Put Your Knives Away for Zach Braff

A few weeks ago, Zach Braff launched a Kickstarter to fund a sequel to Garden State. Four days in, it surpassed its goal of raising $2 million dollars.

This has been the source of much public wailing and gnashing of teeth. Notably: Ken Levine doesn't think Braff needs the money, and Alan Jones echoes much the same sentiment in the Toronto Standard. Other comments I see on social media amount to: "I won't back it because he's a d-bag." or "Great, now famous celebrities are going to crush indie film."

Speaking as a creator, a long-time KS backer, and someone with an active project: I don't get it.

I don't say that because I'm a fan, or even have a personal interest in his movie. I think those factors are irrelevant, I only mention it to point out I have ZERO stake in the outcome of his project.

I do, however, have a stake in the idea that this project (and, by extension the ~$6mm Veronica Mars KS) have corrupted Kickstarter or that the site has somehow "sold out."

Let's start with the "he's already rich" argument.

First, there never was (and I hope there never IS) a means-testing aspect to applying for a Kickstarter. If there WAS, I'd expect people who DIDN'T have a demonstrated amount of extra capital wouldn't get approved. Nearly EVERY project you see on KS requires an investment of time and money BEFOREHAND to properly position it. If you think Mr. Braff hasn't sunk a significant amount of time and personal capital into writing his script, commissioning concept art, etc., then I doubt you appreciate the effort needed to prep a strong, convincing proposal.

Second, I think it's utterly false to think that backers are signing up because they want to help line Mr. Braff's pockets. Kickstarter is not a charity, people back projects that they feel demonstrate value in line with their interests. That is the JOY of Kickstarter - you find an idea YOU think is cool and you help make it a reality.

Finally, people point out that he's made enough money over the life of his career that he should be able to just cough up $2 million like it's chump change. 1) You don't know that and 2) that's not the point of Kickstarter. The site is designed to provide a means to PITCH an idea to your audience and see if they respond WITH THEIR DOLLARS. This allows creators to take MUCH greater risks because they know in advance if there is a market for their product.

This speaks to the heart of the issue: creative control.

Mr. Braff has stated he wants to make the movie HIS way. With control over casting, script, production, etc. YES, he has access to investors who could help him launch this movie. However, those investors will surely demand some sort of input or approval on the final product. At which point, it's no longer HIS movie.

Given all the complaints about the narrow variety, safe choices, and overall low intellectual quality of movies released by the studio system, I fail to understand the lack of appreciation for Mr. Braff's approach. It's an opportunity for him to work unfettered toward his vision and Kickstarter offers an ideal venue to mitigate the risk -- and therefore mitigate the compromises needed -- to bring it to market. Isn't that something ALL creators deserve? Because the alternative is to get movies crafted to "four quadrant" focus groups and computers.

Check out that last link. As a creative, it freezes my blood.

People say this will flush new ideas out of the studio system. "We don't see the potential here, go Kickstart it," development executives might say. GOOD. Then YOU own it and you can sell it on YOUR TERMS if it's a success.

To address the "fame" issue: Yes, Mr. Braff has a certain following that has clearly helped him raise over $2.5 million dollars. That's actually one of the key elements to deploying a successful Kickstarter: REPUTATION. (The other parts being: a compelling product, perceived value per pledge dollar, and demonstrating the professional competence to deliver.) People complain that because he's famous, he can reach far more people than your average creator.

That's true. He can also get a table at restaurants where the average guy wouldn't get in the door. Where's the outrage over that?

What people don't seem to respect is the fact that Mr. Braff is staking his reputation on this project. He has promised something and it will be on him to deliver. At the end of the day, either he builds his brand with this movie or he damages it. In Hollywood, there is no more dangerous game than to go messing with your brand.

Further, he has now solicited direct investment from his fans. They have given him trust (in the form of their dollars) that he will succeed. If he fails, those dollars will not be forthcoming in future attempts. He is decidedly taking a risk.

Finally, the broad pronouncements that "I most certainly WILL NOT be supporting this Kickstarter!" are futile. By refusing to pledge, you take exactly ZERO dollars away from the project. Instead, the real danger is promoting the idea that OTHER people are stupid for pledging.

Look, I am highly unlikely to back a project for a new and innovative type of bra. But that doesn't mean I think other people are STUPID for supporting the project just because the bra designer is too famous or supposedly should have the seed money to bring it to market themselves.

In my opinion, the power of Kickstarter is to give creators 100% control, to take greater risks than they could with outside funding, and to definitively test whether there's a market (however small OR large) for their idea. Bad or poorly executed ideas flounder, well-run projects that speak to their specific audience (however broad or niche) get rewarded. Indie films are not hurt by this -- if anything greater awareness of Kickstarter itself encourages more people to explore the film category.

The broad, meaningful impact here is that this project has raised the profile for "celebrity vanity" projects -- which only creates more competition and therefore more VALUE for backers in the marketplace.

Is it a good project? The beauty of Kickstarter is YOU GET TO DECIDE FOR YOURSELF.

Is it a bad development in the evolution of Kickstarter? Decidedly NOT.

-Tom, who has to go shoot something he made.

