Last week, while at a dinner party, I was involved in what turned out to be a very passionately divided argument. The subject up for debate? Zach Braff’s Kickstarter campaign.
Now, for those of you who don’t know what I’m talking about, just like one of the dinner party guests did not, I will explain it you, from the beginning. Kickstarter is a for-profit company founded in 2009, that aims to help people with creative projects find their funding through crowd sourcing, using the Kickstarter Website. One might make a video, or a commercial for their creative project, be it a film, a show, a novel, or an invention, post their plea for cash on the Kickstarter website, link it their twitter/facebook/read-it/tumbler account and hope for the best. The project creator sets a time limit and a minuium funding goal. If their goal is not met in the time allotted, no funds are collected (meaning the donated funds are returned to the donators.) If they do reach their goal (Hurray!) then Kickstarter takes 5% and calls it a day. Kickstarter retains no ownership of the project and the project creator is free to go off and make their dreams come true.
A little over a month ago, the team behind the cancelled but popular television show Veronica Mars launched a campaign to raise the capital ($2 million) to shoot a feature film of the series. The series lead actor, Kristen Bell, appears in a video along with other cast members and the show’s creator, Rob Thomas. They explain that they have been trying to get this movie greenlit by the studios for years, but no one believed that the show was popular enough to warrant a movie. The studios were not willing to risk their money. But one studio agreed to distribute if the team could come up with their own financing. So they took it to Kickstarter, where they not only raised the $2 million, but they did it in a weekend. By the end of the month, they’d raised over $6 million and promised to shoot the movie this Summer.
This past week, actor/director Zach Braff launched his own Kickstarter campaign in the hopes of raising the capital to shoot his second feature film. He made a similar, cute and funny video, where he explains that he’s got a script that he wrote and loves and thinks his fans and the fans of Garden State will love too, but he needs our help to fund the movie. His goal was met and surpassed quickly. Zach Braff will make his movie.
So, what was the discussion about? The heated, passionate debate, I mentioned earlier? Basically it is this. I think that Zach Braff is manipulating Kickstarter, his donators and the world, and now I’ll tell you why.
Zach Braff begins his Kickstarter video by explaining that he and his brother have written a film, and found some “money guys” who are willing to finance but are insisting on final cut of the film (final cut is an industry term meaning that the “money guys” would control how the film is edited. It also means that if they and the director disagree about something, they win the argument.) Zach also explains that these “money guys” want to control casting. He explains that if he might want to cast Jim Parsons (from Garden State and more recently, The Big Bang Theory) or Donald Faison (Scrubs) the “money guys” might insist on Justin Bieber or Denzel Washington. These are the actual examples that Zach Braff gives. The video is entertaining and both the Jim Parsons and Donald Faison appear. Zach sits in front of a large framed poster of his first feature film, Garden State, and explains that that movie was financed almost entirely by one money guy who was a fan of Zach’s and Scrubs and wanted Zach to have full creative freedom. Garden State was a very successful movie and I’m sure that Zach’s fan financier was very pleased with his return on investment both financially and creatively.
Zach Braff has had a successful career as an actor and film maker. As one dinner party guest said, “he won the lottery.” So why does he need my money to make his film? This is my first problem with his campaign. He admits that he has access to financing. He admits that he has doors open to him that are not open to every creative person hoping to make a meaningful film. He is a television and movie star who gets the meeting he wants and needs and he even has a financing offer on the table but he doesn’t want to give an inch of creative control. I understand this dilemma, but at the risk of sounding catty, “boo-hoo.” Life is full of compromises, especially in Hollywood. No one gets to make the movie they see in their head. There are teams of people whose job it is to figure out what an audience might want to see, and that is often imposed on the writer and director. Zach himself admits this on his very nicely put together campaign page. He discusses advanced screenings where the audience makes notes on what they did and didn’t like so that changes can be made before the film is released. Zach wants to avoid all this because he is sure that his vision in best and should be unchallenged. OK. I get that. But I will say that as a writer, having people challenge and help shape your work can be really helpful. You realize problems you never would have seen on your own. And I’ve seen the director’s cut of Garden State (you can too, it’s on the DVD) and it’s long and indulgent. His Garden State team, possibly his fan investor, had the sense to pull in the reigns a little, and thank goodness they did. Zach also only suggests that his “money guys” might not let him cast who he wants. MIGHT NOT. He is turning down their financing because they might not let him do exactly what he wants, and he can’t stomach that idea.
