Is crowdfunding the last treasure hunt for indie filmmakers?

At this point, Kickstarter and IndieGoGo have almost become synonymous with Facebook. Afterall, like with most everything else these days, you probably first learned what those sites were when links popped up on your News Feed over and over. They’ve become so ubiquitous that most people don’t even bother to look at them anymore. Some people even seem to feel like it is the equivalent to online panhandling. Though, probably more than a few of you did click those links when Rob Thomas (Veronica Mars) and Zach Braff showed up on Kickstarter earlier this year to raise money for their feature film projects.

When Braff and Veronica Mars dared utilize Kickstater, there was a loud and angry chorus of disapproval that gained a lot of tractionspike-lee-kickstarter-new-movie online. The detractors seemed to be of the opinion that crowdfunding should be left to the amateurs, the non-celebrities and the less well connected. Now that Spike Lee is following the same path, the “haters” are complaining again. You’d think the writer/director of Do The Right Thing, one of the best films of the past 30 years, would get cut a little slack but not by these knuckleheads.

People who equate crowdfunding to panhandling and the folks who think it should be reserved for non-celebrities are both wrong. At least I think so and I don’t even think it’s a grey area. There seems to be a fundamental misunderstanding about what crowd sourced fundraising is and the basic economic benefit of adding celebrities to the mix. Kickstarter, IndieGoGo and the like have helped to changed the way artists, innovators, filmmakers, musicians etc. can raise the capital needed to pull off making their project come to fruition but why the hell shouldn’t someone like Spike Lee be able to leverage his own fanbase to get projects made? And why should I, as a complete nobody, be angry? A rising tide lifts all ships and these “names” have certainly brought more attention to the crowdfunding game.

Crowdfunding is absolutely no different than your favorite band pre-selling their newest CD* and offering extra tracks, special artwork, t-shirts etc. Essentially that is the exact same concept as you going on Kickstarter and asking folks to “donate” to your project. People seem to take exception with the word “donate” while also being pissed that anyone with an established career (and presumably fanbase) would dare entertain the notion that they too could finance an independent film by pre-selling the project to the very fans most likely to see it once it’s made anyway.

It is also not the same thing as asking for a handout. The benefit that an established artist has over someone like you or I is that they have fans who trust that the end product will be worth something, whereas you and I have yet to establish that creative sense of trust. This is where some of the knuckleheads lose the argument. Being famous and successful does provide you an advantage but it doesn’t mean that I am at a general disadvantage.

last treasure

Let’s use my friend Casey as an example. He and his writing partner Kate have a  micro-budget feature film called THE LAST TREASURE HUNT which they are currently in the midst of  fundraising for on IndieGoGo. They are only asking for $20,000 to compliment the money they’ve already come up with privately. Presumably, if they raise the amount they are asking for, they’ll be able to film the movie they’ve written for themselves to star in and they will get to make the exact film they want to make. There are so many variables in the execution of making a film but, if they pull it off, it could help launch them to another level in both their acting and writing careers. Sounds like a noble thing to invest in if they make someone believe they can do it. That is their obstacle. Despite the fact that they need so little, in comparison to the other artists mentioned, they have to convince people that the product they’ll produce is worth the money folks decide to give them.

Now let’s compare that to Spike Lee’s project on Kickstarter. Lee wants to raise $1.25 million – 62.5 times the amount Casey wants – to make a project that he is a little vague about. But he’s Spike-fucking-Lee, one of the greatest filmmakers alive so he is counting on his earned credibility with his audience and movie fans in general to encourage folks to pre-purchase a ticket, so to speak. He is leaning on his body of work to make you believe that he can deliver on his promise to make a good movie that is worth your money and, frankly, that seems pretty reasonable to me.

And this is where the detractors get mad. It is just a reality that it’s harder for Casey to raise $20,000 than it is for Zach Braff to raise $3 million or Spike Lee to raise $1.25 million (though Spike isn’t doing so good at the moment with just $147,560 raised) but that doesn’t mean it is unfair or that those guys should not be allowed to put their projects out there as well. In fact, I think it helps people like you and I and Casey who are artists looking to earn our way up to the level of a Spike Lee, Rob Thomas or Zach Braff. In the end, they are all making the same deal with supporters – take a leap of faith and pre-purchase my film so I can go make it. You either are in or you are out but all of them deserve a chance to make their case. It is up to each of them to sell you on their projects and themselves.

In 2011, when Louis CK chose to sell a stand up comedy special directly from his website rather than having it air first on HBO or some other network, it was widely regarded as a groundbreaking moment. There were some who complained that it wasn’t fair because he was visible already, a notion he scoffed at “… I wasn’t born with it (visibility). It was a horrible process to get to this. It took me my whole life”. In other words, “tough shit. I earned every fan I have and everyone who is going to believe in me because I put in the work”.

So what the hell is the difference between Zach Braff, Spike Lee and Rob Thomas working for decades, having some success and then using a tool available to everyone in order to make a project they care about come to life? There is none. Some people just think that famous people are rich and should spend their own money on whatever projects they make and that by entering the world of crowdfunding they are taking opportunity from you and I and I don’t buy it.

If Spike Lee wants to finance some or all of his next film via Kickstarter then more power to him. By the looks of things, he has to do a bit better sales job and the same could be said for my friend Casey. Each have a project that’s important enough to them that they are willing to bring it to the masses and say “believe in me”. I think they’re both worth a leap of faith but it’s up to you how to respond and neither should be silenced.

* what do we refer to recordings as nowadays? CDs? Records? Albums? So confusing.

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