Kickstarter Isn’t the Problem with Kickstarter

By  · Published on May 21st, 2013

Recently, the act of donating to or promoting a Kickstarter campaign has become a highly politicized and moralized one for movie fans, an act brimming with questions, crises, and conundrums about systemic economic disadvantages normalized by dominant industries of filmmaking. Suspicion has been directed in droves toward legitimate-seeming yet vastly-supported projects like the studio-release Veronica Mars movie or Zach Braff’s directorial follow-up to Garden State, whose constellation of multiple funding sources perhaps says more than we’d like to admit about the complex process of realizing even the most distinctly above-the-line indie projects.

While frustration directed at a feature adaptation of a canceled UPN show or Braff’s seemingly boundless ability to produce haterade may appear legitimate when accounting for Kickstarter’s role as the possible final refuge for American alternative filmmaking, fingers should instead be pointed to the reasons that a resource like Kickstarter has become necessary in the first place.

In many ways, Kickstarter is a promising new development befitting its time. In an age where the co-op and the White House petition and Occupy Whatever share cycles of fashionability, Kickstarter is a small-d democratic project for the age of artisanal niche grouping in the digital economy. Think of it as communal capitalism that serves an important counterpoint to the entertainment industry’s oligopoly, an alternative form of commerce that answers to the ills brought forth by mainstream cinematic commercialism.

The site has seen the realization of fascinating and important but commercially limited film projects. Milestone Films’s fantastic restoration of Shirley Clarke’s 1967 avant-doc Portrait of Jason, for example, is perhaps the single most important historical excavation of the year for American film culture, and Milestone Films head Dennis Doris has stated openly that the project would not have been realized if not for a resource like Kickstarter.

Of course, crowdfunding is hardly new in regards to independent filmmaking or alternative film projects – it just hasn’t been always been referred to that way or organized as such. For a pre-Web 2.0 example, look at Darren Aronofsky’s feature debut Pi, whose Kickstarter-range $60,000 budget was funded in a large part by mail donations Aronofsky solicited from acquaintances, to whom he promised a screen credit and a refund if the film made bank. That’s now a more-than-standard return for a pledge.

Portrait of Jason as a young Kickstarter project

While Kickstarter’s role for small-scale films certainly arose in response to the increasingly narrow interests and growing aversion to risk exercised by conventional regimes of feature film financing (Soderbergh’s BBS-like dream of a small-scale studio factory of auteurs seems more like a yesteryear pipe dream by the day), the majority of projects on Kickstarter consist of films that aren’t looking to compete with studio dollars and mass audiences in the first place. These are prospective films whose audiences are already limited, specialized, and alternative, and whose venues for exhibition are multifarious.

As it turns out, even the most specific niche tends to answer the call, whether the given film chronicle performances by prominent theorists and artists devoted to the deconstruction of gender binaries, or people who are genuinely interested in what happened to Miss Cleo (my first Kickstarter donation). This, in my estimation, can only be a good thing, even if it illustrates the limits of niche moviemaking through collective capital with embarrassing clarity.

Kickstarter potentially demonstrates starkly the economically palatable presence of audiences for unconventional, alternative, and original projects, and renders transparent (or slightly less blurry) the means of production and sources of funding for independent filmmaking. Yes, Kickstarter potentially creates communities on the web based around mutually shared and specialized interests blah blah blah, but so much about the web purports to do that already. The significant aspect about Kickstarter is that it puts in concrete terms the argument many have been artuculating against Hollywood for years: audiences are more receptive to and invested in unconventional properties than they are given credit for.

So perhaps this is to partially account for the Veronica Mars/Zach Braff backlash (or, in summary, the Brafflash). The Veronica Mars Kickstarter represents the worst in studio bet-hedging: Warner Bros. agreed to greenlight a project if its relatively paltry sum ($2m) was funded through crowdfunding alone. The studio stands to reap significant profits for something they weren’t willing to bet on and essentially sold to its core base twice. It’s the most blatant illustration of a contemporary studio system that perceives risk as completely severed from potential reward, to the audience’s detriment.

