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by Bryce J. Renninger
May 8, 2013 4:18 PM
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After All that Hubbub, What's the Final Verdict on Zach Braff Kickstarter Controversy?

Zach Braff's "Wish I Was Here."
We may have thought the world was done complaining about or defending Zach Braff's Kickstarter campaign, but earlier this week Emmy-winning television writer/director/producer Ken Levine ("M*A*S*H," "The Simpsons," "Everybody Loves Raymond," "Dharma & Greg") reignited the debate over whether having multimillionaires on Kickstarter is a good or bad thing.  

Now that Braff's campaign has been around for a few weeks and he's successfully funded, it's a good time to look at what the world's commentators have to say about his entry into crowdfunding. Indiewire's own analysis of Braff's campaign refuses to take sides on this debate, but it does note that Braff was unusual in the film category because he wasn't distributing the film on the platform.  

READ MORE: Five Reasons WB's 'Veronica Mars' Experiment Won't Be the Last Time a Studio Goes on Kickstarter

First, let the man defend himself:

From LA Times interview:

There’s been some deliciously yummy vitriol. I guess I was a little naive about this coming in. I didn't think that people would care that much about a little movie, which I was wrong about. But I can’t say I totally get it. It's not like I've taken over Kickstarter. It's not like when you go to the home page there's a big picture of me smiling at you; you have to click through past a lot of other worthy projects to find it. It’s not like I lobbied Congress to pass a tax to finance my movie. It’s just sitting there in a corner of the site. If you want to wave at it and back it as you’re passing by, great. If not, you can just move along and that’s fine too.

From Buzzfeed interview:

There are several films since "Garden State" that I've tried to put together, and they've fallen apart for one reason or another. I was once on a location scout in Atlanta and lost my A-list actress whilst taking pictures of locations where I was going to shoot her. I've had executives that hired me at big studios, then get fired and the project's fallen apart. It's classic Hollywood, it's-really-hard-to-get-a-movie-made stuff. This is the first project since Garden State that I've been as excited and passionate about. It was the one I wasn't going to compromise on.

I love to work more than anything, but I guess if "Scrubs" gave me anything, it gave me the luxury of not having to do shit. I don't want to go do crap. I want to do stuff that I would see. I'm not the hottest actor in town. I'm not the top of everyone's list. I've always forged my own path. I'll continue to do that. So I create my own content.

There's always going to be detractors. The people who would say, "Fuck him, he should pay for it himself," I don't expect those people to be the supporters of this project. I get it. But if you scroll down [on the Kickstarter page], you'll see the person who's like, "Garden State meant a lot to me, I'm dying to see what this guy's up to next, I'm in." Those are the people I'm making the movie for. It's not a scam. If I wanted to make dough, I'd go back and be on another TV show.

Here's a look at where other analyses landed, with our own commentary in italics:

In favor of the Prosecution (either consumers or Kickstarter's less-established creators):

Ken Levine, on his blog:

Zach Braff is trying to raise money on Kickstarter to fund a movie he wants to make. Zach Braff is a good actor and a fine filmmaker. GARDEN STATE was a terrific movie. But I wouldn’t give him a dime..This is what Hollywood does, dear reader. It sees an opportunity for exploitation and takes it. The Sundance Film Festival is another prime example. At one time it showcased modest little movies by unknown filmmakers. Kevin Smith made CLERKS – a grimy black and white film starring all unknowns. The result was discovered talent. Now look at the festival...Sundance is a lost cause. But Kickstarter isn’t. Not if we put a stop to this now. If you only have so much money to give to charity, give it to cancer research and not to help redecorate Beyonce’s plane. Support young hungry filmmakers. The next Kevin Smith is out there… somewhere.

The comparison to Sundance proves the weakness of Levine's argument.  For every star vehicle, there is an "Upstream Color," a "Fruitvale [Station]," a "Beasts of the Southern Wild."  But yes, these things do get at least partially co-opted, and that could be a bad thing.

Lisa Marks on The Guardian

But in a climate where young artists are struggling to make their voices heard, where funds for unknowns are rare, and where every penny in the tiniest budget is hard won, it seems somewhat askew that an actor/director who has the means to either fund his movie himself, or sign a typical financing deal, is asking you for cash...Surely if you're the guy who has already found considerable success in a competitive industry, you should also be the guy putting something back in.

In her roundup of the responses to Braff's campaign, Marks ends by saying that it was Braff's time to give back, not take more.

