In its short, four-year history, Kickstarter, the wunderkind crowdsourcing website, has funneled $514 million to musicians, filmmakers, developers and inventors. The website is slap-your-head-simple: a project is posted with a set monetary goal; the user can pledge an amount NPR-style, and if the goal is reached, the cash flows. If the goal is not met, no money changes hands. Kickstarter is Netflix in 2008 and it is scaring the shit out of the people that make money off creative people.
Enter Zach Braff (preferably in a low-angle walk-and-talk circa season 2 Scrubs). Braff decides to go around the studio system and Kickstart part of his new film, Wish I Was Here, which he wrote and will direct, his first such venture since the indie rom-com Garden State. The project reached its $2 million goal in 36 hours. The Internet, as the Internet is wont to do, donned its Righteous Anger Hat and started writing article after article about why you shouldn’t fund the projects fat-cat celebrities. These people are wrong. If anything, we should throw more cash at artists with proven track records and industry connections. In this case, a rising tide really does lift all boats. Here are some of the arguments against celebrity crowdfunding– and why they don’t add up.
Because they are already rich
This is probably the worst argument one could make, and to see it come from people with extensive knowledge of how the industry works is gross. Braff isn’t making some short to show at a college film festival, he’s filming a bona fide Movie with a capital ‘M’. Movies cost money to make. Lots of it. The $2 million from the Kickstarter campaign will cover, at most, a third of the film’s total budget. Braff himself is front at least a season’s worth of Scrubs money to make it happen. The reason he is going straight to his fans for cash is to avoid the studio system. If you don’t think the studios influence the creative direction of movies, go watch Louis C.K.’s Pootie Tang and get back to me. Braff gets full creative control and viewers get to see what a movie looks like without corporate influence. Just because Braff has had financial success, why does that mean he should fund his own projects? We don’t expect the same from Whedon or Speilberg and nor should we. That’d be like asking a bartender to start buying the liquor because he had a few solid nights slinging drinks.
Because it goes against the idea of crowdsourcing
Lucky for us, the arbitrators of the Internet have written a Code of Croudsourcing. Its main tenant is “Thou shall only fund projects from people you have never, ever heard of.” The argument goes that if you give your hard-earned cash to Zach Braff, you won’t toss any shekels to fund Joe Schmoe’s polka-funk-metal fusion band. The numbers, unfortunately for the Holy Sees, don’t bear that out. Kickstarter revealed that 63% of the funders for the two biggest movie projects, Wish I Was Here and the Veronica Mars movie, were first-timers, and 40% of those went on to fund other projects. Kickstarter calls it the Blockbuster Effect and it makes sense when you get off your high horse and think about it. Big acts can bring big acclaim to the little guys. It’s the same reason your favorite local band opens for Kings of Leon. As of writing this, 37,000 people gave money to Zach Braff–those 37,000 people clearly don’t give care about a narrowly defined “purpose” of crowdfunding. This technology is too new to be pigeonholed.
Because it would have been made anyway
This argument states that since Zach Braff et al. have access to Hollywood’s elite, they can easily secure funding for these projects so they don’t need to “steal” money from fans in order to get these projects made. Not only is that not true, but it’s missing the point. First, a movie based on a 2004 TV show that very few people watched isn’t exactly a sure-bet. There’s a reason that new episodes of Arrested Development are on Netflix and nowhere else– the studios aren’t wasting their time on niche projects. More and more they are relying on a few big-budget tent pole releases that can do well overseas. In the past ten years, the number of studio films released each year has decreased 28%. So it’s no guarantee that these projects get funded. Garden State, despite everyone I know having seen it, only made $35 million at the box office– a fifth of the gross of Scary Movie 4.
There’s another reason it make sense to support celebrity Kickstarters: you’re going to get a quality product. You might not like Wish I Was Here or the Veronica Mars movie, but I guarantee they will actually be made, and made well. Unfortunately, lots of funded projects simply don’t ever materialize. This isn’t always the creators fault, but it doesn’t make it less true. Zach Braff has the ability to make sure his shit actually gets done. There’s a reason you wouldn’t invest in neighbor Bob’s pirate radio station, but you wouldn’t hesitate to dig some cash out of your tote bag and pledge to NPR. Now, sometimes neighbor Bob has an incredible idea (Mark Zuckerberg and Sean Fanning say, “Hi”), but it often makes sense to invest in people or companies we trust. With every celebrity project, crowdsourcing becomes more and more viable for the lowly interns with a killer screenplay. A rising level of trust in this new technology is good for creators, big and small, as well as consumers of their work. We should have the option to give to the openers or the headliners. There’s room for both.