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We hoped it was an April Fool’s joke.

Seattle production company One Reel announced today that the city’s 2013 annual Family 4th fireworks show is off, done, over, because it couldn’t raise the $500,000 it needed in time to make it happen.

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4th of July fireworks over Seattle’s Lake Union. (Photo: One Reel)

So you know where every geek’s mind went to next: Why don’t we just crowdfund it?

“Kickstarter. I’m not joking,” designer David Hoang wrote on Facebook.

It was my first reaction, too. Well, after thinking that someone could swoop in and save the show at the last minute, like radio host Dave Ross helped do back in 2010. That was the first time One Reel said the fireworks show was “cancelled.”

Oh yeah. We’ve been here before.

But this year, it’s different. One Reel, a nonprofit, has decided it’s not that great an idea to sign supplier contracts before they know they have the money to put on the show. The deadline was the suppliers’ deadline, and it was yesterday. No joke, no deus ex machina. After 25 years, One Reel is not producing Seattle’s only remaining Fourth of July fireworks show.

Did they consider trying to crowdfund it? Sure.

Here’s why they didn’t.

1) They kind of already tried

Screen Shot 2013-04-01 at 7.10.18 PMOn March 5, One Reel announced its “For the People by the People” Family 4th fundraising campaign. It wasn’t Kickstarter or Indiegogo, but it took online donations of any amount from anyone in the community — businesses and people — all month long. The campaign was the result of a hard truth: corporate giving ain’t what it used to be. From 2002 to 2008, Washington Mutual was the sole title sponsor of Seattle’s Family 4th at Lake Union. In 2009, Chase, which acquired that failed trust, took on the sponsorship.

In 2010, One Reel couldn’t get any other major Seattle company to step up — until a media campaign driven by Ross and our collective horror at the idea of a dark July 4 pushed a flurry of small donations and got Starbucks and Microsoft to match $125,000 each. That was the year that showed a way forward. When the economy’s in a bad way and corporate sponsors stop cutting checks, people can step in.

I asked One Reel marketing and communications director Aubrey Bergauer if this year’s open fundraising campaign was a test of that model.

“Every time there’s a crowdfunding campaign there’s that question. Maybe we did get the answer,” she said. “Universally everyone says they love the fireworks. But when it came time to put dollars behind it, people didn’t.”

She said she was OK with the amount of attention the campaign got. The company did a big push in its final week. Of course, today’s headlines are bigger.

2) Kickstarter and Indiegogo are not an easy fix

Crowdfunding sites Kickstarter and Indiegogo have made fundraising easier. But they haven’t made it easy.

“Crowdfunding is teaching everyday people what a campaign is, how much goes into it and how easy it is to fail,” said Nathaniel James, Seattle founder of Philanthrogeek.com, a publication and consultancy for social giving, which includes crowd funding. “The media get really obsessed with the big famous wins — Pebble, Veronica Mars. They just gloss over the massive fail rate.”

James said he didn’t know of a civic crowdfunded project to ever get $500,000 on those sites, “which is not to say it can’t,” he said. It would just take a lot of planning and a lot of work. Many crowd funded projects reach their goal and beyond with a few dozen donations. One Reel got that and more, but it only got them a tenth of the way there.

Plus, there are those rewards to think about. Contributors to Kickstarter and Indiegogo projects don’t just give; they expect to be given perks or some token of their participation. Those could make a $500,000 project cost a bit more. The sites take a cut of the overall take. That would complicate things further.

Staff at One Reel did consider using the sites, Bergauer told me. But they didn’t consider it for long.

“A lot of people think you do a crowdfunding campaign on Kickstarter or Indiegogo and your problem is solved,” Bergauer said. “That’s just not the case.”

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The crowd at Gas Works Park is traditionally just part of the audience for Seattle’s annual Fourth of July fireworks show. (Photo: One Reel)

3) It’s not sustainable.

Online crowdfunding is great for one-off projects. But asking for money year after year could get old. Fast. Crowdfunded projects work best when what your funding has an end point.

More than money, what the Seattle fireworks show needs to happen this year is a way to happen every year.

One Reel knows it needs to find a sustainable model. Why don’t they have one, three years after the old model collapsed? Bergauer could only say that after two years squeaking by on smaller sponsors, and one year trying — and failing — to get broad community support, they’re still looking.

That’s where crowdfunding presents an interesting opportunity, James said.

“People get excited about the funding, but they really should get excited about the crowd.”

If he were tasked with crowd funding the fireworks, James told me, he’d put the focus on getting thousands of brains to come together and solve the problem.

So … who wants to do this?

It might be putting it lightly to say that a lot of us, hearing today’s news, are a little frustrated.

One Reel has produced the event since 1988. But it’s not the only thing it does. Once it winds down tentative plans for Family 4th, the company will turn its attention to Bumbershoot, a successful event by any measure.

Bergauer stood by the quality of One Reel’s work. But as a citizen of Seattle, she acknowledged that the show isn’t about the company.

“If someone else can do it and do it better than us, the city would be happy,” she said.

One Reel’s annual production is a monster. Half a million people watch — 50,000 at Gas Works Park, 250,000 around the lake and 200,000 on TV. But as much as I’m hearing some people say fireworks are costly and dirty and noisy, and wouldn’t we be better off if we could drive through Fremont on the Fourth of July for once, something tells me this city’s not going to let that holiday’s night sky go dark.

One Reel had a point, naming their 2013 fundraising campaign “For the People By the People.”

So… who’s in?

Photos via One Reel.

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