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 am an unabashed and biased fan of comics–the integration of text and imagery connects the whimsy of fantastic worlds, flip reflections and twee confessions to the more transcendental preoccupations available in illuminated manuscripts or, even, Jung’s famous Red Book. Given the deep pockets of Hollywood super hero blockbusters, it’s easy to forget that comics mean much more than our tight-clad, cape and mask “Here I come to save the day.” In the following interview, I had the chance to talk to Chicago-comic artist/writer Sara Drake. We discuss the form of comics, the flexibility their formal structure affords, its relationship to gender and (!) her forthcoming trip to Cambodia. Come November, Drake is going to Phnom Pehn with the help of Arts Network Asia and Anne Elizabeth Moore to teach a 2-month class on self-publishing and comics to young women. Together they will explore and suss out the medium alongside the ethos of self-publishing and dissemination. What does it mean to share one’s own reflections? How or why would this be significant? As the center of this discourse, comics become a cross cultural stimulant, exhibiting once more their hybrid form.
Caroline Picard: In addition to your own work as a visual artist and writer, I know you do a lot of work in the city; you run Ear Eater, a collaborative reading series and have also curated visual exhibits. I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about your various creative endeavors and how you feel them working together in the routine of your life.
Sara Drake: I come from a specific mid-western DIY mentality, rooted in communal and local sharing of how culture gets produced. Most of what I do is about supporting or interacting within a community of other people which then becomes a lens I use to view most everything that gets created. There’s this great Joan Didion quote that I keep coming back to, “I write to find out what I’m thinking.” I tend to engage in different things all the time and consider a lot of what I do, whether I’m curating an experimental poetry reading in my apartment, making comics, or just hanging out and doodling with friends, as a process of becoming. I don’t particularly want to separate or categorize things, the hybridity, for me, is what’s important. I think the hybridity is what attracted me to comics. No one really knows how to think or agree upon what they are culturally. I find that when people talk about comics, they describe them in terms of other mediums (literature, film, poetry). Comics can do all sorts of weird, crazy things, and they exist on this personal, experiential scale. It allows me to engage with an idea or experience in an array of ways, depending on what I’m interested in investigating.
CP: It’s interesting that you point to comics’ cultural position (i.e. the way, as a genre, they resist a definite label like poetry, literature, or art) because they are so prevalent in so many cultures. I was wondering if you could try to define what you mean when you say comics. It sounds like there is a real spectrum of work you are thinking about.
SD: Well, I would be hesitant to define “comics” as a genre. Comics are a medium, like poetry or literature or painting, a way to express or convey oneself. I’m actually having a hard time answering your question, I’m not exactly sure what “kind” or “genre” of comic it is that I make. I’ve never liked the labels like “graphic novel” or “experimental comic” because the titles don’t really make sense to me. Comics have always been lowbrow, underground, or something that the mainstream world didn’t deem valuable. Right now, so much in comics is changing, and changing very quickly. I am a direct product of that change too, which is both unsettling and curious. Being able to graduate at an art school and say that you’ve made comics is a pretty recent development, and one worth paying attention too. I have to hope that the self-taught-ness that has been so much apart of comics history doesn’t get lost or forgotten in younger generations of cartoonists who encounter the medium for the first time at art school.
CP: What kind of mechanics take place within comics that make hybridity possible?
SD: Holy moly! There are so many different ways to talk about hybrids when we talk about comics. Perhaps the one that I see as most important is that a comic is time-based. Time can exist logically: from one panel to the next. Time can exist simultaneously and also sequentially: you could depict a single setting that has many actions that happen within that setting, each at different times. Time can hop around at random and sometimes gets lost between panels. As a reader, you can go forwards and backwards. Comics just work on perplexing levels depending on how you want to interact with them. Even the lenses that I use to read comics are always shifting, one day I may pay a lot of attention to the writing of a comic, then the next to the drawing style and how it relates to the mood or tone, and this list could go on and on.
CP: Recently you’ve been part of a project spearheaded by Anne Elizabeth Moore examining the way lady drawers (comics) are under-represented in the comic world. How did you get involved with this project and what has your role been? How does the project shape your expectations/visions for your own work as a lady drawer?
I’ve always been involved a community that has had a vocal sensitivity to issues pertaining to gender and identity. More specifically though, my partner at the time was Anne’s research assistant. Through proximity to Anne’s project, gender discrimination and disparity became a part of my daily conversation and head space. Once you start looking at the rate of women in practically all comics anthologies you can’t really help but keep seeing a problem most everywhere you look. I was then asked to do the cover of the Women’s Comics Anthology, and later helped with Anne’s new Ladydrawers column on Truthout. My involvement thus far has been helping to create media to make the issues more visible. Although the people who should get credit for inspiring my awareness are all of the intelligent and inventive students who have participated in Anne’s class at SAIC or who have collaborated on gathering statics. My involvement with Ladydrawers has definitely opened some uncharted dark waters for me. On a weird personal level, I have a lot of close friends in the comics industry who feel attacked by the argument. This often becomes a heated debate or a bedraggled attempt at discussing the issue. Which, for me, becomes a daily issue of having to think seriously and critically about what is at stake when we ask questions about participation within a given medium. On a different level, the project has enabled me to work with a lot of amazing people, including Anne. I see Anne’s interest in working with young people uncommonly admirable. Her presentation of herself and her ideas are really infectious within the SAIC community and pretty soon, EVERYONE wanted to chat it up about gender and comics during downtime. So the project creates and allows participation within a community, and one that is centered around questioning cultural production at an art school and on a broader scale. Also worth noting, I probably wouldn’t be going to Cambodia to teach comics to ladies if I hadn’t become involved. So, you could say Ladydrawers really stimulates global media creation – I don’t want to think that that is so far off from the truth.
