Kickstarter Ethics: Zack Braff and Charlie Kaufman

by John Holbo on May 8, 2013

“All successful revolutions are the kicking in of a rotten door.” – J. K. Galbraith

Kickstarter is glorious insofar as it is a well-earned kick to a rotten door.

That’s why a lot of people are griped about Zach Braff funding his Garden City sequel this way.

The idea – and it’s a great one – is that Kickstarter allows filmmakers who otherwise would have NO access to Hollywood and NO access to serious investors to scrounge up enough money to make their movies. Zach Braff has contacts. Zach Braff has a name. Zach Braff has a track record. Zach Braff has residuals. He can get in a room with money people. He is represented by a major talent agency. But the poor schmoe in Mobile, Alabama or Walla Walla, Washington has none of those advantages.

I found that link via BoingBoing, where Michael Schreiber notes an obvious problem with the argument:

This argument assumes, however, that Hollywood doesn’t make mistakes… that when they hear a pitch for a good movie, they always fund it. That’s certainly not true. Plenty of good ideas never get made and plenty of bad ones do. Maybe Braff barked up every tree he could, and still couldn’t get it funded. Or maybe he just wanted to make sure, as he notes on his Kickstarter page, that he would be able to maintain creative control. All of that seems fair to me. Successful actors, even rich ones, should have an alternative to the company store.

The perfect case in point has gotten no discussion in connection with the Braff case – not that I’ve seen anyway: Charlie Kaufman’s more pioneering Kickstarter project last year. (I’ve been absolutely kicking myself that I missed it. I didn’t hear about it until it was over.) He crowd-funded a stop-motion film, Anomalisa, that he had no hope of getting funded any other way. Kaufman is even more a Hollywood darling than Braff. Yet he’s got projects he can’t get funded – even with Jack Black signed on. Obviously neither Kaufman nor Braff is a sympathy case – a ‘poor schmoe’ living in Mobile, Alabama (in a double-wide, one might as well add.) But this just brings us to the other half of the point.

People who succeed on Kickstarter aren’t people with no contacts, no networks, no access, no nothing. They are people who have substantial amounts of social capital, looking to trade it for actual capital capital. (Well, obviously rich people can always fund their own stuff. Braff and Kaufman are rich, but let’s set aside that point. It doesn’t strike me as an a priori truth that every rich artist needs to be a financial speculator on his/her own art. Maybe you should pay your dues before you pay the rent, but worrying about losing your shirt isn’t necessarily the root of good artistic quality. If you don’t have to do it.) Kickstarter isn’t for nobodies. The real success stories, so far as I’ve seen – the crazy, over-the-top successes, like the Order of the Stick reprint drive – are cases of creators cashing in on years and years of producing stuff fans love.

This isn’t to say that nobodies couldn’t break in this way. Maybe it is more the norm for tech and gadget kickstarts to be made by garage tinkerers nobody has ever heard of before. But the ‘cultural stuff’ seems to be creators tapping into existing social networks.

So what’s the bottom line? If you are a genius ‘nobody’, it seems unlikely that even Kickstarter can help you. Information wants to be free, and good art wants to get funded. But information still has to be propagated through social networks in these cases. Lonely poets are going to be left out in the cold.

If you are a rich somebody, you might have a legitimate use for this tool. You want to produce something Hollywood won’t. Suppose lots of established authors and artists start deciding they can just plain make more money and maintain more control, doing it this way, cutting out the gatekeepers and intermediaries? If Stephen King decides to Kickstart his next novel, because for some crazy reason he thinks that makes more sense, I have no problem with that.

Michael Schreiber suggests that maybe the way to deal with the unseemliness of the latter scenario would be some sort of profit-sharing investment model. You can buy shares in Stephen King’s new novel, then. I guess that would be fun, and therefore welcome, but it seems that the real concern here – getting back to Ken Levine’s gripe (my first link) – is that the Braffs of the world will suck all the oxygen out of the Kickstarter system. And Braff is obviously the spearhead. Hollywood will colonize Kickstarter and the little guy will have to go somewhere else. Again.

In a sense, it seems inevitable that this will happen. Kickstarter will lose its newness and the excitement that comes with the sheer novelty of it. Nothing stays punk rock forever. Not even blogging! Big money is not going to ignore a model that works. I predict hybrid Hollywood/crowdfunding models within five years. Disney commits to match crowdfunding of slightly unconventional Project X, dollar-for-dollar, and to produce the film if they can reach $10 million. Publishers could use Kickstarter for preliminary ‘test research’ of the viability of projects, instead of taking a blind flutter. They are only committed if the thing is clearly not going to fail.

