Is Kickstarter a rip off?

If you haven’t been watching the news lately Zach Braff is probably mad at you. While you were out living your life, enjoying the Spring weather, he was busy launching a Kickstarter project to help fund his latest screenplay. I bet you feel pretty dumb now huh?

Zach Braff Tribeca Shankbone 2010 NYC

Zach Braff being all “braffy” (Photo credit: david_shankbone)

To catch you up to speed, Zach Braff (you know, from “Scrubs”) wrote a new movie and was having trouble funding it so he turned to Kickstarter to crowdsource it. He made over one million dollars in 12 hours. I’m not surprised. He isn’t the first person to take a niche audience and harness their collective power to bring a concept to life that would have never had a shot otherwise. This is fresh on the heels of the Veronica Mars kickstarter that had a goal of two million dollars and only made close to 6 million instead.

His movie “Wish I was here” does sound interesting in that indie sort of way. This is also the guy who wrote and directed “Garden State” so I’m sure it will be good too, but therein lies the problem: what if the movie is REALLY good? What if it makes soaring profits? Mike Fleming Jr. at explains:

While I still wonder what will happen when one of these Kickstarter films becomes The Blair Witch Project, a $60,000 budget film that grossed nearly $250 million worldwide. I recall a bond trader brother in law of one of the film’s writers who was cajoled into putting up $90,000 in finishing funds, and who walked away with $25 million when that film scared up ridiculous money. That rarely happens, but if it does, will the donors who made it possible be happy with a signed copy of the shooting script?

An interesting question indeed. Right now, for a $10 pledge you get access to a video diary that takes you inside the production process. Pretty cool, I’ll admit and there are worse things to do with $10 dollars (buying a ticket to Scary Movie 5 for example) so I don’t blame you for getting on board.

The problem I see with Kickstarter is that it removes the shared risk and shared gain that comes in putting a meaningful investment into a project you care about. Instead, we have become what I call “front end consumers”, being asked to put our money down on a product that doesn’t even EXIST yet. It must be a pretty tempting prospect for a lot of potential creators. Sure, if for whatever reason the project cannot be done Kickstarter enforces a strict “return the pledges” policy but that is vague. All that is really required is that a product, any product be put out. Zach Braff did a good job on “Garden State” but maybe “Wish I was here” was being passed over by studios for a reason. Maybe it sucks. Either way, the backers are out $10 dollars or more. It’s a win win for the creator because not only is it helping create the product, but also ensures it can’t fail (for them). For the backers the failure would be measured by a terrible finished product that they aren’t interested in.

Going further, if the product succeeds beyond Mr. Braff’s wildest imagination, you suddenly aren’t a “backer”, you’re just another fan who might as well have pre-ordered a ticket a year early. The profits are removed from you, even if you had seen the potential in this movie from the very start. I think with the high publicity successes of certain Kickstarter projects (and that the word “game changer” is being thrown around an awful lot), we will start to see more and more celebrities throw their hats in the ring. After all, there is money to be had and no risk besides embarrassment if it fails. While I think a lot of these could be a lot of fun and admittedly not a BAD deal for the backers (“free soundtrack wooo!”) it would be interesting to see another evolution in the crowdsourcing form. It probably won’t happen because it will require a commitment to not just profits but also ethical responsibility (always in short supply, although there may be a kickstarter for it by now). In this new paradigm, backers would “invest” in the film and share in the profits. If you donated only $10 that may not yield any more than mere pennies, but if you’re willing to invest more, the profits could be sizable. It would allow anyone to play producer, and the project would take care of them in the same way they took care of it when it was still just a dream inside a “Zach Braff”‘s head.



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