Yesterday, I mentioned the Veronica Mars movie Kickstarter project and suggested that it would likely get funding. I didn’t quite expect it to reach its $2 million funding goal in less than 24 hours. But I think the fact that the show had a comparatively large (as opposed to the many relatively unknown independent artists who use the site) and incredibly enthusiastic fan base shows that crowdfunding can work incredibly well for the right kind of project. As James Poniewozik suggests, Kickstarter may be a means for creators to “monetize depth, not breadth, of interest,” allowing fans to put their money where their fandom is. In my previous post, I briefly addressed the idea that crowdfunding could function somewhat similarly to the way in which “foreign pre-sales” were used to guarantee funding for independent films, and I’m trying to work through that comparison a little further. Like foreign pre-sales, crowdfunding provides money that will help get the film made, as well as a guaranteed audience that will watch the film (if you “donate” to get the movie made, you’re also likely to pony up to pay for a movie ticket down the road). There are obvious differences: the foreign pre-sales helped provide up to 20-30% of an indie budget, but the buyers were essentially paying for distribution rights before the film was released. Crowdfunders aren’t investing for the sake of profit; they are doing so simply because tehy want a project to get made.
This leads Richard Lawson of the Atlantic to complain about the ethos of Kickstarter, suggesting that it really isn’t a “donor” system because the people who are asking for money on the site don’t “really need it.” He goes on to add that donating to support professional artists and creators–he also singles out Amanda Palmer’s $1.2 million campaign to finance a folk album–ignores other charities that really deserve or need our money. Certainly, there is a reasonable point here about the needs to address global poverty, the importance of supporting political causes we find valuable, and so on, but I wonder if people who give to Kickstarter campaigns are doing so out of charitable impulses or if they are seeing it as a kind of “investment” in the entertainment they want to see. If tossing ten bucks in a hat to get a Veronica Mars movie made (and to get a couple of perks that will have collectible and, arguably, emotional value) is necessary, I think many people are willing to pay that price in the same way that we all make decisions about what concerts to attend, what DVDs to buy, and whether to pony up for a premium cable channel like HBO.
Sure, in some cases, creators make a pitch that appeals to the donor ethos, but I didn’t detect that in the Veronica Mars pitch. Instead I saw an appeal to the enjoyment that many people had–references to the show’s narrative and visual style and to the ability to spend at least a few more hours “hanging out” with these characters. I do have some concern that this will become a more standard technique in funding “independent” projects down the road, especially since Warner will eventually be involved in making the movie. What does it mean that we are paying in to support these projects–and to be fair, I’ve only donated to one Kickstarter project–to provide studios with a way to protect themselves from facing as much financial risk?
I’m skeptical about Lawson’s other contention that Kickstarter fundraising is essentially a “passive” activity. Yes, the Veronica Mars crew had to do very little during their campaign (which was funded in a day or so), perhaps, but they did spend several years developing the characters that clearly meant something to thousands of enthusiastic backers. I do think that we need better theories of what it means to crowdfund, especially in an evolving and complex media ecosystem, one in which “independence” is also a highly ambiguous term, but I think that dismissing it because it fails to adhere to an idealized notion of a “donor” system misses out on what might motivate people to support a project financially.
Update: Kieran Masterton, who worked on the distribution platform OpenIndie (among many other endeavors) has some nice reflections about this topic, addressing whether the Veronica Mars campaign is in the spirit of Kickstarter’s donor model. A point that I’d skipped earlier is the question of transparency and whether the Veronica Mars team was fully honest about their intentions for the project, and I agree with Kieran that they were. They clearly disclose their relationship with Warner and make clear that the campaign is meant to demonstrate to Warner that there is a deep interest in the film. Given how many people supported the project financially (now over 45,000), I’d also be curious to know the metrics of what that would translate into in terms of an estimated opening weekend audience, given that many thousands of people did not support the project financially but would see the film.
Update 2: Immediately after I published this, S.T. Van Airsdale answers some of my questions about the financial implications, and many, many others. If you’re interested in the math of this–including the substantial costs of the perks for donating, this post is well worth reading.
Update 3: Last one, I promise. But I’m intrigued by Josh Wolk’s reading of the Veronica Mars Kickstarter frenzy in terms of nostalgia. Of course, it’s not surprising that fans would rally around a cult show that was perceived to have ended too early, but I wonder if Wolk is correct in surmising that it’s less about wanting the show itself (although obviously fans want that) than it is about being “back at the time when you enjoyed it,” a return fantasy. Wolk is also explicit (in a way that I should have been) about the connections between Kickstarter and on-demand culture, about our desires to get even more of our favorite shows, movies, and characters, long after widespread demand for them is exhausted. Wolk’s argument builds upon an old column by Matt Zoller Seitz that admonishes fans for attempting to resuscitate dead shows.