Sunday, April 6, 2014

Sci-Fi Radio Drama from Down Under

Welcome back to the Conversation!  Today I am joined by Ben McKenzie to talk to us about an interesting project from down under Night Terrace.  Thank you for joining us today Ben!

It's a pleasure to be here! Thanks for having me, James.

After watching your Kickstarter video it is obvious you’re a fun loving bunch of chaps, one might even call you a bunch of Splendid Chaps.  Would you be so kind as to give us an overview of Night Terrace?  

Of course! Night Terrace is a an eight-part audio series - like a radio serial, but you'll purchase and download the whole thing in one go, like a Netflix show. It's a sci-fi comedy about a scientist who used to save the world for a secretive government agency, but now wants to retire to the suburbs. It was all going well - until her house mysteriously starts travelling through time and space! Now she's stuck having adventures with a guy who was trying to sell her an electricity plan on her doorstep at the time, and they also keep encountering a strange woman known only as "Sue"...and all the while trying to figure out how to get home.

It grew out of our live podcast about Doctor Who, Splendid Chaps. The team really wanted to work together on something new, using the skills we had.

It sounds like you’ve created a female Doctor Who of sorts, was that the idea?  

It was part of it! We started with the idea of the show having things in common with Doctor Who - the broad scope of all of time and space, where each adventure could happen anywhere. And one of the early things we all agreed on was having a female lead. There just aren't enough of them, especially in action and adventure shows, and we all think it'd be great if the Doctor became a woman. This is our alternative!

Why an audio series?  Is it because you’re familiar with the medium being podcasters?  

That's one reason, though most of us have television experience too! One factor is cost; we really wanted to make a series, and doing that as television or a video web series would be hugely expensive - and time consuming. But there's a grand tradition of audio drama (and comedy) on radio and CD, especially in the UK, with the BBC and companies like Big Finish. And we really wanted to push our use of the medium further than we had in Splendid Chaps, while using our writing and performing skills.

How did you attract such talent to the project?  

We asked! It's the kind of thing that just doesn't get made in Australia - television here is pretty conservative and relatively low-budget. And radio drama is all but dead here since the ABC stopped making it. Night Terrace is therefore a unique opportunity to do sci-fi, comedy and audio drama, and most of the people we've approached haven't needed much convincing! That said, we feel tremendously lucky to have such a talented bunch of actors on board - especially Jackie Woodburne, who was our first choice to play Anastasia!

While I do have readers from down in Oz, most of my readers are in North America.  What would you say to potential international backers to get us on your side?  

Well, as we mentioned earlier, it's inspired in part by Doctor Who, which is now hugely popular over in the US. We are bringing a very Australian flavour to the series, both in setting and sense of humour, so perhaps also we'll represent a change of pace from what you're used to! It's also sci-fi comedy - something there hasn't been much of in recent years. Oh, and the structure of the show is definitely influenced by modern television, so if you like stand-alone episodes that also contribute to a series (or season, in US lingo) arc, we're doing that too.

Let me congratulate you on reaching your goal and, as of this writing, almost hitting your first $12,000 stretch goal.  Well done!  It warms my heart to see you succeed and explaining in a paragraph at least what the money is for.  How important is it to you to be up front with potential backers as to where the money is going on a crowdfunding project like this?  

Thanks! We've passed the first stretch goal today, actually, and it feels great! I don't know what our chances are of getting to the next one but our fingers are crossed!

As for being upfront, I think it's vital. The bulk of my crowdfunding experiences are as a backer, and I know that if a project is upfront with me about what to expect, I know what I'm in for. Projects without at least reasonable sounding timelines or a description of how funds are being used make me wary. We did buck the conventional wisdom a bit by talking about paying people, but we're working with professionals and that's our biggest cost (there will be more than twenty cast and crew), and the base goal only covers fairly token fees, not professional rates. I remember an RPG project that explained the fees were similarly low at the base goal, and that going over would up everyone's pay - the artists and writers etc. I really felt good about pledging extra to that one and I wanted to do something similar and be honest about that with Night Terrace. (Our stretch goals mean more work for the core team, but not our other actors.)

How did you discover Kickstarter?  How does it compare to your previous crowdfunding experiences?

Kickstarter was my introduction to crowdfunding; the first thing I backed was the Cosmonaut iPad stylus, and there have been more than 80 other projects I've backed since then, plus one or two on Indiegogo, but I prefer the all-or-nothing model. It's still the case that the project matters to me more than the platform though; I've backed 20 or so projects on Pozible.

