Crowdsourcing is not for everyone. But it can work, for the right project. Equally it can work brilliantly with a specific stage in a project too.
I have crowdsourced two feature films now and have perhaps more experience than anyone I know when it comes to corralling very large groups of creative people to come together to make something.
My biggest piece of advice is this. Don’t do it.
Well OK maybe that’s a tad downbeat, but there’s no doubt, while crowdsourcing sounds like a great idea, it’s akin to herding cats.
Through Create50 I have shepherded two feature films and six books, all of them to completion. The bigger projects like the feature films would involve thousands of people.
It’s fair to say that the books are easier than the films because they really have just one step with much less complexity – essentially, write a short story, we will collate the best ones and publish a book. With this model we have found some success with our Twisted50 brand, with four books now published.
The films have more steps and clearly much greater complexity as they include filming and editing and wider distribution.
The logic has always been, if we can get hundreds, if not thousands involved, then the outreach when completed, could be enormous. In essence, if we get lots of people to make little bits of a thing, so that we collectively make a big thing, that then gets seen widely BECAUSE so many people will share about it on social media… well that’s a good idea right?
With all of these projects I have also been supported by amazingly hard working people within a core team. Then there are some extraordinary people in the ‘crowd’ too, who support the projects enthusiastically. Their collective contributions are essential.
So that’s the plan… But how does it work in the real world? Here’s my top ten tips if you want to involve the crowd in your productions…
Have Compelling Reason To Get Involved aka… What’s in it for them?
The big idea MUST be compelling enough to motivate people to get involved. Famously Iron Skies was at least part crowdsourced for the visual effects. Why do it? It’s about Nazis living on the dark side of the moon. And they have flying saucers. OK yeah. I am in on the big idea. An early teaser trailer is above that showcases the bonkers nature of the vision.
Then there’s the smaller steps that a person can help you with must also be compelling, or at least it must play into their passions or skills clearly. Does someone know a specific visual effects tool? Do they love crazy SciFi? Do they want to do a cool camera move on a Nazi flying saucer tonight? Specific and with something in it for them.
There’s lots of reasons of course. Working on a big project where they can learn new skills, showcase their talent, collaborate with new people, or even to just be part of something amazing. Bottom line, they are gracing you with their resources, so don’t treat them badly, like staff, or even give them a hard time if they drop the ball. Be clear about credits too, be it on the end roller of your film, the website, IMDb, the acknowledgements in a book. We all love to see our name in lights. Remember that.
Be Brief And Ask For The VERY Do-able
The idea behind Create50 was to always ask people to contribute maybe a day of their life. More if they want, but not so much as it interferes with their lives. Many would commit more. Some would commit but not deliver. Bottom line, you can’t ask much of people at the start. Some will inevitably become stars in the process and help enormously. It’s usually people who don’t have much time too, the old saying ringing true… Want something done? Ask a busy person. Most people will want to help but just drop the ball at some point. So keep it brief and doable. If they achieve it, go back until they either prove themselves a rockstar or drop the ball or just fade away.
Move fast… people WILL move on…
Most people will help for a limited amount of time. Sometimes VERY limited. A few will give you a much longer period but pretty much everyone moves on. They have lives, careers and their personal benefit from being involved can quickly diminish. This is why moving in stages is so important, so you can focus on a defined and do-able chunk of the project.
Work in Clear Bumps or Stages
Having a bite-sized bit of the project will help people not regret getting involved or feel overwhelmed. It will also mean they can achieve a task fast, and see results quickly. This process also helps weed out those who mean well but just cannot deliver, versus those who you will see that they begin to shine. Be clear in communications about the parameters of the project bump, what’s needed and by when? For instance we began adding 1,500 people to IMDb recently for Impact50. A small team began this clearly defined tasks, with a target of one week to complete, but Cera Rose-Pickering completed it herself and to this day is the one who will still makes amendments if needed. Cera is a diamond. More on her and this kind of helper later.
Having regular group meetings via Zoom will really help. This will keep the core group engaged as well as exciting the less engaged who may occasionally turn up. But keep meetings short and on point, people are giving up their free time for this. Follow up with short emails and stay in touch via email, WhatsApp, Facebook messenger, whatever THEIR preferred method of comms may be. Clear goals, achievable steps, realistic timelines, technical support… all should be clearly communicated so they can do what you have asked them to do.
Where Are They On Their Journey?
…and also in relation to the duration of the project? People starting out in any new field will often throw themselves into a project only to outgrow it quickly – people learn FAST in the beginning – and can move on because of this. Equally they may also decide this life is not for them and drop out. Knowing where an enthusiastic person is on their journey will mean you can better leverage their offer to help. For instance, don’t offer super talented and experienced people jobs that are way below them. They too will leave in tat case. Most people are getting involved to learn something new, sharpen existing tools, get a credit (or get community kudos), make new friends, and be a part of something super exciting. Try to deliver on these needs. And you can only do this if you know where a person is on their own personal journey. So get to know people.
Avoid Project Management Hell
I have seen others use sophisticated project management tools which clearly will work for them. I have found most of these tools too complex for my needs, so a spreadsheet for each step or stage is enough for me. Facebook groups, WhatsApp groups are all good, but ultimately people respond best to a simple email comms. As much as you need to keep it simple for those offering help to do it, you also need to keep your tracking of progress simple too. Simple systems to see where you are at and what is being done by who is essential for me.