That leads me to my second point, if this project is so important to him, then why hasn’t he invested in it himself? I won’t pretend that I understand Zach Braff’s financial situation, but I would imagine that he has more money than most. He was on a very successful television show for a number of seasons at a time where tv stars were making huge sums per episode. Huge! Garden State did very well and I assume that he retained quite a good deal of ownership. I’m not saying that Zach Braff has $2 million under his mattress, but I do find it interesting that he never in his video claims to have invested in himself. Maybe he could come up with the first million or $500, 000 and ask his fans to help him match it (just a suggestion, Zach, not that you need my suggestions.) A friend at the dinner party had a problem with my problem. He argued that my idea that rich actors should pay for their own passion project was ridiculous. He claimed that no one pays for their own projects, it just isn’t done. To that I say, well why the hell not? It seems to me, that when Zach Braff makes his movie and if it does well, the only person that stands to benefit financially from this venture is…Zach Braff. In a traditional investor agreement, the film-maker would be expected to pay back the investment with interest, and the investor would make money as the film makes money for the rest of the film’s life. That includes distribution deals, netflix, dvd sales etc. As a Kickstarter campaign contributor, it is not an investment, it is a donation. There will be no payback (all though there are incentive gifts that the production promises to send you.) But if the film gets world wide distribution and breaks box office records, Zach Braff and his team will reap those benefits…not his “financiers.” My friend argued that he thought Zach Braff was being creative, and brave, asking for help with a risky model. I have to wonder…where’s the risk? It seems to me that Zach Braff has a lot of options for getting his film made (where a lot of filmmakers have few or none) and the least risky is asking strangers for money with little to no strings attached.
And lastly, I worry that the success of campaigns like Zach Braff’s and even Veronica Mars’ (to which I donated because I LOVED that show) is going to change the way that studios and producers expect ALL film to be financed in the future. I worry that I will take my next screenplay into a meeting which I am lucky enough to score with Sony Picture Classics and they will say, “We love it Adrienne. Now come back with $2 million and we’ll see what we can do.” I worry that it will soon become a part of the writer/director’s duties to also secure the financing, even on a bigger studio scale. I admit that the studio system is changing and will continue to change in ways I can’t foresee, but this concerns me. On a totally selfish level, I was hoping in the near future of my career as a writer to be able to hand the financing problem over to another department, and now I’m afraid that it will always land back in my lap with the suggestion of an easy Kickstarter campaign.
As the conversation wound down and we all agreed to stay friends even though half of us will donate to Zach’s campaign and half will not, I did have to admit it was an exciting argument to take part in. Art and money are always tricky. However, it is encouraging to know that there are lots of people out there donating on Kickstarter, to big public campaigns like Veronica Mars and Zach Braff, but also to smaller, lesser publicized campaigns for burgeoning novelists, fine artists, video game designers, and an engineering toy tool set geared especially for little girls that I invested in last year. I’m sure at some point I’ll make a Kickstarter campaign for a project, and though I’m sure Zach Braff won’t donate (can you blame him? I haven’t exactly been nice) I’m hoping you’ll consider it.
