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November 21, 2014

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Web site matches artists with benefactors

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Jerry Grayson isn’t exactly what you would call a starving artist. He holds a day job as a graphic designer and illustrator. He pays his bills creating things like the signs offering free buffets for senior citizens. Still, he could use some extra cash.

Grayson writes, designs and self publishes tabletop role-playing games, or RPGs, where players assume a character and advance through a narrative. He has created two — GODSEND Agenda and Hellas. The costs of printing the game books and playing cards can quickly pile up into the thousands.

Luckily, Grayson has help. He is one of a growing number of people turning to the fundraising website Kickstarter.com to raise cash for their creative projects.

Here’s how it works. A person lists his or her creative project and sets the monetary amount needed to finish it. Then, users will pledge to donate money. If enough pledges are made and the monetary goal is reached, the users’ credit cards are charged. If the goal is not reached, nobody is charged and the project is deemed unsuccessful. Some have dubbed this process “crowdfunding,” though the practice isn’t dissimilar to fundraisers already done by National Public Radio.

To entice backers, the person or group listing the project will promise gifts in exchange for donations. The gifts get progressively more personal or expensive as the amount pledged raises.

Grayson has used the site to fund three separate Hellas projects. The first raised $9,666, and the subsequent two brought in $1,815 and $4,905, respectively.

For Grayson, the funding meant he didn’t have to cut corners when self-publishing. It also had intangible value. “The experience validates your work as you do it,” he said. “It means that someone is willing to pay for your product sight unseen because they believe in it.”

Kickstarter launched in 2009. Last week, the website announced it had reached two milestones: 1 million backers and more than $100 million in pledges.

That pledge number breaks down into approximately $84 million of collected money, $12 million of money not collected because the project did not reach its set goal, and $5 million tied to projects with time left before their deadline. Approximately 44 percent of projects are successful.

Projects deal with art, comics, dance, design, fashion, film, food, games, music, photography, technology, theater and writing. As of Thursday, the most funded project brought in $942,578 to a Chicago-based company that turns iPod Nano devices into watches.

In Las Vegas, the most funded project is independent filmmaker Rob Sholty’s zombie flick “Patient Zero,” which raised $30,735. Other projects include $6,445 raised by electronic duo Kid Meets Cougar for a new projector to be used during their stage shows and $10,035 raised for a graphic novel called “Super” that explores the idea of superheroes in today’s media climate. Notable local artists Laurenn McCubbin and Jerry Misko have raised money for projects.

Grayson sees all these numbers as proof that technology and the Internet can be powerful tools. No longer are starving artists busking on street corners.

“This is the great part about social networking — it can actually produce something,” Grayson said. “It’s not just a friends list or Farmville. Individuals can affect people.”

Kickstarter currently averages $2 million in pledges a week. That works out to more than $100 million a year. In a blog, the company compares that number with the 2011 fiscal year budget for the National Endowment for the Arts, which is $154 million.

With that comparison in mind, Kickstarter could be seen as an arts fundraising force to be reckoned with.

Of course, most users aren’t focused on the deeper message of what Kickstarter means for the creative community. Instead, they focus on the individual projects they are backing.

According to Kickstarter, the large majority of pledges — 90 percent — are for less than $100; 75 percent are less than $50. Those numbers speak to the concept that Kickstarter is about having a lot of people do a little for projects they care about, rather than a few people doing a lot for select projects.

Grayson, who has both raised money and donated money through Kickstarter, believes it works because people want to help change somebody’s life in an immediate and direct way. He recalls seeing a project raising money to send a promising youngster to art school.

“With Kickstarter, you bypass the barriers that try to filter you out,” Grayson said. “You go to them directly. That’s the great thing.”

Of course, unlike donating to some organization-operated scholarship program, Kickstarter offers no guarantee that the money’s recipient will follow through with his or her promises. The site stresses using common sense and personal judgment.

For many, it seems the risk is worth taking.

Lacie Tidwell started her Kickstarter project to raise money for the self-publishing costs of her novel. She assumed friends and family would contribute. What she actually received was a 50-50 split of people she knew and people she didn’t.

“I was very surprised and very shocked by that,” she said. “It was absolutely a boost of confidence to know that strangers cared about my story and wanted to read it.”

The forthcoming book follows a 16-year-old whose mother dies of cancer, something Tidwell experienced firsthand 11 years ago. While not autobiographical, the book draws from her personal struggles and was emotionally draining to write.

It wasn’t something Tidwell, a preschool teacher, wanted a profit-hungry publishing company changing. “I wanted it to be authentic. I wanted to be in control,” she said, explaining why she chose the self-publishing route after some preliminary talks with traditional publishers.

“Without Kickstarter, I would have had to scrape the money together to get through the self-publishing process,” she said. That could have added on months. Instead, she has a tentative release date of early 2012.

Individuals like Tidwell aren’t the only ones benefiting from Kickstarter. Organizations also are using the site to raise money.

One recent successful local project was for Off Strip Production’s run of “Evil Dead: The Musical” at Onyx Theater. It generated $3,245, which will go mostly toward the show’s special effects. The effects involve some elaborate costumes and blood — lots of blood, so much that the first two rows in the audience are labeled a splatter zone.

“Theater is a tough business, especially in states where the arts aren’t funded unless you’re a large organization,” said Sirc Michaels, the artistic director at Onyx. “We are essentially a community theater production company, but we have to compete with the Strip.”

One way to compete is to offer lower prices, but that can be difficult when you need ticket sales to pay for costuming and props. Through their Kickstarter campaign, some of that financial burden has been lifted.

“ ‘Evil Dead’ seemed like a natural fit (for a Kickstarter project),” Michaels said. “We could appeal to fans of ‘Evil Dead,’ fans of Onyx, friends of fans of people in the show.”

Michaels operates the website and e-newsletters for Onyx. He said he had tracked clicks and found that the majority of people discovered their Kickstarter page through another social network — Facebook. He also estimated that 60 percent of his backers were local. Of the non-locals, backers came from various states and internationally as far as the United Kingdom.

For a small theater like Onyx, having that wide a pool of support could be instrumental to its future, especially as it expands its offerings. Currently, Off Strip is producing a full season of shows.

“We keep pushing ourselves to do more,” Michaels said. “There’s nothing we can’t do in our space. We just need the ambition.”

Ambition and money, of course.

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