Orson Welles, Terry Gilliam, and the Kickstarter Paradox

A few weeks ago, Zach Braff’s sophomore feature was completely funded by his fans. His two million dollar goal was met using gifted, untaxed money from the very people who are likely planning to purchase tickets to its theatrical release. Kickstarter, a website dedicated to helping small artistic projects find investors, has found itself in an interesting position. What happens when well-known artists use the tool of Kickstarter as a way to bypass the debt of making a film? What if there was no need to pay back the studio at all?

Kristen Bell similarly used Kickstarter a few months ago in order to fund a Veronica Mars movie that has been gestating for a number of years. The goal was easily met because of the cult following the show has accumulated, and the film is now in the midst of production.

Some prognosticators cried foul on the whole thing. “They can’t use Kickstarter,” some loud voices were saying. “They’re not one of us.” 

Which leads me to ask the obvious question: what is us?

If by “us”, you mean struggling artists incapable of finding any money for our projects, you may want to check out the facts. The fact is, Rob Thomas and Kristen Bell attempted to get Veronica Mars: The Movie off the ground for several years without success. The fact is that Garden State was released in 2004. That’s nine years ago. If Braff had been able to secure funding for his second feature using other sources, then why didn’t he? Maybe his project was too risky for studios to make that gamble. After all, studios (even the independent ones) are less willing to take risks than ever, and it’s not like Braff is still on the A-list for a popular soundtrack (and semi-popular movie attached to it) almost a decade old.

Of course, I don’t know Zach Braff. Maybe he really did just want to make a movie using untaxed gifted money. Why not? Doesn’t he have just as much of a right to do that as anybody else? He’s an artist in need of funding. Kickstarter is a tool designed specifically for that very situation. I don’t see people getting up in arms about Charlie Kaufman’s Kickstarter project with Dan Harmon getting fully funded in less than five days.

So what is the problem, then? Are we mad that famous people are stepping on our turf, or are we mad that the jocks are playing D&D?

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It’s always fun to be on the cutting edge. Like the kid who got to see Blue Velvet on opening night, it’s fun to know about something amazing before anybody else. As artists, we’re always looking for that cutting edge. For a lot of artists, Kickstarter belonged to them. They discovered it, they found a system for using it well, and they got their work made because of it.

So when Zach “Scrubs” Braff came in and essentially slept his way to two million dollars, artists who had worked hard for their money got angry. Braff easily met a goal that would have been near-impossible for somebody lesser known.

But what about the people who funded it? They obviously want a new Braff film. Braff obviously wants to make a new movie. Kickstarter presented itself and made this situation possible.

Could he have done this differently? Sure. Louis C.K. evaded Kickstarter and Indiegogo altogether by making his own website for selling his comedy. Not even the meager middleman of Kickstarter stood between he and his fans, and he has benefitted significantly from that model.

Braff could have easily done something similar, but what difference would it ultimately make? Crowdfunding is a thing now. It’s just another branch on an ever-growing tree.

Do we get mad when Woody Allen goes overseas and uses his name to take government money reserved for French and British artists? Do we get mad when Al Pacino lends his name to an independent film so it’ll secure funding?

Sixty years ago, John Cassavetes essentially invented the independent film by hiring private investors to fund his films outside of studio assistance. Who would have thought that, in just a couple of decades, all of the best and most well-known artists in the medium would be jumping ship to find similar glory?

Is the Kickstarter situation any different? Sure, it was a trail blazed by the risk-taking unknown, but it’s a trail that’ll be paved by the successful and the smart.

Just think about those filmmakers who’ve notoriously been unable to secure funding for their projects. The first name that should come to anybody’s mind is Orson Welles. The man had legions of fans, both inside and outside of the Hollywood machine, but nobody wanted to hand the man a lump sum for his ambitious projects. Welles would have been a prime candidate for the crowd-funding revolution. His Don Quixote would have been a few thousands clicks away. His Macbeth
wouldn’t have been a cobbled-together mess made in the middle of his living room.

He could have produced plays, films, television shows, and mixed-media projects that would have changed the landscape of cinema. But, conversely, he would have probably faced the backlash of being the “Citizen Kane guy” using his credentials to find an easy budget.

Understand this, I’m not comparing Braff to Welles by any stretch of the imagination, but I am wondering why the politics of Kickstarter seem to be as paradoxical as they are. If only poor, unknown artists are allowed to use the site for their projects, then where does the cutoff start?

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People forget that movies fall apart all the time in pre-production. Funding is really hard to secure, even for those who seem to have everything. It’s entirely possible that Braff shopped a script around for several years before turning to crowd-funding. It’s a tough business, and Kickstarter is just the newest tool in the garage.

I, for one, am excited by the prospect of paying a filmmaker (or author, or game designer, etc) directly for the work they plan on doing. Sure, it would be nice to have that money treated as an investment that will someday produce a return, but I also just love the idea of being partially responsible for a work of art by an important voice.

Think about Terry Gilliam, a man who has lost more interesting and exciting projects than any other filmmaker I know of. Seemingly every year he loses the funding to some other fantastic idea because a studio doesn’t like the gamble of working with such an idiosyncratic visionary. Was Kickstarter not made for him? He could finally make films on his own terms, with the backing of the people who trust him the most–his fans.

Crowd-funding could be responsible to a new Brazil or Twelve Monkeys, and Gilliam wouldn’t ever be subject to studio interference.

It’s true, we all know who Terry Gilliam is, and he’s certainly able to procure funding when he tries hard enough, but why must he play an antiquated game when there’s an all new rule book at his disposal?

It’s a touchy subject for many artists who feel the celebrities are stealing the spotlight from their smaller projects. They fear that Kickstarter will lose interest in funding such small projects when it can take the back end of hugely profitable overnight successes. It’s a legitimate fear, but it’s also just an economic reality.

If something works on a small scale, then attempts at larger scale successes are inevitable. While the us and them attitude of many artists is a compelling argument, it doesn’t hold much water when put up against our current economic model. Crowd-funding is possible, and it’s going to be implemented with or without the consent of other artists.

The best thing to do is learn how to survive in the changing climate, and to stop screaming for it to stay the same.

NOTE: Zach Braff was given the opportunity to work with a studio on his new film, but their interference would have produced a drastically different film than the one he wanted to make. 

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  • Terry Barr

    Yeah that’s the problem: making your own film–your creative vision, or the one the studio wants. Some people, like David Lynch have played the two-for-one game: I make the film you want and then you fund the one I want with no interference. That gave us both Dune and Blue Velvet.
    I don’t see the small guys who are getting kickstarted complaining either, though maybe I’m not looking closely.

  • Yeah that’s the problem: making your own film–your creative vision, or the one the studio wants. Some people, like David Lynch have played the two-for-one game: I make the film you want and then you fund the one I want with no interference. That gave us both Dune and Blue Velvet.
    I don’t see the small guys who are getting kickstarted complaining either, though maybe I’m not looking closely.

  • It seems to me that we artists sometimes just don’t like rich people horning in on what we perceive to be our cultural identity (the poor, barely getting by artiste). Once someone hits a certain level, they’re kind of cast out of the tribe.

    Which is, of course, BS.

  • It seems to me that we artists sometimes just don’t like rich people horning in on what we perceive to be our cultural identity (the poor, barely getting by artiste). Once someone hits a certain level, they’re kind of cast out of the tribe.

    Which is, of course, BS.