Having waited a week after the raucous manhunt for the Boston marathon bombers, I had been planning to write about militias and gun-related laws in Massachusetts, based on some commentary I had seen flit across my Facebook feed. But it seems something much more important has cropped up to discuss at this particular moment in time: Zach Braff’s Kickstarter campaign for a “tonal sequel” to his 2004 indie film Garden State. Here’s the deets:
When I saw that this was indeed “a thing” I was pretty excited. I’m a big fan of Garden State, and of Zach Braff in general, and I am one of those who has speculated whether that movie was doomed to be a one-hit cult wonder. I recalled hearing Braff’s March interview on Q, in which he discusses (starting at about 13:40) how all of the various studios refused to fund his first movie — it was only through finding an independent backer that Garden State eventually got made for a little under $3 million. I also recalled how excited I was at hearing that he was hoping to put together a similar movie based on a script he and his brother had written.
And now, here we are. As of writing this, three days into the campaign, Braff has raised the full $2 million goal from more than 28,000 backers. So yeah, it’s gonna happen. Despite the obvious desire to help bring a new Braff-written and directed film to bear, a number of people have criticized him on a variety of issues. None of the complaints I have seen to date come close to being more than jealous wingeing, in my view, but going on the theory that there could possibly be a valid intellectual reason why people might object to other people helping to fund Braff’s new movie, I thought I’d do a little in-depth examination of the arguments below.
If there’s anything people hate more than corporate welfare, it seems, it’s celebrity panhandling. It’s bad enough we have to listen to pleas to support poorly managed vanity charities. These people are the 1%, amiright? They have money already. As Dustin Rowles of Pajiba emotes:
[I]f Zach Braff has that much faith in his film, why doesn’t he finance it himself? Why won’t he accept the risk? It’s not a huge risk: A Zach Braff movie that shares Garden State’s tone, which stars Jim Parsons, and features a Donald Faison cameo? How many “Scrubs” and Garden State fans will see that? ALL OF THEM. How does that movie not make it’s budget back? Isn’t this what “f**k you” money is for, Mr. Braff?
This is, of course, based on Rowles’ stunningly brilliant assessment that Braff is worth $22 million because, well, “that sounds about right.” (Yeah, yeah, I know he got the number from someplace else.) Regardless of Braff’s actual bank, however, the argument might be valid. That Braff probably has $2 million of his own with which he could fund the movie seems a relatively safe assumption. In that case, why couldn’t he simply fund the movie himself?
Perhaps he could. It certainly has been done before. Joss Whedon famously self-funded his upcomingMuch Ado About Nothing, which I’m gonna go out on a limb and say will be the most profitable Shakespeare adaptation ever. According to the currency exchange calculator that is Celebrity Net Worth,a Whedon is worth two Braffs, making Ado‘s budget of $900,000 little more than chump change. A (relatively) much poorer pre-Avengers Whedon also self-funded the super-cheesily awesome Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog at 1/10th the budget of Braff’s Kickstarter goal. So, yes, it can be done.
On the other hand, if everybody were Whedon, there’d be nothing wrong with Hollywood (either that, or we’d all be moaning now about how Firefly should’ve ended while the show was on top instead of drifting along for ten seasons). There are other examples of self-funding, though. For example, the 2011 comedy-horror movie Detention, directed and (mostly) self-funded by Joseph Kahn with a budget of $10 million — but let’s face it, I didn’t even know that movie existed until I did a Google search on “self-funded movies” a few minutes ago. The better-known Kick-Ass is sometimes described as “self-funded,” but in reality it received “independent” financial support, which pretty much just means that none of the studios Michael Vaughn solicited would let him have an 11-year-old character say the word “c*nt,” so he had to find another way to fund the endeavor. True self-funding is rare outside of student films, insofar as relying on student loans and parental support is “self-funding,” and documentaries.
