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It Ain't Easy Being Kickstarter: The Pains of Growing Bigger

Photo of Bryce J. Renninger By Bryce J. Renninger | Indiewire June 24, 2013 at 9:40AM

As the highest-profile crowdfunding site on the web, Kickstarter has received the majority of the backlash, specifically against celebrities on its platform. Two recent news stories about Kickstarter have much to say about the difficult position Kickstarter is in as the great democratizer in creative production.
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As the highest-profile crowdfunding site on the web, Kickstarter has received the majority of the backlash, specifically against celebrities on its platform.  Two recent news stories about Kickstarter have much to say about the difficult position Kickstarter is in as the great democratizer in creative production. 

The story continues to be told: Kickstarter and other crowdfunders have revolutionized the economic system of funding creative projects, especially those that would have trouble finding funders in Hollywood and other culture industries.

The platform ended up in a sticky situation last week when a book claiming to be a guide for guys to get girls was found out to be the platform of a man, active on Reddit, that encouraged men to partake in forcible sexual actions, for instance, the imposition of the desired woman's hands on the desiring man's genitals. The interpretation of these suggestions as condoning rape, though it isn't clear whether the passages in question were to appear in the book, was brought to the attention of Kickstarter shortly before the campaign was scheduled to end after it was called out on (male) comic Casey Malone's Tumblr.  In the two hours they had to cancel the campaign before it ended and credit cards would be immediately charged, Kickstarter decided not to do anything.

In a post on their website, Kickstarter admitted "[they] were wrong."  They explained their actions in two ways:

  • The decision had to be made immediately. We had only two hours from when we found out about the material to when the project was ending. We’ve never acted to remove a project that quickly. 
  • Our processes, and everyday thinking, bias heavily toward creators. This is deeply ingrained. We feel a duty to our community -- and our creators especially -- to approach these investigations methodically as there is no margin for error in canceling a project. This thinking made us miss the forest for the trees.

Canceling a campaign because it condoned sexual violence against women has happened on the site before.

Though they took the campaign off the site, Kickstarter can't give back the money and cancel the project's funding.  Perhaps responding to calls to have more clear guidelines about what is not appropriate (see this Slate and this Wired piece), Kickstarter also stated that they "are prohibiting 'seduction guides' or anything similar, effective immediately. This material encourages misogynistic behavior and is inconsistent with our mission of funding creative works. These things do not belong on Kickstarter."  Kickstarter also donated $25,000 to the anti-sexual violence organization RAINN to make up for their self-described mistake.

Also last week in the Wall Street Journal, a publication that is often skeptical of crowdfunding (a 2012 article from Erik Sofge focused on the exciting technological projects on the site noted that "For every legitimately exciting pitch (such as the Synergy aircraft, whose box-shape wings could change the fundamentals of airplane design), there are dozens of musicians, filmmakers and designers pleading for funds to complete ill-conceived projects"), Ellen Gamerman wrote an interesting piece about the stress crowdfunding causes amongst not just the creators running campaigns but also the colleagues that are expected to donate every time their friends launch a campaign.

Gamerman sets up a world where family, friends and co-workers (actors with whom you share a dressing room, directors you want to work with in the future) essentially guilt you into donating to their campaigns, whether or not you have the money, whether or not you actually like the project.

Gamerman's piece struck a little close to home.  As a member of the film industry, I'm often asked to donate and publicize Kickstarter campaigns and has even been annoyed into donating to at least one project I didn't really believe in; I've been involved with several Kickstarter campaigns and have very carefully tried to send messages only to people I think might want to support specific projects of mine.

But the point of Gamerman's article is that the economics of Kickstarter produce resentment and annoyance; her mention of new social marketers and crowdfunding consultants points to a new industry built around raising money this way.  Her article has already provoked interesting responses from industry players.  Sara Kiener, from leading indie film social marketing firm Film Presence, tweeted "In short: outreach > spam #duh."  Filmmaker Magazine Editor Scott Macaulay's tweeted question "WSJ Kickstarter article caused me to look at my backer history and note uncompleted projects and unsent rewards. Rude to say something?" led to some interesting responses (visible here).

But how to make sure crowdfunding becomes less of a nuisance as it continues to grow, and how to make sure users feel donating is exciting and a supportive gesture is clearly on the daily agenda of the people at Kickstarter and other crowdfunding sites. Indie filmmakers would do well to watch a presentation from Indiewire Influencer Elisabeth Holm, whose job is to set realistic expectations and prepare filmmakers for the difficult but important step of launching a Kickstarter campaign. Check out her presentation online here.

This article is related to: Kickstarter , Filmmaker Toolkit: Crowdfunding