Why Big Stars on Raising Money on Kickstarter isn’t Hurting Smaller Projects
Allow me to start by saying that I’m not a Zach Braff fanboy. I’m sure he’s a nice guy, and he seems to have things he wants to say through filmmaking. But judging based on his debut feature nine years ago as well as the pitch for his next project, the things he wants to say don’t really appeal to me. Hell, one of my early blogs even attempts to blame films like his debut feature “Garden State” for turning the interesting and edgy world indie films into a low-stakes meditation of upper-middle-class white people grappling with their uninterestingness. But hey – a lot of people like “Garden State,” and I guess even upper-middle-class white people need a banal story to call their own and a bard to weave it – so kudos to Zach Braff.
I guess what I’m saying is that it’s a matter of taste, and as the saying goes there’s a reason we make both chocolate and vanilla.
But Braff – who hasn’t made a feature directorial follow-up to “Garden State” has recently brilliantly tapped into “crowdfunding” – where an artist goes to their audience and asks for funds to make their art rather than the traditional path of going to financiers and gatekeepers for the same funds. There are a handful of websites that specialize in helping artists, inventors, and thing-makers in general accomplish this task but by far the best-known one is the venerable kickstarter.com. And as the leader of that pack, Kickstarter has begun to attract some higher-budgeted projects like the movie based on the short-lived TV show “Veronica Mars” – which raised 5.7 million dollars this month and now “Wish I Was Here,” the aforementioned Zach Braff project which thusfar has raised 2 million dollars as well.
Check out his Kickstarter video here: http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1869987317/wish-i-was-here-1/widget/video.html
And all I’ve been hearing about this story, rather than rejoicing in a “holy crap, indie films are coming back!” kind of way is people grousing about people like Braff who are “inside the system” who’ve decided to use a tool that was presumably designed for those who are not. Take a second and read this article from The Guardian (posted on Facebook by my friend Matt) Because obviously Zach Braff could have coughed up a cool 2 million dollars of his own rather than hold his hat out in the vast interstate off-ramp that is Kickstarter – and in my opinion the people engaging in this kind of thinking are wrong.
Inside the “System”
I could point out that there is no “system” to be “inside” of. Braff led an ensemble cast on the network TV show “Scrubs” from 2001-2010 and other than that his biggest splash probably was “Garden State” (which according the the website http://www.the-numbers.com cost $2.5M to produce and earned $36M worldwide – pretty outstanding). Braff made “Garden State” with outside independent financing, submitted it to Sundance, got accepted there, and found distribution. This path was well known to indie filmmakers as a best-case-scenario between the late 1980’s through today, even if it’s gotten even more difficult since 2008. And even though Braff’s first feature made a good chunk of change for the people who put it out, either his own selectivity or market forces within the industry have not brought us directorial feature to follow it up unless you count a 2008 TV movie called “Night Life.”
So Braff brought one thing to the table – his name value as a TV star. And (again, putting my personal feelings about “Garden State” aside), he leveraged that brilliantly. And now, with a track record, he’s doing the same thing on Kistarter. I don’t see anything with which to take issue here – as filmmakers we all bring whatever salable assets we have to the table, and more often than not we’re sent back to the woodshed to get more of them. A big scavenger hunt – one which I am currently undergoing – is finding a “name” actor. A name actor all but guarantees a certain dollar figure in returns and every actor’s projected sales are different.
To whatever extent Braff fits that description so why wouldn’t he use his own name to make his own work? Kickstarter doesn’t change that metric, it just allows Braff (or anyone with a built-in audience) to go straight to the people who already want to see their work and get the money like a PBS Pledge Break rather than appealing to a room full of MBA’s.
Putting the “STAR” in KickSTARter
Since the beginning of Kickstarter, I’ve been wondering how long something like this would take. In fact, I assumed it would appeal to people who were even more established. Imagine someone like Christopher Nolan making a Kickstarter-like crowdfunding video with only one appeal – “buy your ticket now.” Yes, I know Kickstarter would never allow that, but pretend for a second that they did (or that someone like Nolan just set up their own crowdfunding portal). I find it hard to believe that my experimental Nolan would not raise tens of millions, possibly creating an end-run around the studio system entirely. It can be argued that the studio gatekeepers justify their existence by simply trying to make material that’s more palatable for mass audiences and maybe that’s right – but if it’s true their relentlessness would pay off with every film being the best it can be, right?
So Chill Out and Lay Off Zach Braff and “Veronica Mars”
Now, to all the artists out there, I want to put your troubled minds at rest. Zach Braff isn’t here to take away your toy or to make it less special. In fact, the crux of my argument is that it’s a neutral to good development that this is happening right now. Here are some of my pitches to you as to why this isn’t just a good thing, but it’s actually a great thing.
- Zach Braff and the makers of “Veronica Mars” aren’t taking money that would have gone to someone else. Certainly not you.
Seriously – if there’s only one thing I can manage to communicate here this is it. Zach Braff is bringing his audience to Kickstarter and not the other way around. If Zach Braff were receiving an arts grant that prevented a small clarinet co-op from bringing woodwind education into the inner cities, I’d storm this castle with my torch in hand as well. But that’s not the case. Braff and “Veronica Mars” producer Rob Thomas are simply doing an end-run around gatekeepers who might otherwise convince them to compromise the artistic content of their work or prevent them from making it entirely.
