Arts-donation website helps Matt Porterfield turn his new film into a cliffhanger

"I Used to Be Darker" is meant to jump from the blocks at full speed: A 19-year-old discovers that she's pregnant, grabs a knife and exacts devastating revenge on the cad who knocked her up. After she loses her job overseeing bumper cars at an Ocean City arcade, she high-tails it to Baltimore.

The film's writer-director, Matt Porterfield, and his co-writer (and partner), Amy Belk, pack a midsummer day's nightmare into a vivid streak of incidents. It could be the perfect lift-off for the rest of the story – and no one doubts Porterfield's ability to pull the sequence off. "Hamilton" and "Putty Hill," his first two features, demonstrated his skill at delivering keen emotion on the run.

But Porterfield, who is shooting the rest of the script in Baltimore, has bet the completion of "I Used to Be Darker" on his ability to raise $40,000 by Aug. 13 through Kickstarter, the website for creative entrepreneurs.

He scheduled the Ocean City sequence for September. If Porterfield doesn't reach his Kickstarter goal, the movie may have to work without it.

"We don't have enough money to shoot Ocean City," Porterfield confessed during a break in the filming on Wednesday. "All top of the line [talent], cast included, are deferring their fees. We're not in a position to start editing."

As Samuel Johnson said, "When a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully." Kickstarter operates on a similar principle. If a project doesn't meet its goal on deadline, no money passes hands. The pressure can be intense. But it can also generate startling sums of money in mere days.

In two and a half years, Kickstarter has become the go-to website for filmmakers, musicians, puppeteers, graphic novelists — any artist or entertainer who wants to market-test an idea and at the same time fund all or part of its creation and promotion. (Kickstarter runs on 5 percent taken off the top of successful campaigns; Amazon, which processes the payments, takes an additional 3 percent-5 percent.)

Porterfield's Kickstarter push to ready "Putty Hill" for the Berlin Film Festival brought the website regional and global attention in early 2010. The producers of "On the Ice," winner of a Maryland Filmmakers Fellowship and, like "Putty Hill," a critical hit in Berlin, are now using Kickstarter to raise $80,000 to open their film in 10 cities.

Local artists of all kinds have placed all their chips on Kickstarter — and won. Graphic artist Steven Parke waged a successful campaign to finance printing of a myth-inspired fantasy called "Medusa's Daughter" in both novel and graphic-novel versions. (He and his co-creator, Jonathon Scott Fuqua, eventually hope to print a third version "aimed specifically at teens with reading issues.")

Still, when Porterfield started his "Putty Hill" campaign, he had already shot his movie. For Porterfield, to start shooting "I Used to Be Darker" with nothing but a Kickstarter page behind him, without any money in the bank or film in the can, is the act of a hot quarterback hoping to achieve one more victory with a Hail, Mary pass.

As Baltimore filmmaker Skizz Cyzyk ('Freaks in Love") said with affection, "I have a lot of confidence Matt will make his deadline….He has done a great job of spreading his name and work all over the world. He's the winning team, and everyone wants to get behind the winning team."

As of Friday afternoon, the Kickstarter page for "I Used to Be Darker" had gathered $21,576 from 279 donors. Typically, the bulk of the backing comes during the first and last weeks of a campaign.

Porterfield launched his Kickstarter campaign for "I Used to Be Darker" just under three weeks ago. "I was trying to piece together more traditional sources of financing and I didn't have any in place," he said. "I didn't want to lose the crew, cast, everyone who was expecting to shoot. I felt good about the investments we were hoping to seal, but I knew they weren't enough to get the film in the can."

Even if you're a Kickstarter veteran like Porterfield, you can't post a project with a snap of the fingers. It requires a video to sell the idea — and rewards that pull in donors at levels from $1 to $10,000.

Porterfield said, "I was driving on 83, listening to these two Texas rappers, Underground Kingz, and I was inspired to get the name of the film tattooed on my arm — to do this right now. And then, two minutes later, I was like, oh man, this should be the Kickstarter video. Why not get the tattoo and make the 'ask' the same time?"

He didn't consult anybody because he didn't want to get talked out of it.

First off he sent Amy Belk a picture of the tattoo "and she was like, wow … she was pretty shocked but supportive." Then he told two of his producers, Steve Holmgren and Ryan Zacarias, that a film student had recorded his tattooing and helped him edit it into a video.

Holmgren recalled, "Within a day we had our levels and campaign together and were able to launch immediately on Kickstarter."

Last year, Cyzyk and Joe Tropea raised $20,000 on Kickstarter for their forthcoming film "Hit and Stay," a Baltimore-based documentary about antiwar actions like those of the Catonsville Nine and Baltimore Four.

"I really admire what Matt did with this campaign video," Tropea said. "Matt's not just a guy getting a tattoo — it's a whole concept. The tattoo is a motivator and reminder of what he's getting himself in to."

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."

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