I guess I think even a co-opted Kickstarter model, like we will inevitably have, will still be a lot better than the world before Kickstarter, even though it will be sad when the punk rock stops and some people get left without chairs.



Bruce Baugh 05.08.13 at 4:44 am

I find discussion of Kickstarter becoming coopted interesting in its way, because all this stuff – the multi-million dollar ventures, big-name people, all that stuff – is utterly irrelevant to what I support on Kickstarter. Mostly that’s roleplaying game ventures, though I did contribute to a successfully funded documentary about Dr. Demento, and there are fiction projects I’m intending to pitch in on, and like that. None of this is affected in the slightest by what Braff, Kaufman, and others do.

Now, I do understand that Kickstarter can be important to people who are just as legitimately interested in things that may be at real risk of losing attention because of crowding within that particular field. I’m sympathetic, and don’t want to be striking any sort of hipster-ish sneering posture here. But it’s easy to lose track of just how widely Kickstarter use ranges, too.


John Holbo 05.08.13 at 5:28 am

Yes, Bruce. I think that’s right. I feel the same way. I’ve kicked in on the little things myself (while regretting that I missed the Kaufman party). I think what’s likely to kill that stuff somewhat is not so much the likes of Braff as just Kickstarter not being so exciting and new, after a while. For you, now, it’s exciting to be able to get some game thing you want, and it’s exciting to be able to do it in this way. In 10 years, it will only be the first thing. That’s ok.


John Holbo 05.08.13 at 5:40 am

I guess rather than ‘punk’ I could have said that there’s a diy-by-proxy sexiness to kicking in for some Kickstarter thing. That is sure not to last when the model becomes corporate normal.


Patrick 05.08.13 at 6:23 am

I think that profit sharing on kickstarter would run into securities regulation problems.


Bruce Baugh 05.08.13 at 6:26 am

Yeah, I’d agree with that, John. The frisson of “neat new tool” can’t last.


Neville Morley 05.08.13 at 6:46 am

Much of the debate feels very specific to Braff, and a lot of underlying value judgements about what he’s likely to do with the money; as you say, there’s much less concern about Kaufman. This was pretty well my instinctive reaction, and I actually liked the first couple of series of Scrubs…


John Holbo 05.08.13 at 7:20 am

“I think that profit sharing on kickstarter would run into securities regulation problems.”

Clearly so. I think they are hoping to overcome that eventually. But everyone accepts that there are, presently, huge legal hurdles.


Phil 05.08.13 at 7:27 am

I use Bandcamp; Sufjan Stevens, Howe Gelb and Ghostface Killah use Bandcamp. It’s a way to reach people that cuts out all the hassle of playing live, getting a manager, getting played on radio etc, which is great. But ultimately it’s a false economy: Bandcamp alone will only enable you to reach a very small number of people. To get beyond that, you need profile – and unless you’re very good, very marketable, very unusual or extremely lucky, you can’t build real-world profile online. I suspect an awful lot of Kickstarter projects fall into the same trap.


Harald K 05.08.13 at 9:09 am

> looking to trade it for actual capital capital.

Not so much trade it as putting it up as collateral. But otherwise, yes. I’m glad Holbo and Schreiber have a realistic understanding of Kickstarter.

Projects I’ve backed are five “would not have happened without Kickstarter” and one “would not have happened with sufficient creative control”. Four are by people famous in my various subcultures, two are not.


Mand 05.08.13 at 11:01 am

I follow Zach Braff on twitter, & I like his work, although I think Garden State is an overrated film. But his link to Kickstarter was the first time I’ve ever looked at Kickstarter – I chose not to support his project on the basis that I didn’t like Garden State that much, and it looked like he would easily reach his target without my ten bucks. But his project acted as a gateway to Kickstarter, and I have supported another project instead. So I think his project was a good introduction to that platform for a lot of people.

Also, read Fredric Jameson. His book Postmodernism makes a solid argument as to why movements like this can’t stay punk rock forever.


Trader Joe 05.08.13 at 12:48 pm

Does anyone think that maybe Braff perfectly played the game of “no such thing as bad publicity” and chose to generate ‘buzz’ for a project and secure funding at the same time.

Good projects, that #1 also subscribe to norms of funding and control, almost always get funded. Even bad ones that meet that endpoint get funded a lot of times because the deck is stacked in favor of those doing the funding and exercising control. As projects move farther away from the “standard” (which vary by type of endeavor) they become incrementally harder to fund.

