some appeals directly ask fans to cover all of the advance costs so that the companies don’t put anything at risk and can keep all the ticket revenue to divide among themselves.

But there are a few bizarre campaigns in the mix as well. The new play contest winner, The Oak Room, sought $1500 to cover “set and costumes, publicity, rehearsal space, and props.” It baffles me that the group needs this money considering that the new play contest winners tend to sell out their entire Fringe runs well in advance (which The Oak Room did end up doing – and at $10/ticket, 200 seats and 8 shows, that’s a very comfortably Fringe budget). It’s also a pretty sure bet for a Best of Fringe remount if history’s a good indicator. Ticket sales alone should more than cover the raw costs of producing the show, with more than enough for salaries or honorariums. This is on top of the fact that the company got a free spot in the festival, $1500 toward the production, free ad space in the program and free publicity services for winning the contest. That’s a hefty advantage over most Fringe companies and it’s unclear to me based on this campaign why more was needed (rather than, say, wanted).

(Still, they almost doubled their campaign ask with total donations at $2750, so good on them.)

LemonTree Theatre (a company that does some fine work, and that I’ve worked for in the past) sought a whopping $6000 that they said is to cover pre-production costs for their new dance piece MSM, including set construction and rehearsal space. This campaign is a little bizarre to me – lemonTree runs its own studio space, so rehearsal space shouldn’t be an issue (ok, foregone revenue, but still, isn’t this the purpose for you having a studio space?). $6000 was the total production budget of my last independent show, including theatre rental. I honestly cannot imagine how you’d spend that much money on a Toronto Fringe show. Perhaps there is a perfectly decent explanation for it, but the only explanation is that the production costs include “Fringe Festival Fee, Set Construction, Hazer Rental, Rehearsal Space, Marketing Costs.” If there was a particularly elaborate set and costume build, they’re not giving me any clue as to what it is.

LemonTree ultimately raised $1645 – well below their target, but still a hefty amount of money. Heck, I’d be tap-dancing with glee if I raised that much to put on a non-touring Fringe show (it’s more than either of my previous campaigns raised actually). But if $6000 was what the company needed, would a more compelling campaign have come closer to that goal?

Or are our asks too small?

There’s a great episode of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia where the guys need $800 right away and Dee scolds them, saying “how is it three men in their mid-30s don’t have $800 between them?” It’s a knock on a standard sitcom trope but it’s a line I kept thinking of everytime I saw a campaign for $1000 for a Fringe show.

At the Fringe, the stakes are incredibly low. Productions can usually be put together for very little money. The upfront costs are modest. Granted, so are the revenues, but that’s why a rational artist-entrepreneur seeks to reduce expenses, looks at alternative revenue streams (touring), or considers the Fringe an investment in either future production or in building an artistic reputation.

Ultimately, $1000 won’t turn an amateur show into a professional one – certainly not under the Fringe’s conditions. And if it’s an investment in your career development, then why should someone else pay for it? Are we soon going to soon see actors crowd-funding for their headshots, Casting Workbook memberships, and acting classes?

If all you need is $1000 to put on your show, why can’t a company of a few professionals or semi-professionals just put it in themselves? If you’re just looking to supplement your income from a show you’re going to do anyway, well then, this isn’t really fundraising. It’s a tip jar.

There’s nothing wrong with a tip jar. But I’d be much more likely to throw a few bucks at someone honestly presenting me with a tip jar option after I’ve seen a great show than into a “fundraiser” for a show that I may or may not enjoy, and that will go on with or without my help.

Will the show go on anyway?

Perhaps I’ve simply inherited a sour tack on donations from my father, the investment banker, who used to ridicule my early attempts at fundraising. “Why should I give you money? What am I getting out of it? Oh, it’s just a donation? Will it cure cancer? Will it feed the homeless? Or am I just paying your rent?”

(TRUE FACT DIGRESSION: Ten Foot Pole Theatre has raised more money for charities than we have raised for our own productions.)

I’ve had friends offer to “invest” in my shows. I’ve always turned them down because I know the odds of a positive return on investment are very small and I didn’t want that to cause bad blood between friends. Besides, at the scale I produce theatre, it never really made sense to me to seek serious capital.