CP: You’re also in the middle of a kickstarter campaign to raise money to go to Cambodia as part of fellowship. Can you talk about what you would do there and how the project came together? What is the Arts Network Asia?
SD: The project, Independent Youth-Driven Cultural Production in Cambodia (IYDCPC), is based on and was founded by Anne’s collaborative independent publishing work in Cambodia. (read all about it in her really amazing and generous book, Cambodian Grrrl: Self-publishing in Phnom Penh, CANTANKTEROUS TITLES.) I first heard about the project through Anne herself. I happened to be at the right place at the right time, and the right place was an art exhibition with her work in it. We bumped into each other, and after chatting for a while she pulled an unassuming business-like card out of her pocket with a website on it. Anne said she could give me a thousand bucks to go to Cambodia. Who in their right mind would pass up an offer like that? Everything about that moment was weird and doesn’t sound like real life. I remember that evening I decided to apply not really thinking that a proposal to teach and make comics would get accepted. Skip ahead five months later and I’ve got a plane ticket and a bunch of bristol board rearing to go teach comics in Southeast Asia.
We are still in the planning phase of what I will actually be able to accomplish while I am there. As of now, I am traveling into Phnom Phen, Cambodia for two months beginning in November. I intend to teach a comics and self-publishing course to young women in conjunction with local collaborators. The goal of the course will be to offer a space in which young women can share their own ideas, and to promote real media creation in a cultural space that has historically denied women the ability to do so. We will also be working towards creating an archive of student work using local resources and available networks. The project will be documented via a comics blog and hopefully a digital archive for future students or just interested Cambodians to have access too. I have aspirations to self-publish or to create some sort of document of the comics I make while I am there to exist in the US.
Arts Network Asia was established by an independent group of artists, cultural workers and arts activists from Asia—I think, originally, Singapore, and come from the theater world. They are a grant-making body that encourages and supports regional artistic collaboration. They’re deeply invested in fostering an engaged cultural community across Asia, and I’m so honored to work with them, since they see local value in what i’m doing in Phnom Penh—which is so much more important than “international” value. Or “cool points.” Anyway, they’re great to work with, very supportive. They just want to make sure Cambodians have access to interesting ideas.
CP: What is it about Cambodia that has inspired this project? Are your interests specific to Phnom Penh?
SD: Phnom Penh is where I have a network of support already in place, due to Anne having already done work and reporting there. To answer the question, I do need to be aware that all of my current knowledge of Phnom Penh (and an entire nation) has been acquired through media and not through direct experience. I will try my best to be honest. And actually, seeking out media and information about Cambodia in the US is really frustrating at times. In one way, it’s important for me to see the disparities between how the US tends to represent Cambodia and my actual experiences of being there.
From my understanding, there is little to no educational structure in Cambodia, so providing a potential structure or a place to view structure becomes, potentially, important. Historically, Cambodia has accidentally forgotten about women’s education. After the Khmer Rouge destroyed Cambodia’s intellectual and cultural life the country has been in the process of rebuilding after it’s tragic past. School’s being rebuilt in the 1990s didn’t necessarily discriminate students on the basis of gender but strict traditional gender roles, lack of female housing options, and economic imperatives made young women’s participation within an educational system really difficult. Comics currently being produced in Cambodia are mostly made and distributed by NGO’s and promote comics as a way to help combat low literacy rates. I’m hoping teaching will encourage real media creation that can exist outside of this system.
CP: How is comic-making a vehicle for dialogue with different cultures, particularly Cambodia? And is that a strange space to occupy? I feel like if it was me, I would be both thrilled and nervous about how to facilitate a potentially political project in a foreign country; part of what seems thrilling is trying to understand how to conceptualize myself and my role. What is that like for you? How do comics factor into those ideas?
SD: The project doesn’t really have a political agenda in scope. My main objective is to help stimulate independent media creation among young women Comics are a vehicle for dialogue only so much as someone can decide that they want to use the medium as a way of communicating and sharing information with others. The medium is only powerful as a tool if someone sees the medium and decides that they want to interact with it and say something with and through it. For the women I will be working with, it’s important to me that they see comics as a tool for speaking, locally, on a scale that relates to them first within a community. For myself, I’m used to comics being a readily available means to express myself. In this way, I can use them to hopefully talk about another culture with my own culture in the US. My goal is to present myself as a model or example of a comics maker and hopefully others will be able to see themselves as potential creators, wanting to tell their own narratives and their own histories. The project is less about me and really about convincing other people that the medium is there for them. That it could potentially be a place of self-empowerment.
I feel really responsible, although I’m not entirely sure I can define what it is that I am responsible for. It’s a really bizarre space to occupy, and I learn to deal with it by being open to being wrong and naive often. The more I seek information about the history of Cambodia, I notice how whack a lot of the media that the Western world has to offer is, and how little I actually know or understand how globalization or a nation in poverty works (or in reality doesn’t). I also, have a difficult time locating myself and my own thoughts on women’s rights within a culture I’ve yet to experience, where the rules are completely different than how I would normally perceive them. I’m really excited and anxious about trying to encourage a bunch of young women to wield a medium of expression, in my case comics, with very little working knowledge about how comics or even self-expression exists for them.
CP: From an artistic perspective, do you feel like your anticipation for this trip has inspired/influenced your creative process?
SD: Oh gosh! Probably in ways that I’ve yet to unpack or even recognize for or in myself. I’m not used to creating comics about my personal experiences and part the trip is about sharing my own observations and awareness. I’m having to work and think and convey myself in a way I’m uncomfortable with but I’m also finding to be invigorating.