Alan Jones on The Toronto Standard:

Those who have donated to Veronica Mars have given over $5 million to Time Warner (Warner Bros' parent company), a multinational corporation, for an unknown commodity. Those who have donated money to Zach Braff have given millions to a millionaire for another unknown commodity. Collectively, fans have said that it's OK for rich people to eliminate the factor of risk when they make films. The past five years, with its bitter recessions and global financial crises, has effectively removed the make-up from late capitalism's ugly, bitter face, but these two Kickstarters are a sign that capitalism is eating itself, bit by bit, starting with the entertainment industry.

The incentives offered to “backers” of these two films are laughable. A range of collectible production items, promotional material, and access to advance screenings. For $600, approximately $587 more than the price of a movie ticket, you can get a personalized video greeting directly from Kirsten Bell (Veronica Mars herself!). For $10 000, one lucky “backer” gets to have a line in Braff's movie. Usually, that sort of thing is called acting, and on a “larger-scale” project, the actor receives money instead of giving it out. So not only is that “backer” giving $10,000 to a rich person, (s)he's also taking money away from some needy Los Angelino Starbucks barista that could use the gig.

For Jones, the real problem is how Braff and others are exploiting their supporters -- forcing them to pay inflated prices for no return and asking them to pay to do things that are usually jobs.

In favor of the Defendant (Mr. Braff):

Karla Starr on Psychology Today:

Starbucks helps independent coffee owners? Zach Braff helps independent [cinema]? Absolutely. What’s going on here is the distribution of innovation: Braff isn’t take away any of the funding from other independent filmmakers, he’s simply making the pie bigger...True, Kickstarter has its own community—it has innovators and early adopters who have known about Kickstarter for a long time, support each other, and have backed multiple projects. But that assumes that Kickstarter’s community and resources are finite and limited. I can guarantee you that the amount of money being diverted because of Braff’s project is minuscule in comparison to the number of people being introduced to Kickstarter right now. If your goal is to raise money on Kickstarter, the logical wish would be to make the Kickstarter community as big as possible.

Starr also explains that Braff is the victim of "upward social comparison" (street name: drinking Haterade) from other, less-established filmmakers.

Meghan Lewit on The Atlantic:

...Braff also seems to be unfortunate recipient of the same brand of roving, ineffable celebrity backlash that plagued Anne Hathaway during her Oscar run. (While I never really got the Hathaway hate, I'll admit that I've long harbored an antipathy toward Braff's mopey sensibilities.) But aside from people's personal feelings about Braff, the distinctions between the two campaigns are semantic. If Kickstarter is truly the egalitarian platform it proposes to be, then we're all entitled to support the projects we want regardless of the wealth or stature of the people behind them. 

Lewit compares the response to Braff's Kickstarter to the response to the "Veronica Mars" campaign.  She concedes that "Veronica Mars" is a tried-and-true property and therefore is more appropriate for the platform, but defends him by saying he can do what he wants:  you do you, Braff.

John Holbo on Crooked Timber:

People who succeed on Kickstarter aren’t people with no contacts, no networks, no access, no nothing. They are people who have substantial amounts of social capital, looking to trade it for actual capital capital...If you are a genius ‘nobody’, it seems unlikely that even Kickstarter can help you. Information wants to be free, and good art wants to get funded. But information still has to be propagated through social networks in these cases. Lonely poets are going to be left out in the cold...I guess I think even a co-opted Kickstarter model, like we will inevitably have, will still be a lot better than the world before Kickstarter, even though it will be sad when the punk rock stops and some people get left without chairs.

According to Holbo, Kickstarter is already impossible for people without social capital.  Braff is just an anomaly because he's got enough actual capital make a few of these films.

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22 Comments

  • Ian Mantgani | May 10, 2013 11:14 PMReply

    Good arguments on both sides, if you need to pick a side, which I'm not convinced you do. I do question whether Braff is really the most inventive filmmaker if he needs $5.5m to finance a character-driven indie film, and if he can't get it from other investment sources what with his professional connections, financial means and past successes. Ideally Kickstarter should be for those who are truly inventive and truly broke.

    Something I think is pretty important and under-discussed: One of Braff's big defences is that he wants to make his movie without sacrificing his creative control. How can he say that if he's giving a speaking part to a $10k donor? That's selling off a piece of your artistic integrity, even if it's a small piece.

  • CrowdfundingGuide | June 3, 2013 8:54 PM

    Interesting article regarding this story - have you seen Jon Lajoie's fake kickstarter campaign mocking Zach Braff? Pretty funny.

  • Barry | May 9, 2013 9:05 PMReply

    This is a very interesting debate. Very balanced. And I am on both sides.
    Frankly, I have never liked it when a rich actor doesn't have enough faith or passion for his passion project to participate largely in its funding. On the other hand, when others get a thrill out of participating in a small way, it is good for them, and the overall passion that drives the indie film industry. And it is this passioin that gives me faith that great art will continue to flow. There was a brief time when the indie film industry included the artists and originators in the monetary rewards, but it seems gone now. But the films will continue because artists create out of passion and not out of simple pursuit of monetary reward. God bless 'em. Let's keep expanding the audience so more indies are viable.