In all truth, I doubt Rowles and other critics really care whether Braff self-funds the movie. Their main beef seems to be with the fact that Braff is asking people who have less money than him to fund it. In only a slightly modified version of the argument, Rowles also lambastes celebrities who dared to suggest anyone help their friend fund his artistic endeavor. He complains that “if you look at it from a certain perspective, it sure does look like a whole lot of multimillionaires asking people on the Internet to give their lunch money to Zach Braff to make a movie while they sit back on their iPads in their ginormous Hollywood houses and eat lunches their personal chefs are making.” As if his faux Guy Fawkesishness isn’t showing enough, Rowles belabors the point by claiming, “I don’t mean to make it a 99 percent versus 1 percent thing, but IT’S A 99 PERCENT VERSUS ONE PERCENT thing.”
Okay, let’s play along. We will assume, for the moment, that people living in the U.S. today can actually be part of “the 99 percent.” We will also assume that being part of this “99 percent” means you have zero disposable cash. For kicks and giggles, we will also assume that every appeal made over the internet by someone deemed to be a “1 percenter” is de facto coercive. Even given these assumptions, the claim still doesn’t hold up. Why? Because there are 313 million people in the U.S. Of those, about 28,000 helped to fund Braff’s campaign. That’s a whopping 0.009% of the population. It’s entirely possible that everyone who funded Braff’s campaign fits into the comfortable margin of “the 1 percent,” with plenty of room to spare. Perhaps Braff could add a note in the credits to his movie saying, “No 99 percenters were harmed in the making of this movie.”
I’ll admit I’m being purposefully obtuse just a bit. There are probably many people who funded Braff’s Kickstarter campaign who rightfully believe themselves to be part of “the 99 percent,” considering that in the U.S., anyone who makes $506,000 or less per year is part of that demographic. On the other hand, if you have an annual salary of a cool half mil, my guess is that you probably have a disposable cash, and our second assumption goes out the window. Finally, if you think anything posted on the intarwebs is coercive, I’ll be happy to make you tin-foil hat to foil (!) the wiffy signals.
The fact is, the people who fund Kickstarter campaigns, regardless of whether they are started by big-name (or even medium-name) celebrities or relatively unknown people, are financially capable of making their own decisions about how they spend their money. Most of them are probably the same kind of people who drop $60-100 (the average contribution for Braff’s campaign is $70) on the latest video game. Part of “the 99 percent” though they may be, these are not the poor, the destitute, the “oh crap, I frittered away my student loans and now have to live in my mother’s basement” — well, maybe a few are the latter.
All in all, a Kickstarter campaign is inherently less coercive, and therefore evil, than anything that’s “publicly funded,” like every Ken Burns documentary. (Yes, Burns gets money from other sources as well, such as one of my former employers.) I don’t have anything against Burns or his documentaries, but “public” funds are drawn from taxpayer dollars, which are taken by legislative writ and threat of prosecution. Just pointing that out.
It Might Be Bad
Richard Lawson at The Atlantic Wire seems particularly concerned about the quality of the final product. In his view, there’s a potential for Braff to pulling a fast one Steve Miller-style by taking the money and running — and leaving financiers with a crappy piece of crap. In his own words:
But there’s also the sense that we as the audience are setting ourselves up for potential grand disappointment. What happens to all those loyal Veronica Mars fans if the movie comes out and it totally sucks? (TV shows made into movies tend to suck, guys. Face it.) Or, y’know, if something happens and production has to shut down? In “normal” cases the people who lose money are investors who assumed the risk with the possibility of profitable gain in the end. It’s professional. But in this case it’s just fans, people zapping their money over the Internet and hoping that what comes out a year later is worth it, something that can make them happy and give them some time with actors, musicians, whomever that they love. What if it all goes wrong?
Well, taking a stab in the dark, I’m going to say that if Braff’s movie sucks, he’s going to lose at least 28,000 fans. Worse, he’ll likely lose at least 28,000 investors for potential future projects. For his first movie he only had one investor. I don’t know about anyone else, but I’d rather have one guy mad at me than 28,000 random internet folks who all recognize me but I have no idea what they look like.
Practically, everyone who contributes to Braff’s campaign knows it could be poorly done, even if none, or very few, actually believe the final product will be bad. There’s no need to point this out, as if somehow thousands of people are ignorant fools incapable of doing a cost-benefit analysis. For those who are ignorant fools incapable of doing a cost-benefit analysis, there’s this great proverb about how soon they are likely to part with their money, and I’d just as soon see their parted money go towards Braff’s movie than someplace else.
