Slumming on Kickstarter?

     |    Saturday June 1st, 2013

by Andrew Horn

A few weeks ago I wrote about the arguably questionable use of Kickstarter in financing the “Veronica Mars” movie, and speculated on the slippery slope that it might engender. I found the whole thing sort of weird, but considering it was probably the only way to make something where the rights were held by a studio who had no interest in doing anything with them, ok – I suppose I get that. Ethical questions of Hollywood types using a populist medium of money raising notwithstanding, I guess you could say they were making a point. Whether the ca 47,000 fans they mobilized will result in a wider audience for the film itself remains to be seen, but they wanted a movie and they paid for it and it will be made. If nothing else, you can call it an interesting experiment.

Risky casting - Jim Parsons and Zach Braff

Shortly after that, the slope started slipping when Zach Braff picked up the ball and launched his own Kickstarter campaign to finance a new film, “Wish I Were Here”. At the time I thought of writing a follow-up, and then thought better of it. The even more questionable ethics of it were getting enough play without me. And while not as successful as his predecessor, he did just fine, thank you very much, finishing up a few days ago with 150% of his goal. But now that he’s done, a few other things have also happened and it made me think there was more to say.

If “Veronica Mars” was strange, Zach Braff was making me uncomfortable. He was a pretty highly paid tv actor with earnings from his hit show, “Scrubs”, reaching $350,00 per episode. And this show ran 3 times as many seasons as “Veronica Mars”. I read somewhere that he’s worth about 22 million. His film’s budget is 2.5 million. Theoretically if he couldn’t get backing, you’d think he’d have the wherewithal to do the movie himself and screw it.

But backing was not the problem. We should note that his previous movie “Garden State” cost about the same and that ended up earning $35 million dollars – on the theatrical, never mind home video, tv and blah blah blah. Now given that rate of return on a 2.5 million budget, it’s not an outlandish assumption that he should be inspiring a certain amount of confidence investor-wise. Particularly as his cast, aside from himself, includes Kate Hudson as well as Jim Parsons, the guy from “Big Bang Theory” which happens to be one of the biggest hits on TV right now. However the reasoning he gave for raising the money from crowd financing, was that the money people were making creative demands on him – such as casting(?!) – that he wanted to avoid. In theory, this is of course reasonable, but under the above circumstances it sounds like a bit of a stretch.

I mentioned this one day to my son, who obviously represents a wholly other generational viewpoint than I. He had little or no problem with this scenario. He basically said that if that’s what people want to do with their money, it’s their money. Well ok, on that level I suppose he has a point. And I could also imagine that Zach Braff is probably not diverting Kickstarter money that could be potentially going to me or anyone I know. I can only say, that the idea that someone is asking his fans for money which he arguably doesn’t need, just doesn’t feel right.

Which seemed to be a common response. Despite having reached his goal within a day, as we know, it caused a lot more backlash then “Veronica Mars”. Many people seemed to feel as I did, and many voiced their opinion – one article referring to him as “the reverse Robin Hood” – , to the extent that Braff felt he had to publicly defend himself. I don’t know if it placated too many of his critics, yet in the end his fans came through with another 1.5 million. Interestingly enough, given his claim that he wanted to free himself from obligation to outside investors, it was recently reported that meetings with such outside investors during the Cannes Film Festival netted him additional funds.

All this brought a response from the New York Times ethics columnist, Chuck Klosterman. In an article on May 24th, he observed, “there’s no reason his celebrity discounts him from utilizing a for-profit money-raising medium that was consciously designed to be democratic.” However he went on to point out that through the Kickstarter campaign Braff was basically getting himself $2 million dollars worth of publicity with $2 million dollars cash to boot. If he was just in it for the money, that was one thing.  But if in fact the whole thing was really all about the hype, Klosterman speculated, “he drifts back into unethical territory.” But speculations aside, he added “As it stands, I can’t classify Zach Braff as anything worse than opportunistic.” Which in a Hollywood context, is faint damnation indeed.