One of the crucial components that’s missing with all of these cases is that these shows wouldn’t happen without the support of the requested donations. Part of what was great about Kickstarter and Indiegogo was that a successful campaign doubled as great marketing and great market research – if you could raise $100,000 to make your documentary from thousands of people who gave $10 or more each, then you could plausibly demonstrate that there was a market of people who wanted to have your finished product. If you couldn’t raise it, you moved onto your next idea (and everyone got their money back! A crucial component that removes the risk from the donor!). Consequently, the most successful campaigns really worked for the donations, by presenting compelling cases for why *this* project needed to be made, and why *this much money* was needed.

If you’re only looking for ten people to help you raise $1000, well, why do you need a big public campaign? If your project is going ahead without my donation, why should I give you any money, even if I am interested in the show?

Over on the other side of the country, Electric Company put on a campaign to raise $100,000 for its remount of the hit show All The Way Home via Indiegogo – but it’s actually an inverse of the fundraising model. Essentially, they said that they can only mount the production if they sell it out six months in advance, and they were selling tickets through Indiegogo. If they didn’t sell the ~1900 tickets by July 1, they won’t get any of the money, and presumably the show won’t happen. That seems to me a very transparent campaign. (It also helps that they clearly explain why the show costs $100,000 to mount. Heck, it seems a comparative bargain compared to OAMC!)

It’s not entirely clear what happened with the campaign. The Indiegogo campaign currently indicates that only $8920 was raised. I could’ve sworn I read it reached its goal somewhere, and indeed a (now deleted, but Google cached) blog post on the company’s web site from July 8 says that the show is definitely going ahead. Eleven days later, the company posted the news that the show wasn’t going forward because of the loss of its BC Gaming Grant. Still, I think this was a smart idea for a fundraising drive.

Here in Toronto, Theatre Brouhaha used the same model to gauge whether it was worth putting up an extra night of its hit Fringe show We Are The Bombthe campaign worked and the bonus show went ahead. Brouhaha actually raised more than double its campaign ask.

For comparison’s sake, earlier this year when Brouhaha tried to raise $2000 toward its production of Rock, it came up short (although it still raised slightly more dollars than the We Are The Bomb campaign). The Rock campaign offered meagre benefits and didn’t really explain at all what the money was for — just that they’re putting on a show and would like money please. Still, given that WATB raised almost the same amount of money in a matter of days points to the clear advantage of its fundraising model.

An aspect of both the We Are The Bomb/All The Way Home campaigns that can’t be overlooked is that they’re not really asking for donations at all. They’re selling a product at what they’ve determined is their floor price. They’re not asking you to take any more of a risk than you would be by purchasing a ticket in any other manner. And perhaps, by making your enjoyment of the show contingent on them selling a certain number of these tickets, they’ll get you to convince your friends to buy tickets as well. It’s actually a very capitalist, and very shrewd, marketing campaign.

The way forward?

So, I’ve poured out a bunch of pixels about what I think is wrong with how some companies are crowdsourcing. I don’t think the Electric Company/Brouhaha model is perfect or appropriate for all situations. But I think some lessons from the case studies above point to a broad theory of crowdsourcing:

If you want to ask people for their money for your art project, you have to make a very compelling case for it.

Perhaps your show tells a really unique story – share a bit of that with us. Perhaps your show will have astounding special effects – maybe you can show us some preliminary drawings. That’ll get me interested.

Now why do you need my cash to make it happen? For the small producer this can be a daunting question – and the answer probably shouldn’t be “because I’m a very special artist and I deserve it” or even “so I can pay my rent while I take a month off work to create my passion project.” Will the show happen without your donation – why not, or how will it be different without it?

Finally, what guarantee will I have that my money will be well spent and deliver the experience you’ve told me it will achieve? When you’ve made a case for $6000 so you can buy Object X that will be in your show, but you only raise $1200, what are you going to do with that $1200? Do you have some other revenue source that can cover the remainder – if so, why can’t it cover the full cost? This series of questions is why campaigns that have a minimum goal may feel more convincing.

I don’t think this long column is the final word on crowdsourcing in theatre. Please share your thoughts in the comments.


One thought on “Why Doesn’t Crowdfunding Work for Toronto Theatre?

  1. Pingback: Some Further Thoughts on Theatre Crowdfunding | Exit Upstage

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