When Zach Braff created a Kickstarter project two weeks ago to finance his new film, Wish I Was Here, the introductory remarks included in his pitch contained a flagrant contradiction of terms. In the first paragraph, Braff claimed he was a fan of Kickstarter, but he “didn’t imagine it could work on larger-scale projects.” Yet, in the following paragraph, after discussing how he was inspired by the similarly “larger-scale” Kickstarter project for Rob Thomas’ Veronica Mars film, he “couldn’t help but think… maybe there is a new way to finance smaller, personal films that didn’t involve signing away all your artistic control.”
So what is it, Braff? Is Wish I Was Here a “larger-scale” project, or is it a “smaller, personal” film? Presumably, the answer is that Braff can’t imagine making a film for less than $2 million, the goal of the project, and so the project is “large” in the sense that no one outside of the current independent film industry could dream of finding that kind of money, and “small” in the sense that it will cost less to make than, say, Oz: Great and Powerful. I use Oz not as an arbitrary example, but because Braff co-starred in it, if not for $2 million, then at least for enough to finance several Kickstarter campaigns in their entirety.
Braff is abusing the admirable crowd-sourcing community created by Kickstarter. His project raised $1 million in less than one day and currently sits at a little over $2.3 million, enough to ensure that his film will get made. Although Braff’s stated goal on the project was to avoid having financiers meddle with his vision of the film, it’s really more a way for Braff to avoid taking any personal financial risk on the project. Braff reportedly earned $350,000 per episode for his role on TV’s Scrubs during its later seasons, which means that he could have financed Wish I Was Here on less than half a season’s worth of earnings. Even if he doesn’t have $2 million to spare right now, he could almost certainly get a loan for that amount, especially if the film is fully insured.
Yet fans are more than willing to separate with their money on a Braff project because he is a brand. His last film, the Wes Anderson-aping Garden State, has aged rather poorly in the past nine years, but still has a solid fan base amongst those people of the world who like their men angsty, their humour quirky, and their soundtracks to be carefully curated collections of only the most innocuous indie rock.
Braff’s venture, however, isn’t even the worst abuse of Kickstarter. If you donated to Wish I Was Here, you put your cash in the trust of one man, who, if he is to be believed, attempted to find money through more traditional channels. If, in contrast, you are one of 91,585 “backers” that donated over $5 million to the Veronica Mars feature film, then you have effectively given your money not to director Rob Thomas, but to Warner Bros, who produced the television show and holds the rights to the project.
Whether reacting to the news positively or negatively, many people have pinpointed the Veronica Mars film as a watershed moment in alternative methods of film financing, and with Braff jumping on the metaphorically crowd-sourced wagon, they have their confirmation. Together, these two projects have set a terrible precedent. Filmmaking is an art, but it’s also a business. It’s a profit-seeking venture done by people and businesses with enough money to risk millions of dollars on a product that people may or may not want to see. That risk is the essence of capitalism. You’re supposed to spend money to make money. You have to make a sacrifice to reap the rewards.
Those who have donated to Veronica Mars have given over $5 million to Time Warner (Warner Bros’ parent company), a multinational corporation, for an unknown commodity. Those who have donated money to Zach Braff have given millions to a millionaire for another unknown commodity. Collectively, fans have said that it’s OK for rich people to eliminate the factor of risk when they make films. The past five years, with its bitter recessions and global financial crises, has effectively removed the make-up from late capitalism’s ugly, bitter face, but these two Kickstarters are a sign that capitalism is eating itself, bit by bit, starting with the entertainment industry.
The incentives offered to “backers” of these two films are laughable. A range of collectible production items, promotional material, and access to advance screenings. For $600, approximately $587 more than the price of a movie ticket, you can get a personalized video greeting directly from Kirsten Bell (Veronica Mars herself!). For $10 000, one lucky “backer” gets to have a line in Braff’s movie. Usually, that sort of thing is called acting, and on a “larger-scale” project, the actor receives money instead of giving it out. So not only is that “backer” giving $10,000 to a rich person, (s)he’s also taking money away from some needy Los Angelino Starbucks barista that could use the gig.
The incentives, like the overwhelming success of these Kickstarter accounts, is a sign of commodity fetishism run amok. The idea that just being in a Zach Braff movie, any Zach Braff movie, is worth $10,000, is an insult to the collaborative nature of filmmaking; it’s insulting to the people that use services like Kickstarter and IndieGogo because they actually need the money; and it’s insulting to fans who are told that they need to sacrifice, with no potential for a financial return, if they want to see their favourite TV show return to life for a couple more hours.
Kickstarter itself stands to gain quite a bit from this turn of events. Prior to Veronica Mars, the biggest film project on the crowd-sourcing service was the $400 000 gained for the Charlie Kaufman-scripted Anomalisa. But if the website wants to maintain its status as a place for cash-strapped filmmakers, video game creators, and musicians to find funding for their projects, it should find a method to prevent wealthy members from abusing the system. It’s unfair to ask these artists to compete with the likes of Warner Bros.
I don’t know if Kickstarter can find an effective way to prevent one-man (or one-woman) operations like Zach Braff from using their services, but it would be fairly easy to bar corporations like Warner Bros from getting a piece of the pie. Of course, this probably won’t happen. A precedent has been set and it’s not likely to reverse itself. I guess this is the nature of capitalism in 2013, the 1% no longer has to offer a product to the public before taking its money.
Alan Jones is a Toronto-based writer whose work has appeared in VICE, Exclaim!, and Toronto Standard. You can follow him on Twitter at @alanjonesxxxv.