Melissa Joan Hart


But a lot of comments posters have been complaining that using one’s celebrity is taking unfair advantage of Kickstarter’s intended populist stance – like exploiting the “free market”. But could it be that the power of the free market can actually work for the good? Could it be that pure celebrity status does not in fact guarantee success? Just asks TV star Melissa Joan Hart, formerly of “Clarissa Explains It All”, “Sabrina The Teenage Witch” and currently “Melissa And Joey”. When this artist struggling to achieve her vision – who is, by the way also a producer of her shows, so no stranger to the business end – asked her fans to pony up for her new movie, “Darci’s Walk Of Shame”, she wound up closing down her campaign due to lack of support. The site is no longer up so we can’t see her presentation, but clearly the fans weren’t drinking the Kool-Aid. (Or maybe rewards such as having two of the cast members – names TBA – follow you on Twitter for a whole year, just weren’t all that awesome.)

A little bit of schadenfreude to be sure , but I probably wouldn’t have revisited this topic but for a recent announcement of Zosia Mamet’s Kicksarter campaign to make a music video of her and her sister’s “hipster folk band”. On her site, she explained that the band’s existence was “an excuse to spend more time together” and added that “I took up the banjo and started playing it very badly but I think that was reason enough for us to continue.”

Clara and Zosia Mamet, aka The Cabin Sisters

If this was just some kid trying to make a ‘cute’ video, nobody would have cared. But Ms. Mamet is the daughter of the successful playwright and screenwriter/director, David Mamet. Now while I might cut her some slack because she doesn’t want to use her dad’s money, it’s impossible to ignore that she is also one of the stars of Lena Dunham’s hit HBO series, “Girls”. So why does she need to solicit donations totaling $32,000 to goof around with her friends? (And you might also ask, why does goofing around with her friends cost $32,000?)  “It’s also a way for us to get to know you better,” she says, “our music has been something that we have kept to ourselves, like a sisterly bond, but we’d love to share it with you guys.” With all due respect, I think that’s why god created YouTube. Here again, the ‘Free Market’ has spoken – as of last Wednesday, her campaign had attracted only 9 donors. (But hey, maybe the negative publicity will get her the sympathy vote.)

So getting back to my original weird feelings generated by Zach Braff, I think this last example finally made it clear to me what my problem is. I grew up in the age of DIY – people who want to do their work and get it out there however they can. This often means putting in a great deal of their own money as well as personal sacrifice and also, very importantly, the help of their friends. And now in the age of Kickstarter, sometimes the help of people who think what you’re doing is cool and interesting and are willing to support it. By any means necessary, I say, but still I can’t help but feel it’s a bit cloying to have to hear about millionaires asking for public support for work that they have the means to make possible. And particularly in these times of culture war over the dominance of the 1%.

That being said – yes, it’s a free country, and as my son says, even “the privileged” are also entitled to use that tool if that’s what they want to do and people are willing to buy into it. Honestly speaking, trying to control it would likely be even more counter-productive. And thankfully, as we’ve seen, the power of celebrity doesn’t necessarily make up for the fact that your idea may not be – shall we say – worthy of support. And inevitably, it’s already become the subject of parody:

But thankfully too, we know that DIY can and does exists in the upper echelons.  To give a couple of recent examples, the Wachowski’s were willing to mortgage their home to help with the financing of “Cloud Atlas” and Joss Whedon put up his own cash and got his friends together to do “Dr. Horrible” after “Firefly” flamed out. “Dr. Horrible” was a server crashing success, “Cloud Atlas” was – shall we say –  less so. The jury is still out on Whedon’s latest film of Shakespeare’s “Much Ado About Nothing”, which he made using his profits from “The Avengers”, but it doesn’t matter – he wanted to make it, he had the means and he did it. Same with the Wachowski’s. Or, looking back, John Cassavetes using his Hollywood money to make his own films, or Coppola going into hock for “Apocalypse Now”. Or even Orson Welles while we’re at it. They can succeed or fail, you can like it or dismiss it. But to use the means available  to create something you feel you need to create, for me, what better use of power or money, or even ego, could there be?