Furthermore, Lawson mischaracterizes how the money is transferred. Earlier in the same article, he acknowledges that “there is an exchange, it’s not unilateral,” recognizing that different funders get different things in return for their help in financing the movie. However, a couple paragraphs later, he seems to forget this acknowledgement and portrays fans as “people zapping their money over the Internet and hoping that what comes out a year later is worth it.” The two representations of what’s actually happening are mutually exclusive, and I would say they are both inaccurate.
The problem lies in Lawson’s attempted comparison between “professional” studio investing and crowd-funding. Like the spoon in The Matrix, there is no dichotomy here. The funders aren’t “zapping their money” on a whim and a prayer, nor are they merely getting tchotchkes like t-shirts, CDs, etc. Nor are they investors in the same sense as studio investors, hoping to make money of the project (more on that below). Rather, in addition to the hope of a great end product and whatever bonus they may get, I suspect funders are more interested in simply participating.
This is important because ultimately a funder’s happiness doesn’t necessarily rest in the enjoyment of the final product, but rather in how that final product gets made. “Life is a journey, not a destination,” and all that. Even if Braff’s movie is terrible, the experience of having participated in the process could be euphoric.
Ultimately, I’m not trying to predict how funders will react in the event Braff fails to make a quality film. I’m just trying to point out that people already are aware of the stakes, and that how it ends up may not matter that much in the long run.
Why U No Make Funders “Investors”?
A number of people have argued that Kickstarter financiers should be treated like investors, so that they have a share in the profits as well as the risk. This is a fantastic idea, and I would love to see the day when a random individual could become a shareholder in a movie. Even better would be a movie stock market where shares could be traded, and they would gain or lose value as people learned what actors and directors were attached to (or walked off of) various projects, or when other significant events occurred, such as DVD releases or premieres in other countries, etc.
Alas, at this point, there is no way for otherwise unconnected individuals to have a small, personal stake in funding a movie. If you want to profit from movies, your only options are either 1) to make a financially successful movie on your own, or 2) buy stock in a publicly traded company that has a movie studio. Since most people don’t have the chops for the first option, the second option is the only real one. And with that option, you have no way of separating the good from the bad and the ugly — and since the major movie studios are, for the most part, subsidiaries of big corporations, that leaves a bad taste in the mouths of most people: If you like the movies Twentieth Century Fox produces, you have to buy shares in Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation. This is the way of the world we live in.
It’s also why sites like Kickstarter have become popular. Such crowd-funding sites let people finance the things by skirting the “traditional” financing method. This goes way beyond movie financing, of course. A lot of people are familiar with sites like Kiva, which offer “micro-loans” to people in developing countries. My favorite indie band Sirsy is crowd-funding their “Coast to Coast 2013” tour, and they’ve used sponsorships to help crowd-fund their CDs, including their latest one, which featured hand-clapping sponsors on the song “She’s Coming Apart.” I’m sure many other artists have done similar types of things. The Internet has merely opened up more possibilities.
But as I noted in the previous section, crowd-funding is different than investing. There are sites that offer investing opportunities for small-scale contributors. One example is, Lending Club, which lets people pool their money to offer larger loans. People use the loans for all the usual things one would expect, from paying down credit cards to having a ridiculous wedding. (DISCLAIMER: I have a small amount invested at Lending Club — and you could too, if you use my referral link!) Because this is investing, people weigh the risks and rewards separately from the purpose of the loan.
That isn’t true of crowd-funded programs like Kickstarter. The whole purpose of Kickstarter is to help people finance things they care passionately about, not to finance things they think will be financially profitable for themselves. The final product is important, but I suspect more important is the feeling of being included in the creation process. I already covered this above, but it bears repeating. That’s why premiums like getting on an exclusive email update list or receiving an early copy of a soundtrack, or even having a speaking role in the film, work as funding incentives. If the only incentive was the final product, I suspect crowd-sourcing would be much more difficult.
