Several weeks ago, a reader named Andrew sent me this email:
I wanted to get your opinion on crowd sourcing. I saw your old post on Behind the Mask II but didn't see any other posts about crowd sourcing. What are thoughts on creatives using Kickstarter, Indigo and the like. Is it good, bad, the future of the industry?
I'm going to put a pin in that for just as second while I also bring up an email about last week's post on Spike Lee's Kickstarter.
I think you have to factor in this fact: Fans donating to VM or Braff KNEW what the movie was going to be. VM adapts a popular TV show, and Braff's is a sequel to a movie they presumably saw. Lee gives almost no info on what his movie is going to be, and literally just says, "Trust me." Now, I can trust Spike Lee to make an interesting, thought-provoking, even challenging movie. He's done it many times. I CANNOT trust Spike Lee to make a movie I want to SEE, especially since his description of a thriller with humor about people addicted to blood is not at all enticing to me, personally.
My guess his he was more forthcoming about plot details to his big donors, and maybe they were better able to "see" the movie. Basically, I think Lee did Kickstarter wrong.
In my post last week, I very deliberately tried to stay centered on the data and what could be drawn from the final result rather than focusing on if Spike Lee ran a smart Kickstarter campaign. To me, what was more notable was that Lee's numbers appeared anomalous within the context of several large scale Kickstarters - the two most notorious of which also were met with their fair share of controversy while they were active.
A while back Indiewire ran a great article looking at how Lee course-corrected his campaign after some early missteps - many of which are noted in that email above. I think there's definitely a case to be made that Lee jumped in too quickly before bothering to learn much about Kickstarter. He was probably aware that Veronica Mars and Zach Braff cleaned up big, and thought "I've got fans. I'll show up and get my money too."
I saw some people criticizing the fact that Mars Investigations was even compiling that data in the first place, which is a reaction that really disappointed me. As someone who wants to learn from Kickstarter campaigns, it's not enough to know, "Oh, this known property got $5 million in donations. It's essential to understand as much of the whys and hows of getting there."
To wit - the big lesson I've taken from a lot of campaigns is that you can have some great rewards at the $10,000 level, but it's perhaps even more critical to have a compelling $50 reward. Find a way to make people feel like they're getting their money's worth there and you stand a good chance of getting that in bulk.
For Veronica Mars, if you gave $50, you got: "a digital version of the movie within a few days of the movie’s
theatrical debut, a physical DVD of the movie that will include a documentary on the
making of the Veronica Mars movie and the history-making Kickstarter
campaign, plus other bonus features not available on the digital
download...the T-shirt, plus the pdf of the shooting script...regular updates and behind-the-scenes
scoop throughout the fundraising and movie making process."
I felt like that was a fair price for a lot of that stuff and so did the 23,226 other people who donated. That was $1,161,350 right there. This comes to about 20% of the total campaign, but perhaps more significantly, that's over 50% of the campaign's initial goal. I'm not going to break down all the numbers because you can certainly do that yourselves, but the point is - for most campaigns, that $35-$50 reward level is the sweet spot. If you're planning your campaigns, make sure there's real value right there. (I call it "the disposable income" level.)
I do want to give Spike Lee props for one thing - like Veronica Mars, he offered a DVD copy of the film as a reward and at the not-unreasonable level of $50. That might a bit steep for a DVD under normal circumstances, but that's a damn good price for a Spike Lee autograph and a chance to be a part of his campaign. I'm a little shocked that he only moved 448 of those things, but then there were cheaper items that also offered his autograph, so perhaps that hampered sales here.
Why do I give Lee props for that? Because my biggest issue with Zack Braff's campaign is that there was no rewards level that offered a copy of the film - digital, DVD, or blu-ray. There's a very important reason for that - Braff wants to be able to take a completed film to distributors and sell it for a lot of money. If he were to self-distribute - and giving copies of the film to his backers would count as such - it would tie his hands a bit and cut into his profits when selling the film.
Braff's thinking ahead and there's nothing wrong with being savvy - but it underlines how he could profit greatly from this act of Kickstarter charity. With Veronica Mars, Warner Bros owned the property. They agreed to distribute the film and they gave Rob Thomas permission to pursue the campaign. But it's not as if Thomas could finish the film and then sell it to the highest bidder. He doesn't have those rights - Warner Bros. does.