  • somedude | May 9, 2013 6:48 PMReply

    Seems pretty simple to me: if you don't like it, don't fund it. Kickstarter is still completely voluntary, isn't it?

  • Anonymous | May 9, 2013 7:20 PM

    Just imagine if most people donated more to charity than they would give to a movie we could solve world hunger, poverty, etc.

  • Dan | May 9, 2013 6:07 PMReply

    The real problem with these campaigns is, quite simply, that the D-list actors behind them are hacks. That is why they had to resort to using Kickstarter in the first place. Whatever they create from the donations is going to be mediocre at best. It is like how people thought YouTube was going to become a place to cultivate new talent that would replace film and television entertainment, but it is mostly a repository for the least talented people, which is precisely why they are limited to YouTube in the first place.

  • Ron Merk | May 9, 2013 5:41 PMReply

    I'm the Editor-in-Chief on an online magazine for filmmakers, Indieplex, and wrote three articles about Zach Braff's Kickstarter campaign which are still up and running. In one of them I suggested to him that he take the two million dollars and divide it up amongst 400 Kickstarter arts project because it's the right thing for him to do. It would provide $5000 each to all those projects, do much more to help independent art-making than his follow up to "Garden State" and make him the hero of the arts community. I still would like to see him do this, and yes, it would be great if he responded to this idea.

  • Tupper | December 18, 2013 10:17 PM

    You're saying he should just hand out money to 400 random projects, just because? And while I haven't followed the story in a while I'm sure he never claimed to be helping "independent art making" and frankly he shouldn't have to to justify himself. Nor should he have to buy off people just to win their support in the industry and be called a hero. And while it would certainly be a nice thing to do there's no "right thing to do" here. There's no right/wrong involved here at all. He doesn't have a moral or ethical obligation in this situation.

  • P | May 9, 2013 5:14 PMReply

    I will ride Zach Braff coat tails on this one. Our film, CURTO, which we have been involved with for twenty years - by choice -launched the day before Braffs. While his numbers went up, ours stayed put. You can't compete with a celebrities face posted on their project. Maybe if we plastered the faces of actors in CURTO (Deniro, Wahlberg), perhaps that would have made a difference. We believe that our documentary about Vinnie Curto, a boxer with a nightmarish past, would have been enough to get people to just take a look. We'll have to wait and see.

  • Ron | May 9, 2013 9:52 PM

    You're wrong. Put DeNiro and Wahlberg on your page, if they are in your film! Are you nuts? People feel more confident funding if you have name people attached. You are not helping anybody hiding your light under the proverbial bushel.

  • Dan Mirvish | May 9, 2013 2:54 PMReply

    I think one good thing that's come out of the Veronica Braff news - and the Kickstarter movement in general - is that it is fundamentally changing the paradigm of film financing. For years, we've had to give false hope to investors that they might actually see a return on investment for a film, when we all know the odds of that are slim to none. Meanwhile operas, symphonies, art museums, community theaters all happily get donations from every rich sap in town because they are tax-deductible contributions to the arts, and they get free tickets, parties and tote bags. Finally, people are starting to view film as what it is: an art form that is worthy of "donations" rather than an inevitably doomed business model that needs "investments". If Kickstarter could find a way to make donations tax-deductible (as IndieGoGo has done), then it could raise even more money for more projects. (Short of that, I support their legislative efforts to turn these donations into SEC-approved investments - but again, that will bring unrealistic expectations.)

    But the paradigm shift is here, people, and it's a good thing for all of us. The degrading facade of convincing people that they will actually make their money back is evaporating. And that's good for filmmakers and it's good for investors. There are plenty of other good reasons to give filmmakers money to make a movie, and making that case is now easier for all of us.

  • Pip Nosher | May 29, 2013 12:48 PM

    Well said, Dan. The notion that an independent film must be profitable to be deemed a valid art form is wrongheaded. As with any artistic endeavor, success is still measured in the artist's ability to attract an audience to his or her work. But, without the support of a major studio and its international marketing and distribution network, few indie films stand a chance of making money. Even many of those that attract such support fail to make a profit, although at that point "profit" becomes a moving target.

  • KOF | May 9, 2013 3:14 AMReply

    There is no weakness in Levine's argument; Sundance is not as egalitarian as one would think: the 3 examples you use - "Beasts," "Fruitvale," and "Upstream Color" - were not mailed with an envelope and a prayer. Programming has a lot of "referral" stuff going on; certain producers who seem to get every film they produce into the fest; and a lot of alums returning. That's Sundance's right to do so, especially when having to plough through 4,000+ submissions AND trying to keep major sustaining sponsors to fund it. But, admission blind it is not. That's life, not just big festivals.

