Indie film and Kickstarter: Survival in the time of the celebrity pet project

In the 1994 movie “With Honors”, Montgomery Kessler (played by Brendan Fraser) decides to completely rewrite his senior thesis after realizing the negativity and cynicism with which he’s conducted his academic career. After his girlfriend (played by Moira Kelly) reads the new thesis statement, “Monty” responds to her enthusiasm: “That’s right… interactive cable TV is going to save the world… now I just have to figure out how.”

When I first read about Kristen Bell’s Kickstarter project for “Veronica Mars”, I was intrigued but also aggravated. Scouring the internet, not only did I see similar reactions of outrage from other film community pundits, I also couldn’t really get a clear picture of whether I should feel only a bit annoyed or fully outraged. In my mind, it came down to the question: was a “Veronica Mars” feature going to get made, if not immediately then eventually, prior to Kickstarter?

If Warner Bros. were just hesitating over the script, likely to enter the volley of submission, coverage, script notes, rewrites, submission, coverage, script notes, rewrites, ad nauseam, then I was preparing to enter full blown outrage. Warner Bros. just passively agreed to let fans contribute a production budget for something they were already prepared to underwrite.

If the script was dead in the water, unlikely to ever get produced based on the studio’s estimation that a “Veronica Mars” feature just wasn’t worth the money or energy, then I would still feel aggravated that a TV show with 3 successful seasons on the air would rake in the cash through crowd funding based not on the merit of an idea but rather on the support of a successful show displaying their darling celebrity endorsement. Literally, they hung a successful franchise’s name on a Kickstarter, posted a video with the celebrity star, and started the campaign. Nobody seemed to be enthusiastic over the STORY of the “Veronica Mars” feature, only that a “Veronica Mars” feature was a $1 donation away.

As of today, they completed their campaign with $5,702,153 donations from fans. As far as I can tell, nobody donating was offered a preview of the script, coverage of what they were financing, nothing. The fervor with which the campaign crossed the finish line seemed entirely fueled by star power.

I stopped thinking about the “Veronica Mars” campaign, possibly because I sought to dismiss my ire through empathetic reasoning: “Oh, if you were a fan of a show, and they did a Kickstarter campaign, you’d probably donate sight-unseen too!” If a Kickstarter showed up for a 3rd season of HBO’s hastily canceled “Carnivalè”, I’d probably be the first to donate.

Then, I read that Zach Braff created his own Kickstarter campaign for his own pet project: a sequel to the 2004 hit “indie” film “Garden State” which he starred and directed. With a modest budget of $2.5 million (according to BoxOfficeMojo.com), Zach created a heartfelt film that costarred the skyrocketing star Natalie Portman (Oscar winner 7 years later) with other characters played by Ian Holm (Oscar nominated in 1984) and Peter Sarsgaard (Golden Globe nominated). He even mentions in his Kickstarter that he was about to get financing, but instead decided on the crowd funding route.

“Garden State”, also according to BoxOfficeMojo.com, made $35 million dollars globally, plus a soundtrack that was certified platinum with 1.3 million copies sold. I only bring these numbers up to show that, for a $2.5 million dollar production budget film, they were extremely successful.

When you work in Hollywood, you have access to certain people whom you can likely get to be involved in your projects for an affordable rate, schedules permitting. Clearly this option isn’t available to everyone. I saw a movie at Sundance 2013 called “In a World…” written and directed by Lake Bell, who explained that she got Eva Longoria and Cameron Diaz in the movie by simply calling them up and seeing if they were available that day. I don’t know if every project on Kickstarter has those sort of connections.

Now, I will play the devil’s advocate in acknowledging the repetition Hollywood seems constantly engaged in: sequels, reboots, prequels, remakes, restarts, all of the same property with very few “new” stories, unless they smell an adolescent teen series phenomenon they can option. So, perhaps even a bulletproof Zach Braff sequel to a film that earned 1400% of it’s production budget in box office could get a “pass” from the studios, much as a 3 season success like “Veronica Mars” could get set up for that aforementioned volley of “fix this, then we’ll talk…” phone calls.

One question that immediately comes to mind, though, is this: based on previous success of both properties, is it not probable that a “Veronica Mars” feature or even Zach Braff’s projects suffered from a business problem? Perhaps the story just wasn’t that great? Both people have enormous star power, but neither could find a Producer to champion these projects based simply on the names involved? I tend to think the issues with the story were what prevented two continuations/conclusions of their rather successful predecessors from going a “traditional route”.