- Crowdfunding is for everyone who wants to do it and is willing to do the work.
I’m sure the founders of Kickstarter.com were excited to help indie filmmakers, game designers, widget-makers, etc. do their finest work. But in order for us to have some solid crowdfunding success stories, some of them are going to have to be more mainstream and involve more marketable actors, writers, and directors. And as anyone who’s done a Kickstarter campaign will tell you, it’s not a “free money store,” it takes a lot of constant work to raise money this way. I’m sure this is only the beginning of a trend that could end up revolutionizing how the edgier indie films of yesteryear end up being made in the future. Isn’t that a good thing?
- What if the real benefit of crowdfunding was marketing and audience-building?
I’ve always heard one of the biggest benefits of crowdfunding was to build an audience. Certainly the projects I’ve personally funded – at any level – have all stayed in touch with me and I’ve tracked their progress. I may not own a dime of the money they make, but I feel that I was a contributor to their very existence and I therefore have a stake in their success. What this means is that, in a sense, donating to a crowdfunding campaign is its own form of entertainment.
Screenwriter Craig Mazen, co-host of the awesome Scriptnotes podcast, criticized the crowfunding of “Veronica Mars” by pointing out that the producers are going to charge the audience twice – once to get the movie made and once to see it. I see his point, but only if the funding part of the equation isn’t a form of entertainment. As the entire city of Las Vegas has proved, spending money in itself can be entertaining to some people.
- Raising large sums of money on Kickstarter is only bringing a new bunch of donors to the crowdfunding sites, and maybe even to the idea of crowdfunding.
If Zach Braff and Rob Thomas are bringing a vast wave of their audience crashing on the shoals of Kickstarter, it’s fair to assume that some adjacent beaches might find their sands a bit more moistened as a result. Some of these people are doubtlessly donating to a crowdfunding effort for the first time, and just showing up at http://www.kickstarter.com might introduce them to other projects in need of funds.
- Crowdfunding at this scale is allowing indie filmmaking to be reborn in the post Lehman-Brothers world.
The Lehman Brothers crash in 2008 and subsequent economy-destroying recession by some metrics marked the the grave of a lot of industries and indie film was one of them. Every industry has been slowly clawing its way back to relevance following the recession. And no strata of the film business has taken a bigger hit than indies with flagging home video sales, nonexistent theatrical distribution, rampant piracy, and a fractured audience who might prefer to stay home and watch “Breaking Bad” or Netflix streaming. I would count crowdfunding as one of the few bright spots for indies. And yes, “Wish I Was Here” and “Veronica Mars” are indies now.
Does this allow more crap to get made? Of course, in the same way that self-publishing has allowed more crap to be published and digital audio distribution has allowed more crap to be sold on iTunes, etc. But if just a single good movie comes out of this (and more than one already has), then what does anyone care?
- Funding is just the beginning for filmmakers who still need to figure out how to make their films profitable in the horrid distribution environment we’re currently in.
This is only the beginning for Braff and anyone else who attempts this. The distribution landscape in 2004 was tough but for Braff – a TV star with an indie film at the Sundance Film Festival – at least it was navigable. At least he was able to find anyone with some kind of terms that his producers and financiers could accept at the time. These days, the studios are releasing fewer films and there are fewer indie distributors. I’d personally love it if Braff chose to release “Wish I Was Here” using a self-distribution model for theatrical and VOD, even DVD and Blu-Ray.
The writer of the Guardian piece (above) points out that the way Kickstarter works is that if you donate to a film and it does well (he cites “The Blair Witch Project,” a film I worked on, as an example) that you won’t see a single penny and he’s right. Kickstarter isn’t an investing site, it’s donation based. This objection is pure hyperbole and in the world where indie films rarely even get a chance to be seen or find distribution – or in a lot of cases they find distribution but never break even – citing an example from 14 years ago (and an outlier at that) frankly proves my point even more.
Indie film producers aren’t building a second “kidney-shaped swimming pool” as the author here describes, they are struggling every day to reach an audience and stay relevant. Indie producing at best is a long-term investment in a series of hopefully-worthy projects that occasionally make enough money to keep their producers solvent. They need all the help they can get. If you don’t believe me, spend a few minutes on Ted Hope’s blog, http://www.hopeforfilm.com.
The Right to Abstain
Kickstarter obviously isn’t the savior of all things artistic and there’s a lot of work to be done perfecting the crowdfunding process. But as someone who makes things I care about from time to time, I love knowing that there’s an alternative to appealing to only financial instincts of people hired by corporations to protect their bottom line. There’s a place for that to be sure, and there’s a place for this. One doesn’t need to negate the other – it’s just a different way to get creative work made.
This new approach, still in its infancy, is a way for artists to test one avenue of funding for their whatchamacallit. And for those of us who do donate on Kickstarter, etc. – we can choose to support – or not – any project we see fit. So I personally won’t be donating to Zach Braff’s campaign not because I don’t want to see him succeed, not because I think he should have spent money out of his own pocket (because any of us actually knows his financial situation), but because it’s not a project that excites me. But I’m glad Braff is doing what he’s doing, and when someone whose work speaks to me posts a project to Kickstarter, you can bet your ass I’ll be donating.