    The real issue at stake is to count how many films NOT in Sundance (and, to a lesser degree, Tribeca and SXSW) actually find the national press and industry attention they need. There has developed an ingrained bad habit of "assumption" in the biz and the cottage industry around it that films in these fests are the major leagues for indies. And no other fest is worth looking at for new talent.

    As for Braff, good for him. All it proves is that someone with fame, notoriety, and a large fan base can raise 7 figures via crowdfunding. Expect more A and B listers to follow suit. It WON'T mean that the projects will necessarily be good. No one knows.

    And, yes, once the floodgates open with more "known" filmmakers using Kickstarter and Indiegogo, it will marginalize the "unknowns" from finding some elbow room. Kickstarter is now in the business of making profits, like any other corporate entity.

  • Newski | May 9, 2013 1:07 AMReply

    I like the fact that we have a very even handed article. I am one of those against Braff, but I don't mean any offense by it. And I really don't think that Levine's comparison to "Sundance" is necessarily weak, when Independent film has become such a loose definition these days, to the point where it can be given to large scale productions distributed through arthouse labels. I think the bigger issue at hand would be the broad definition of Independent, which seems to be little more than marketing.

    Meanwhile, Braff is taking attention away from smaller productions. It's not his intention, he's not a bad person, he's not 'Mr. Conglomerate" taking money away from the little guy. No, he's a guy making a movie. It's unfortunate that there are negative consequences, but their are. While projects may have fallen through, he still has far more options than anyone else does, and has far better odds. Instead, he's utilizing a resource that was a godsend for so many, and in doing so diverting attention from them, people who don't have the same odds, the same resources that he already has.

    He says he's been trying to get projects off the ground since Garden State. Most of the people on Kickstarter still haven't made their Garden State.

  • CRM | May 9, 2013 2:48 AM

    Well put.

  • Arthur Vincie | May 8, 2013 6:21 PMReply

    I don't have a problem with Zach Braff or any one *person* or small company wading into crowdfunding. What I have a problem with is the studios seeing a completely risk-free way to finance a film that they will then have all the ownership of and be able to extract all the profits from. That's what scares me, and that's what's coming next. They took over comics and other media companies because those were cheap R&D labs. Well, this is even cheaper. In other arenas we would call that graft or cheating (the party paying for the product gets a t-shirt; an already rich studio gets - even more money).

  • Steve Anderson | May 8, 2013 6:09 PMReply

    Hey Ben,

    Our feature noir project raised $90,000 on Kickstarter last fall. One thing I did decide to do was put a link to the script online so people could decide for themselves. It worked out very well, as one of the partners of the Humphrey Bogart Estate read it, loved it, and they decided to get involved. Bogart's fan base absolutely help to put us over the top. We've now shot the entire film and are deep in post. Currently Kickstarter, or other crowdfunding sites, cannot offer a return on the investment as it's against the law. That will change in the next year or so due to some new regulations and it will becomes a very interesting new chapter. Honestly, after thinking about it, I have no problem with anyone using crowdfunding. It's very democratic and fair. If I were Zach or Rob Thomas though I'd consider taking 100K+ that they've received and reinvesting back into other worthwhile Kickstarter projects. It would be a generous gesture and silence many of their critics.

  • Other Ben | May 8, 2013 5:44 PMReply

    The entire point of Kickstarter is being missed in all these points; to allow the fans to dictate what they want to see created. That is the essence of the site, and it doesn't matter whether it's extra funding for a movie you want to see from a talented film maker or a really cool watch, the application of Kickstarter is the same. Besides, Braff is putting a large amount of his own money into the film and I personally would forgo $20 to see another Garden State brought to the screens where it would not have existed otherwise.

  • Nate | May 9, 2013 4:46 PM

    The one thing I wanted to see is how much Zach is contributing...of his own money. I did not see that posted anywhere. Can you let us know how much he is adding to the pot? Thanks!

  • Ben | May 8, 2013 4:34 PMReply

    The problem is these types of campaigns draw on the emotional connection fans wish to have with their idols. They aren't funding a project, they are funding the idea that they are now friends with the celeb. If they wanted to be totally honest they would offer A) The script to review and B) A return on their investment, much like any investor would expect. It's a weird grey area and quite honestly, it's not going to last very long before the end user catches on...

  • CRM | May 9, 2013 2:55 AM

    Excellent point.

  • Rick | May 8, 2013 5:10 PM

    Your comments are spot on Ben. I hope you're right about them catching on sooner than later.