“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.