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.