From what’s been reported – it doesn’t sound like he was that far from the mainstream – it sounds more like the going the kickstarter route was clever marketing buzz and when the project is eventually launched it will run with the “First major production financed by Kickstarter” banner that will generate its own fresh round of publicity and attention regardless of how good or bad the ‘art’ turns out to be.


Luis 05.08.13 at 1:41 pm

This isn’t to say that nobodies couldn’t break in this way. Maybe it is more the norm for tech and gadget kickstarts to be made by garage tinkerers nobody has ever heard of before. But the ‘cultural stuff’ seems to be creators tapping into existing social networks.

Yes, but often those networks are small. (For example, my sister kickstarted her latest CD from her existing social network, but that’s a very small fan club and family.) Of the 41K projects that have been successfully funded, 32K have been $100K. (From ). So don’t confuse the projects that get media coverage with the average (or median) project.


mud man 05.08.13 at 3:08 pm

Doublewides are the good “houses”.


Clay Shirky 05.08.13 at 3:18 pm

John, one of the most interesting things about Kickstarter, ontology-wise, is that the consistency of the underlying mechanism masks great variability in the nature of the transaction.

One of my students meant to fund the building of Glif — an iPhone camera stand — that got 1,300% funded, so he and his oartbner launched a company instead. ( They didn’t have anything like a large network of deep-pocketed contacts — the vast majority of their backers came in at $20, who were buying Glifs.

Last summer, I ran a campaign to keep Homicide Watch open. ( Rewards notwithstanding, this was charity.

Now, Ushahidi is selling the BRCK, a “Works in the veldt” wireless hotspot. Most of the backers are buying BRCKs, but some of them are just donating small amounts to a good cause.

It gets even weirder with the arts. 21 people got together to pony up a grand to make a short film about a couple who find the corpse of a Sasquatch in the woods by their home. ( It’s a safe bet that most of the backers weren’t all like “I gotta see me some of that!” when they plopped down their money.

Planet Money is funding t-shirt sales, and will follow said T-Shirts through the global journey from cotton ball to you. (

So while the Matthew Effect does drive some sorts of large creative endeavors, the story isn’t just about the residents of Santa Monica vs. the residents of the White Oaks Mobile Home Park. It’s also about the kind of transaction the backer thinks they are engaging in — purchase, donation, sponsorship, quid pro quo — and the kind of networks that those backers are engaged in.


Luis 05.08.13 at 3:42 pm

“Of the 41K projects that have been successfully funded, 32K have been $100K. (From ).”

Argh. Use of less than/greater than signs garbled that badly, with great impact. Should have been: “Of the 41K projects that have been successfully funded, 32K have been < $10K, and only 500 have been > $100K.”


Jon H 05.08.13 at 3:44 pm

The thing is, even if you have access to “Hollywood money people”, the Hollywood money people are notorious assholes. And even if you’re Zach Braff, may impose strings and conditions on their money (“give my mistress a job. make my nephew a producer. change this. change that. put this in the soundtrack.”) that may damage the creative product, or, worse, suck up money, inflate the cost of the film, and make it harder to break even or turn a profit.

Braff asked for $2 million, which really isn’t much money for a film at all, and doesn’t seem to have tried to overshoot much. IMHO, he comes off looking a lot better than Amanda Palmer, who asked for $150,000 or so to make an album, and collected over a million, way over what was likely needed. (Also, $150,000 is a much more manageable risk for Palmer and Gaiman to take, compared to Braff risking $2 million of his own money on one project.)

In the end, though, it comes down to the individual funders deciding how much to contribute , and whether the expected rewards at that level plus the availability of the end product are sufficient compensation. It’s not as if Braff had some mechanism to coerce people into spending more than they could afford.


The Raven 05.08.13 at 4:04 pm

I think a major concern here is that Kickstarter’s management will fall prey to the bestseller syndrome that plagues publishing, or the blockbuster syndrome that plagues Hollywood, and decide that the small projects are no longer worth supporting.

Looking at their statistics and estimating the distribution of money vs. project size, I end up with a bimodal distribution, with one peak around $5,000 and another around $500,000. Assuming that projects in their value categories make the average amount of money in the category—but I have no idea where the top is—Kickstarter makes two to three times the money from projects that garner $20,000 or more as from projects that garner less. There is so far no reason for them to shut down the smaller ones, but they could do so and still make a solid profit.

