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Produced by the people: Mainers crowd-fund their creative endeavors

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Produced by the people: Mainers crowd-fund their creative endeavors

PORTLAND — Last year, when talk of a double-dip recession was in the air, Alex Steed got nervous.

He and his partners were looking to fund "Food Coma TV," a Web-based show about the untold food stories from "the rest of Maine" – places outside the foodie destinations of Portland or Mount Desert Island. Imagine a Pine Tree State version of "No Reservations."

While fundraising for another project in 2008, the recession created a great belt-tightening, Steed said. No one was giving.

"Then, ("Food Coma TV" host Joe Ricchio) said to me, 'If people have been told for the past two years that they can't trust investing in the stock market, maybe they'll invest in their friends,'" Steed recalled in a recent interview. 

Steed and company raised more than $7,000 on Kickstarter, a website that allows creative start-ups to fund projects by soliciting donations from the social Web. It's known as "crowd funding," and Kickstarter is one of a handful of sites to help connect people to investors.

Here's how it works: You set a fundraising goal and pick a date by which you hope to meet that goal. Then you set up a campaign page where you explain your project and tell potential backers how you'd use their money. Most Kickstarters make a video, and most campaigns also include incentives for backers, with better rewards for bigger donations. 

If enough people back your project and you hit your goal, your project is funded. If you don't hit your goal by your campaign's end date, the money is returned to the backers. 

According to published reports, Kickstarter – the most well-known of the crowd funding services – has a success rate of about 44 percent. But Steed and "Food Coma TV" aren't the only success stories in Maine.  Lots of Mainers have taken a shot at crowd funding, many raising far more money than they asked for:

• A Cape Elizabeth comic book artist and writer, Renae De Liz, raised $109,000 – more than four times her goal – to fund "Womanthology," a collection of work by female comic artists and writers.

• The guys behind 131Washington raised more than $5,000 to finish construction on their do-it-yourself studio and art space in Portland's East End.

• Poland pop-punk band Sparks the Rescue scored $12,000 – twice their original goal – to record a new album.

The success of campaigns such as these has other creative entrepreneurs in Maine looking to have their endeavors produced by the people. As of Tuesday, 14 campaigns from Portland to Bangor are all still active at Kickstarter, and more reside at other crowd-funding websites.

Emma Pope-Welch: Shift

Emma Pope-Welch, 27, of Portland, said she has read many publications for the gay-lesbian-bisexual-transgender community, but most of them are centered on major metro areas. While hot-button issues like gay marriage get coverage in Maine's mainstream media, Pope-Welch said the day-to-day stories of the GLBT population go untold. 

"Marriage comes up most often, but it's not the end-all, be-all for the community," she said. "There are a lot of other issues that never make the public discourse."

So Pope-Welch, who is gay, decided to start an online, biweekly news publication called Shift. The website, she said, will create a network of community journalists.

Her goal is to raise $3,500 on Kickstarter by Feb. 12. As of Tuesday, 45 backers had donated $1,600.

While Pope-Welch intends for Shift to serve the GLBT community, she's quick to say that it won't just be an activist publication. Shift's content will include the personal, the political and even the comedic, she said.

"There are already specific groups in Maine that do great advocacy work and write about it," she said. "They get their work in the news. This is a smaller publication to feature local voices and local ideas."

Pope-Welch works at a Portland nonprofit not connected with Shift, and has fundraising experience. She said she turned to crowd funding because traditional methods like grants and big-money investors wouldn't work for a young, unestablished entity like Shift. 

Plus, she said she could utilize her social network to seek many small-dollar donations instead of a few big ones.

"I have 1,400 friends on Facebook," she said. "If everyone could give $3 – I mean, I just spent that on coffee. It's nothing. If everyone gave that much the first day, I would've blown past my goal. But some people are giving $50 or $100, which I never expected."

Since kicking off the campaign about two weeks ago, Pope-Welch said she has put about 20 hours per week into fundraising – sending emails, updating her backers about the website's progress and making follow-up phone calls to possible donors – not to mention learning how to put together a website.

She said she already has a handful of committed writers and about a dozen story ideas in the works. She said she feels ready to publish the first "issue" on Feb. 16. 

Paul Santomenna: 'Mud People'

There's something about the mud flats near the bridge on Burnett Road in Freeport that always made documentary filmmaker Paul Santomenna, 45, want to flim there. He said he'd visit the location, a short distance from his home, and be struck with story ideas. 

Now he wants to make one of those ideas a short movie. He has written a script for a 12-minute, black-and-white film called "Mud People," a story of class, race and pride. It's centered around a Freeport clammer who finds a note while digging in the mud that leads to him receiving a large sum of money from a wealthy, dying man.

Santomenna hopes to raise $17,300 on IndieGoGo by March 10. The money will fund a small crew, which he has already assembled, and a five-member cast. By Tuesday, he had raised $835.

"This is an artistic endeavor," Santomenna said. "It's not a crowd-pleaser. A certain audience will appreciate it, but if I wanted to make a film that had to potential to be distributed, I'd make some feature-length horror film."

Santomenna said he is crowd funding out of necessity. Aside from films funded from a producer's own coffers, most short arthouse films have been funded by grants. Those sources have dried up, he said. 

"This new crowd-sourcing system has kind of developed as that older method has faded out," he said.

Santomenna said he turned to IndieGoGo instead of Kickstarter because it had a more streamlined process for starting a campaign and has successfully been used to fund film projects. Plus, IndieGoGo will let him keep whatever money he raises, even if he doesn't hit the goal by his deadline.

While he's only raised 5 percent of his goal, Santomenna is optimistic he'll catch up. 

"The first dollar is the hardest one to raise," he said. "I think there's a good chance I probably will have to go visit some acquaintances who have resources, to literally go to their homes and ask."

If he doesn't hit his goal, Santomenna said he might still be able to make the movie. But the $17,300 line is where he needs to be to produce the film he really wants to make, something that might do well at festivals and gain a wide audience.

Santomenna is moving along with production, even during the fundraising campaign. He's holding auditions for the three lead roles at 6:30 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 16, at Freeport Community Center.

Pay attention, be a part of it

Steed, the "Food Coma TV" producer, said the funding and publicity boost from crowd funding set the show up for success.

In its first season, the show visited Bangor, Lewiston/Auburn, the Fryeburg Fair, Sanford and the St. John's Valley. The crew also got some high-profile face time with Anthony Bourdain and Eric Rippert when the two spoke at Merril Auditorium.

Steed said crowd funding generates buzz for projects that otherwise wouldn't exist.

"The problem is grant writing is private," he said. "No one is hearing about it. I could get the money and create the project I want, but then it just drops in the basket and no one is looking because they didn't even know it was coming."

"Food Coma TV" has been successful enough that plans are in the works for a second season, which will be produced with funding and trades from sponsors, Steed said. Season 2 will also take "Food Coma TV" out of Maine for the first time.

Steed chalks a lot of the show's success to the buzz generated by their fundraising model.

“You fundraise publicly and engage people to enforce a narrative,” he said. “The story is: We're gonna do something great, so pay attention to us now and be a part of it.”

Mario Moretto can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 106 or mmoretto@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @riocarmine.