Funding ‘Husbands’ Season 2, and Looking Beyond Kickstarter

Those of you who loved Jane Espenson’s marriage equality comedy Husbands should be delighted: Jane and star Cheeks are writing the second season of the show now. And they’re turning to Kickstarter to fund it. I’m so glad to see we’re at a point where it’s basically a sure thing that an established artist can get project funding from their fans now. Not all artists want to work this way, but for those who do, and who want to explore projects that aren’t necessarily going to attract studio funding (like, say, gay romantic comedies rather than gay family dramas), it’s logical and wonderful that they’d be able to go directly to the people who want to purchase that specific product.

The interesting question, though, is what’s the next step beyond single-project funding? People will put up $50,000 for a season of Husbands or $100,000 for the first edition of the female-created comics book Womanthology (which, it was recently announced, will run as a regular series). But would they fund a full run of Community? Would they give Joss Whedon a million dollars for a project they knew nothing about whatsoever? Or would they contribute to a general project fund for an artist or a group of artists?

I had a long conversation with Linda Holmes from NPR, the filmmaker David Dylan Thomas, and the author Kevin Smokler about this at SXSW, which David wrote up in a great post here, with particular insight into the artist’s perspective:

For this model, the term “crowdscourced patronage” seems especially appropriate. As an artist, it’s an exciting idea because I find that the thing holding me back as a filmmaker isn’t money for equipment, it’s a lack of time because I work a full time job. What I need is money to live, not money for tools. In this model, a large enough subscription base could make that possible.

We discussed how that might skew the relationship between the artist and the audience and how it might make one a little too beholden to one’s fan base–I mean how disappointed would you be if you contribute $1,000 a year to The Whedon Fund and Serenity 2 sucks versus just paying $12 at a movie theater and having Serenity 2 suck? But I feel it’s only an extension/refinement of the current artist/fan relationship and, if Serenity 2 sucks, you can cancel your subscription. Although I suppose there’s a risk there that “burned” patrons will be less likely to fund other artists.

As the scale gets larger, both in terms of the projects and the pools of money at stake, the questions get more complicated. A show like Husbands might sell some merchandise, but it’s not necessarily going to generate revenue above and beyond the costs of production. Something like Cabin in the Woods, on the other hand, has the opportunity to make a bucket of money. If it had been funded by fan donors, or a subscription fund, would the filmmakers be obligated to pay the fund back so it can continue its work? Will fans be content to be paid in swag unrelated to the products they’re funding, as is the case in most Kickstarter campaigns, if the projects they’re supporting become commercially viable?

This kind of power to get projects off the ground is fantastic, but at some point, it also starts to raise questions of infrastructure and fairness. There are valuable things that come from working within the studio system when you’re working on projects of a certain scale. And fan power is incredible, but that also doesn’t mean it’s attractive to exploit it. Fans are stakeholders. And if they start acting as investors, maybe they should be treated that way.