I met Timon Birkhofer in 2012, when he and his co-director Jørg were in our hometown of Portland, Oregon, filming XOXO Maker’s Fair. They were working on their recently released documentary, Capital C.
Over the past few years, Tim and I have kept in touch and I was excited to see Capital C’s release come to fruition. As Tim noted in our interview, many films get produced, few get finished, and fewer are released.
Tim and Jørg’s hard work and multi-year process paid off: the first crowdfunded film about crowdfunding is beautifully executed, informative, and inspiring! It’s also very focused and far more emotionally gripping than one might expect a film on this topic to be.
If you’re looking to crowdfund a project, or are simply interested in this fascinating cultural revolution that has transpired over the past few years, I cannot recommend Capital C enough!
It’s available on all major VOD platforms including iTunes and Amazon [Click these links to watch it now].
Having crowdfunded my film Light, I identified with Capital C very closely, and was able to interview Tim in-depth on that topic, as well as distribution, working in a two-person team, crafting a film from a plethora of footage, artists being business people, and much more!
I hope you find this interview interesting, informative, and entertaining. I certainly did!
MY TALK WITH TIM
“I’d much rather have a higher priority with a smaller player than just be one among a lot of other projects with a bigger sales agent.”
Chris: How are things going? You’re probably extremely busy.
Tim: Yeah. It’s crazy. We released the movie in theaters and online on July 24th. It has taken WAY longer than we initially thought. But that’s life and that’s filmmaking, especially when we have our advertising clients back in Germany. But, I’m very happy. With FilmBuff, we found a great distributor.
How did you find them?
Actually, they found us on Kickstarter—and we found a great sales agent from Paris, France. That was funny. There’s a festival in Germany called DOK Leipzig. It’s actually an Oscar qualifier. We didn’t get into the actual festival, but we did get into what they call the “Leipzig Screenings,” which is basically industry only.
Afterwards, we got multiple offers from world sales agents and we just had the best feeling with Java Films. They’re a smaller one. They have an office in Paris and in London. Their bread and butter is the 52-56-minute TV documentary: way more topic-driven than character-driven, like ours.
But they really liked the movie, had some really good ideas, and made our film their priority for the 2015 season. They put us on the front page of their catalog and things like that. I’d much rather have a higher priority with a smaller player than just be one among a lot of other projects with a bigger sales agent.
“…the three Fs: friends, family, and fools—[fools being] basically people that don’t know you but still think it’s a cool thing.”
When did Kickstarter become an option?
Finally, you wake up 10 years into your career and you still haven’t made your first movie. That’s when we said, “Okay. If we don’t start now, we never will.” In 2011, a friend of mine sent me this Kickstarter link for a hardware project. When I realized how it worked, I literally pulled an all-nighter.
I was like, “Oh my God. This is the Holy Grail for everyone working in the ‘creative industries.’” We prepared our campaign for roughly a year: again, planning everything like we Germans love to do. Then we did our Kickstarter video. We got picked up by a couple really big blogs, and more and more people offered to get interviewed.
Did you investigate other crowdfunding platforms besides Kickstarter before landing on it?
Being on one platform over another doesn’t make you more successful. Zach Braff could’ve set up his own website, without Kickstarter, and would’ve been able to raise the same amount. Because people backed Zach Braff, not Kickstarter projects, you know what I mean? You need to tell your story.
[Brian Fargo] has all these indie game developers telling him, “Oh I want to raise millions.” Then he says, “Well, if you want to raise as much as I do, you have to make video games for 30 years first.” If you’ve done something for 30 years, no matter what it is, you must be doing something right. You might have followers. That’s why he can raise so much.
What percentage of your backers were people that you knew or were immediately connected with?
It was roughly a third, which matches with all the crowdfunding statistics that are out there: a third of whatever money you raise usually comes from the three Fs: friends, family, and fools—[fools being] basically people that don’t know you but still think it’s a cool thing.
We had backers from more than 24 countries. The cool thing is we met a lot of them at events or when we were filming. Some of them were like, “Oh, you’re filming in my hometown. You can crash on my couch.” There are so many people we met along the way that are now really, really good friends, and will definitely stay friends forever. That’s the beauty of crowdfunding. It’s so much more than the actual funding.
Brian Fargo created a personal Kickstarter profile and the very, very first project he backed was our documentary. He sent me an email: “Hey, cool project. Let me know if you need any help on anything.” It’s like, “Uhm yes. Absolutely! Can we interview you?”
