Report: Animators Are Raising Big Money On Kickstarter

When television creators Dan Harmon (Community) and Dino Stamatopoulos (Moral Orel) — partners in Los Angeles production company Starburns Industries — were thinking of ideas to develop for animation, they remembered a Charlie Kaufman-penned play called Anomalisa that they’d seen staged in Los Angeles in 2005. They envisioned great possibilities for the project, and soon had Kaufman’s blessing to pursue funding to produce an animated film.

The only hitch was that the idea — a 40-minute stop-motion film revolving around a man crippled by the mundanity of his existence — wasn’t an easy sell to either TV networks or film studios who have predefined notions of what animation is. In another country, they might have been funded by a government arts program, but in the United States, Anomalisa was destined to languish as an idea.

Enter crowd-funding.

Harmon and Stamatopoulos launched a campaign in early July using the online fundraising website Kickstarter. Their campaign, which ended yesterday afternoon, set a new record for an animation project on the crowd-funding platform, raising over $406,000, more than double its goal. More impressively, it is at least the 5th animated project that has raised over $100,000 this past summer on Kickstarter.

Kickstarter says that films have been the second-most funded category on their site this year with over $42 million pledged through August 31. They haven’t provided a breakout for what percentage of that amount has gone toward animation projects, but it is in the millions of dollars.

The director of the forthcoming Anomalisa is Duke Johnson, a veteran of Starburns projects including Moral Orel and Mary Shelley’s Frankenhole. Johnson explains to Cartoon Brew how the crowd-funding route can be a boon to both the filmmakers and the audience:

“For this particular project, we are inspired by the idea of a pure artistic vision from script to screen.  Meaning that all creative and even technical decisions, like distribution, are made by a core creative team with no incentive beyond making the best possible film out of a script they believe in.  Which we believe will ultimately give people something they really want and can’t otherwise have.”

Visual effects veteran Phil Tippett, who owns the esteemed Tippett Studio in Berkeley, California, recently restarted production on a twenty-year-old personal film project called Mad God, which he calls an “anti-studio, anti-corporate, anti-commercial statement.” He got back into it at the urging of younger employees working at his studio who wanted to step away from their computers and learn the craft of stop motion animation. To fund the project, Tippett initially auctioned props from his long career in visual effects, including an AT-AT Imperial Walker from The Empire Strikes Back and a RoboCop puppet from RoboCop 2.

When the funds from those auctions began to dwindle, Tippet turned to Kickstarter. He sought to raise a conservative $40,000 to cover the costs of studio space, crew lunches, hard drive storage, lab services and other bare essentials. He admits the costs would be much higher if not for the all-volunteer crew and the fact that he owns a lot of film equipment after decades of running his own studio.

Tippett raised more than three times his goal—$124,156—enough to comfortably complete the first chapter of Mad God. He says that the free-from nature of the film, which he likens to painting or sculpture more than filmmaking, leaves it open to an indefinite number of episodes. “The narrative allows me to go back in and open it up,” he told me. “It’s not stuck to a logical timeline. The chapters will continue to get revised over the years.”

Just to be safe, Tippett has already shot an end title for Mad God — “If I die, that’s the end,” — though intriguingly, he also suggests that other artists “after me or alongside me” could take aspects of Mad God and expand upon the concept in different directions.

Another animation veteran who has embraced Kickstarter is Ren and Stimpy creator John Kricfalusi. His run-ins with network executives have been well documented throughout the years so when he wanted to resurrect a short film idea based on his character George Liquor, he reached out directly to his fans.

During his fundraising campaign, he told potential supporters on his Kickstarter page, “This is the absolute best way for me to make cartoons for you without pesky executives and middlemen second guessing every gag and drawing I do!” Feeding into the anti-corporate sentiment, one of the rewards he offered was a producer’s shirt that reads, “I Made It Happen! The Body In This Shirt Is The Official Producer of John K’s Can Without Labels.”

Kricfalusi easily exceeded the $110,000 goal needed to produced an 8-to-10 minute short. He wrote that the budget was only half of what it would have cost to produce a Ren and Stimpy short at his former studio Spümcø. The lessened cost is due in large part to the way that Kricfalusi has revamped his production pipeline. He no longer ships animation overseas, instead producing the animation from a home studio equipped with Toon Boom software and a small crew of artists.