Happily, there will usually be some diamond level helpers here, and you MAY be lucky enough to delegate the management of some specific groups and tasks to them. But be sure your helpers are bullet proof and check in on them.
KEEP IT CLEAR AND SIMPLE.
Inevitably people achieve stuff. But how do you track and manage that? For instance, the contracts and credits for Impact50 needed collating from many different sources. That data once complete, would end up on the website, on IMDb and also integrated into an end credit roller. We could use Google sheets for this, but personally I have had issues with people making blunders or losing access (as someone creates their own version, then leaves the project and becomes uncontactable for instance).
I tend to use Dropbox with folders I create and therefore control, then MS Word and Excel docs. Yes there’s issues of syncing and multiple copies there too, but we manage that internally. When it comes to bigger things like large image files, artwork, video files etc, we use all manner of tools like WeTransfer to get files between us. Everything is ultimately consolidated into a Dropbox folder though. Or for massive amounts of data, external drives backed up to the cloud in Google Drive work well for us.
What you REALLY need to protect against is loss of assets over the dimension if TIME… What you think will take six months may take three years. People leave the project. Assets get lost. Workflows get forgotten. So build your process to last, keep it logical and simple, and force people to use it. Then backup backup backup, name folders and files logically, keep folders tidy… and did I mention backup?
Know The Sinks and The Radiators
Within the group there will be people who elevate you and the process. There will be many who are neutral. And there may be a handful of those who begin enthusiastic, but who later turn on you. And if they do turn on you, they may turn others against you too. In my experience, it’s better to rapidly remove those people from the process. If you cannot win them back in a single heartfelt conversation, you will likely never win them back. Impact50 was very nearly sunk by a group of nay-sayers and it’s one reason it took many more years to complete than it should have done. Because I attempted to win back hearts and minds, valuable time was lost, windows missed and the clear blue water of the project was polluted with toxic personalities. Only time could heal these wounds, including my own. At one point I really could not face the negative backlash from some people on a daily basis and so I ended up having to shut down for a good 12 months.
Cut out the naysayers right away.
One thing I have noticed is that once a creative person has had their moment, they have achieved the thing they wanted to achieve – write a script, make a film, write a short story – they tend to leave the project, certain in their mind that others will do all the other steps.
This shows up in the most pronounced way when it comes to getting the thing out there in the world. You would think people would be happy to share on social media, leave reviews on Amazon, give it a rating on IMDb… but it’s REALLY hard to get people to re-engage after they have had their creative climax AND time has passed.
It’s one of the flaws in the Create50 process that we could only fix if we could compress the whole process into months. And that would need serious funding.
In my view, what it really boils down to is this. People get focussed on the thing they want to do. They may think, I want to write for instance. I want others to do all the other stuff for the project, I don’t want to do that. This is stuff like marketing, checking things, voting, testing etc. That’s cool fo course.
But. If I am honest, I can see clearly that those who engage in all of the other stages tend to be the ones who find success faster in their career.
Why? Because they know that the creative climax will birth a baby that will need loving, nurturing and guiding. And they are prepared to do their little part in that process. People like KT, Joa, Dee, Michael, Milethia, Lucy, Elinor, Ben(s), Richard… and so many more who I cant fit here. All have gone the distance and have benefited more from that difficult choice to continue to carry the burden with me.
Ultimately there is a quote from screenwriter Cynthia Whitcomb that really nails it for me… ‘Professionals work, amateurs hope’.
My advice? Involve yourself in the whole process, especially those parts you are not good at, don’t understand or if truth be known, you may be a little afraid of. THAT is where success will likely show up for you, as someone wanting to get more out of a crowdsourced project.
Expect to fail… kinda… not really…
So all of these tips are SUPER DIFFICULT to achieve in the quite literal chaos of a crowdsourced project. There will be days where you will decide to do a job yourself as it will be faster. Equally, paying someone of Fiverr.com say $10 to do something may be better use of time and resources. I have done that lots. Don’t be put off by that feeling that somehow you just aren’t succeeding on the promise of a crowdsourced project, it is the nature of the beast. Try to keep focus on completing those bumps in the overall journey, and nudging the elephant up the mountain to the completion of the project. Notice the diamonds in your team and community and strengthen those bonds.
Crowdsourcing is not fer everyone. But it can work for the right project. Equally it can also work brilliantly with a specific stage in a project too. Crowdfunding – raising money – is a clear example here. Or a small team helping with social media marketing etc.
In conclusion… herding cats…
I have so much more I could say. Remember to elevate and celebrate the people who have proven themselves essential. Celebrate the community too, it’s their efforts that makes a project work. Engage with social media and publicly share success and failures. Stay the course, especially on the bumps between stages. Shore up your assets and data management – there are films that were not included in The Impact as the filmmakers had lost their source files.
Crowdsourcing sounds like a great idea, but ask yourself first. Is it really better to do it yourself? Or to leverage one or two existing relationships that have proven excellence? Or to find a freelancer on a freelancer site? Or to focus your crowdsourced elements on one single stage?
I wish you luck!
Onwards and upwards!
Filmmaker, Author and Firewalk Instructor
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Directing splinter unit on Mission: Impossible 8
Exec producing The Enfield Poltergeist
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