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In the middle of Cinefamily's monthlong Kickstarter campaign last December, Robert Downey Jr. made the oddball movie theater an offer it couldn't refuse — and one that could have cost it everything. In front of an audience, Downey pledged to buy the nonprofit art house one of the biggest-ticket items on its fundraising wish list: a $60,000 digital projector. "It's not like I can't swing it," the superhero shrugged.
The problem? Cinefamily had already earned $100,000 of its $144,000 goal and, under the rules of Kickstarter, if it didn't convince people to keep donating until it reached the total, it risked losing every cent — money still desperately needed for new seating ($65,000), live-streaming equipment ($35,000) and a handyman to patch the roof ($10,000). Downey's much-publicized gift wouldn't count toward the total, and it risked discouraging other potential donors.
"We didn't want to make it seem like, 'Oh, party's over, let's just kick back and relax,' " director of programming Bret Berg says. "It's like the Jerry Lewis telethon: Just because they get a big check doesn't mean they stop tap dancing." A 10-year veteran of noncommercial KXLU 88.9 FM, Berg is used to begging. "On the radio, you can't hear if the DJ is literally on their knees, but here, whether it's done metaphorically or for real, getting on my knees is no problem."
The year before, Cinefamily hosted a wacky 24-hour telethon to boost membership. It was such a solid publicity boost that the theater did it again, enlisting friends like Iron Man to drop by. Kickstarter, however, was a first-time challenge — and chance to fail publicly.
So before the launch, members of the Cinefamily team did their favorite kind of homework: They watched videos.
"We looked at a lot of Kickstarters — successful and not successful, profitable and not profitable — and it seemed like a running theme for successful campaigns was a great video," Berg says. "And not just one that was an 'ask.' One that entertained, was emotional and had a pizzazz to it." He spent more than a month on Cinefamily's 4½-minute pitch, and even hired Shadoe Stevens, Craig Ferguson's announcer, for the baritone voice-over.
Cinefamily's triumphant campaign ad was a flag-waving ode to cinema. Over images of fireworks and apple pie, Werner Herzog and Tom Cruise, it promised that a donation would guarantee everything from karmic rewards leading to heaven, to cats and dogs living together in peace and harmony.
"Together we will fight the Kardashian death machine and create a public space of decent, nutritious culture!" it pledged. With a bribe like that, no wonder the theater didn't just meet its fundraising goal — it topped it by more than $14,000.
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