The best thing about Kickstarter, so far, is its project neutrality. Kickstarter management doesn’t care what the projects are, it does not cost Kickstarter much to host small projects, and they make good money from them, and so they do host small projects. But this could change, either from a rise in expenses associated with smaller projects or arbitrary choices on the part of management. They are a for profit business and, in the end, responsive to their owners.


nick s 05.08.13 at 4:13 pm

I’d agree with Clay that the single mechanism conceals multiple transactions: there’s a certain amount of “hipster SkyMall” consumer items, a few high-profile creative projects, a lot of smaller projects that straddle patronage and charity by providing potential backers with the chance to fund “a thing that would be nice to have in the world”. (My most recent contribution was to a campaign that provided a local baker with an oven.)

However, I think Maura Johnston made a valid point in the midst of the Amanda Palmer TED teapot-tempest: mass-market pop culture, particularly the film industry, tends to operate in an economic range all of its own. As Maura says about the Veronica Mars campaign: “$2 million is an impressive number on Kickstarter, but it is a drop in the bucket for the entertainment industry.”

Mass media already has a set of distributed funding structures, but they’re clustered on the post-production side, courtesy of mechanical reproduction. That creates its own distortions — the blockbuster, the celebrity autobiography, the reality show — but for the moment, bums on seats pays the rent.

Combine the two, and the question becomes whether the high-profile campaigns begin to exert pressure on Kickstarter without ever touching the question of how to create alternative structures that bring culture to market, especially on that scale and with that reach.

We’ve already seen, in a relatively short timeframe, the emergence of a distinctive KS campaign grammar: you must have the video and the stretch goals and the target upsells and so forth. The presence of celebrities will have its own impact. We may start to see a homogenisation of the campaigns themselves. And yet there’ll still be a capriciousness to what gets funded that’s carries an echo of the older, more established models.


nick s 05.08.13 at 4:22 pm

I think a major concern here is that Kickstarter’s management will fall prey to the bestseller syndrome that plagues publishing, or the blockbuster syndrome that plagues Hollywood, and decide that the small projects are no longer worth supporting.

You beat me to it. For better or worse, KS is likely to be defined as it grows by the examples of established names like Amanda Palmer and Rob Thomas and Zach Braff, or by products like the Pebble. Anil Dash has talked about the way in which it seems to reflect aesthetic orthodoxy, although I’d narrow that down to “tech geek aesthetic orthodoxy”.

However, I think the pressure to adjust to this is more likely to come from outside than within.


Joel Rosenbaum 05.08.13 at 4:28 pm

Zach Braff is making a sequel to that awful movie he made a decade ago?

I’m assuming that he’s playing the role of an organ grinder and that the Kickstarter is there to ensure that this does not happen.


John Holbo 05.09.13 at 1:12 am

Thanks for the good comments, they have helped me think this through a bit better. Luis is right to point to the stats, indicating that the biggest bulge in the curve is between 1 and 10 K. You only need a modest social network to fund that. Although, be it noted, you still need a network, presumably a prior network although not necessarily. It would be interesting if Kickstarter did some research, asking contributors if they would answer a few questions about how they heard about projects.

There isn’t any logical reason why Kickstarter needs to succumb to blockbuster syndrome. As the Raven says, if you are making a lot of money from a few blockbusters and from a lot of modest projects, no need to leave half that money on the table by shutting down the latter source. If Kickstarter moved just to the high end, new players would move in and actually keep things more exciting, plus Kickstarter Sucks! t-shirts.

Crowdfunding is, in a sense, radically democratizing and therefore bold. But it is also conservative, as a risk-management strategy. It’s safe. It manages to be bold yet safe by generating heretofore impossible to know, useful information about consumer preferences. It’s impossible to imagine that traditional businesses – entertainment and otherwise – will not want that sort of safety, even if they are indifferent to the romanticism of democracy and all that good stuff. Nothing so safe can stay punk rock forever. But something that safe actually can be bolder than the less safe thing we had before.


Zamfir 05.09.13 at 2:24 am

Question for those in the know: what happens if a kick starter project fails? Someone spends the money (honestly or not), but the promised good doesn’t arrive, or at least not at acceptable standards?


Mike 05.09.13 at 2:28 am

I’m not so sure Kaufman is particularly rich. He’s high profile, for a screenwriter, but his films don’t make a lot of money. Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, Human Nature, Synecdoehe New York fared poorly. Being John Malkovich got a lot of attention but didn’t set any records. He’s a risky proposition for a film studio. He writes high concept stuff with limited appeal, and some of his work requires either a bit budget, or some clever ways to get around needing a big budget.


John Holbo 05.09.13 at 3:32 am

That’s a good question, Zamfir. Googling I find this:

“A Kickstarter spokesman, Justin Kazmark, says Kickstarter can’t guarantee that every project will be a success. The company doesn’t issue refunds if a product never arrives or is defective. But Kazmark says ­entrepreneurs who raise money through the site can issue refunds, if they choose to. Kickstarter and its payment processing partner take about 10 percent of all money raised through the site.”

