A little over a month ago I came across an article on Boing Boing about the movie Zach Braff was trying to get funded via Kickstarter. It was interesting time as I had just contributed to two Kickstarter projects for the first time – I Fight Dragons’ Project Atma and the Code Monkey comic by Jonathan Coulton and Greg Pak. The Boing Boing piece linked to an article by Ken Levine saying why he wouldn’t support Zach Braff’s Kickstarter. His premise was essentially that Braff has money and should finance it himself or use his Hollywood connections. Save Kickstarter for the indie film producer/director. He mentioned that he didn’t want Kickstarter to get all corporate like Sundance. He had a response blog post in which he showed that his lamentations had come true – Melissa Joan Hart was asking for money on Kickstarter and was only offering to follow her backers on Twitter. Ten days later he posted his final response (at the time I’m writing this) in which he pointed out that Braff’s Kickstarter was pointless because he got “gap funding” anyway. Although I’m sure most of the air will be out of the tire by the time this post appears on my blog, I’d like to take the chance to refute and elaborate on some of what Ken Levine said. (Also, this isn’t the Ken Levine of Bioshock, just so you know)
The crux of his argument seemed to be that people would fund Braff instead of J. Random Indieguy. I’ve heard this one a million times – but not for Kickstarter – in the Linux world. Someone comes out with a new music player (there are at least 4-6 mature ones already) and everyone on the Internet starts griping! “Why oh why would you do this?!? You’re wasting programming resources reinventing the wheel! Why don’t you join one of the six projects already in progress?!?” But this is based on a false equivalence – that he would have programmed on one of the other projects if he wasn’t allowed to start a new one. Perhaps he just wants to do it for fun. Maybe he has a different approach to the way he wants to do it. Or is doing it to learn a new programming language. Similarly, if I support Braff (which I didn’t. I’ve only supported the two Kickstarters I mentioned above) it doesn’t mean money has been taken away from indie developers. You’re assuming that a Kickstarter person says, “Hmm. I have $10 burning a hole in my pocket. I must spend it on getting a movie made. Oh, here’s Braff, I guess I won’t give it to the indie guy.” When reality is more like, “Hmm. Braff is making a movie. I’d like to help that get made – here’s $10.” The only reason I gave money to I Fight Dragons and JoCo/Greg Pak is because I already know and trust their work and I want them to create the thing they’re asking money for. I only have so much money and that’s money that’s now not being spent on some other forms of entertainment – it’s not like I just had money laying around begging to be put into Kickstarter.
Taking a break from refutation, let me elaborate on some points Levine just brought up quickly. He mentioned that part of what got his goat was that Braff wasn’t going to investors. He was getting money from the backers without sharing the profits as he’d have to do if he got investors. Personally, I would love to see an alternative to Kickstarter evolve where people could become investors. It probably wouldn’t be best for many (or even most?) Kickstarters. But there are some projects I’d back as an investor that I wouldn’t back just for an autographed copy of said object. From what I heard when they discussed this on a podcast I was listening to – there are current laws in the US that make it hard (if not impossible to do) in a Kickstarter sort of way. Of course, when it comes to movies there’s also Hollywood accounting that makes things messy. There are movies making tons of money in real life, but no money on paper and that would not work more than once on this Investment Kickstarter.
As for Sundance going corporate, that’s just what happens. It happened to Linux conventions. It’s happening (or has happened) to San Diego Comic-Con. Wherever corporations smell money they go and change what was once for and by the fans. When it comes to Linux and Comics – the fans have moved away from the corporate stuff and started newer, smaller conventions. Maybe something similar would happen with Sundance? Anyway, who needs Sundance when there’s direct to Internet? Ok, ok…it’s not super mature now, but it’s getting there. More and more stories are bubbling up of people just releasing to the net and recouping their costs.
Back to the refutation. I think whether or not people were duped (Levine himself is neutral, but some of the commenters were not), it all depends on whether they feel they got a fair exchange for their money. Some people want to be a part of something. For me, that’s not enough. With both projects that I backed, I did so at the level that got me tangible goods and I feel that they have a pretty market value for what I paid for them. I also think that any project that involves media should always have a level that isn’t TOO high in which the backers are Thanked or Acknowledged – like in the credits of a movie or the liner notes of an album. Additionally, there is no guarantee on Kickstarter that what you funded will happen. So going with a known quantity is a better guarantee that you’ll get what you’re paying for. I Fight Dragons, for example, had a track record of releasing albums before and during their record label years so I knew they could make an album whether or not record execs were on their case.
Finally, as for the gap funding – this is something that has been discussed a lot on The Giant Bombcast when it comes to video game funding. When people are trying to get big media projects funded like movies or video games, they’re usually just asking for seed money. Those things cost a LOT more than most people think. The Double Fine Kickstarter was very honest about how much funding corresponded to previous games they’d made. As you know, no one likes to give you money when you actually need it. When you’re middle class or rich you get TONS of credit card offers and any bank will make you a loan. Not so much when you’re poor – even if that’s the seed money that would lift you out of poverty. It’s the same thing here. People didn’t believe in Zach Braff to make his movie his way – at least not enough to give him money. But by raising money from his followers they had a feeling the movie would be more successful. Also, I want to quibble – Levine said Braff had $22 million worth. Worth is not the same as liquid cash. Perhaps he didn’t actually have the money to finance this movie.
Anyway, Ken Levine did a great job explaining his points of view and it really made me want to present my refutations. Thoughts from my readers?