Same with our U.S. distributor finding us on Kickstarter. 10 years ago, there was no way a distributor like that would approach you as a filmmaker, directly.
Did you have a lot of help with the Kickstarter campaign, or any of the production process?
Basically it was just Jørg and me. We had to pull a lot of favors. We did everything: preparation, research, actual filming. We learned a lot of different lessons while making this movie. One of the things we hated the most was all of the deliverables.
Your distributor and your sales agent needs so many different versions: so many codecs, so many formats, so many resolutions… Then, they need a reformatted one for in-flight Entertainment. They need it for “this” country, but there, subtitles only play in this weird font. Then you have this massive list and you’re like, “Oh my God, the movie is done. Now we have to do all this stuff?”
If we can manage to work with someone that will handle all the deliverables in the future, then we’ll most definitely do that, because it’s a pain in the a**.
“A finished film is better than a never-ending work in progress project.”
You wouldn’t know it was just the two of you. Everything looks fantastic.
Thanks! As a filmmaker, we of course only see the things where we both think, “Oh, we could’ve done this differently, or that differently.” At some point, you have to finish it because a huge chunk of films out there never get finished.
A finished film is better than a never-ending work in progress project.
How did the two of you begin your filmmaking careers?
I would say we’re still at the very beginning. We just made one movie. Jørg and I met 10 years ago. We had a band together and we did our own music videos. Then one day we got a call from a major record label and they said, “We love everything you do except your music. Could you please do what you do for us?” That’s how we got into making music videos for other bands.
A couple years ago, we started working for other clients such as car manufacturers. Never the really big, big commercials, but a lot of stuff for trade shows and internal purposes.
What do you think are the benefits of working as a duo?
Not only in a team of two but, for example, in a band—everyone is playing a different instrument or singing, or whatever it is. We all have different talents. One is more the manager type, the other is more the creative type. You pretty quickly find those roles.
From the very beginning with Jørg and me, we understood each other blindly. We trust each other. He’s my best friend. I don’t have to explain certain things anymore. That’s really beneficial because you can take away all this diplomatic b******t, and just get to the core of what needs to be done.
On top of that, Jørg is the creative guy, so he edits everything. I have no clue about editing because I’m more of the business guy. Of course we consult on every aspect, both creative, and business-wise.
Leaning into your strengths…
Exactly! I think the biggest benefit of working with someone from an early age is we can yell at each other, but we’re still not mad at each other because all that matters is: how can we make sure that whatever we work on gets better.
If you look behind the scenes at the highly successful people, you see that many times it’s not just George Lucas by himself, or Steven Spielberg, or Zack Snyder, you know? They all have their team. In my opinion, the most successful people always work together with the same people because they had good experiences. They can trust them. They know how they react under pressure.
Problems will come up automatically. You don’t have to look for or create them. If you can make sure that there are no problems in the core team, you’re way stronger when you have to face those real problems that will happen either way.
If you want to make a character-driven documentary, you need to have your main protagonist first.
What could you say about that process of finding your film in all the footage and interviews you shot?
We were so fascinated by the topic: “This is so interesting. Oh my God, this guy is super smart.”
We started very broad by interviewing all these smart people. But when we went back to Germany after filming the first round, we were like, “Those are all super interesting interviews, but they don’t make a film.”
Like a documentary about World War II: because most people that experienced it are dead already, you can’t interview them anymore. If you have a high budget, you might reenact some stuff, but you don’t really have the chance to make it as personal as with a character-driven documentary.
We didn’t use any statistics, numbers, or facts about crowdfunding because if we included them, they would already be outdated tomorrow. I think we created something that you can watch next year and get the same kind of inspiration from as you can get right now.
The biggest thing we learned, in terms of documentary filmmaking is, if you want to make a character-driven documentary, you need to have your main protagonist first.
You will always find experts that are willing to be interviewed in front of the camera. The cool part is, if you [find protagonists first], you’ll know exactly which kind of experts you would like to talk to. You know: “In order to get from point A to B in my story, I need a transition like this.” Then you can specifically target and find those experts. We started the complete wrong way.
Back to Kickstarter: were you guys confident that you could raise a certain amount from the people you were connected with? How did you land on that $80,000 number?
To be honest, we actually thought we would raise more than $100,000. For psychological reasons, it would’ve looked really nice if we had raised $100K, or over. Our perfect scenario was around $100K.
