By March of this year, Damon Ristau knew he was on the right road with his documentary film-in-progress, "The Bus."
After pitching the film, which chronicles the history and cultural significance of the Volkswagen bus, at the Big Sky Documentary Film Festival in February, he had received substantial funding and co-production support from the Documentary Channel, one of the most prestigious producers of documentary films in America.
Meantime, a Facebook page for the film had already garnered more than 1,000 fans - before a frame of the documentary had ever been shown in public.
Yet Ristau found himself in a bit of a pickle. He still needed to raise $25,000 - about a fifth of the project's overall budget - in order to wrap up production and post-production work.
That's when a friend pointed him to a website called Kickstarter.com. The site offered a novel approach to fundraising: Pitch your project, name a fundraising goal and let small-dollar supporters from around the world contribute. Projects that hit their goal receive the pledged funds. Those that don't receive nothing, and donors are never charged for their pledge.
Founded just two years earlier, the site already boasted some impressive wins. More than 7,000 projects - about 43 percent of those posted to the site - had already been funded, with more than $53 million pledged.
After looking over the site, Ristau figured: Why not?
And then a funny thing happened. People started contributing. And Ristau started fretting.
"It quickly went from feeling like there was nothing to lose to really feeling like quite a few people would be disappointed if it didn't work out," Ristau said. "There were thousands of people reposting the campaign on Facebook. So then it was like, well jeez, I really don't wanna fail now because there's all these people helping me. So I really got after it during the last two weeks, to make sure it pushed over the top."
In the end, Ristau raised $25,430 in 30 days through the site. Ristau said the show of support has given him not only much-needed funds, but also motivation to give his supporters a great film.
"To have these expectations now and have people give you that money, it's a great incentive to crank the movie out and get it done well," he said, noting that he expects to be done with the film sometime this autumn. "It really makes the whole thing feel like more of a group effort, and of course I don't want to let the group down."
Damon Ristau is neither the first nor the last artist around western Montana to discover the upside of so-called "crowdfunding."
Last December, local artist Andrea Leggitt turned to Kickstarter as a way to raise money to buy her own laser cutter for her mobile-making business.
Leggitt had already sold more than 1,000 of the cleverly designed mobiles, mostly via her "Salty and Sweet" store at the online crafts site Etsy.com. She said she decided to post the project as a way to make her business more independent, allow her to experiment more with new materials, and to stop outsourcing a crucial part of her work.
In late November, Leggitt posted a plea for funding, to the tune of $2,500 - roughly a quarter of the total she needed for the purchase. A month later, her campaign ended with $3,720 in donations.
Like Ristau, Leggitt said the Kickstarter campaign changed the way she thought about her business.
"It's definitely changed how I view my work, in that now I'm 100 percent a one-woman show," she said. "I don't rely on anybody else to help me make what I need to make. ... Raising that (money) took the sting off the purchase and took the paralyzing fear out of the investment."
While most successful local "crowdfunded" projects have employed Kickstarter's model, Missoula folk singer Amy Martin recently launched a different kind of online fundraising project.
Dubbed "Amy's Patronopolis," the project asks fans to donate money simply to support Martin's various creative pursuits. In two months, she has raised $6,687 in tax-deductible donations at Patronopolis.com.
"The Patronopolis has given me 446 hours of creative time - over 11 weeks of full-time work," Martin wrote in an email to supporters earlier this month. "Eleven precious weeks in my studio. Eleven weeks of generating new material. Eleven weeks of walking into the untamed, confusing, creative wilderness, staying alert for signs, writing down what I see and hear so I can come back and share it with you."
Andrew Smith has thought a lot about the value of tribe while developing his current project, a film version of Montana writer James Welch's acclaimed 1974 novel, "Winter in the Blood." Set on the Fort Belknap Reservation in north-central Montana, the film follows the troubled travails of a young Native American cowboy who is haunted by the deaths of his father and brother and shattered by the departure of his wife.
Already, the film has drawn an impressive array of supporters and collaborators, with a cast that includes Chaske Spencer (a Montana-born actor and member of the Lakota Sioux tribe known from his prominent role in the "Twilight" films), David Morse ("The Green Mile," "The Hurt Locker"), Gary Farmer ("Smoke Signals") and other well-known actors.
With a budget that approaches $1 million, the film is set to begin shooting in August. Between now and then, Smith and a team of volunteers led by Patrick Cook aim to raise $60,000 via Kickstarter.
"We've raised the largest share of the money for the film through equity investors, but we felt that a Kickstarter campaign would be good both in terms of adding to that effort and also to build buzz for the film," said Smith. "This amount will get us over the top hopefully and enhance the filmmaking.
"It's buying us time with our actors, which will make the film a better film."
Smith and Cook, who serves as the Kickstarter campaign manager, said they struggled with the question of what amount of money to set as the campaign's goal, but ultimately decided to aim high out of a belief that the film's established buzz - which includes support from the Sundance Institute and other major equity backers - and the passion that many people feel for Welch's novel would engender substantial support.
With 10 days left in the 30-day campaign, the project has already drawn more than $25,000 in promised support via Kickstarter, out of an overall goal of $60,000.
Smith said that raising money via Kickstarter hasn't felt all that different from the producers' efforts to raise money through traditional backers.
"In a way, this campaign is a microcosm of the larger campaign," said Smith. "You work really hard with a lot of belief in your project and you see this mirror-pond of support. But then it comes down to this moment of saying, ‘We'd like to involve you in the project.'
"That participation aspect is big. People become super-fans this way, they become a part of what's happening. They have a stakeholder relationship with the film now, which means a lot both financially and later when we're spreading the word and buzz when the film actually comes out."
That said, Smith and his team are well aware that they've got a lot of money yet to raise.
"We're gaining some good steam," said Cook, "but we definitely need a lot of people still to jump on the wagon."
"I think people love to experience that hero moment where you get to jump in and save the whole ship," he added. "So we're hoping there are a lot of heroes in the last week of this campaign."
Reporter Joe Nickell can be reached at 523-5358, jnickell @missoulian.com or on NickellBag.com.