March 25, 2024

My Dead Friend Zoe: The Financials Behind Its SXSW Success

Daniela Bailes
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Every filmmaker dreams of seeing their debut film on the big screen at a major festival like SXSW. But the path to that dream is seldom easy. 

Let's take a closer look at My Dead Friend Zoe, the runaway SXSW hit that captivated audiences. What can we learn from writer/director Kyle Hausmann-Stokes's journey?

The film explores the bond between two female veterans who served in Afghanistan and one of their connections with a Vietnam veteran grandfather. It delves into themes of loss, PTSD, coping with grief, and finding laughter even in challenging times. 

While the subject matter and emotional depth of the movie might not have screamed "blockbuster" to studios, the team behind it found a way to bring their vision to life. So, how did they pull it off?

Before My Dead Friend Zoe was a feature

Director Kyle Hausmann-Stokes wasn't new to the film industry. A graduate of USC's prestigious School of Cinematic Arts, he co-founded Veterans in Media & Entertainment, a nonprofit organization. He had also directed short films and series for IBM, PBS, and Google. But it was his experiences before filmmaking that truly shaped his work.

Prior to USC, Kyle had a distinguished military career. A paratrooper for five years in the U.S. Army, he even received a Bronze Star for his leadership as a convoy commander in Iraq. 

However, this period was also marked by tragedy. He lost three close comrades to suicide, which became the driving force behind his short film, Merit x Zoe, the proof of concept that led to My Dead Friend Zoe.

The short film resonated deeply, not only with audiences in the creative world, but also with veterans. It tackled important issues like mental health and PTSD, sparking conversations and highlighting a critical need for further exploration. 

This left a clear question: how would the team secure funding to expand this world and bring that story to the big screen?

Campaign to make My Dead Friend Zoe

Crowdfunding has become a common tool for independent filmmakers. However, My Dead Friend Zoe took a different approach, moving beyond personal connections and word of mouth. Their secret weapon? Incentivizing supporters through a cause they cared about while offering investment opportunities instead of simple donations.

The key was a human-interest story that resonated broadly. By staying apolitical, the film appealed to a wider audience on WeFunder, a platform where people can invest for equity in a project, rather than just donate. This offered more than just "perks" – it made supporters feel like true stakeholders in the film's success.

Classic crowdfunding rewards were still available, of course, with varying levels offering exclusive benefits. However, the real draw was a fan-first model. This promised investors a 120% return on their principal investment, plus a share of the film's profits, meaning investors could potentially double their money while supporting a film they believed in. Additionally, experienced film financiers were involved, offering a sense of security and expertise.

My Dead Friend Zoe also capitalized on a passionate built-in audience: America's 114 million strong military veteran community. The film's theme of mental health resonated with them, creating a loyal base of potential supporters.

While operating with a streamlined independent budget, the team emphasized their ability to create a high-quality film without Hollywood's inflated costs. The budget was meticulously crafted to attract top talent, leverage tax breaks by filming in Oregon, and ensure exceptional production value. This focus on budget efficiency increased the film's potential for profit later.

Ultimately, the campaign proved incredibly successful, raising a staggering $773,954 from 2,066 investors by November 2023. This success story demonstrates that a strong community, combined with a compelling investment opportunity, can trump a massive pool of anonymous donors. My Dead Friend Zoe secured the right supporters, not just a large number.

The campaign positioned the film not only for critical acclaim, but also for financial success. They achieved this by keeping a tight budget, attracting a strong cast, and aligning with a passionate community that could serve as a springboard for the film's reach.

Attaching key talent

The world of My Dead Friend Zoe offered more than just a script – it presented a chance for actors to delve into complex characters with a unique level of authenticity. Director Kyle Hausmann-Stokes, a military veteran himself, brought a wealth of personal experience to the table, tackling themes of mental health, PTSD, and navigating grief.

This depth resonated with seasoned actors. 

A script informed by such personal struggles goes beyond mere entertainment, offering a platform for raw portrayal and powerful storytelling. This is precisely why established names like Morgan Freeman (The Shawshank Redemption), Ed Harris (Westworld), Sonequa Martin-Green (Star Trek: Discovery), and Natalie Morales (No Hard Feelings) all signed on to join My Dead Friend Zoe.

