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Interview with Kickstarter's Yancey Strickler: 'It's Understandable that Filmmakers Would Feel Anxiety'

Photo of Bryce J. Renninger By Bryce J. Renninger | feelingsoblahg.blogspot.com August 21, 2013 at 12:56PM

When Spike Lee defended himself against the original critics of his Kickstarter campaign, he mentioned that Kickstarter heads Perry Chen and Yancey Strickler had explained to him why celebrities on Kickstarter weren't bad for less well-known creators. In fact, as the story goes, they bring more people to the platform and more money circulates to creators as a result.
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Yancey Strickler of Kickstarter

When Spike Lee defended himself against the original critics of his Kickstarter campaign, he mentioned that Kickstarter heads Perry Chen and Yancey Strickler had explained to him why celebrities on Kickstarter weren't bad for less well-known creators.  In fact, as the story goes, they bring more people to the platform and more money circulates to creators as a result.

Over Kickstarter's history Yancey and his team have felt the need to explain the role of more established creators on Kickstarter (see "Blockbuster Effects" from March 2012, "Who Is Kickstarter For?" from May 2013, and this week's "The Truth about Spike Lee and Kickstarter.").  But still complaints are hurled at the Kickstarter heads; there was even a change.org petition launched to keep Hollywood off Kickstarter. (Obama's site probably isn't the place to make a complaint.  The petition has only 62 signatures.)

We asked Strickler to do his best to tell us what he thinks is going on when smaller creators see celebrities as competition, eating up their chance at donations. Here's what he said:

A lot of people are complaining that celebrities are taking away attention -- and backers -- from lesser-known creators.  Where do you think this sentiment is coming from, and, as I know you're all very hands-on with creators, how are you trying to address it?

We certainly view our roles as being the stewards of Kickstarter, pioneers of this whole thing.  We are constantly working to educate people and help them understand Kickstarter. Almost five million people have backed a Kickstarter project.  There are a lot of people that are introduced through a family member or a neighbor... or Spike Lee. Within some circles there's a sense that everyone knows about Kickstarter.  But that's not true of everyone.  We've been trying to write posts on our site that help our users frame expectations.  Ultimately, we have a great vantage point.  We try to be as transparent as we can be. We’re trying to watch and understand what’s going on, and we’re doing our best to explain it as it happens.

The one thing I don't see being mentioned when people complain about people like Spike Lee, Zach Braff or "Veronica Mars" on Kickstarter is the reasons that people might want to support these campaigns.  These three campaigns were all successful, people wanted to support them.  What is the voice of the supporter saying?

It's different person-to-person within a campaign.  Kickstarter's a mix of a lot of different things.  It's sometimes about patronage.  [Justin, a Kickstarter publicist] wrote a blog post, "Kickstarter before Kickstarter," where he talks about the first English translation of "The Iliad" by Alexander Pope.  That was Kickstarter before Kickstarter.  The only difference is there was no internet and the patrons were all rich.  

There's a value exchange in every pledge to a project.  It's why we require every project to offer rewards, a copy of the comic, the film... that's always there.  We have this concept that Kickstarter is not a store.  This is not like going to Best Buy.  There's a process here.  You're going to be privy to it, and sometimes the process is going to be rockier than other times.  But this is far more interesting.  This experience goes far beyond getting something. 

It's funny -- I've seen a number of people asking for more info about what Spike Lee's movie is -- this kind of information didn't used to be shared. Kickstarter is so much more transparent.  With a Kickstarter campaign, you know who the author of that thing is.  You know what the DP of this movie looks like.  You know who designed that thing, and you know what factory is being used to produce it.  These are things that didn't happen before. If we could wind back the clock five years, we would see a very different world when it comes to the way we relate to art and culture.

So what do you think is really causing all of these creators to be nervous about how the scale of the largest projects on Kickstarter is changing?

It's understandable that filmmakers would respond with some anxiety, just because most of the technological developments that have happened for the past 10 or 15 years have not worked out well for artists.  I think people are conditioned to view these things with anxiety -- I think what is happening with Kickstarter is very different.  This is a windfall for everyone.  Everyone benefits from this system being more well-known.  "They're using the same thing Spike Lee used?? Cool!  That's legit."  

The reason Kickstarter exists is to help bring creative projects to life. We see no conflict with these types of projects. I do feel frustrated when I see people within the film world be critical of Spike Lee or Zach Braff seeking alternative funding.  They know how much the universe has changed. This isn’t the ’70s when filmmakers like Robert Altman could get whatever they wanted made. That piece on Indiewire by Dan Mirvish, about why indie film is not a great investment -- was a really fascinating article with some difficult truths.  The world is very different.  We can see that with Ted Hope going to the San Francisco Film Society.

Creative projects are hard to get funded because they’re rarely good investments. The point of art isn’t to make money, it’s to have something exist and have other people appreciate it. Kickstarter exists so projects can find funding just because people like them and want to see them exist. Spike Lee’s project is a great example of that.

So how did Spike Lee get in touch with you?  He's always talking about what you and Perry told him.

Spike Lee walked in the front door same as everybody else.  A guy who worked for him sent a letter to customer service, he said Spike's interested in Kickstarter, is there someone that can help?  I lead the communications team, outreach is a part of that.  And so I spoke with him.  I work with creators a lot, answering whatever concerns are there.  It's by far the most fun thing I get to do.  We're really excited to do that.

Do you think that at the heart of it people feel uncomfortable asking for money, and that might be part of what makes people skeptical of the whole thing working out, especially now that big players are on it?

Zach Braff

People might think it's too good to be true.  We said this in the Zach Braff post:  The world is structured in a way that says when someone's winning someone else must be losing. But this isn’t true — Kickstarter is its own creative universe.  Kickstarter is one of the most sincere, friendly places on the Internet.  That makes it vulnerable and open to criticism.  It's like you're showing a cape to the Internet to come chase.  

The growth of Kickstarter over the past four years has changed things.  The act of artists reaching out directly to their communities is something that has become completely normalized and socialized. Not quite yet at the highest ends of the spectrum, which is why you see this conflict. But the promise of the internet for some time was that, post-Napster, we'd all be able to directly support the artists we love. That wasn’t true until now. Kickstarter is that. It's the first time that's happened -- clearing that bar, making it socially acceptable, and doing it outside of the merch table. I think it’s one of the most important things Kickstarter has done.

And speaking of those widgets, there are new technologies like Flattr that try to do facilitate this.  Do you think Kickstarter is the first of many new technologies that will help solve the problem of creators not getting fairly compensated for their work?

It's a philosophical hurdle that got cleared -- nothing comes to mind that's really doing the same thing right now.  I just feel that it's a conceptual leap that has happened.  It's something I'm excited for.  The idea behind Kickstarter is arguably centuries old -- this is Mozart, Beethoven and Medici.  We took it, built a bunch of mechanics around it.  We built this thing that is being copied by everyone so that people could make creative things.  The goal is for more things to be created. We're excited to see where it goes.



This article is related to: Filmmaker Toolkit: Crowdfunding, Kickstarter , Interviews, Yancey Strickler