Spike Lee's Kickstarter campaign ended this morning with him topping out at over $1.4 million dollars in donations. He's the third-highest film campaign in history after Veronica Mars ($5.7M) and Zach Braff's Wish I Was Here ($3.1M). After Veronica Mars walked away with its windfall, there was no shortage of editorials proclaiming that this could be the start of a trend - for good and for ill. Some hoped it would bring independent filmmakers more opportunities, while others feared that studios and the privileged would take advantage of their supporters by getting them to essentially pay for the movie. So does Spike Lee's success confirm any of that?
No. In fact, I'd submit that when you stack up the number's on Lee's Kickstarter against Veronica Mars and Braff's, you'll find it hard to declare it a genuine success.
The website Mars Investigations has done a fantastic job of breaking down the numbers for all of the high-profile Kickstarters. If you have any interest at all in crowdsourcing, you owe it to yourself to look at their charts.
First, let's consider the average donation to the Kickstarters. Veronica Mars had 91,585 donors and a total of over $5.7 M, which makes their average donation $62.36. Even though Braff raised less, $3.1 M, his average donation was pretty close - $66.76. Spike Lee's average donation? $220.98
If you look at the "Pledges" chart, you see that Veronica Mars (36%) and Braff (40%) got a sizable number of their donations from the range of $100-$499. Lee's donations at that level come out to only 9.1%. So what's going on here?
A full 26.1% of Lee's donations were given at the $10,000 level or higher. Guess how those numbers break out for Veronica Mars and Braff - $0.6% and 0% percent, respectively.
Spike Lee's second biggest donation level is barely a blip on the charts of two other Kickstarters that had surpassed their goals in a matter of days. Remember, Spike Lee's project took over three weeks to hit its goal.
As for Lee's biggest donation level, that would be the "unlisted" donors. I'll let Mars Investigations explain what "Unlisted" means:
"If you add up the number of backers and pledges listed for each pledge level, you will notice that those sums are less that the total backers and total amount pledge. I've labeled those backers and pledges as "unlisted". Those "unlisted" amounts are due to shipping costs, people who pledge more than the pledge level, and people who pledge but didn't sign up for rewards."
So "unlisted" people would likely be those just tossing in extra money, people who don't care about rewards. Here's how those figures break out for each project:
Veronica Mars - 4.8%
Wish I Was Here - 4.6%
Spike Lee - 42.8%
So again we have the other two landmark Kickstarters being consistent with each other, while Spike Lee's has a clear anomaly. Better still, here's how the Unlisted people measure up as a percentage of overall backers:
Veronica Mars - 3.6%
Wish I Was Here - 6.3%
Spike Lee - 8.6%
So this is one place where Lee's project isn't so far off pattern. But notice what this means - 8.6% of his donors contributed 42.8% of his money.
And that's not counting the 0.6% responsible for another 26.1% of his money. 9.2% of Spike Lee's donors are responsible for 68.9% of his campaign.
We can only speculate how that happened and why the numbers are so out of line with the other two famed Kickstarters. I state that this is ONLY speculation - but to me, it looks like a lot of Spike's wealthy friends were kicking in money to help him save face. The "grass roots" level donations weren't going to get him to the finish line, so people ponied up for the large rewards or just gave a lot of money outright to get Spike Lee across the finish line.
I don't think this points to anything other than Lee having people with deep pockets willing to put their thumb on the scale for him. For this to be a true success, we should be seeing stronger participation in the smaller rewards levels. For all of Lee's talk about bringing new people to Kickstarter, when you break out the numbers you can see that this isn't a green light for any independent filmmaker - even one with a following - to show up and collect their $1 million a month later.
Spike Lee got his money, but I don't think we can call this a true win where it counts - a win for the independent filmmaker in turning to crowdfunding as a sustainable resource.
(Much thanks and acknowledgements to Mars Investigations for their diligent work on the figures and charts.)