I also suspect that the model for crowd-funding would change significantly if people looked at it as investing rather than “supporting.” Like I said, I’d love to see a sort of stock market for specific movies — or for specific commissioned works of art in general, since that’s essentially what a movie like Braff’s is. But with such a market you will undoubtedly get not only people who are passionate, but also those who simply are looking to make money. As a libertarian, I don’t think that’s a bad thing, but it would be absurd not to acknowledge that it’s a different thing.
There Are Better Things to Fund
I’m all for discovering unknown talent and supporting them financially. Did I already mention Sirsy’s crowd-funded “Coast to Coast 2013” tour? (Hint: You can still contribute, even though they’ve reached their goal, because I’m guessing they want to drive back when the tour is over….) Another artist I recently learned about is Nataly Dawn, whose Kickstarter campaign raised $100,000, more than five times the goal. There are undoubtedly many, many, many other talented people hoping to get their deserving project(s) funded.
The argument that some have claimed is that Braff and his ilk pull money away from worthier, or at least more needy, projects. John Serba at MLive.com has five particular suggestions, and there are others who think their ideas are better than Braff’s. That people are passionate about different things is a defining characteristic of humanity: As Truman Capote once wrote, “The brain may take advice, but not the heart.” Arguing for the subjective value of one fascination over another is what makes the world go round.
What is not subjective is that Kickstarter statistics show most projects fail to receive full funding. Given the relative rarity of projects started by celebrities, however, it would be hard to blame Braff and other celebrities for the failure of all these projects. To choose a metaphor I’m sure would make most of these indie artists bristle, it’s akin to the RIAA blaming Napster for poor record sales.
Rather, I suspect high-profile campaigns like Braff’s and last-month’s Veronica Mars movie actually helpother Kickstarter efforts by drawing broader attention to the existence of crowd-funding efforts in general. Believe it or not, not everybody knows about everything that exists in the vast void that is the intarwebs. Case in point: My mom didn’t know Kickstarter even existed until I related Braff’s story to her this morning — and she’s on Facebook! (GASP!) More seriously, it’s virtually guaranteed that at least some of the people who contributed to Braff’s campaign never before donated money via Kickstarter, and some of those newbie Kickstarters will almost certainly go on to fund other things in the same way, now that they are familiar with it.
Obviously, I have no proof of this. I can only rely on my knowledge of human nature. Kickstarter could easily verify or debunk my suspicion do this by publishing a timeline of how such well-covered campaigns affect other Kickstarter campaigns. I don’t necessarily expect them to do this, but if anyone knows someone at Kickstarter who would be willing to look into it, I’d be happy to use my vast knowledge of the written language help them spin the story however is most helpful.
Ultimately, the argument that there are “worthier” artistic projects to give money to is a bunch of bunk. If we’re talking about worthiness, there are probably thousands of charities which are more worthy of receiving money than anything listed at Kickstarter. Not everybody can fund everything, nor is it reasonable to expect them to. Part of possessing independent agency is the right to choose what you fund — and what you don’t. It’s fine not to like that other people don’t choose your pet project, and even to lambaste them for it, but there’s no reason to expect others will think you sensible for doing so.
I have not helped to fund Braff’s campaign, nor do I plan to. I will most likely see the movie when it is made, and depending how good it is, I’ll probably buy a copy of it. The reasons I’m not funding it are because 1) it’s fully funded already, and likely will go well past the goal, and 2) if I had the money to fund anyone, it would be Sirsy (c’mon, third mention…you know you want to donate a few miles for their tour).
That said, the hubbub around Braff’s campaign is mostly noise. It’s simultaneously funny and sad when people are so heavily entrenched in their own personal Hegelian views of the world that they can’t recognize when the fake dichotomies they make, such as the whole 99 percent vs. 1 percent thing, don’t even fit their own models. It’s even funnier when they try to make economic arguments despite misunderstanding fairly basic accounting principles, like the difference between funding and investing. Appeals for others to use their money to support your subjective artistic sensibilities, however, are just tiresome.
Personally, I hope Braff knocks it out of the park. I liked Garden State, and I hope he truly does have something that will be a worthy successor. If he does fail, I hope everyone learns an important life lesson of some sort, though I don’t presume to know what the appropriate lesson should be.