Hausmann-Stokes himself acknowledged this pull, stating,

"My fellow veterans and I often get reduced to archetypes and melodramatic tropes. We're much more dynamic, funny, complex than that." 

He envisioned a film that defied stereotypes, presenting veterans as multifaceted individuals. This resonated with Freeman, a fellow Air Force veteran.

Sonequa Martin-Green also highlighted the film's activist spirit.

"It's that perfect synergy between art and activism, and it's why I'm there." 

My Dead Friend Zoe wasn't just entertainment; it was a chance to spark conversations and offer support. While focusing on veterans' experiences, the film's core themes – grief, loss, and the human struggle – held universal appeal. This ability to connect with a broad audience, while offering a fresh perspective on veterans, was another factor drawing top actors to the project.

Bringing on known producers

While My Dead Friend Zoe boasted an impressive cast, the film's success went beyond star power. A critical element was the involvement of seasoned producers who brought more than just recognition – they provided invaluable expertise and industry connections.

One such heavyweight was Travis Kelce, the three-time Super Bowl champion who signed on as an executive producer. 

While his involvement may not have been initially known, Sonequa Martin-Green acknowledged the impact.

"It's fantastic because it does mean there might be more eyes on it, and we want as many people to see this as possible."

 Kelce's star power potentially broadens the film's audience, a key factor for a project with a powerful message.

Another crucial player was Ray Maiello, with over 20 years of experience in film, television, and music. His impressive career, including top business affairs positions at Netflix and Paramount Pictures, brought a wealth of industry knowledge to the table. Individuals like Maiello ensure the film navigates the complex Hollywood landscape, ultimately reaching its target audience.

These producers contribute more than just celebrity. Their established reputations and connections open doors, attracting bigger names and ensuring the film gets the attention it deserves. Ultimately, having savvy producers on board takes a project from promising to well-positioned for success.

Getting into SXSW and premiere reception

The creative spirit of SXSW proved the perfect platform for My Dead Friend Zoe, a film that defied categorization. 

Founded in 1987, SXSW celebrates the convergence of film, music, and interactive media, fostering a space for unique stories to take flight. With its blend of well-known actors, a powerful message, and a touch of magical realism, My Dead Friend Zoe fit this bill perfectly.

The film's SXSW premiere wasn't just a launch; it was a splash. 

Critics, industry insiders, and audiences alike embraced the film's message. Variety praised its ability to be "smart and sincere but never sanctimonious," highlighting its dual role as an awareness campaign and a deeply emotional film. The magazine further wrote, "...evoking complex emotions — uncomfortable laughter and well-earned tears — en route to its cathartic finale."

The impact was undeniable. My Dead Friend Zoe wasn't just entertainment; it was a catalyst for conversation. It tackled a vital issue, reminding audiences that "military service is dangerous, but so too is coming home."

For director Kyle Hausmann-Stokes, the film's SXSW debut marked the culmination of a 20-year journey. He envisioned this project the moment he left the military, and it being embraced by such a diverse audience was a moment of profound validation.

SXSW provided the ideal launchpad for My Dead Friend Zoe, a film that dared to be different. With its unique blend of talent and subject matter, it resonated with a broad audience, proving that powerful independent stories can find a home in Hollywood. 

Wrapping up

My Dead Friend Zoe defied the odds, transforming from a passionate filmmaker's vision into a critically acclaimed indie hit. This journey offers valuable lessons for aspiring filmmakers in regards to finances and crowdfunding campaign strategy. 

For more help with your film’s financials, check out our articles on Wrapbook’s production accounting and our state-by-state breakdown of tax incentives for your next project.

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Last Updated 
March 25, 2024


At Wrapbook, we pride ourselves on providing outstanding free resources to producers and their crews, but this post is for informational purposes only as of the date above. The content on our website is not intended to provide and should not be relied on for legal, accounting, or tax advice.  You should consult with your own legal, accounting, or tax advisors to determine how this general information may apply to your specific circumstances.

About the author
Daniela Bailes

Daniela Bailes is a working film and television writer whose work travels across genres. A proud alumnus of the Yale Writer’s Conference in New Haven, she was mentored by literary luminaries before being selected for the National Hispanic Media Coalition TV Writer’s Program, a feature writer on the Latinx Black List, and as a participant in the Sundance Episodic Lab. Her most recent work was staffing on the upcoming Paramount science-fiction series, The Shift, also selling a feature script to A+E Networks.

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