Bill Nye, Back to the Future and the Science of Kickstarter Success

By  · Published on August 13th, 2015

Kickstarter/Structure Films

When a documentary legend like Frederick Wiseman can’t even reach a third of his goal on Kickstarter, it might seem like crowdfunding for films is on the decline. A few months ago, The Hollywood Reporter actually published an infogram illustrating such, or at least that Kickstarter specifically hit its peak with film projects two years ago. Documentary crowdfunding was also shown in the graphed-out data to have basically plateaued between 2012 and 2014 before descending. Yet the downturn was not the focus of THR’s article. Instead, they were celebrating Kickstarter’s mark of success with having reached $100m total in pledges to nonfiction film projects since the site launched six years ago.

This week, Wiseman’s failure and the general stats for doc projects on Kickstarter could be dismissed further by two news items regarding specific successes. First, there was another that nearly tripled its postproduction aim of $50k (it finished at $144k).

The second bit of news was that Kickstarter has a new top funder for documentary projects. The Bill Nye Film, as the new champion is hopefully only tentatively titled (sorry to anyone with “Bill Nye Film” swag), still has less than a day left in its campaign, and already it has taken in more than $800k in pledges against a $650k goal. That exceeds the previous record holder, also from this year, which is For the Love of Spock, a film about the late Leonard Nimoy directed by his son ($663k in pledges). Just a couple months earlier, THR’s infogram noted the record was then still held by the 2012 campaign for the LGBT film Bridegroom ($384k). So this year sort of looks like a comeback for doc success on the site. And just to compare crowdfunding sites, Indiegogo’s current record holder is this year’s The Connected Universe at $302k.


What do all these films have in common, save for the old-news title Bridegroom? I mean besides fandom and/or niche appeal, as many crowdfunding critics will continue to complain about when it comes to what’s succeeding instead of Wiseman these days. The more precise connection is that they all involve science. Bill Nye is, of course, “the science guy,” The Connected Universe is about the science of interconnectivity in the universe (seems appropriate here), and even the Spock doc and Back in Time will have some concentration on the science in the term science fiction. The latter will look into the tech of real-life hoverboards, for instance.

This may seem to prove that your best bet to a lucrative documentary crowdfunding campaign is to make a film about a scientific subject. A quick search of other science-related docs on Kickstarter even results in the recent success stories of an animated film on repressed histories of science (Rediscovering the Scientist), a film on the science of GMOs (Genetically Modified Information), another on scientists studying disease and aging (On the Back of a Tiger), a feature on climate science (Thin Ice), another on how mushrooms can save the world (Fantastic Fungi) and one on the battle of science versus law regarding the issue of medical marijuana (For the Life of Me). There’s also a successful project about another sci-fi icon, Terry Pratchett (The Turtle Moves). But none of these has reached even close to the level of funding that The Bill Nye Film has. Not even all added together get up there.

Yet other projects recently or currently reaching and surpassing their goals prove that crowdfunding is not so simple for trendspotting. They include histories of Native Americans and racism in sports, profiles on authors like Joan Didion and Kurt Vonnegut and films involving silent comedians Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin (actually the latter is surprisingly only half funded), music docs on such artists as 90s hit makers Chumbawumba and Blind Melon’s Shannon Hoon, issue films, international films, spotlights on missing persons, refugees, the contraception industry and our love of pizza. Also one titled Reject, which sounds right up our alley. Some of these easily find their audience by catering to built-in fanbases, as do Back in Time and For the Love of Spock, while others are building their own fanbase and creating their own audience through their crowdfunding campaign.

The Bill Nye Film surely is an achievement helped by existing fans. It targets nostalgia just as much as a doc about Back to the Future does and makes no effort to disguise the fact that it’s primarily for people who, like directors David Alvarado and Jason Sussberg, were kids when the show Bill Nye the Science Guy aired on PBS (on the campaign page it plainly states it’s “a film for and by Bill’s fans”). But anyone with a camera and a computer could easily crowdfund a nonfiction film about Nye, maybe one not even featuring the children’s television icon himself so long as it celebrated the man with fan testimonials talking about how much he inspired them. Yet The Bill Nye Film is not going to be another Dear Mr. Watterson, to reference an earlier Kickstarter success story that some take to task and use as an example of the wrongs of crowdfunding.

While Alvarado and Sussberg may not have the experience and reputation and genius of, say, Frederick Wiseman, they have at least been here before, not only developing a different sort of fanbase through their successful Kickstarter campaign for their feature debut, The Immortalists, but also then proving that they could turn that crowdfunded money (that one was only $32k) into a quality product – one that could be seen anywhere from the film festival circuit, particularly at SXSW, to Netflix, where it recently became available to stream instantly. Also, this time the guys are working with The King of Kong director Seth Gordon, whose doc-ography as a producer includes the Oscar-winning high school football film Undefeated and one of this year’s best docs, Finders Keepers, which the THR article references as a perfect example of a successful Kickstarter project (raising $81k in 2013) that didn’t have any sort of easy go-to crowd. Gordon has a great track record with entertaining nonfiction films, and The Billy Nye Film should add to that record.

As for Wiseman, whose unsuccessful campaign for In Jackson Heights I’m seeing lamented again, in negative responses to The Bill Nye Film’s triumph, it’s true that his Kickstarter effort was underwhelming as far as incentive perks go, as well as underdeveloped in terms of outreach. In a way, In Jackson Heights seemed to depend on a certain fanbase even more than something like Back in Time does, because the expectation may have been that Wiseman’s stature in the documentary community, not to mention the greater film community, was enough. And in a way, it sort of is, since the film is still going to screen at such important festivals as Toronto and New York and already has theatrical bookings in spots like NYC’s Film Forum. It’s understandable that funding doesn’t come easy to Wiseman, but it can come, more easily than many projects trying the Kickstarter route.

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Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.