Carpe diem but caveat emptor.


nick s 05.09.13 at 3:51 am

There’s at least one case of a backer of a product that didn’t materialise who sued and won.


nick s 05.09.13 at 3:58 am

I’ll add one broader point on the role of social networks in relation to KS. My main worry is that it doesn’t seem good at building what you might call “guild wisdom”: shared insights into the process of bringing projects to fruition. In part, that’s because the projects are disparate in nature, but they’re not so disparate that there’s nothing to be learned.

You can learn how to run a campaign from others — there are ample resources for that — but particularly for manufacturing projects, there are common needs in terms of suppliers and prototyping and fulfilment and basic materials science on what kind of plastic you need for your plastic widgets, and I’d have expected by now to see some kind of mechanism by which that kind of information can be shared, either within KS itself or in its immediate vicinity.


The Raven 05.09.13 at 5:36 am

“There isn’t any logical reason why Kickstarter needs to succumb to blockbuster syndrome.”

There wasn’t any logical reason why publishing had to succumb to bestseller syndrome. It did so largely because the business became increasingly dominated by financiers. Publishers actually lose money to the concentration on bestsellers, but still they do it. This is a fine example of how it is that most financiers are not “rational actors” but rather testosterone-fueled status seekers.

I think you are too optimistic about the long-term future of Kickstarter. On the other hand, this may be something that competition will rectify. It is also possible that cooperatives may be able to step in to this niche.


The Raven 05.09.13 at 5:43 am

Nick, “there are common needs in terms of suppliers and prototyping and fulfilment and basic materials science on what kind of plastic you need for your plastic widgets, and I’d have expected by now to see some kind of mechanism by which that kind of information can be shared.”

That’s called engineering school. Production engineering is not something learned quickly, nor easily learned by self-study on the internet. If you’re running a Kickstarter for a mass-manufactured product you need to have that knowledge in your team, acquired at school or in some other way.


hope this makes sense in the morning.


Kaitain 05.09.13 at 7:01 pm

I find these arguments about mainstream forces subverting Kickstarter a bit bizarre. For me, it’s just a different kind of transaction: one that requires a higher investment but which you expect to generate a high utility payoff, because you feel it is something that is likely to bring value to you, value you can’t expect to be subsidized by others.

Think about one of your favourite movies. Any one. Now suppose I have an amazing machine that can cleanly, safely and precisely remove the memories of that movie from your head. I’ll neaten up the edges, so that you can still remember THAT you saw it, and maybe even the rough plot, but I’ll remove almost all the details. Notably, I’ll remove all the joy you got from it, any deep significance, the way it spoke to you, the way it inspired you, some of the creative or philosophical ideas it triggered in you. In essence, it’ll be a movie you saw but then largely forgot. In return for this excision, I’ll pay you $1000. Will you take the deal?

What about if I gave you the same deal with Scary Movie 2? Would you take that deal?

The truth is that watching a movie is a utility gamble: I’m going to pay $12 for my ticket, and I’m hoping the utility I gain from it will be worth at least as much to me as the investment of $12 (plus my time/opportunity cost, which is slightly harder to quantify). In the case of certain movies I’ve watched, that gamble paid off, big time. I don’t know that I’d take even ten thousand bucks to have The Terminator or Blade Runner removed from my head. So what if somebody promised me a Blade Runner-like experience for an investment of $500? It would seem strange to me – feel intuitively like a rip-off – but upon closer inspection, it would actually be an excellent deal from a utility payoff perspective. The deal removes the gamble aspect, but also removes the subsidies. Overall, it’s still a good deal. (I mean, unless your opinion is that most movies you watch already give you a utility payoff that is clearly in excess of the time and money investment you make.)

Of course, a Kickstarter project does not actually offer you a cast-iron guarantee. But the reasoning is that it’s further across on that spectrum than a regular transaction. The odds of success seem better, the price is higher. That’s really all there is to it.

If the makers of last year’s ‘Dredd’ offered me a deal whereby they would greenlight a sequel so long as I (and sufficient others) put up $100 upfront, because that’s the only way they felt they could fund the thing given the commercial failure of ‘Dredd’, I’d take the deal, because I expect that for me, the utility payoff would be worth it. It doesn’t matter a bit to me that they’re well-paid professionals with industry experience and connections. It’s just a transaction with a different risk/reward setup than the ones we’ve been used to.

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