Zach Braff’s new film, on the other hand, presents a more complicated scenario: already met with scoffs, the project then (according to THR) rounded out its funding through traditional backers, thus positioning the Kickstarter campaign as a potentially shady PR stunt rather than a legitimate effort at crowdfunding. Of course, a Variety statement from the film’s producers complicated the scenario, illustrating how labyrinthine and jargon-y independent film funding can be. (And could that be part of the problem?)

Regardless, in neither case did crowdfunding seem to be a final or essential resort for the project to become financed, and this is the major reason both projects received such a big, bulging Brafflash. These projects were received as inauthentic by some because they didn’t possess the requirement of struggle assumed of the majority of Kickstarter’d films. A DEVO documentary is perceived as a grassroots effort; the new film by the guy who starred in Scrubs and wrote himself a role that involved kissing Natalie Portman is not.

These are pretty arbitrary lines to draw. Kickstarter, while not by any means blindly neutral, is not necessarily what we always project it to be. It’s neither a place to perpetuate our most binge-y tendencies of media consumption, nor is it a place that is ideologically invested in grassroots authenticity.

Moreover, Hollywood and mainstream filmmaking writ large has almost always gotten its hands into anything seemingly new, authentic, grassroots, and alternative. In the 1960s, Godard’s films received the interest of American funding, and Antonioni was recruited by MGM to capitalize on the counterculture.

Furthermore, headline-grabbing projects like Braff’s work have led to the funding of other smaller projects, which reduces many critiques of such projects while also lending credence to the unfortunate reality that even the most scant of eyes-to-the-sky indie projects need a “legitimizing” agent in order to be recognized and valued at all (which also speaks to the fact that most successful Kickstarter projects usually have some sort of accessible frame of reference anyway – who wouldn’t want to see a documentary about Devo?).

The real problem with Kickstarter isn’t Kickstarter, nor is it the powers-that-be who seemingly take advantage of or benefit from a resource widely used under the shared umbrella of economic disadvantage. The problem with Kickstarter is that it had to exist at all, that it’s a resource that’s essential instead of merely useful.

Kickstarter really is a necessary resort for a certain type of filmmaking because that certain type of filmmaking has rarely, if ever, been afforded a prominent (or even evident) position in the economic landscape of American cinema in the first place. Films may have enjoyed First Amendment protection since 1952, but in terms of public institutions, movies have arguably never been afforded the status of art. While I can’t be anything but thankful that the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities still exist in the era of austerity mania, narrative feature films have rarely been seen as legitimate recipients for public funding in the name of the arts and humanities. No matter the continued roller coaster rise-and-fall of cinema’s prominence in public life, American cinema has been seen as an exclusively and wholly private enterprise since its inception.

On the one hand, this befitted American filmmaking, as the US is one of very few national cinema industries to have no government-operated form of censorship. But on the other hand, America has no equivalent of the allocated funding or public lotteries reserved for filmmaking in countries like Portugal and England.

Sure, such types of public funding for the cinematic arts were developed out of the need to establish a national cinema identity in response to the international prominence of Hollywood. Public resources, in other words, were used to compete with and/or provide an alternative to Hollywood. But Hollywood has for too long reigned as synonymous with “American cinema,” while other forms of American cinema have seen little, if any, organized institutional support in the face of Hollywood’s hegemony. There has never been, in other words, a conventionalized way to think about narrative feature filmmaking in the United States outside the terms of commerce and capital.

Kickstarter attempts to answer to a drought of avenues for realizing alternatives by recreating Hollywood’s internal logic on a smaller scale: justifying the worthiness of a potential artwork on seemingly empirical basis of anticipated audience interest and dollar signs. Yes, there may always be an American independent cinema tradition that, to borrow the eternal wisdom of Jeff Goldblum, finds a way. But we can celebrate what opportunities Kickstarter has enabled while lamenting its necessity. Zach Braff and Veronica Mars aren’t what’s wrong with Kickstarter. What’s wrong with Kickstarter is that it can potentially become an absolute necessity, rather than yet another viable option, for so much independent filmmaking in the future. What’s wrong with Kickstarter is that, if it weren’t for Kickstarter, too many films, like the restoration of Portrait of Jason, could never have possibly been realized at all.

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