I moved to Los Angeles from New York City about 6 years ago for many reasons. To be closer to family, to escape the New York Grind, for a fresh start, etc. But mostly I moved for career reasons. To transition from being a playwright to a screenwriter. New York is theatre (i.e. playwriting) whereas film was in LA. Duh. Now, I’m a smart girl with a realistic perspective on life. I knew this would be hard…but I had high hopes. I had a play that I had written that everyone said would make a fantastic movie. I had adult professionals (better known as my NYU professors) telling me I had talent. I had screen writing software for my computer! All I had to do was turn this riveting play that I’d written into a low budget, “indie” movie script, attach some well known actors, shoot the movie for a nominal sum of money, and go to Sundance. How hard could this be? I was young, talented and determined, and I’d just moved to Hollywood, where it is sunny all the time. Life was beautiful and so was I…
If this all sounds like the beginning of a Lifetime Murder Mystery movie or the pilot episode of a CW show where a plucky young heroine hopes to make it big in her new city, then I’m sorry. Six years later, I have not been murdered, and I’m not in any way “big”. However (spoiler alert) that fabulous play turned screenplay finally begins shooting in June with a great cast, a decent budget and an announcement in the Hollywood Reporter. It’s all happening, as they say, and it’s wonderful. But getting this far was hard, slow going, tedious work. I didn’t burst onto the scene as I had fantasized. It has been years of networking (yuck) and re-writes (ugh) and meetings with producers in frozen yogurt shops (red flags). It’s been a roller coaster ride of emotions, false starts, and un-kept promises, but I’m told that this is normal. Just par for the proverbial course. I am really happy things are finally going so well…and I’m exhausted.
Independent film is a mysterious beast. It can mean a lot of things, from a group of friends shooting a short film on their I-phones, to Lena Dunham’s inspired Tiny Furniture, shot with her own family/friends in her own home with her own funds (as I understand it) to films loaded with movie-stars, loaded with cash and pre-sale money, BUT no major studio attachment until after it has debuted at a big film festival. To say you are making an “independent film” is simply to say that a major studio did not, in fact, hire you to write the next movie in whatever Young Adult Fiction, or Super Hero franchise. But other than that, the term is vague. Very vague.
My film is as independent as it gets. A talented college friend who acts and produces loved the script and came on early as my producing partner. With some luck and some connections we hooked up with a reputable production company that made large promises that it couldn’t keep. That wasted the first two and half years, but we learned a lot. We eventually parted ways with that company. Over the next couple of years we met with other producers who made similar promises in terms of budget raising, talent securing, and location scouting that never materialized. We were frustrated, they were noncommittal. It was like one bad break up after another. Again, we learned and learned until we couldn’t learn anymore (and by learned, I mean cried.) During these break-ups, we met a talented and excited commercial director looking for her first feature who came on board. Finally the three of us struck out on our own, formed our own production company, raised the budget, hired a casting director, and went to work making a film. We carefully gathered a team of solid, reliable, professionals who were as passionate about our film as we were and we pushed ahead. It wasn’t how I planned it at all. I thought there would be loads of “Big Wig” professionals who would take over and make my movie for me. They would handle the finances, write the checks and file our taxes. I would write from a plush production office and have an assistant that brings me almond milk lattes (some day, Adrienne, some day.) Instead, I have written and rewritten at my kitchen table, I have written the checks for our script copies, legal fees and permits, from our LLC bank account that I set up, and I’m sometimes too lazy to make my own lattes so I simply go without. But it’s better this way, I think. We’ve managed to retain so much creative control. We got to cast who we wanted, and work with our friends. At the end of the day, I can truly say that I worked my ass off to move this script…this project that I love as far as it has come and I’m confident that I will be very proud of the outcome. And isn’t that what making art is all about?
Another group of friends ventured down the road of independent feature film making recently. Their film, Initiation, had a kick-starter campaign that garnered only a fraction of their small budget. They sold their belongings to pay for equipment and locations, got a cast and crew of talented, dedicated, friends and went to work. Actors doubled as producers and production assistants. When my friends weren’t acting in a scene they were cooking meals for the rest of the cast and crew. People showed up for over night shoots in deserted locations, stayed for 12 hour days, all without getting paid because they were passionate about the film. I’ve seen footage. It looks great, and I feel confident it will have a long, successful life. But what I love most about this film Initiation, and our film and all the great work that my friends are doing these days is that they did it because they loved it. Not for the money (all though, some money would be nice) but because they love film, and story telling, and working with their friends.
