I’ve seen a very interesting post from Ken Levine about Zach Braff fundraising his next project through Kickstarter shared across my social media world today. You you should read the thought-provoking way he objects to this approach in its entirety here called I Won’t Give Zach Braff One Dime. I’m a fan of Mr. Levine, in both his extensive professional career and even more so in his intelligent and thoughtful blog, but I find myself disagreeing with him, and by extension those I’ve seen share the post in support of it, this time.
I actually understand and agree with some of Mr. Levine’s points, but I think for someone with a successful career in the industry, some of his characterizations are over-simplifications in support of the argument. I actually agree with the sentiment, and the frustration, at the ease with which both Zach Braff and the lauded Veronica Mars project achieved goals absolutely beyond the comprehension of the vast majority of those attempting to use crowdfunding mechanisms to break into some aspect of the entertainment industry.
I recently completed funding a film I am producing using Indiegogo as the platform for fundraising. For full disclosure, you can see our campaign here. I will tell you that crowdfunding involves an enormous amount of work, and we learned a great deal through things that were successful in supporting our effort and some things that definitely were not. I’m actually speaking at a conference about crowdfunding this weekend at the Producer’s Guild based on what we learned through doing it to help others share from our perceived success.
However, it’s possible that Mr. Levine would consider our project to be in the same vein as the aforementioned examples of defeating “the whole purpose” of this novel approach to funding. My producing partner, and our writer/director, Del Shores, has had a long successful career as a playwright and a writer/director/producer in both television and film. We produced another of his projects together two years ago through traditional investor funding.
We chose to use Indiegogo for our current project, Southern Baptist Sissies, for a number of reasons. Six years ago we attempted to adapt the play it is based on to film, only to have the funding for the project fall apart. In the six years since we have not been able to get it back off the ground. Despite the fact that Del has a successful track record with gay-themed projects, he has a built-in fanbase, and there were at least identifiable names attached, we had no luck. In the fall, we decided to see if anyone else believed in the story we were trying to tell and wanted us to make this project as much as we wanted to. We raised over $100,000 toward the budget from fans of Del, fans of the original play, fans of Sordid Lives and from those who believe the subject of the damage that the conflict between religion and sexuality is important and wanted to help us tell the story. We were awed and humbled, and you better believe that every check I have written I remember that I have a responsibility to all of those people to spend their money wisely. I count every single penny.
My problem with Mr. Levine’s perspective is that I think he is choosing to see these two projects as inherently negative and destructive to the apparatus growing to support funding upstart artists and projects. I will happily admit that after working for several hours daily to provide content and stimulate conversation to squeak across the finish line of our $100,000 goal at the last minute, yes, I rolled my eyes in annoyance at the articles touting the Veronica Mars explosion that happened shortly thereafter. However, I think Mr. Levine is unfairly ignoring several things that are unique about these examples and could be seen as inspiring to other artists for several reasons.
Veronica Mars was never an enormous hit, but it had (and obviously still has) a rabid fanbase. It has been so many years since the show was on the air, for the purposes of film investors, it might as well have been in black and white when they consider it in terms of potential profit. As all major film investors do. All of them. In addition, Kristen Bell’s star has risen dramatically in the years since the show, and yet she has continued to talk regularly in interviews over the years about her desire to do a Veronica Mars film. Their is an element of integrity and loyalty displayed in that that is not often seen by actors on the rise because, let’s be honest, no matter how great it is, the film is not going to be huge. Our culture is too interested in the new and shiny, and no matter how great the reviews are, the masses will not be lining up to see the film of a tiny TV show of yesteryear.
As for Zach Braff, in Hollywood terms, he’s been dead for a while. I’m sure he’s been doing something since Scrubs and Garden State, but dang if I have any idea what. I read through his entire campaign about this project, and he is brutally honest and truthful about the nature of his project along with the challenges of securing financing and the strings that come along with investment. Steven Spielberg gets to do whatever he wants; Zach Braff has to agree to an enormous amount of compromises to reassure investors that he has enough boxes checked for them to feel confident that their money will be returned. The use of crowdfunding to maintain complete control of the entire process from the cast to the final locked and completed picture, to me speaks as much of a desire to create his own personal vision in its entirety as anything else. Something all artists dream of having the freedom to do.
In addition, if you read through Braff’s campaign and look at the prizes, through the process of making this film he has agreed to make a great deal of the project, the set, post-production and a large number of very specific events around the world available to anyone interested, and by extension he has made himself extremely available as well. He’s going to be recording a lot of voicemails and sitting at a lot of premieres and parties with total strangers in order to make this project happen.
Let’s also not forget, that by allowing fans and supporters to fund these projects, they are extremely accountable in the final result to these funders. No, they cannot demand their money back, but you can bet if they are not pleased with the result and how their money was spent, there will likely be an enormous outcry. Even this form of fundraising comes with a new kind of accountability that these high profile projects will be beholden to.
So yes, these two high profile cases can be seen as profoundly irritating and a huge betrayal of the independent spirit of the new crowdfunding mechanisms, but I choose to see them as inspiring because here are two artists truly and openly working to create projects they love exactly the way they want to create them.
I think we cannot choose to see this as a competition between the filmmaker in Nowhere, USA and the Hollywood insider “cheating” by using crowdfunding. High profile projects, press and successful results are beneficial to anyone using these platforms because more and more people become familiar with the concept. It’s very new, and the number of times I personally have had to explain how it works is not small. I’ve been using the Veronica Mars story as shorthand lately when speaking to those outside of the industry.
As to Mr. Levine’s suggestion that projects like these two are taking money that would have gone to smaller, unknown projects – I don’t think it’s applicable in these aberrant examples. The celebrity-chasing that may have contributed to a great deal of their contributions beyond their own existing fanbases did not come from the kind of people who would find a small and unique project interesting enough to support in the first place. If they were drawn by the celebrity, then it’s really the only reason they were there in the first place. They were not likely browsing for something innovative and exciting, came across Zach Braff’s project and then stopped. The alternative upside is, now that they have found the world of crowdfunding, they might stick around and fund something else!
I understand Mr. Levine’s fear of big Hollywood indies stealing the money and the “Sundance-ification”, if you will, of independent filmmaker opportunities. However, early on, it took a handful of notable success stories to make Sundance what it was for so many years, before it lost its true independent spirit. Kickstarter and Indiegogo and others like them are new enough that many are still discovering what the concept is and how it works. A few high profile projects are likely to actually be helpful to the rest of us for a while as more people come to understand what all of us indie filmmakers are trying to do in this innovative new approach.
So, I don’t completely disagree with Mr. Levine, I just think it’s a little early to be ringing the alarm bells. At all levels of the industry, artists fight the business interests in an attempt to keep the vision as close to the original concept as possible. I live in a house with fourteen people, sharing one bathroom, in order to afford to spend my days focused on our film as we lock the picture by the end of this week. All of us do what we have to do, and make the sacrifices we have to make, to create the work we want to create. I just cannot yet begrudge Kristen and Zach for choosing their fans and their vision, respectively, as the reason for using “our” fundraising outlet to do so. So, I’m choosing to see these two examples as inspiring and mildly frustrating at the same time, in the way I see Ryan Gosling’s career (and six pack) as inspiring and mildly (okay, a lot) frustrating to my actor side. It’s also quite possible that I’m just younger and stupider than Mr. Levine and do not have the storied and successful history with the industry that he does to speak from. Like Mr. Levine, I’m not giving Zach Braff a dime, but it’s more because I don’t have one to spare than anything else.
Though I will agree with Mr. Levine on this – when Harvey does decide to show up, it is all over.