Zach Braff, Rob Thomas, Kickstarter As Charity, And The Value Of Editing And Profits

When I wrote last week about the rising trend of Hollywood figures using Kickstarter to solicit backing for projects that they might or might not have been able to finance through the normal studio system, I got back two main objections to the idea of giving Kickstarter backers equity in the projects they invest in. First, there was the idea that Kickstarter is effectively a means of garnering charitable support, the cause being to liberate artists from the crippling influence of profit-making system. Second, there was the objection that expectations of equity would put pressure on filmmakers to generate profits, leading them to make more commercial decisions than they might have otherwise, and eliminating the advantage of working outside the studio advantage in the first place.

I’m not exceptionally sympathetic to the idea that Kickstarter is or should be a charitable enterprise for any number of reasons. First, there’s the idea, which I think animates a lot of the anti-Kickstarter sentiment, and which is not entirely fair to people working in Hollywood, that there’s something distasteful about giving large amounts of money to people who already make a great deal more than many of the rest of us. More pointedly, I actually think it’s worth interrogating the idea that liberating artists from the studio system is an inherently great idea, much less one worthy of major charitable giving.

There are absolutely movies that couldn’t have been made by traditional studios, and there should be more venues that support funding movies that are about people of color, that are about poor people, that are about political subjects that aren’t going to be hot sellers but that also might not be popular enough to attract support from a big non-profit outlet like PBS. At its meritocratic best, Kickstarter can be a place where projects like those get discovered by people who will love them, and get the funding and support that other outlets are too blinkered to survive. But that isn’t actually particularly what we’re talking about here. We’re addressing the argument that Kickstarter can give artists who have long records of working in commercial film and television and making projects with studio backing the chance to buy their way out of the system. In the case of the Veronica Mars movie, that’s not really what’s going on. The movie, as I understand it, will still be made in collaboration with Warner Brothers, which is handling distribution of things like rewards. In the case of Zach Braff’s project, his Kickstarter is explicitly set up so he can exit a commercial system that would have provided him with funding, but under conditions he didn’t want to accept.

With that clear, it’s worth remembering what working in the system provides. It means excellent facilities and equipment. It means getting hooked up with distribution. It means the ability to reach out to talent more easily than might have been possible otherwise. While there are absolutely edits from networks and studios that end up being bad for film and television, and that are cowardly, conversations between executives and creators are not inherently some sort of poisonous thing, and genius—or even mere inspiration—is not inherently best off when it’s left to flourish unsupervised. This is a common misnomer that people on the outside of creative professions seem to have, but almost everyone I know who writes, or makes art, appreciates second opinions, and editing, and advice on what will find an audience and what won’t. 30 Rock was initially going to be a show about cable news. Lena Dunham works with Judd Apatow and Jenni Konner for a reason. We can argue about the results, but one thing that working with NBC or HBO gets you is access to Lorne Michaels or Judd Apatow, particularly for artists who are leveling up. I would be much more interested in bending the curve on what studios are willing to take on than in exiting the system entirely, whether a Kickstarter demonstrates a strong core audience for a given creator or project, whether it becomes matching funds, or whether Kickstarted funds are what let an artist buy access to a studio’s resources.

And finally, there are questions of management. Donating to Kickstarter is fundamentally unlike charity at the moment in part because the artists who raise funds off it don’t have to obey the kinds of rules that actual non-profits do. They don’t have to operate for specific purposes, they aren’t required to file certain paperwork or meet standards of fiscal responsibility, and they don’t have to accept limitations on their activities. And more to the point, if the projects fail, if Zach Braff turns out a horrible project and it seems like he used the money to enrich himself, the worst that can happen is that he doesn’t get money back. There’s no one to advocate for funders’ interests, or to keep projects on time and on budget, or to make sure they get produced at all. The idea that we should both spring wealthy, connected artists from the commercial production system and then transplant them into a system that gives them no support and imposes no accountability requirements on them does not seem terribly appealing. People may have the right to give lots and lots of money to people they admire, effectively as gifts, but that doesn’t mean their willingness to express their enthusiasm this way will produce a fertile creative environment, or reasonable and responsible use of the money.

Then, there’s the idea that introducing equity into the equation would put problematic commercial pressure on artists to compromise their vision. I agree that commercial pressures can be damaging, but there’s something blinkered about the idea that we should value projects precisely because they’re in some way anti-commercial. We want projects to come into existence so they can be seen, and so people who aren’t already fans of Rob Thomas, or Zach Braff, or documentaries about obscure musicians or political figures or whatever can have the pleasure of discovering something that was there all along. There’s nothing wrong with building entry points for lots of different kinds of audiences into your work: that’s thoughtful framing and storytelling, not surrender.

And profitability, particularly on Kickstarter-style projects, isn’t necessarily just good for creators and investors. One thing that’s little-discussed and little-considered about very low-budget crowdfunded projects is that a lot of people work on them other than the face of the project or the actors who will star in it. Some of them will work at wages below their standard rates, and will still make a decent amount of money for their work on the project. Others may work for wages that are below union scales, waivers to which are negotiated on a project-by-project basis, and still take the work anyway because it’s valuable professional experience. Projects that make enough money to pay investors back could help make up for low wages that people accepted on the front end. And it would be terrific if crowdfunding arrangements could be structured to make projects fairer to everyone involved in them, from funders to the people who set up big mirrors to reflect sunlight back into rooms in a way that will improve the quality of a shot. In other words, the creative well-being of Zach Braff isn’t the only thing that matters.