The projects by Starburns, Tippett and Kricfalusi aren’t based on series currently in production, and they were able to achieve their financial goals largely on the reputations of their creators. However, two other Kickstarter animation campaigns that have recently concluded with six-figure pledge totals are based on series currently in production. The creators of the Animusic dvd series raised $223,137 to produce a third installment in their series that combines computer animation and electronic music. Meanwhile, the popular Flash-animated series Dick Figures, produced by Six Point Harness and distributed online by Mondo Media, blasted past its $250,000 goal to reach $313,412.

Ed Skudder and Zack Keller, the creators of Dick Figures, encouraged fans to donate so that they could produce a movie-length version of their cartoon. Their financing campaign benefitted from Mondo Media’s 1.1 million YouTube subscribers, says Aaron Simpson, vp of animation and business development at Mondo Media. The company embedded ads for the Kickstarter campaign throughout their YouTube videos, which resulted in approximately half of the Kickstarter funding.

Simpson is quick to point out that having a popular online animated series doesn’t guarantee a successful crowd-funding campaign. Last year, Mondo Media conducted a campaign for its well-established Happy Tree Friends, which raised only 10% of its goal. The company learned a lot from that early failure, including the importance of offering rewards revolving around the project itself (HD film downloads, film soundtracks, behind-the-scenes making-ofs). Ancillary rewards (T-shirts, posters) are fine too, but Simpson says that many supporters are more interested in items directly related to the project itself.

Simpson points out the importance of “creating something really, really special” in relation to the existing product. The creators of Dick Figures didn’t simply ask audiences to fund the production of additional shorts of the same length, but to help create a movie. And successfully reaching a goal is not the end of the line: another important part of their strategy was to create an online space where fans could continue to support the project financially even after the initial Kickstarter campaign was completed.

The Kickstarter projects discussed here all benefitted from being attached to well known creators or established animation properties. It would be unreasonable to expect that an independent or moderately successful filmmaker could raise a similar six-figure amount. That doesn’t diminish the achievement of these campaigns, however. Even known filmmakers such as those in this article would have struggled to raise hundreds of thousands of dollars from their fans just a few years ago.

Over the summer, crowd-funding finally emerged as a viable alternative to traditional animation financing models. There are enough people who are using platforms like Kickstarter to support the production of professional-quality animated films by name filmmakers. The possibilities are, indeed, limitless now that filmmakers and fans can connect directly with one another instead of relying on third parties. For animation, it may herald a new era of more innovative and unique projects.

Anomalisa by Starburns Industries
Goal: $200,000
Length of Film Project: Approx. 40 minutes
Projected per Minute Cost of Animation: $5,000
Raised: $406,237
Backers: 5,770
Average Pledge: $70.41

Mad God by Phil Tippett
Goal: $40,000
Length of Film Project: Approx. 12 minutes
Projected per Minute Cost of Animation: $3,333
Raised: $124,156
Backers: 2,523
Average Pledge: $49.21

Cans Without Labels by John Kricfalusi
Goal: $110,000
Length of Film Project: Approx. 8-10 minutes
Projected per Minute Cost of Animation: $11,000-13,750
Raised: $136,724
Backers: 3,562
Average Pledge: $38.38

Dick Figures: The Movie by Six Point Harness
Goal: $250,000
Length of Film Project: 30 minutes
Projected per Minute Cost of Animation: $8,333
Raised: $313,412
Backers: 5,616
Average Pledge: $55.81

Animusic 3 by Animusic
Goal: $200,000
Length of Film Project: Approx. 40 minutes (based on previous Animusic release)
Projected per Minute Cost of Animation: $5,000
Raised: $223,137
Backers: 3,284
Average Pledge: $67.95


  • e

    This is great! I’m getting ready to try the same after watching the success of these projects as well as the smaller ones as well. Best of luck to everyone trying to get films made.

  • http://www.toasterguy.com Aaron

    Kickstarter is awesome. It really levels the playing field – if people think you have a cool idea, they’ll donate money. I’m a total nobody and I raised what I considered a significant amount (chump change compared to what these guys are raising), and that was awhile back before Kickstarter was as big a deal as it is now.

    If anybody has that idea they want to pursue “if only they had the funding,” now is the time!

  • akira

    nice article! this is news i LOVE to hear about! great going guys, now make some awesome animation to justify your support and encourage more animation artist driven projects!

  • http://www.jonnyquest.tv Roger Evans

    Yep, KickStarter seems like the way to go. I’ve launched one to expand my Jonny Quest title project form last year. It’s very interesting to see the types of projects that get funded versus the ones that don’t. Some really obscure projects seem to strike the fancy of the general public and even over-fund while some other more main-stream projects die on the vine. I can’t wait to see Tippet’s final project. Looks amazing, to say the least.