One thing that a lot of people also forget is tax. I think donation is the wrong word [for backers’ support]—a donation is when someone gives you money and besides a good feeling, ideally gets back a tax write-off. What Kickstarter is, in a legal or tax sense—and I’m not a lawyer or CPA—but it is technically a pre-sale. You give me money now, and then with that money I will make whatever I promise, and deliver that product to you.
It’s like a pre-order, but with a way longer pre-order time. It’s taxable. You can’t just say, “Oh, I got all this money from so-and-so.” You have to be really careful. Whatever the platform is, crowdfunding is at least the same amount of work as raising money from investors.
“I think a crowdfunding campaign has to find its own voice, or the creator has to find his or her own voice.”
You spend anywhere between 5 minutes and 1 hour throwing the dice with a potential investor. Then you walk out and go to another meeting. With crowdfunding, you’re on the ground 24/7.
That’s why I say it’s at least the same amount, because some people are just better online and with social media.
Let’s put it this way: if your plan is to compete in a Formula One race, you would not go to the race track, hop into the car, and start racing. You would prepare. You would practice. It’s the same with crowdfunding: back a couple campaigns. Follow their updates. Follow how frequently they communicate with their backers and what tone they use.
A movie has a voice. I think a crowdfunding campaign has to find its own voice, or the creator has to find his or her own voice. You can only find that if you learn from others. We tried to do this, but could’ve done way more. We backed a couple campaigns and took notes: “I really like this update,” or “I really like this way of engaging backers. I really like this aspect,” or “I didn’t really like this one.”
Then, you have to come up with your own thing, because the ways you can raise money for a project are as diverse as the amount of projects out there.
There’s hardly any topic that is too small. I think that [crowdfunding] can work pretty well for special interest groups because what they usually do: they organize themselves. Be it forums or Reddit or something like that.
It might even be easier if you have a very, very tightly targeted group, because you know exactly how to address them. Best examples are board games on Kickstarter. There’s a forum called BoardGameGeek.com.
If you have a history on there and you’re a part of the community, you don’t need anyone other than the users of that site to fund your game. Just look at the board game category on Kickstarter. There are so many games I’ve never heard of and they raise, in some cases, $100,000.
At the same time, crowdfunding is not for everyone. There are projects that are super complex, either on the technical side, or the way you have to explain it. If we do it again, we would probably not crowdfund [before production] because all we had was the nice little green screen video.
“In my opinion, a lot of the projects that fail are ones that don’t do their homework.”
The day of doing a crowdfunding project before you’ve even started pre-production is pretty much done. I think you need to have something to show for yourself. Like you’re going into post, or whatever.
Exactly. You can’t just say, “Hey that’s me, and I want to do this.” Brian Fargo can because he has proven that he can deliver triple-A titles. By all means, he created Fallout.
Preparation is key. Understanding what crowdfunding is, how crowdfunding works, why people support campaigns…? The journey is the goal.
In many cases, when we asked people in interviews, “What is your motivation to [back crowdfunding projects],” a lot of people told us, “I work in the office from 9 to 5. I have ideas, but I don’t have time or energy. I have family. I have kids. That’s why it’s really rewarding for me to enable someone else’s dream.” You can help someone else’s dream come true.
If not, it’s about, wanting product X, Y, and Z. But, with the smaller projects it’s just: “This is cool. I know they really want to do this. I see their passion, and I want to support them. It’s just $5-10. Just a latte at Starbucks.”
One of our backers told us that his favorite moment will be when he receives the DVD and sees his name printed there. Then, whenever he throws a party, he will show it to people and say, “Look! Without my help, this project would not have been possible.”
It’s true. Without every individual person that helped us, this would have not been possible. We have a couple hundred people that supported us. They are super excited that they were able to make this come true, and can say that [Capital C] is their movie.
So, you’re getting your B.A at Loyola Marymount?
I’m getting my MBA. Business school. But I’m really closely connected to the film school at LMU.
You’re married to filmmaking as a career, but you’re jumping into the business end. Is that a utility to your film career or is that out of personal interest?
As a producer you always need money. Who has money? People in finance, if you go up to them and say, “Hey I’m a filmmaker,” they’re like, “Go away. Films don’t make money.”
One of my favorite Woody Allen quotes is, “If you act like an artist, they’ll treat you like an artist.”
Exactly. If you have an MBA from a respected school, most people in finance who also have MBAs will see that you speak the same language. They can trust you.
Through an alum from LMU, I was at Paramount from January through May. Now I’m talking to several other big studios for fall. You get treated way differently under the MBA label, compared to an MFA film student.
Be sure to leave a comment and let me know how informative you thought this interview was, and of course, how much you loved Capital C!