Benjamin Wagner has a unique appreciation for the differences between big media and independently funded projects. As vice president of news for MTV, he spends his days producing stories about megastars like Jay-Z. Nights and weekends, Wagner invests his own creative energies—and money—in a no-budget documentary project that gripped him several years ago and won’t let go.

Together with his brother Christofer, a videographer, Wagner has invested “eight years, 4,600 miles, and $30,000” to make Mister Rogers & Me. The film was inspired by a chance encounter with the late children’s television legend, who challenged Benjamin Wagner to pass along a message about the value of all that’s “deep and simple.” The brothers don’t know if their film will ever earn back a dime, but they have learned that generous strangers are willing to help them get to the finish line.

The Wagners are among a fast-growing group of artists, musicians, writers, and other creative types who are going directly to the public to underwrite their dreams via an online fundraising platform called Kickstarter. It off ers a space to pitch ideas to people willing to kick in a few bucks, without asking for payback or a share of ownership rights. Within four months of launch, the site had raised about $600,000 for more than 100 projects.

CEO and founder Perry Chen says Kickstarter offers an answer to “the tremendous funding problem most people have.” Kickstarter invites folks with good ideas to post videos and other media to tell their own stories. Project creators must ask for a specific amount of money by a deadline that’s no more than 90 days away. They’re encouraged to off er incentives— your name on a film credit or a private concert in your living room—to sweeten the deal. But all ownership remains with the artist. Then the countdown begins, along with viral marketing via Twitter, Facebook, and other social networks. If artists reach or exceed their goal, they keep the cash (minus 5 percent to Kickstarter). If they don’t, not a penny changes hands.

The all-or-nothing scheme builds in drama, with projects typically getting the most action in the hours just before deadline. Equally important is the safety valve this arrangement creates. “If you’re not fully funded, you won’t get the money,” Chen says. “That way you won’t have a group of people who expect you to do what you’ve promised, when you don’t have enough money to do it.”

Kickstarter is already creating new conversations about value. Incentives offered to potential donors may not cost much to make, “but have real value to the audience, whether it’s products, services, or experiential stuff ,” Chen says. Emily Richmond, for instance, asked the Kickstarter community to chip in $8,000 to help her sail around the world. Eleven donors who gave her $5 apiece will get origami sailboats, but five who pledged $125 can look forward to receiving coconuts in the mail. “We live in a gray area,” Chen says, “somewhere between patronage and commerce.”

As for the Wagner brothers, their documentary project raised $10,796 by the Sept. 19 deadline, $796 more than they asked for. That’s enough to buy time in “an actual editing space, not after-hours on a laptop,” Benjamin says, and finish the film. He thinks Mister Rogers would approve. “Kickstarter is all about being good neighbors. It’s about people saying, ‘I believe in what you’re doing—and I’ll pitch in.’ ”

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