    Roger

  • http://whataboutthad.com Thad

    I wish all of the people using Kickstarter good luck, but I think this is going to amount to nothing more than a passing trend. Crowdfunding is never going to be able to replace the solid investments of advertisers.

    When you kick in money to a campaign, you’re not getting a piece of the pie, just some prizes and a DVD. You’re not getting anything more substantial for $10,000 than you are for $10 (or $1!). Charity can only go so far. The more high-profile names might get one or two of their projects funded, but if they’re thinking they can keep directly milking their fans for cash with regularity, they’ve got another thing coming.

    What would be more interesting is to see if any of these successful Kickstarter campaigns attracts a major distributor/studio to pick up the tab for a series/feature.

    Also, the legalities of Kickstarter itself are extremely clunky if they’re offering a venue for people to raise these kinds of six-figure goals. They don’t take any legal responsibility over the projects and will not press the creator to even deliver the goods (never mind on time), all while they take a 10% cut of the proceeds. Huh? That nebulous wording is only going to guarantee a long trial. It will only take one psycho with an outrageously successful campaign to crash the company.

    • http://www.amidamidi.com Amid

      Today we’re still at an early stage where it’s mostly tech-savvy early adopters who are funding these projects, but not the general public. I don’t think the $50 from 5000 people is sustainable, but $1 dollar from 500,000 people is perfectly sustainable. The rewards are a great way to appeal to the hard-core fans, but the key will be to encourage the general public to directly support artists instead of paying middlemen like cable providers and movie theaters.

      • http://whataboutthad.com Thad

        I completely agree. As it stands, Kickstarter’s only reaching out to geeks like us. However, how are you going to let 500,000 people know about the projects? Advertisement. Kickstarter might be able to fill that void itself without bringing in outside middlemen, but they need to seriously restructure their model if they a) want to bring these projects to the general public, or even just the diverse audience Community has (or what the original Ren & Stimpy did have), and b) stay on legally sound ground.

        • http://www.amidamidi.com amid

          Thad – It’s not particularly useful to discuss Kickstarter, because the key idea here is not Kickstarter; it’s crowd-funding. Kickstarter just happens to be the current flavor of the month that makes crowd-funding possible. There’s nothing to say they won’t go the way of Friendster and Myspace once a better alternative arrives.

          I personally don’t find Kickstarter’s model very artist-friendly, and Louis CK has already proven that an artist doesn’t need Kickstarter to raise money successfully.

          We are currently in the very earliest stages of this paradigm shift in creative financing. People have been talking about micro-payments for the last decade, and crowd-funding is a parallel evolution. I don’t think anybody has a firm grasp on where it’s headed, but the game is changing, and hopefully for the better.

    • Gray64

      That’s the question that gets me…once the film is made, then what happens? I love the whole idea of Kickstarter, and I love what it’s been able to accomplish, BUT…it seems the creators are still going to have to go hat in hand to some corporate suit-type in order to get their films in front of audiences. They can burn their own dvds and offer them on their own websites, sure, but that’s likely to be a zero-sum game, only reaching people who are already aware of them and their work. Getting the thing made is only the first step…after that, you’ve got to find some way to get it in front of people.

    • Mac

      Your argument makes no sense. The advertisers want the same dollars in the pockets of their viewers. This direct relationship just establishing some of the payers up front instead of a giant advertising apparatus. Imagine a world where all the money people spend on coke is spent on subscribing to a highly expensive television service. You always have commercial interests wanting to purchase eyeball space, though, but these models can work.

    • akira

      i bet you don’t give too much to charities. well lots of institutions wouldn’t survive without people unlike you that give their money away freely in order to support something that they simply wish to exist. if the recession ever ends and some of these projects get finished and finished well, this sort of fundraising will only increase. and the filmmakers/kickstarters don’t need to keep coming back and begging for more in the same way because if they make these things they will also be able to make money selling the dvds or online advertising for their completed awesome films. also, some of the things that you get for supporting these projects are worth a LOT to the fans.

  • So…

    The money comes from people who want to be a part of the ongoing work of a celebrity filmmaker and then give money to said celebrity to make him or her happy.

    While it seems wonderful that films could be made outside of the traditional system- I hope a film (with distribution) really comes out of the innocent fans’s donations and that they are not simply being raked by big personalities in the film industry.

  • Aaron B.

    It seems like reputation goes a long way with these types of projects. Perhaps fans are more likely to drop fifty bucks on a project from a headlining artist or a popular internet meme than one from an indie art collective that nobody’s heard of.