While I'm way more open to debate about Braff's "appropriate" use of kickstarter than I was last week, I have a couple fine point bees in the bonnet;

1)we DO know that. Braff was loudly (not by him, but by the media) paid crazy money for several years of Scrubs. He's worth over 20 million.


2)I think -at least part- of the point of kickstarter is people that cannot otherwise fund a project. Otherwise, it would simply be some sort of voting system, without cash.

If people will support it (nobody forced them to back his project), I say that's pretty free-market...there was an audience clearly.

The part I'm sympathetic to is about access. Braff has an agent, a manger, publicist and more importantly tons and tons of relationships with other rich creatives. In other words, he has access and resources that .000001% of the US have access to.
He could have gotten total creative control by having 2 or 3 other super-wealthy friends backing the project along with him that are sympathetic to his creative wishes.

If I'm not mistaken, that's how Demi Moore ended up as an Executive Producer on Austin Powers.
# Posted By Yates | 5/10/13 6:08 PM

the US DON'T have access to.
# Posted By Yates | 5/10/13 6:09 PM
Couple things:

The issue of whether he CAN pay is a red herring. According to an article on mashable.com last year, the average successful Kickstarter had an initial funding goal of $5,500. I find it VERY difficult to believe that the majority of those project sponsors could not sell a car, take out a loan, or run up credit card debt of that amount to "fund an idea they really believe in." Yet no one expects them to put up a dime of their own money or go begging friends for cash.

Does Mr. Braff have more access than most? Yes. Do we think he is a BAD BUSINESSMAN? Because he *could* have farmed this out to a bunch of friends and then been on the hook for a movie he has no idea might succeed.

But as a SMART businessman, he gets a TRIPLE win out of going to Kickstarter:

1) Gets to retain all creative control.
2) Gets to minimize upfront investment in an idea that might have no audience.
3) Gets to not only GAUGE the audience response directly but also gets a huge PR buzz out of being the first celebrity vanity project on KS.

(Keep in mind, if it wasn't him, it would have been someone else. He's getting buzz -- good and bad -- for being first.)

He also has the possibility of raising MORE than his intial ask, which doesn't happen in Hollywood. (When was the last time a production company said, "Hey your 10-episode animated series is so great, even though the budget is $100,000, we want to give you $200,000 because we believe in you.")

Kickstarter has some guidelines about what they consider inappropriate (i.e. no "fund my vacation" type of things and you have to deliver some sort of actual product) but having a bunch of well-connected friends isn't on that list.

On a side note, I think that the nerd rage would have been TOTALLY different if Joss Whedon had come forward and said "I want to make five more episodes of Firefly."

And THAT guy can both afford the cost and dictate the terms of what happens far more than Zach Braff can.
# Posted By Tom | 5/10/13 7:12 PM
I agree with you, but I'm confused by this part of your argument:

"First, there never was (and I hope there never IS) a means-testing aspect to applying for a Kickstarter. If there WAS, I'd expect people who DIDN'T have a demonstrated amount of extra capital to get approved."

Don't you mean the opposite - that you *wouldn't* expect people without extra capital to get approved?
# Posted By Burk | 5/10/13 9:24 PM
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# Posted By Tom | 5/10/13 9:27 PM
I just hate the trend upwards. I see Kickstarter becoming a corporate tool for pre-selling new releases or new movies or new products. No reviews or word of mouth, just blind faith that what you're "buying" is worthwhile.

Kickstarter grew out of the needs of Indie bands and solo inventors and small-time game designers. Seeing it used by the super-wealthy just leaves a bad taste in my mouth. It's like some people I know who avoid getting married so the mother can keep getting state funded day-care and medical care. It's certainly a good business decision for them, but it's not really right
# Posted By Dave M. | 5/15/13 2:21 PM
Reaper and Steve Jackson Games are both (relatively) big companies with a huge brand in their market. They both raised MILLIONS of dollars in their respective KS campaigns. (As of this writing, more than Zach Braff has raised.)

Should they have not been allowed to pursue their projects?

Who decides who is too big or too famous?
# Posted By Tom | 5/15/13 3:20 PM
orrrrrr, he'll have to concede some control after all, and it was all about the buzz;

# Posted By Yates | 5/15/13 5:00 PM
Yeah, he has some explaining to do on that front. I'm curious what his side of the story is there.

The bad news for him is, the KS is still running. People can cancel their pledge right now. I've seen other projects canceled because bad buzz started going around and people bailed out.

Once you start bleeding backers, you're in serious trouble.
# Posted By Tom | 5/15/13 5:03 PM
I've never said anyone should not be allowed to use KS. I just find it distasteful for the wealthy to pass the hat like this. It seems contrary to the original spirit of KS.
# Posted By Dave M. | 5/16/13 8:06 AM
I don't know that "pass the hat" is exactly the right term, but I see your point.

In the other hand, I appreciate the opportunity to benefit from a direct patronage model, and I'm not sure how you could come up with a consistent set of guidelines that would preclude people who are "too famous", "too rich", or "too established."

So while we may ASCRIBE that spirit to KS, I'm not sure it was ever actually there.

On the flip side, it is a juried site -- approval is not automatic. So if they wanted to change it, they could.
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