A few months ago, I wrote a nasty little invective against celebrities that used Kickstarter to finance their multi-million dollar budgeted films. I agree with most of what I wrote (that these high profile projects are crowding out smaller movies, that these campaigns are driven by commodity fetishism rather than artistic merit, and that it’s just kind of dumb to give money to rich people), but I was wrong about one thing: “Collectively,” I stated, “fans have said that it’s OK for rich people to eliminate the factor of risk when they make films.” I didn’t realize at the time, although I probably should have, that the main goal of these Kickstarter campaigns is not to finance projects, but to attract traditional investors by proving consumer interest in the finished product.
The main targets of my rant were Warner Bros’ Veronica Mars project and Zach Braff’s Wish I Was Here. In the meantime, Melissa Joan Hart embarrassed herself by trying to punch above her Q rating, and Spike Lee threw his hat in the ring with a Kickstarter project titled, in typical Spike Lee fashion, “The Newest Hottest Spike Lee Joint.”
Warner Bros is not in the business of making $2 or $5 million dollar movies, but the success of the Kickstarter campaign means they will probably bring another $15-$20 million to the project. A few weeks after Braff raised $2.6 million for his “smaller, personal” project, Worldview Entertainment kicked in $10 million. If Spike Lee is successful in raising his $1.25 million goal (as of writing this, he’s almost at $750 000), I predict a third party will provide $5-$10 million more.
These projects, for better or for worse (mostly worse), are the future of Kickstarter. Sure, there will be little films and webseries financed with crowd-sourcing techniques, but these are likely to be dwarfed by celebrities looking to find support and build publicity for their own projects. Last week, however, a different kind of Kickstarter project finally saw the light of day. That project, for better or for worse, is The Canyons, which spent most of its pre-release existence as a punching bag for the media’s collective dislike of Lindsay Lohan.
The Canyons cost only $250,000 to make (if director Paul Schrader is to be believed), and about $160,000 of that was raised with a Kickstarter campaign while Schrader, writer Bret Easton Ellis, and producer Braxton Pope kicked in another $90,000. This kind of mid-sized campaign, which was considered “high-profile” at the time–less than a year prior to Veronica Mars–is the sort of project that will probably disappear from Kickstarter in the face of higher-profile investor-baiting projects like Braff’s and Lee’s films.
The Canyons is also the film that features Lindsay Lohan, poster child for washed up Hollywood starlets, and James Deen, the male porn star who spells his name with two e’s, in its cast. If you’ve heard of the film, it’s probably from the attention paid to its troubled production, in which Lindsay Lohan’s diva-like attitude and dangerous behaviour compromised the whole project.
Yet, lost in the “bad” publicity that surrounds the film is the fact that the production’s transparency is only possible because of its status as a microbudget oddity. The New York Times Magazine feature titled “This Is What Happens When You Cast Lindsay Lohan In Your Movie” would have never been possible on a multi-million dollar project. Lindsay Lohan was always late, sometimes she didn’t show at all, she’s got a problem with pills and alcohol, etc. Normally, this kind of behaviour would make its way to the tabloids through unnamed sources, yet here it’s written as recorded fact in a magazine published by the New York Times.
Lohan herself hasn’t done any interviews for the film, possibly because she’s not a fan of a publicity campaign centred on her unemployability, but Schrader has embraced the bad press with an amusing level of enthusiasm. “I think the Adderall, more than anything else, is the problem. It’s a very fashionable drug in young Hollywood,” he told Film Comment in July, referencing Lohan’s drug of choice “It’s basically a kind of speed.” Yet Schrader also insists that Lohan was the right choice for the role, claiming, “She’s worth it. You can shoot around bad behaviour but you can’t shoot around lack of star quality and she has it.”
Schrader’s wrong about Lohan. She has an interesting presence, along with the voice of someone who smokes too many cigarettes, but her natural talent seems to have washed up along with her career. The real find of The Canyons is James Deen, whose first non-pornographic performance is rough around the edges, but very effective. Bret Easton Ellis, the provocateur behind American Psycho, wrote the screenplay for The Canyons, and Deen plays the film’s neo-Bateman, a sociopathic trust fund baby-cum-movie producer in an environment where no one cares about movies, including the people who make them.
There’s some shallow subtext about the death of cinema in The Canyons, highlighted by the film’s simultaneous release in theatres and on demand, but mostly it’s just an entertaining romp through Bret Easton Ellis-ville, where everyone is rich and beautiful and spoiled and amoral and a lot of bad sexy things happen. The plot, which revolves around Tara’s (Lohan) infidelity to Christian (Deen) and the often violent consequences, is nothing exceptional. Schrader is able to coax some great digital cinematography from John DeFazio, but Ellis’ preposterously stylized dialogue is compromised by the film’s very shallow pool of acting talent.
Much more interesting than the film itself is the surrounding publicity. A shameless director and an even more shameless screenwriter make a film with no creative restrictions; they stunt cast a tabloid-fodder celebrity and a male porn star; and then they exploit the notoriety of the film’s cast to raise awareness. One wonders if the producers were hoping for Lohan to bring her worst behaviour to the shoot. As Schrader also said “Even if people talk about how terrible the movie looks, they’re talking about it.”
The film will surely bank more on the VOD market than it would if it the production ran smoothly with an unknown 20-something in the lead role. It’s a cultural oddity that only happened because these people didn’t know what they were doing. Schrader and Ellis only made it because their last project fell through and they had nothing else on the plate, Lohan was only able to do it because the tiny budget meant the producers weren’t purchasing insurance, and it gained infamy because there were no contractual obligations limiting Schrader’s comments to the press.
Most of all, this film can be seen as a kind of alternative path that crowd-sourcing didn’t follow. An example of one kind of film that got killed by Veronica Mars and Zach Braff. Was it a good idea for people to give their money to Schrader and Ellis, both probably wealthy in their own right, or to the Adderall-popping Lindsay Lohan? Maybe not, but at least it made for a good story.
Alan Jones writes about film for Toronto Standard. You can follow him on Twitter at@alanjonesxxxv.