So as much as the Veronica Mars thing is disturbing in that a studio basically got a free movie, there's no other way for that film to be made, and the people holding the rights had zero interest in taking the risk on it. I looked at my donation for Veronica Mars as a show of support for Rob Thomas's determination to make the film rather than subsidizing Warner Bros. But having said that, I completely understand the positions of those who are concerned about studios looking to crowdfunding as free money.
Which brings me to a campaign I am very conflicted about. Last week, the entertainment press reported that the film Reach Me had come up $250,000 short from its investors. Faced with the cancellation of the project, director John Herzfeld, star Sylvester Stallone and producer Cassian Elwes turned to Kickstarter to make up the gap.
When I read the story, I was disinclined to support it because I could only imagine this opening the floodgates to even more projects like this. Worse, could we see a case where a studio really holds firm on a low-budget film, knowing that crowdfunding campaigns will provide the expenditures that they'd rather not lay out?
And then I watched the video:
This video did everything right that Spike Lee's early campaign did wrong. You can feel the passion of the people working on the film. You get a sense of what it means to them and it adequately confronts the number one question any prospective backer would have - "This film is loaded with people richer than me - why can't they just pony up for it?"
I'd like to believe in Kickstarter as a place where talented people can find a way to promote their projects and get support based on the merits of their proposal. I'll be frank - I've certainly given a lot of thought to attempting to fund a project of my own through crowdfunding, hence my interest in scrutinizing and understanding the success of other campaigns.
Let's not kid ourselves - Veronica Mars was only a success because it was a known property that had the original talent attached. It was also achievable on a low budget. It's rare that you'll find all of those factors coinciding on a known IP. Braff's campaign similarly was targeted at an audience that was passionate for his earlier work and was very internet-savvy. If Rob Thomas had tried to fund an original movie, I don't think he'd have been nearly as successful. You're not going to see Joss Whedon start a Kickstarter campaign to fund a Firefly movie, that's for sure.
But for the famous who already have access in the industry, I wouldn't
want to see this become anything more than an ultimate last resort. I'm afraid too much Hollywood panhandling will break Kickstarter. I'd love to know that some talented young filmmaker got the opportunity to make their little $300,000 movie because of savvy use of crowdfunding. The potential for an underdog to make good is the most exciting thing about crowdfunding.
I think Kevin Smith feels as I do. Asked on Reddit about crowdfunding, he said he wouldn't pursue it for his own projects because:
"I'm feeling like that's not fair to real indie filmmakers who need the help. Unlike back when I made CLERKS in '91, I've GOT access to money now - so I should use that money and not suck any loot out of the crowd-funding marketplace that might otherwise go to some first-timer who can really use it. So if I can get away with it, I'm gonna try to pay for CLERKS III myself. As much as I love the crowd-funding model (and almost did it myself in early 2009 with RedStateGreen.com), that's an advancement in indie film that belongs to the next generation of artists. I started on my own dime, and if I'm allowed, I should finish on my own dime."
That's the utopian ideal of Kickstarter, and I know it's naive to think that there won't be people exploiting it. There's also the fact that at a certain point, the support for those "elite" Kickstarters will dry up, as users perhaps share the same feelings as me and Kevin Smith. Considering what we discussed about Spike Lee's Kickstarter last week, there might be a case to be made that the low support at the "grass roots" level of donors already points to crowdfunders falling out of love with Hollywood folks trying to crash the party.
So to return to the original question: what do I think about crowdfunding? I think it's reductive to declare it all-good or all-evil. I understand the perils that some have been crying about all the way since Veronica Mars made its goal in a day, but I also think the jury is still out on them. I wouldn't blame those concerned about it for being vigilant, though.
But for the aspiring filmmaker most likely to read this post, I'd say that Kickstarter has the potential to help you see your project to fruition. In that, I would encourage you to really educate yourself about crowdfunding. Understand why the successes were successes. Examine the traits of successful campaigns. Veronica Mars, Braff and Lee had options that you won't have, but their fame was only a factor in their success. Braff and Veronica Mars especially knew how to run strong campaigns beyond just being famous.
The worst thing you could do as an aspiring filmmaker would be to just throw your project up on the site and wait for it to be discovered. Have a ground game, work your contacts, and maximize your exposure. Spike stumbled early, but he had a huge safety net and a lot of people writing about his campaign. You won't have either of those.
Is it the future of the industry? I don't think so - but for the savvy and talented, it could be your ticket INTO the industry.