So even though I have my cynical moments where I lament having not sold out, and sold the script for a decent chunk of change, maybe never to see or hear of it again, I’m glad I didn’t. I’m glad that my partners and I fought the good fight and will have produced, written and directed a movie that we fostered, nurtured and loved for so many years, and we did so independently (what ever that means.) That’s not to say that I’m not dying to be hired to write the third Hunger Games movie. I can taste that almond milk latte now. Yummmm.
Today is a truly gorgeous day in Los Angeles. It’s sunny and warm. The sky is blue, the traffic is light and the brunch crowds are friendly, enjoying another beautiful weekend on the left coast. In fact, most days in LA are relatively gorgeous. We really do have excellent weather and blue skies with an unreasonable consistency. It’s early March and Los Angelinos are in t-shirts and sandals, enjoying our comfortable 80 degree weather while much of the rest of the Country suffers through a frigid Winter. So what do we do with our delightfully sunny and pleasant weekends? We lounge. We go sunbathe at the beach or stroll around the Farmer’s Markets. We hike Runyon Canyon and walk in Griffith Park. We go to the dog park (because everyone in LA has a dog) or take our adorably well dressed kids to the zoo. Or, if you are a super sleuthing wanna-be detective, art lover (like I am) you go to a Murder Mystery Scavenger Hunt at the J. Paul Getty Museum that sits high in the rolling hills overlooking the city.
Now, I’ve been to the Getty before. Lots of times in fact. It is an impressive museum that apparently houses some beautiful and valuable works of art, but that is not why people flock to this particular museum. The Getty itself is a work of art. The architecture, the landscaping and the views it offers are all breathtaking. The buildings are slick white stone with fountains and water fixtures in every courtyard. The trees are planted and pruned in perfect symmetry, a veritable geometry lesson in right angles and perfect squares. The garden is a spiral of creeks, flower lined paths and footbridges, and the lawn is a stretch of perfect, almost neon green grass, sprinkled with picnic blankets of romantic couples and adorable families. There are also hidden secrets that a guided tour of the museum will enlighten its viewers about. A leaf stamped into a stair is there on purpose because, I don’t know, Getty loved leaves or something…I don’t remember, I took the tour years ago. And admission is free! It’s a magical place and I love to share it with out-of-town visitors. And so, last weekend, when a friend from New York came out to visit we went there, but not just to gaze at the spectacle of the Getty, but to take part in a Murder Mystery Scavenger Hunt that a friend of mine signed a group of us up for. I thought this would be a perfect activity, and extra bit of fun as we walked around the Getty and took in a little art and culture.
What is a Murder Mystery Scavenger Hunt, you wonder? Well, let me tell you. A company called Watson Hunts sets these games up in cities all over the Country. Basically, you and your team wander around the museum solving clues about the works of art in the different wings of the museum and fill in the answers on your work sheet. Then you analyze not only your answers but also the clues themselves (left by the murdered museum curator…duh!) to piece together who murdered the curator and why he (or she) had done it! You have two hours to complete this task, and come up with a clever team name.
My team, the Van Gogh-Get ‘Ems were determined to win, and so we set off, racing through rooms, solving codes, whispering answers together and manipulating other teams to throw them off our trail. My friend from New York was an inspired asset to our team. She was practically a ringer, solving the clues and decoding the anagrams in a matter of seconds. And before we knew it, our two hours were up, the sun had set, the game was over and we had won!
