Kickstarted in Brooklyn: One Year In


The UnionDocs building on 322 Union Ave. in Williamsburg has no signage.

Last year, a young filmmaker named Jeremy Smyth was browsing Kickstarter and came across something that captured his interest. It was a project page for a campaign that had been launched by UnionDocs, a Brooklyn-based nonprofit center for documentary arts. The group was raising funds to renovate its headquarters, a building on Union Avenue in Williamsburg.

Smyth, 23, discovered that UnionDocs shares his interest in the “preservation of documentary as an artform,” he said, so he pledged $50 to the project. As an incentive, UnionDocs had promised to send funders a movie called “Documenting Mythology” on DVD if they pledged $20 or more. Smyth didn’t expect to have to wait very long to watch it; the estimated delivery date for the DVD was set for October 2011, suggesting the reward would be sent immediately after the project was funded.

UnionDocs surpassed its Kickstarter goal by $1000, and received $13,004 from the campaign. Smyth, however, never received the DVD.

A recent study from the University of Pennsylvania analyzed hundreds of successfully-funded Kickstarter projects and found that 75 percent of them delayed the delivery of products. It’s a surprising number, and it can be interpreted in several ways. Kickstarter makes it clear that it is not a retail store, and stresses that product and reward delivery dates are never anything more than estimates. The idea is, when you back a project on Kickstarter, you’re not pre-ordering an item from a store; you’re becoming a part of something bigger. You get a backstage pass to the development of a project that you helped to fund.

But what if someone takes the money and never delivers a product? Should funders demand the goods they were promised, or simply be happy to have supported a project they believe in?

In December 2011, two months after UnionDocs was funded, Smyth left a comment on the Kickstarter page for the project, asking if the DVDs had been sent out yet. No one responded. He commented again in March, then again in May, and when no one had responded by June, he left one more comment: “I’m astounded no one has gotten back me,” he wrote.

“It’s just bizarre,” Smyth said in a recent telephone interview. “There’s 212 backers on this thing and I had four comments over the course of maybe seven months. And all those comments go to all of those 212 people, and their emails, and the creators. It is utterly mind-blowing how not one person even acknowledged my comments.”

When projects are delayed, their creators commonly post updates to their Kickstarter pages to let their backers know what’s going on. This was the approach taken by David Mendelsohn, whose Brooklyn-based music project pulled in $16,149 on Kickstarter last year, just a few days before UnionDocs was funded. Mendelsohn raised the money to produce an album with his band, Brother Joscephus, and estimated the album would be delivered to backers by February 2012.

In March 2012, the album was still in progress. Mendelsohn posted an update to the Kickstarter page to thank his backers for their patience, and explained that the album was almost complete. Another update was posted in April, saying the album was finished. Then, in June, the band released a song to its Kickstarter backers via digital download. After that, for a while, there were no updates, and no further word on the album. A backer posted a comment on September 7, asking when the CD would be delivered. Three days later, the band posted an update, saying the reason the album hadn’t been released is that they’d decided to shop it to record labels.

In a recent interview, Mendelsohn said he thinks contributors understand that the delivery dates are estimates. “We kept people updated throughout the process as to how everything was going,” he said. “I think everyone understands that we’re an up-and-coming, unsigned band, and that’s kind of what they signed up for.”

This is a line of reasoning that Kickstarter encourages and some backers agree with. Richard Haines, 61, an illustrator who lives in Bushwick, backed a movie called “Jackpot,” another Brooklyn project that was funded on Kickstarter one year ago, in October 2011. Haines said he doesn’t even remember whether he got anything for his pledge.

“I was just happy to be able to make a contribution,” he said. “The reward is seeing someone do something. I guess if, technically, they say they’re going to give you a t-shirt or something and they don’t, then maybe that’s not cool. But it’s not why I do it.”

Haines said that what often motivates him to back projects is some sort of emotional or communal connection. As a Brooklyn resident, he wants to support projects in the community, especially if the concepts speak to him. As for the accountability issue, Haines finds it tricky. “Is Kickstarter supposed to become some kind of follow-up cop?” he said. “If so, good luck.”

To police every project, Kickstarter would need more than luck: there have been more than 30,000 projects successfully funded on the site so far, and the company has fewer than 50 employees. When it comes to keeping backers happy, the onus is on the project’s creator. Kickstarter’s founders recently posted to the site’s blog, saying that when delivery is delayed, as long as the creators are posting updates, “backers should do their best to be patient and understanding while demanding continued accountability from the creator.”

Sometimes, though, creators not only delay delivery, but also fail to post updates.

On Oct. 16, one year to the day since UnionDocs was successfully funded, Jeremy Smyth had still not heard anything about his DVD or the status of the group’s renovation project. The Kickstarter page sat abandoned and static; UnionDocs hadn’t posted an update since just after it was funded, and Smyth’s four inquiries remained at the top of the comments section. On the phone that day, Christopher Allen, the founder and artistic director of UnionDocs, had just finished describing the renovations the group had completed.

“It’s been quite an accomplishment and we’re really excited to be able to share that with our community,” he said.

Allen said that the DVDs were the only obligations that hadn’t been fulfilled, and that the delay was due to a decision to re-edit the movie before releasing it. He said that UnionDocs mainly communicates through email and social media, and that he’d stopped going to the Kickstarter page after the campaign ended.

Later that day, Allen agreed to give a quick tour of the UnionDocs building to show off the renovations, so long as no photos were taken. About half the work that had been outlined in the Kickstarter campaign, including a remodeled concession stand and additional bathroom, had been completed. Allen said the UnionDocs staff did much of the work themselves, and that he’d only hired contractors for specialty work, like plumbing. He couldn’t say offhand how much each project cost.

“We actually had to raise quite a bit more money than the Kickstarter campaign to do this,” Allen said. “That was sort of just a start.”

Despite not having upgraded to raked seating in the screening room or adding signage to the storefront, as promised in the campaign, Allen said there would be a re-opening party at UnionDocs on Oct. 20, to celebrate the work they’ve completed.

That evening, UnionDocs added a comment to its Kickstarter page, addressed to Jeremy Smyth and his brother, Brendan. “We definitely have not forgotten you or the DVDs,” the comment says. “We just need some time. We are planing to get this project done by the end of the year.” The next day, Allen called Smyth on the phone to further explain.

“I’m just glad to know that it’s actually a real place,” Smyth said.

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