Friday, September 21, 2012

Kickstarting Indies To The Curb

This a few days old, but my old writing partner turned a post from Deadline Hollywood, Nikki Finke's website, which was quite an eye-opener. It concerns Kickstarter, a very cool website where people can crowdsource funding for various creative projects.
Charlie Kaufman and his producing partners ― former Community showrunner Dan Harmon and Dino Stamatopoulos ― do not want to deal with Hollywood, and now at least for one project they don’t have to. A stop-motion animation adaptation of the Kaufman-written play Anomalisa raised $406,237 for the film’s production in 60 days via the crowdfunding website Kickstarter. “We want to make Anomalisa without the interference of the typical big-studio process,” according to a pitch video that Harmon and Stamatopoulos’ Starburns Industries put up on the project page. The film raised more than double the money the producers were asking from 5,770 Kickstarter backers.
These guys broke the Kickstarter record for film funding. Surprised? Not me. Is this good news? Not really. I was wondering how long something as wonderful as Kickstarter could last.

Kickstarter was specifically designed to give filmmakers outside the industry access to funding. Don't get me wrong: Kaufman and Harmon and Starburns have every right to use Kickstarter. But they shouldn't. Anyone with CAA-level representation and the ability to take meetings at a studio shouldn't. Basically, anyone with recognizable star power shouldn't.

Why not? Because they have an unfair advantage over the vast majority of other projects seeking funding. If I was some starry-eyed fellow with $1000 to give away on a film project, and I had to choose between giving it to an indie project written by John August with Johnny Depp penciled in for a cameo versus a digital feature written by Elmo Nobodyski from Rustbeltville featuring Jane Nobody, guess who gets my money? Which contribution gives me bragging rights, Hollywood cache and a T-Shirt with a star on it? Pretty obvious choice.

Celebrity--  admiration for sports heroes, movie stars, political heavyweights, what have you-- exists because it's a basic component of human social behavior, a deep part of our collective brain wiring. Throughout history and undeniably before it, people have always created hierarchies-- even when they aren't needed. We seek out great men or great women to personify our values and channel our aspirations.

This is why it is risky to invest millions of dollars in a movie with no recognizable stars. (And yeah, Pixar does this all the time, but they're a solid brand, which is a form of non-individual celebrity.) And this is why, even if an indie film on Kickstarter may be a superior idea to one offered by a Hollywood insider, it'll never outdraw it in terms of funding.

Kickstarter is a zero-sum game. There are only so many investors with so much money they're willing to donate. If the trend continues, and any Industry pro with the itch goes to Kickstarter to raise money for pet projects rather than ask a studio or (God forbid) use their own money, the long shadow their celebrity casts will make all the truly independent film projects offered seem that much dimmer.

The thing that makes Kickstarter wonderful is it's basic attitude of altruism. Donations are made to creative efforts of all kinds where the donor expects nothing in return but the satisfaction of giving a leg up to a project they feel is worthy. The presence of celebrity-driven projects debases this altruism: Even if donors get no return on financial investment, they get something back: the intangible return of celebrity association, a very real claim that some of the fame they contributed to rubbed off on them. This weakens Kickstarter's mission of creative altruism-- a plain example of Gresham's Law, bad money driving out good.

This couldn't happen, right? A bunch of Hollywood operators couldn't monopolize something as inherently democratic as Kickstarter, right? If I recall, The Sundance Film Festival was supposed to be a showcase for independent filmmakers. But the Industry discovered it-- and now Park City is not much more than an outlier of the TMZ, so insular that an alternative festival (Slamdance) had to be created to give indie filmmakers any sort of chance. So yeah, it can definitely happen again.


  1. I'm acquainted with a guy who is funding a film on Kickstarter - it's Gordon Bressack, who was a head writer on Animaniacs and other cartoons. The reason guys like him go into this is that no one really thinks they're the ones who have "made it." Plus it's appealing to not have one guy who can push you around because he gave you all the money.

  2. If I was king of Kickstarter he'd be allowed because he's not really a household name. And I'd add a bit of advice to anyone, if you want to go with Kickstarter for funding, get in NOW. NOW! The marquee filmmakers are just discovering it, so there's a year, two tops before they figure out how to keep the nobodies out.