    The note about ancillary benefits for donors is an interesting one; I’ve seen a handful of campaigns struggle with whiny contributors who claim they are not “getting enough” in return for their contributions.

    Some campaigns, even though the final product is fantastic, endure criticism because they essentially raised too much money… I’m pretty sure Kickstarter stipulates that determining how the campaign founder handles the additional funds is, essentially, up to founder. But supporters may not always like what the individual has in mind.

    • http://www.rogerevans.tv Roger Evans

      Since KickStater gets 5% of what is collected, it is unlikely they are going to complain about any over-funding. But I say that without any kind of malice because, realistically, from my personal experience the budgets listed are usually far from what is needed to “make money” while doing the project and will usually just cover cost. So the term “over funded” is really a misnomer in most cases. Granted, there are weird exceptions where someone only needs $3000 and ends up with 1.5 million but that’s generally not the case. Even when people over-fund by 200%, they are just going to barely cover production expenditures because animation projects always cost way more than people realize.

  • Eman

    “This is the absolute best way for me to make cartoons for you without pesky executives and middlemen second guessing every gag and drawing I do!”
    I like that part best.

  • Lamont

    You guys haven’t been paying attention. Haven’t you seen the story about the lady who got bullied on the bus and how people raised all that money on IndieGoGo to pay for a vacation? More people besides tech guys are using crowdfunding… And didn’t the US government just create legislation allowing small business to use crowdfunding?

  • http://www.rogerevans.tv Roger Evans

    I think that some here are missing the key premise of crowd sourcing. If you’re, say, a garage band and you need exposure then you play at small clubs and venues where you can connect directly with the public that wants to pay to see you. The club gets a cut and/or you have a tip jar, etc where those that like what you’re doing can support you directly. But if you’re an animator, then what? Sit on the corner making flip books for passersby while they toss coins in your hat? The goal of corporate film making is forced saturation of the target audience to generate an excess of profits quickly as possible, out of which the artist gets a small fraction. The goal of crowd sourcing is to cut out the corporate middlemen and let the target audience connect directly with the artist at a saturation level that is proportional to the interest in the artist’s work. Obviously, this model means greater artistic freedom though, perhaps, less money. However, “sustainable” isn’t the driving force behind most artistic projects; just seeing them realized and appreciated by their target audience is. In that sense, crowd sourcing via sites like KickStarter provides an invaluable tool for democratizing the relationship between artist and audience without the nausea of corporate bean counters playing creative director.

  • Daisy

    I mostly agree with the comment about crowd funding being a passing trend. Though i recognize the benefits (full creative autonomy to the creators, crowd contribution and interaction, etc), the model does pose a few problems that make it more of a fad then anything sustainable in the long term. No one should be hailing crowd funding as a savior of indie projects. One problem is that while we do see some great projects being funded on kickstarter (statistically a very small percentage), the rest of the site is flooded with bad ideas and pitches by your average joe. It may soon suffer deviantart syndrome, where after the hype and appearance of quality projects dry out, all that’s left will be a mass amount of unfunded “crowd” projects.

  • Matt

    The biggest issue with Crowd Funding
    The funds raised can far outweigh the cost and or validity of the project or item sought to be created or produced (or, in short): You don’t actually think they spend $20,000 on a hammer, $30,000 on a toilet seat, do you?

    The Biggest issue with Charity
    The correct delegation of the charity’s funds (or, in short): “Want to help the starving children of west Sudan? Well, just donate some money to the cause and we’ll make sure they get it… promise.”

  • http://www.youtube.com/MrCromartie1989 AC

    Not all of us animators. I recently tried to raise $200 towards a new PC hoping to get my YouTube subs involved (as I’m currently unemployed)…$0 funding.

    …wouldn’t be so bad if it weren’t my fourth attempt. People seem to associate animation and free labor together a lot lately :-/

    • http://www.youtube.com/MrCromartie1989 AC

      “Simpson is quick to point out that having a popular online animated series doesn’t guarantee a successful crowd-funding campaign. Last year, Mondo Media conducted a campaign for its well-established Happy Tree Friends, which raised only 10% of its goal.”

      Wish I read this first. *bows and apologizes* My funding just failed tonight-and given my tough money situation I was a little burned when I wrote that (stacking it against a fight had earlier today). It’s inspiring to hear success. I should keep going. :-)

  • http://www.fyrefetish.com FyreFetish

    Wow I love this post because it actually relates to me. I am with a small animation production company named FyreFetish and we are working on our first web cartoon. We just launched our kickstarter campaign to try and make our first season. Check it out http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1947141780/new-animated-series-metal-mule-and-more