Kickstarter has been in the press in the last couple of months, as two high profile projects have both successfully raised seven figure amounts from online donors. One was greeted with celebration, by and large, and the other with complete contempt. The Veronica Mars movie, which raised 5.7 million at the end of its 30 day run on the site, was seen as a long overdue catharsis for a passionate fanbase, an exciting exploration of a new Paradigm and Kickstarter heralded as a place which could liberate the artists from the money men. A few weeks later, Zach Braff launched his new project, ‘Wish I Was Here’, which has thus far raised 2.3 million with 21 days of funding left to go. A total of about 3 million or just above it is likely. This was seen as an insult to the very intentions of crowd funding, a millionaire celebrity looking to make his dream project, standing on the heads of his penniless adoring fans to do so and Kickstarter heralded as a place where the rich and famous could placate their whims and take the money out of the mouths of starving children to do so.
The adverse reactions to the projects perhaps show how difficult it could be to have an honest debate about the merits and failings of Kickstarter as a potential paradigm going forward. From where I’m standing both projects turn the love of a fanbase into cash, but if anything the Veronica Mars project appears more insidious because of the involvement of Warner Brothers. Let’s say, that the Veronica Mars movie gets a cinema and VOD release and becomes a cult hit, and takes in something like 15-20 million. Warner Brothers, who won’t have contributed a penny to the film’s initial budget and have in fact been a major obstruction to the film getting made in the first place. 5.7 million is pocket to change to them, they probably spend more every year on Oscar parties, and they could have funded this movie, or even part funded it, at absolutely no risk to them. Yet that 15-20 million would go straight into Warner Brothers pocket. Money that would be to them free, a reward for their cowardice. I know Veronica Mars fans could give a shit about this, but its a worrying trend, allowing movie studios to possibly make you pay for a movie to get made and then pay to see it as well.
Personally I don’t think Rob Thomas and Kristen Bell have presented this information as clearly as Zach Braff presented his, you get the sense they just want to make the movie. Make no mistake, there’s something dickish about what Braff has done here, but by and large he has presented his case more honestly. Braff had secured funding for his film through traditional methods, but there were too many strings attached for his liking. Braff claims that he wouldn’t have had final cut on the movie, nor complete control over casting. Though I did find a bit implausible that any backer would have a problem with him casting Jim Parsons as his best friend, Jim multi Emmy winning star of the most watched TV show in America The Big Bang Theory Parsons isn’t a big enough star to be 2nd fiddle in an independent movie made by Zach Braff? Yeah whatever mate. That aside, Braff’s main reason for turning to kickstarter seemed to be so he could have complete control over his movie, no strings, no conditions. Whatever you think of that morally, like perhaps you think Braff should have accepted a lead on his creative freedom as opposed to take money out of the pockets of poor people, or possibly just funded the entire movie himself out of his sizable personal fortune (supposedly 22 million, but he has refuted that figure) but he put his cards on the table.
I can’t remember one mention of Warner Brothers involvement in the entire Veronica Mars Kickstarter machine, let alone one explaining why we have to pick up their tab. Nor do I see evidence that Bell or Thomas intend to put their own money into the project, something that Braff has explicitly said he will do. Of course you could say that the Veronica Mars movie definitely wouldn’t have happened without Kickstarter and Braff’s movie could have, but the point stays the same. For all the 99 percent vs the 1% insults levelled at Braff, I can’t really recall any being thrown at the professionally adorable, but equally a multi-millionaire Kristen Bell. Ultimately I just think it came down to the Veronica Mars movie is OK because Veronica Mars is cool, Kristen Bell is cool and their fans are cool, whereas Wish I Was Here is bad because Garden State is not cool, Zach Braff is not cool and therefore his fans are being conned because nobody could possibly want another movie from that guy. This is a bullshit argument for me. If one is OK the other is OK, and nobody OK with the Veronica Mars kickstarter can be morally outraged be Braff’s, just because its a project you believe shouldn’t be able to raise 2 million on the internet. It has. Personally I think Garden State has aged horribly, and I don’t have a burning desire to see Braff make another movie 10 years later and I certainly didn’t donate, but if people want to, that’s their business. Just as it was with Veronica Mars project.
Too much effort though has gone into to making a distinction between VM and Braff’s film, so Braff can be insulted, whereas the real debate should be whether EITHER of these films or anything like them should be allowed on a site that follows the economic model of a charity. I think Kickstarter was originally envisioned as a place to give the little guy a chance, where money can be raised for projects, like games/documnetaries/short films etc. where profit more or less wouldn’t play a part. If studios and the independent film begin to see Kickstarter as a sustainable model, with an eye to cinema and VOD profits, then questions have to be asked about what donors are obligated. Perhaps they should stop being called donors, and start being called investors. I understand the legality of rewarding someone who invests 0.006% of the budget with 0.006% of the revenue is currently shady, but perhaps this is something that needs to be sorted out, because there could be a window to for studios and cult figures of repute to exploit cult fanbases for free cash and take all the profits, which looked at in literal terms is not that different to a pyramid scheme.
That said, there has to be an element of personal responsibility here. If you’re a broke father of three and you Give Eliza Dushku 2 grand to make a documentary about Albania, then bro, this is just evolution taking its course. You can’t really blame anyone else for doing something as daft as that, you have self control and just because you thought Dushku was hot in Bring It On doesn’t make bankrupting your family her fault and not yours. In that sense, I don’t really have any strong moral objections to Kickstarter, no one is forced to do anything against their will and I think nothing about Kickstarter should be made illegal, but that doesn’t mean its not icky at times. There’s potential for greatness here. Kickstarter could be the way for people to get the movies they want without being subject to the fast food restaurant that is Hollywood and its fantastic for first time film-makers making their first steps into the industry. But people have to be wary, anything designed with good intentions and without the profit motive like this is easily exploited. I don’t think it would be too difficult for a con man to come up with a fake project, make a quick video, spend a couple of days making storyboards etc.. Make 70,000 grand of the unsuspecting public and just walk away with the cash, never to be seen again.
I think if profit making movie projects are entering the arena of crowd-sourcing funds, then there has got to be better accountability, a better sense of financial reward. Perhaps contributors who give less than say, 200 dollars, should get all the same prizes they do now, scripts, premier tickets etc… and anyone who contributes over that amount should be classified officially as an investor with a stake in the film. This would make the accountancy viable, instead of tracking everyone who give 5 dollars, the ones who’ve taken more personal risk in seeing this project get made get rewarded with something more tangeable then a walk on part or a character named after them. The birthing years of a new paradigm are always the worst, when the law and public savvy has not caught up with people gaming the system, they can and will get away with more. But perhaps thats the risk we take in attempting to take away the security blanket of the studio system. The wilderness can be dark, scary and unforgiving. It can also be worth it. I guess we’ll just have to wait and see.
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