Much of "Putty Hill" took place in an apartment that served as a tattoo parlor. By tattooing the title "I Used to Be Darker" on his forearm and using that as his Kickstarter request video, Porterfield was doing more than demonstrating his do-or-die commitment to the movie. In more ways than one, he was also creating a brand.
Kickstarter co-founder Yancey Strickler hopes that brand stays on Kickstarter. "I got to know Matt personally," Strickler said last week. "He did reach out to talk to us about ['I Used to Be Darker'], and told us what he was going to do, and we were thrilled."
Strickler, a music-lover who wrote criticism for places as different as The Village Voice and Entertainment Weekly, calls himself an "indie-rock kid." What kind of movies does this former rock critic enjoy?
"Movies like Matt Porterfield's," he says with an appreciative laugh.
Porterfield's own indie-film and indie-music aesthetic mirrors Strickler's tastes. "I Used to Be Darker" is full of song. The runaway from Ocean City is also a runaway from Northern Ireland. She flees to an aunt and cousin in Mobtown. The movie centers on the breakup of the Irish girl's aunt and uncle, and the turmoil it causes for her 18-year-old American cousin.
Porterfield cast singer-songwriters Ned Oldham and Kim Taylor in the roles, then, with Belk, shaped the scenes to fit their personalities. They did the same with Hannah Gross as the couple's daughter and Deragh Campbell as her cousin, "young actors whose relationship in the real world mirrored that of [the cousins] in a way that got us really excited" (as Porterfield wrote on his Kickstarter page).
Other Baltimore filmmakers haven't meshed as seamlessly as Porterfield does with Kickstarter. Low-budget horror specialist Chris LaMartina used Kickstarter to underwrite his latest movie, "Witch's Brew." Cyzyk and Tropea are funding Cyzyk's editing of "Hit and Stay" with the money they raised on Kickstarter.
But LaMartina said he doubts that he'll go on Kickstarter again because "it's really about friends and family. And if you do a film, say, every year — how often can you go to them? For me it's the same as if you're knocking on your uncle's door and asking to borrow his Crown Vic for a cop scene — every year." LaMartina fears that potential donors will experience Kickstarter Fatigue. "When a lot of filmmakers use Kickstarter in the same area, they're probably going to be hitting up the same people."
Tropea ands Cyzyk, who disliked the "impersonality" of Kickstarter, disagreed with LaMartina on that score.
"These days many artists in Baltimore have friends in other places like New York, New England, and Atlanta. … Musicians who contributed music to our movie [were] touting for us on Facebook," Tropea said. "We also had the subjects of our doc pitching in. Not all of them, but some of them, who are very excited about what we're doing and didn't have to be begged to help spread the word."
Cyzyk and Tropea think that broad grass-roots support may give documentary-makers an edge over feature filmmakers. Tropea added, "I also think it has to do with how strong your idea is. … Locally, 'Twelve O'Clock in Baltimore,' Lofty Nathan's doc about inner city dirt bike kids, funded successfully in a pretty short time. It does have a lot to do with friends and family, but ideas really count, too."
Strickler said that Kickstarter has always been "pretty up-front" that the bulk of donations will come from the artists' "own outreach — friends and family and fans." But the site implicitly challenges artists to "develop a new set of muscles" and expand their base. Kickstarter's art-activist audience now transcends individual connections. According to Strickler, 28 percent of its donors are repeat backers.
"I Used to Be Darker" has already been a Kickstarter "project of the day." Porterfield's producers are keeping their campaign white-hot with daily specials. Next Friday, for example, the first 20 donors will get a "Wire" tour of Baltimore from one of the film's producers, Eric Bannat, who was a location scout for seasons 3-5 of "The Wire." (Producer Holmgren said that in the last two weeks, five executive producer-investors have come in to "fill the gap" between the budget and the amount they hope to raise on Kickstarter.)
As for Porterfield himself:
"If I didn't have the story and the actors and the shots to occupy my attention, I would be obsessing about how to bring in another 20 grand. I'd be losing sleep. Now that the camera is rolling, I don't have time to think about it," he said. "I'm focused on the location. I'm focused on the cast. I'm focused on the film I'm trying to make."