Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Why Spike Lee's Kickstarter campaign is not the success you think it is

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.)


  1. The VM campaign had Warner's backing fulfillment and Braff turned to a completion loan to get the movie made. The difference here: Lee rallied big money inside the confines of his campaign.

    I'm actually kinda weirded out by the fact that VM fans are doing this. It's like they have to "prove" they're better than Spike Lee fans. No one wins that way.

    1. Warners didn't give a penny to the VM campaign. That was actually a huge issue for a lot of the campaigns detractors.

      Braff's completion loan has nothing to do with the money he rallied on Kickstarter. The Kickstarter funding was raised to compliment the funds he'd raised from outside sources. Financiers were not giving Braff money through Kickstarter, they were giving it to his movie directly.

    2. You're supposedly paid to read subtext and meaning in words. Comprehension is your bread and butter.
      I want you to closely reread your post. Pause. Then read it again.
      If you don't realise what you're REALLY saying, then you can't be helped.
      In other news, an independent filmmaker with only a comparatively small hipster audience leans on wealthy backers to publicly fund his new film, which is in a genre he's only just started working in (and Oldboy isn't even out yet).
      Let's say he did this after Oldboy had opened (and let's assume its good) - it would have looked the same as the other campaigns. Timing is everything.

  2. Yeah, it seems like you're ragging on Lee's campaign like it's less than VM's or the others. The fact of the matter is, he made his goal. That's a win all day, every day especially for an independent filmmaker. It's also safe to say that he brought people who wouldn't normally come to Kickstarter, particularly minorities. That's also a win. Did he have some deep-pocketed friends? Absolutely, but are we going to discriminate against members in the crowd when we're crowdsourcing?

    1. I do not agree that it's "safe to say" minorities (I'm guessing you don't mean all minorities and just black folk) didn't know about Kickstarter before Spike Lee threw his hat into the ring. Blacks make up 71% of those on the internet. Also, there are many other black artists with projects on Kickstarter as well as Indiegogo.

      I don't think BSR is maligning Spike Lee's campaign, but illustrating that his crowdfunding was bolstered by high dollar donors and not "the people" he claimed he was attempting to reach in his campaign video.

    2. Correction: 71% of blacks use the internet.

    3. K. Nicole - you've got it. Braff and Veronica Mars managed to engage lower-level donors on a massive scale and achieved their goal without having to rely on the big ticket rewards. Despite being equally - if not MORE - famous, Spike Lee did not engage those masses and the numbers demonstrated he needed those "whales" in order to complete his goal.

      To someone looking at these campaigns and thinking they might try the same thing for their own crowdfunded projects, that is a VERY significant distinction.

    4. I see you two have a virtuous circle going.
      Where are these straw men proclaiming this? I have yet to see them. I think directors can parse the situation just fine.

      Also, you argue against your own point by suggesting Spike is more famous. Yes, but with whom?

      And K. Nicole, with that poorly contextualised stat you came across very Fox News there. :-)

    5. Well, just because 71% of blacks use the internet, it doesn't mean they've contributed in the same proportion to campaigns on Kickstarter. If Spike (or any artist) were just claiming to reach one group of "people," then none of them including the VM camp would allow you to contribute anything over $10. Singling Spike out because he had wealthy contributors whether in volume or amount just seems a bit elitist to me.

      As far as engaging masses, look fans of their work contributed. Whether it was "whales," guppies or serial shoplifters, it doesn't matter. Fans, no matter their income, were allowed to contribute to the works of their favorite artist.

      If someone thinks they can raise a massive amount on the scale of Spike, Corolla, or VM, without the name recognition/fame, then good for them, but it's naive to think it's a lot more than a longshot.

    6. This isn't about discriminating against the wealthy crowdfunders even, you've missed the point.

      No one would care if this happened on ZB or VM's kickstarter, or at least not much. This is about a wealthy old man who's very much in the establishment trying to appear like he's still got populist appeal and (apparently) failing at it.

      And it's not about ZB or VM vs Spike Lee, it's not an "us vs them" thing.

    7. Nicole, your stat on blacks really is irrelevant, and makes you sound like a follower instead of a leader. The national average of Adults on the web is 78%. So saying 71% of blacks use the internet to support your response actually does the opposite when compared to the national average.

    8. Don't really see how that makes me sound like a follower instead of a leader. My point is that Spikle claimed he was bringing minorities to kickstarter. And the fact that there are many crowdfunding projects helmed by minorities already it's insulting to act like minorities don't know or participate in crowdfunding and that by Spike banging his tambourine he was going to bring them to it.

      And seeing as how BSR pointed out that the majority of his donations were from big dollar donors, he was not bringing "the people" to kickstarter, but moreso people like him, guys with money who didn't know about KS because for the most part they didn't have to know about it.

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  5. FYI Adam Carolla recently surpassed his goal and received $1.4 million to finance his new movie "Road Hard" through His first film "The Hammer" currently holds a rating of 80% on Rotten Tomatoes. Apparently the media has placed all their attention on Spike but if they want to give this topic comprehensive coverage, Adam's campaign should be looked at too.

    1. I was going to mention Carolla's campaign, too, but I only found out about it a few days ago from I think Forbes or CNN and had never heard of that FundAnything site.

    2. Yeah, Adam's campaign isn't directly analogous since it's not on Kickstarter, but given he and Spike ended up at roughly the same takes, it would be fascinating to see how the numbers break out. A cursory glance suggests he didn't need as many big ticket donors as Spike did.

      They don't list the total number of donors, which means that I don't see an easy way to calculate the "unlisted" donations. Of note - his highest level of engagement is on the $55 donation level and NO ONE threw in for his $25,000 reward. (He did have two takers for $15,000 though.)

    3. Carolla has an amazing 300,000 plus downloads of his daily podcast. Suffice it to say while he has some big wheel friends, the majority of his support comes from the little guy.

  6. It seems disingenuous to me when the Film Professor with 40 Million dollars reported net worth (that would be Spike Lee) and tons of very rich friends acts like the poor downtrodden indie film maker.
    Look at Slyvester Stallone's new kickstarter. He just asks for money for a good film. That's what Spike should do as well.

  7. So does Kickstarter have a donation cap so a project will have to be funded by x amount of people? Let me google that. It doesn't! What a non-story.

    The publicity for Kickstarter is good though. The site will be visited and projects with low visibility may receive funding.

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