Later that night I thought about our afternoon at the Getty and was struck by something. I had brought my out-of-town friend there so she could see one of the best sites that LA had to offer, and we had neglected to appreciate any of it. We were so busy rushing around, determined to win, that we hadn’t really looked at any of the art, except to locate the next clue. We hadn’t appreciated the 360 degree views from the balconies. As we raced from one building to another, I would occasionally yell out to my friend, “hey friend…look at that view! Isn’t it great? Now hurry up!” and we would rush through a courtyard, ignoring an enchanting fountain, back inside to solve the next clue. In fact, as the sun set over the ocean, we were gathered inside at the café (which is pretty gourmet for a museum café) to analyze our answers and solve the murder. We missed the sunset. I’m told it was glorious.
This is the problem with life in LA, sometimes. We take the beautiful things about living here for granted. We spend all day in our cars, or in our offices, in writers’ rooms or on a dark sound stage (but mostly in our cars) and we don’t stop to watch the sunset, or dare I say it, smell the flowers. We take an hour or two on the weekends to hike, or walk our dogs, or go to a museum and then spend it rushing around trying to beat the other team. Maybe I’m wrong. I do know some people who are super outdoorsy and settled and teach yoga and eat Organic and all that good California stuff, and they are living the hell out of their Southern Californian dream (like Katy Perry in her California Girls music video) but what I seem to hear people grumbling about most often while I wait in line to buy coffee or at the bank is how cut throat, competitive and insular their LA life has become. I know what they mean. I wanted to show my New Yorker lawyer friend how beautiful life outside the mad rush of the Big Apple could be, but we spent most of our time running around a museum and sitting in a dark corner at a wine bar where the exposed brick and dim lighting seemed much more suited for her city than mine.
Maybe this is not just a LA phenomena. Maybe this is true of every great city. Maybe this is why people move to the country…to make sure they are living the most lively of lives. Maybe I just feel more regret about not being outside more in LA because the weather is so nice. So you see, it is not my fault that I am busy inside trying very hard to be successful instead outside enjoying my life. It is LA’s fault for being so sunny all the time and making me feel bad about it. (As I write this I can feel my yoga teacher friend shaking her head at me…”you just don’t get it…and maybe you never will”)
So the lesson that I chose to take away from this experience at the J Paul Getty Museum is that in order to be a truly happy Los Angelino you should arrive for your treasure hunt early enough to show your friend the art, the views and garden AND THEN kick the other teams’ asses and walk away victorious! A Perfect Afternoon! Now, if you will excuse me, I have to slip on my sandals and drive to brunch, where, if I’m lucky, I can get an outside table.
“I dreamed a dream in time gone by, when hope was high and life worth living.” These are the words that a despondent and depressed Anne Hathaway sings into the camera as Fantine, the despondent and depressed semi-heroine of the Broadway hit turned Major Motion Picture, Les Miserables. I can relate. I moved to LA with a dream in my heart and a song in my soul, and after 5 or so years living in Los Angeles, working on movie deals that have yet to come to fruition (YET!), working several unsatisfying jobs and being a part of one long term, super great relationship, that ultimately and recently ended, I find myself often looking into the abyss and thinking…”I dreamed a dream in days in gone by…when hope was high and life worth living.”
But I don’t want to talk about me (well, not just yet) I want to talk about the Academy Award nominated and multi-Golden Globe-winning cinematic experience, Les Miserables, or as we shall further call is Les Miz TM. I had high hopes for this film. The cast was a veritable parade of stars who, if you check their bios, claim to have sung before. Russell Crowe is in a band, Hugh Jackman has appeared on Broadway, and Amanda Seyfried sang in Mama Mia, right? The trailer made it look exciting, energetic and emotional. Anne Hathaway, all big-eyed and sad, looks into the camera and with haunting sincerity sings the famous I Dreamed a Dream whileshots of the rest of the movie play out for us. We see soldiers and poor French children. We see fighting and redemption. We see Hugh Jackman with tears in his eyes, Amanda Seyfried with tears in her eyes, Annie H with tears in her eyes, etc, etc. And when it came to those things, the trailer didn’t lie.
