Kickstarter Film Rush and Reactions - Authenticity Week

By Timothy Dillon

All photos courtesy of Timothy Dillon.

After attending the Kickstarter Film Festival in Brooklyn, NY the weekend of August 3rd, I tried to think of a way to contribute to the dialogue over established filmmakers using Kickstarter. Since the Veronica Mars, Zach Braff, and Spike Lee Kickstarter campaigns, everymen artists  have only just started on their adventures. The film festival focused on these  truly small scale independent films, and did in one of the most intimate of settings.

The event was held in a vacant lot in the shadow of the Williamsburg Bridge and began shortly after sunset on a picturesque summer evening. There was food and even (self proclaimed) decent beer that guests could enjoy while they explored what else the lot had to offer: a mobile urban farm and a BMX bike track.

The sunset was scored by a musical performance from Jherek Bischoff, a composer who also successfully Kickstarted his “most important concert” to date here in New York City’s Kaufman Center. There were also impromptu performances by some of the films’ subjects, like Thomas Grillo of Mr. Grillo: The Thereminist. And then there were the movies; after all, that is what I was really there for?

Kickstarter has been trending as of late. In March, it was the Veronica Mars Kickstarter changed the name of the game, and fans realized they could pitch in to support their favorite shows or filmmakers. That is all fine, and while I think that Veronica Mars deserves to have her time in the spotlight, if they were to gain commercial success with this first film, I would expect that if the filmmakers wanted a sequel, they wouldn’t do another Kickstarter campaign. That is the hope, right?

Some of the controversy over Kickstarters like Zach Braff’s Wish I Was Here, and the “Newest Hottest Spike Lee Joint” is generally in regard to how these well-established filmmakers are looking to fans for money. Now, before I hop on the band wagon of shaming these directors, let’s first point out an obvious: Braff and Lee are totally within their right to ask their fans for support. They are absolutely allowed to and that is why, I imagine, Kickstarter approved their campaigns for the site. And is it not fair to say, that’s it’s what fans are for — support?

At the end of the day, Kickstarter is the company that decides who and what projects can be funded on their site. Further, the public should not try and dictate what Kickstarter should and should not find acceptable. Segregating filmmakers based on their success is a silly idea. But asking filmmakers to be conscientious of their success is a lot less silly idea.

So for my first contradiction, I’m going to defend Zach Braff. More good has come out of his campaign than bad. Like the Veronica Mars campaign, once it hit the web, there was a spike in searches for the site.

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In fact each time one of these “major” Kickstarter campaigns is launched, there is a surge in searches and web traffic. So, while these projects may not be well received by everyone, what they have done is raise the public profile  of crowdfunding. In turn, more people start accessing Kickstarter, more people with expendable income find projects that resonate with them, and more people spread the word about how to get projects off the ground.

Since Kickstarter is donation based, not a single donor will ever get their money back. Instead campaigns are supposed to offer content and exclusive media for their donation. And if you’re a fan, getting some exclusive content only adds fuel to the fire that is your fandom.

In the case of Zach Braff and Spike Lee, a major argument they have both employed to defend their projects is (and I’m paraphrasing here) they want to be able to call all the shots and have full creative control. The implication is, that studios often want to insert their own agendas to help market the film to more demographics and thus increase profits. While it will be hard to find a filmmaker who doesn’t want to profit from their films, there are many who would not make money at the expense of their art.

This argument, while noble and endearing, is not actually a reality that these filmmakers occupy. Are you really telling me that Zach Braff can’t find half a dozen friends in Hollywood with money who are willing to support him? Instead he HAS to turn to his fan base, a whopping 46,250 backers, for the financial support he needs to make his film? I’m not even suggesting that he has all that money himself, I’m saying that he probably knows people who have the means to support him and his art and who wouldn’t ask him to sacrifice.

And Spike Lee… oh Spike. This one really rubbed me the wrong way. You can see his first campaign video below, which has since been removed from his Kickstarter page:

This first video highlights exactly what he, and other established filmmakers, lack: self awareness. He is literally going around flaunting his successes, some of which are absolutely mainstream films, and yet he only refers to himself as an independent filmmaker.

The new video highlights some of the same issues with filmmaking through Hollywood financing, but does so in a much more “personal” and “sincere” fashion. He tries to explain himself and his reasoning, instead of flaunting his success. The new video immediately saw results, and he may actually reach his goal be the time his Kickstarter ends on August 21st, but should he?

The lack of self awareness and borderline arrogance of how he first pitched his Kickstarter to fans is what is wrong with established filmmakers pleading poverty. As much as they raise awareness for Kickstarter, they are without a doubt, taking money that might be better donated elsewhere on the site.

Now, I started this rant by talking about the Kickstarter Film Festival in Brooklyn. That evening, I saw films that were made by smaller, unestablished, filmmakers trying to break onto the scene: A film called The Cub, which hilariously depicts parents giving their child to be raised by wolves; and a documentary about an urban dance phenomenon called flexing in Flex Is King. These were films on a scale that suited their subject matter and if you scan through the other entries, you will see only one that enters the six digits range; also that it was over funded by 34 percent.

The perspectives of each film were unique. When I went to this film festival, I wasn’t exactly sure what to expect from these would-be flicks.  What I found exceeded every expectation I had. I laughed, nearly cried, and saw pieces of the world that no one concerned with greater mainstream success would be able to show me. The great part about small-time filmmakers is that they don’t ask for a small fortune to make something that you will feel truly fortunate for having seen.

So, in light of this being the last films Kickstarted before major filmmakers signed up, will we see and end to the small scale, intimate evening of low key and honestly independent filmmaking? Will  I have to deal with a Q&A segment next year with Lee instead of an encore performance of the thereminist? If more and more independent films are going to be made but in the midst of other larger scale films, I want some sort of segregation, but as I said earlier, that is not up to me or anyone else besides Kickstarter to decide.

Thomas Grillo with his theremin.

If major filmmakers and people with connections to studios in Hollywood are going to use Kickstarter, they need to understand that they are going to have to defend their project vehemently. And not without reason. They are turning to people so they cannot sacrifice on their vision. But should all art be without sacrifice? Is it fair to be compensated in gifts and prizes just so an artist can do exactly what they want? Maybe and that is up to each prospective donor to decide for themselves.