My first experience running a campaign was on Pozible - a platform similar to Kickstarter, but based in Australia. It was a smaller campaign, just a few thousand dollars to take our live podcast on the road to Sydney, but it worked great. There are many little differences, and Kickstarter being bigger and having much more money is of course a bit slicker, but really they're probably the two most similar crowdfunding platforms! After Kickstarter launched in Australia in January, we had a choice of either, and we went with Kickstarter for a few reasons, primarily because we wanted to reach an international audience, something it's bigger name seems to have helped with. But I'd definitely use either platform again.

A key part of successful Kickstarters is backer participation and how to convert a potential backer into a full backer.   How are you engaging your backers?  What kinds of things do you have planned for updates to give notice to those who just hit the “remind me” button and surf on?  Interviews?  Videos?  Stories from the project?

So far it's mostly been casting announcements, since in this pre-production phase there's not much else to report! But we do plan on making a video soon, and we've also posted an interview with our visual designer. And there's some pretty cool story-based stuff we've been working on which we hope to release soon.

What kind of media attention have you received with your project?  How are you spreading the word?  Facebook?  Twitter?  Google+? Youtube?  Advertising?  Are you using Kicktraq to track your progress?  

We've been keeping an eye on Kicktraq, yes! Though it's tricky, because when you have a good day it can skew the trend quite a lot! It helped us figure out reasonable stretch goals, though.

We've used a lot of social media, mostly Twitter and Facebook (I think I'm the only team member active on Google+), but we've also used our knowledge of more traditional publicity - sending media releases to various publications, for example. We managed to get some attention online and some local radio interviews when we first launched, but it's been quieter since then. It's been a struggle to get overseas attention for the most part; a lot of places are only interested in local projects! And we've also found many media outlets actually have a "no crowdfunding" policy, which seems a bit rough.

We've avoided paid advertising so far; it's something we might consider for the finished product though.

Do you have any tips/advice would you give to anyone looking to start a Kickstarter?

Oh, definitely! Read the research is number one. Kickstarter's guide and the advice given in the process is really useful, and there are a tonne of blogs and articles with good advice.  Or ask someone you know who's done it before.

Be upfront and honest about timelines and how you're spending money, though you don't have to expose your exact budget. It's better to underpromise and overdeliver; if you think rewards will take 2-3 months, say 3 or 4 to make sure they're on time. If you finish early, everyone's happy!

I also think the rewards are really important. Don't have too many; less than 10 is good. Make sure you have a good spread of prices: a good cheap one at $10 or less that costs you little or nothing (a thank you, a sample of the full thing, a previous but related product etc.), the most commonly pledged amounts  ($25 to $100), and some big ones for people who really love what you do, with appropriately special rewards. Make sure they're meaningfully related to the project, so backers feel like they're part of it. And budget them properly! This means making sure each one is profitable (i.e. it costs less to produce the rewards than the amount pledged to receive them), and crucially, that a higher priced reward is more profitable than a lower priced one. This last one is an easy trap to fall into, but so important to avoid. If your backers want to give you $50 instead of $25, they think they're giving you more money - make sure that's true, and that your $50 reward won't cost you $25 more than the $25 one!

Have rewards that make you excited, not ones that are just more work. We are stupidly excited that four of our backers have picked the highest tiers and will be getting personalised vinyl LPs of the first episode.

Oh, and budget budget budget. Build in contingency money in case things go wrong, plan on less than best case combinations of backer rewards, and above all, make sure you actually have enough money after reward costs and crowdfunding fees to make your project happen! I also think it's important to factor in getting paid, especially if a major component of your project is time spent. Be upfront about this. It's not seen as sexy, and supposedly backers only care about your material costs, but I think we need to change that, especially for projects that are commercial enterprises rather than hobbies.

Thank you for spending your time with us!  Do you have any final thoughts for our readers?

Hmmmm...I think it's really important that we all work to make crowdfunding honest, open and clear. I've only had two bad experiences with Kickstarters and in both cases non-communication and unclear timelines, budgets and experience were the biggest factors. And I'd also encourage prospective crowdfunders to check out Pozible. They're in the US now too, and they're differentiating themselves from Kickstarter with new stuff like accepting BitCoins for pledges (if that's your bag) and introducing a subscription funding model. Plus their support is great. I'm a Pozible ambassador, so feel free to ask me about them, too!

Thanks again and I hope to hear good things from your Kickstarter!

You're welcome - thanks again for having me! As for hearing good things, I should hope so. I want us to reach that next stretch goal in these last 10 days! Doing the prequel mini-episodes would be so much fun.

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