Those aspects were all there. Visually, it was all very stunning, but aren’t most movies these days? I live in LA. You can’t sit in a coffee shop with a girlfriend to complain about the man who wronged you (see Fantine, I can relate) without overhearing at least one production meeting. I have them myself. I have one later today. It is LA’s business to make ALL movies look stunning! Nobody sets out to make a movie that looks OK, but sounds great, or looks OK but has a great story. Film is first and foremost a visual medium, and most films, Les Miz included, live up to that part of the promise. It’s the “great story” and “sounds great” part of the promise where I think Les Miz really fails. Now, we can’t fault the filmmakers for the story. Les Miz is a novel turned musical turned movie. I’ve never read the novel (but my mother says it’s a real page turner). I’ve seen the musical several times, and the film stays very true to that subject matter, changing virtually nothing about the music, or story. The problem I have with this movie is the singing. I love musicals. I’m a musical theatre geek. I moved to LA from New York where I spent years attending and auditioning for (but never appearing in) Broadway musicals and I love them ALL. So my main complaint about Les Miz TM is that most of its stars did not sing the songs (and there are a lot of songs) as well as they should have. I’ve complained about this a lot, to almost anyone who will listen, and I’ve gotten some push back. “They’re movie stars, not professional singers.” And “They did all their singing live with out any auto-tune, dubbing, or lip syncing.” You know who else sings live? Broadway performers, every night. And they sound amazing! Academy Award winner Russell Crowe looks as though he is trying to remember the lyrics as he strains out Stars. Amanda Seyfried looks very pretty in her bonnet and even manages to hit the very high notes of Cosette’s many love songs, but I wouldn’t say that I particularly enjoyed the high or low notes of any of her vocal stylings. Even Hugh Jackman, who I saw and enjoyed on Broadway in The Boy From Oz a few years back, doesn’t quite have the right voice for the role, always sounding a bit shrill and timid for my taste. I’m sure it is different to deliver a vocal performance with a camera in your face and only the melody line playing in your ear (they added the orchestra in later) but in the end it made the song performances, and ultimately the total performance of the actors feel very controlled, limited and boring to me. But don’t feel bad for them. Wolverine won the Golden Globe and has an Academy Award nom under his belt for the film. Annie H won a Golden Globe and will probably win the Academy Award for a total of 20 minutes or so of screen time in this really long movie, and for what? Getting a haircut and tearfully whispering an iconic song? But let’s leave Anne alone. She did the best she could and will be rewarded plentifully for her emotional efforts (and for sacrificing her beautiful hair). Fantine is an elegant mess and Annie H plays her as such, never shaking the misery that is life. As I mentioned before, I can relate. I’ve had bad haircuts much worse than Anne’s (picture too short and with a too tight perm) and I’ve degraded myself for money. I have not worked as a prostitute or sold my hair, but I have worn a chip monk costume at Disneyland, worn a bowtie as a waiter, and once sang Billy Joel songs at a kid’s birthday party while literally NO ONE listened or applauded. I think I got paid about $50 and got a free lunch, so ultimately, it was totally worth it.
In fact, as I drive around Los Angeles, I am struck by how comparable the lives of the characters in Les Miz are to the lives of my fellow Los Angelinos. How often have I driven up to a Starbucks and seen that the drive-thru line is 6 cars deep and felt truly miserable? How many times have I sat in bumper to bumper traffic on the 405 at rush hour and thought “God on high, Hear my prayer…Bring me home Heaven blessed.” I’ve often walked my dog in the misting rain and thought about my celebrity crush on say, Jake Gyllenhaal, and sung the words to On My Own out loud for the neighborhood to hear. Not to mention the “lovely ladies” walking down Sunset at night looking for a date. We all understand and experience Les Miz in our own way.
So, At the End of the Day (did you see what I did there? That’s a song from Les Miz) I wouldn’t recommend going to the theatre to see the movie Les Miserables. I would recommend getting the Broadway soundtrack for your car and driving around Los Angeles, traffic and all, beholding the misery while listening to the beautiful, trained voices of the Broadway performers, instead. It may not be quite as visually stunning a show, but it will be a better musical experience.