Kickstarting Blockbusters

Is the Kickstarter bubble bursting for celebrities?

2013 is the year for record-breaking film projects on Kickstarter:

  1. The Veronica Mars Movie—Reached 285% of initial goal
  2. Zach Braff’s Wish I Was Here —Reached 155% of initial goal
  3. Spike Lee’s Newest Hottest Joint — Reached 113% of initial goal

See where I’m going with these percentages?

Is this decreasing trend announcing darker times for established filmmakers on Kickstarter?

The raising frustration with Celebrity Kickstarter projects

The backlash we’ve seen since Veronica Mars, Braff’s and Lee’s projects went live is unprecedented for Kickstarter. The Daily Beast’s How Celebrities Are Ruining Kickstarter , Bloody Disgusting’s Spike Lee, Who Owns Courtside Knicks Tickets, Shamefully BEGS You To Support His Kickstarter, and the Huffington Post’s Kickstarter Abuse: Why Are You Giving Your Money to Wealthy Celebrities? are but a few occurrences of said backlash. Meanwhile, John Lajoie spoofs on Youtube.

Aside from mocking loaded celebrities begging for money, these articles raise two main questions:

  1. Are these celebrities hurting other projects?
  2. Are we getting tired of celebrity projects?

Are Kickstarter Blockbuster Projects hurting others?

“—So you’re asking your fans for money you already have, and they’re happily giving it to you?” — That’s the idea- But shush now, they could hear us.”

Crowdfunding his next Joint was a good operation for Lee. It mainly freed him from creative constraints imposed by traditional producers. But what about the consequences for other projects that were concurrently trying to raise money?

Kickstarter co-founder Yancey Strickler not only says there’s no negative impact, he actually affirms it’s good for them too.

In a piece he wrote back when the Double Fine Adventure game project was the hottest thing, he explains what he calls the Blockbuster Effect.

In the month before Double Fine, the Video Games category averaged 629 pledges per week. After Double Fine’s launch, the Video Games category averaged 9,755 pledges per week, excluding pledges to Double Fine itself.
Pledges in the Gaming category before/after Double Fine, excluding pledges for Double Fine itself. (Green Line = Launch of Double fine)

I have one major grief with this article: The huge spike that you see for the March 12 period is explained in large part by another Gaming project launched by “Stars”, called Wasteland 2 that launched in that period. Wasteland 2's near $3M in pledges skews the graph and effectively makes the average number of weekly pledges Strickler mentions completely irrelevant.

The fact that 2 blockbuster projects did awesome shouldn’t comfort smaller ones. The spikes from February 13 to March 12 is where the comfort’s at. Although meeker than what Strickler claimed, there’s an obvious jump in number pledges following Double Fine’s launch.

Of course Kickstarter loves blockbuster projects: They’re free exposure to a massive crowd of fans that is likely to convert like crazy, they bring free PR to the mainstream via the ton of press they generate, and obviously, they also generate direct revenue. So, naturally Strickler won’t pull the plug on celebrity projects, and he’s going to defend their right to exist for as long as he can. But when Kickstarter’s founders have to defend their own platform, a platform that once was nominated idea of the year by TIME, you know something must be rotten in Denmark.

Are we getting tired of celebrities on Kickstarter?

Veronica Mars came in 1st, raised a lot. Zach Braff came in 2nd, raised less. Spike Lee came in 3rd and barely reached his goal. Even in number of pledges, the difference is striking: Spike Lee has 6k backers when Veronica Mars had 90k, and Zach Braff about 50k.

Judging a trend from 3 data points isn’t the wisest thing to do, and this descending slope may only be coincidental. In fact, it could entirely depend on other factors than a possible lassitude on the backers’ part.

Simply looking at how the projects sell themselves, Veronica Mars and Zach Braff’s simply stand out. They were well planned, came with creative videos and a lovingly (carefully) written explanation. Spike Lee’s is a lot more direct, in a “I made this in 2 hours but I’m honest in what I say so it’ll work” kind of direct. Lee’s also mysterious about the content of his film, which can’t play in its favor. Conversely, you have Braff basically laying out the contents of his script to us.

On a personal level, I’ve never watched a Veronica Mars episode and I’m not the biggest Zach Braff fan around either, so I’d pick a Spike Lee flick over those two anywhere, any time. But when it comes to putting my money forward, I would see myself rewarding Braff’s efforts over Lee’s lousy presentation. Afterall, which guarantee do I have from Lee that he’s going to put more heart in the actual film that this half-assed campaign? Braff convinced me he’ll go the extra mile.

So there’s my opinion: I don’t think we’re tired of Kickstarting blockbusters yet. I don’t even think the press is tired of it either (read this amazing NYT piece on Lindsay Lohan’s new film which was Kickstarted). I think that if a personaity from the right demographic… say an Edgar Wright, a Nathan Fillion, or better yet, a JJ Abrams comes forward on Kickstarter, then we’ll likely break new records.

Is it a bad thing? All things considered, I wouldn’t say so.

Initially, I was frustrated to consider top-billed artists raising funds using a platform that was originally built for the people in need of a voice. It was very much a “this is our land, we won’t let you steal it from us” type of a thing. But that’s just one part of the story.

What really matters is that by financing their movies with OUR money, these celebrities are accountable to nobody but US. In a time where Hollywood is force-feeding us with superheroes, sequels, prequels, and reboots to a point where we lost count, wouldn’t we be the true winners in the emergence of an alternative movie financing circuit where we’d get to choose which films get made and which don’t?

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