I also have to accede that, yes, perhaps the stories were bound for an uphill fight, since studios may not have any interest in a sequel to a movie about a guy in love who moves back to New Jersey, or a girl who solves mysteries. Isn’t that what crowd funding is all about: give a chance to the projects that were ignored by those big, blind studio executives who can’t see the brilliance of the project? So we, the fans, give the project a “shot in the arm” so we can all benefit from it’s success?

For me, the controversy lies in the fog of campaign funding, the donation process, and the question: did they earn it?

When I donate money to the Salvation Army, I do so without the expectation of compensation; I don’t get a certified letter or receipt that some unfortunate, hungry person was fed that night. Well, that’s similar to the Kickstarter model. Yes, they have pledge reward levels. “Veronica Mars”, for example, as 5938 backers who donated maybe $1-9 dollars with no actual reward. They also have 8423 backers who donated $10-24, and will receive a shooting script PDF after production wraps. Even if the backers pledged the very base monetary values of those respective levels, “Veronica Mars: The Movie” earned $90,168 with effectively $0 cost rewards. That’s 1.5% of their production budget… free.

We can keep trudging against these numbers: 11,509 backers will get a $3-5 t-shirt and contributed 5.04% production budget. At the $35 backer level, they claim you’ll get a digital download copy “within a few days of the movie’s theatrical debut”, but here’s where the crowd funding process gets complicated. What happens when Warner Bros. decides they want a clean theatrical run WITHOUT a digital download “within a few days”? Warner Bros., as a distribution entity, did not enter into any agreement with backers for the download copy, and as per their distribution contract, that section may be left for the producers to sort out. I have a feeling the producers of the “Veronica Mars” feature will take a Warner Bros. distribution contract rather than fighting back, saying, “NO, we have an obligation to our Kickstarter backers, we HAVE to fulfill our agreement!”

Also, here’s a sticky part: they’re not under any obligation to do so anyway, so failing to deliver on that really just requires an explanation and an apology.

$80,000 of the contributions get a reward of Kristen Bell recording an outgoing message for your voicemail or sending you a personalized 0:20 second video. Free for them. So far, that’s over $170,000 with no cost of fulfillment.

In the time that “Veronica Mars” was overfunded by almost a 3:1 ratio, or while Zach Braff’s sequel to his wildly successful first film is already overfunded at $2,341,422 (with 21 days left), what other projects have died? Features or independent TV series ideas with scripts available for download, teaser trailers available or impassioned pleas from directors, writers, actors and producers, seeking a fraction of the money these people are earning, effectively obligation free, with this model?

I want to make one thing clear: I am not opposed to the crowd funding model. Quite the opposite. Up until a few months ago, I was actually trying to develop an idea for crowd funding and independent distribution of TV series’ and features. Maybe I still am, who knows. However, much like I brought up Monty’s quote from “With Honors”, I do believe that crowd funding is a component of the future of media and entertainment. Interactive media will save the world, as it’s already saving people from oppression, ignorance and misrepresented leadership. A part of me still fears the crowd funding model will run its course before the other Kickstarter projects think to team up with social media marketing companies to make their crowd funded projects go viral based on the MERIT of their project rather than the celebrities supporting their pets.

In the documentary “Hearts of Darkness”, Francis Ford Coppola finishes the movie by saying: “To me, the great hope is that now these little 8mm video recorders and stuff have come out, and some… just people who normally wouldn’t make movies are going to be making them. And you know, suddenly, one day some little fat girl in Ohio is going to be the new Mozart, you know, and make a beautiful film with her little father’s camera recorder.” Some people think, with this statement, he predicted YouTube. I think he predicted an entire direction for the industry.

In the future, I believe that the majority of entertainment will be greenlit by audiences who are “fans” of the shows they like, and they’ll contribute directly to the success of those shows by crowd funding contributions. As a result, they will receive that media, potentially “backer perks” for donations above the required levels, and the success of the show will be reflected by the financial contributions of the audience. If a show sucks, contributions will drop. If the show is amazing, word of mouth and viral social media will push it to more fans, increasing the budget and the sky’s the limit.

The key here is ongoing audience participation and interaction, because only through that model (or something similar) do I see the next wave of filmmakers, artists and storytellers emerging from the noise of sequels and shows-turned-features. Only from that open market will the next Martin Scorcese, Steven Spielberg, JJ Abrams or Aaron Sorkin appear. Otherwise, it’s all just a reboot, and the names pass us by. We won’t know the filmmakers, actors and artists with whom we identify and trust for great, meaningful stories. We’ll just know studios. “I can’t wait to see Nicolas Winding Refn’s new movie” will turn to “I can’t wait to see that new Warner Bros. movie”.

In the mean time, I’m waiting to hear about a Kickstarter for the “Entourage” feature…

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About wbd3

Camera / Steadicam owner Operator based in Los Angeles
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