Why Kickstarter is great for coolers, and terrible for feature films

why crowd funding movies on kickstarter can be a mess veronica mars movie 2

(Veronica Mars © Warner Bros Studios)

My junior year of college, a business grad student came into one of my film classes seeking help for a project. His project wasn’t a student film. It wasn’t a film at all. It was a website that would allow anyone with Internet access to help finance the production of independent films. I’d love to say this guy went on to found Kickstarter … but, alas, this was back in 1999. His venture, MovieShares.com, despite some Wall Street backing, never got off the ground.

That’s a shame, because in many ways, his idea was much better for film-lovers than Kickstarter. It’s a great way to crowd source the development of tangible products that can one-day ship to backers. But it’s a terrible way to finance feature-length films that you hope will one day be seen in theaters by as many people as possible.

Kickstarter gets around the whole “profit-sharing thing” by avoiding the issue entirely.

Let’s go back to MovieShares.com for a minute. The thing that made it better than Kickstarter (for film financing, at least) is, sadly, the reason it was doomed to fail. The idea behind Movieshares was to let people “invest” in independent films and own a piece of them. Not only could you help finance the production of a film, but once the film turned a profit, you’d get your investment back and then some. The problem? Most films never make a profit, particularly independently-produced ones. Had the MovieShares.com site had launched, it wouldn’t have lasted very long with that kind of a track record.

Kickstarter gets around the whole “profit-sharing thing” by avoiding the issue entirely. As of this writing, the most successful Kickstarter campaign ever – for any kind of product – is a fancy drink cooler. Yes, a cooler, the kind you’d take camping or to the beach. Initially seeking $50,000, the project went on to garner over $13 million in funding. People didn’t contribute that much money for a piece of the company. They did it for an awesome (if overly elaborate) way to keep their drinks cold. The company essentially pre-sold $13 million worth of product.

(Wish I Was Here © Focus Features)

(Wish I Was Here © Focus Features)

Feature films are a lot harder to “pre-sell” than a fancy tail-gating accessory. Take Zach Braff’s famous Kickstarter campaign for Wish I Was Here. For a $10 contribution, about the price of a movie ticket, you got production updates via email and a PDF of the script “right before the movie comes out.” What didn’t you get? An actual movie ticket to see the thing you backed. For $20, more than the price of a movie ticket, you got the updates, the PDF, and a link to stream the movie’s soundtrack (not download, just stream), and still no ticket. It wasn’t until you gave $30 that you actually got a chance to see the movie you backed without shelling out for tickets on top of your contribution. And even then, the “screening” you got to attend was available only online, and only at certain times. No level of backing got you a DVD or Blu-ray of the film, and only the highest levels of support even got you invited to a live screening in select cities.

Feature films are a lot harder to “pre-sell” than a fancy tail-gating accessory.

Let me be clear on this: I’m not harping on Zach Braff for asking fans to finance a film sight-unseen, as some critics have. But his experience shows how hard it is to presell something intangible like a theatrical experience.

The Veronica Mars movie, another high-profile Kickstarter campaign, had similar benchmarks for contributors – and no actual tickets to see the movie. The reason you haven’t seen any Kickstarter-backed films include tickets is simple: They can’t. Kickstarter can help finance the production of a film, but you’re still going to need a distributor to get it in theaters, and you’re not going to get a good distribution deal if a high percentage of first weekend gross is already off the table. That’s why filmmakers have to offer things that won’t eat into a distributor’s potential earnings. Veronica Mars was able to at least offer a digital download of the movie, because Warner Bros. had already signed on as a distributor (though even that didn’t go smoothly).

Without even offering real movie tickets, the producers of Wish I Was Here and Veronica Mars still raised millions, enough to greenlight the production of both projects. That’s because they were able to target their Kickstarter campaign towards established fan bases. For Zach Braff, it was fans of Garden State. For Veronica Mars, it was fans of, well, Veronica Mars. But if you don’t have an established fan base to target, you’re basically screwed for crowd sourcing. Just ask acclaimed-director Paul Schrader and best-selling novelist Bret Easton Ellis, whose original project The Canyons got just a tiny fraction of the support Wish and Veronica got.

(The Canyons © IFC Films)

(The Canyons © IFC Films)

Preselling a film to an established fan base comes with its own major risk, though. By tailoring the experience to such a core group, it’s harder to sell your feature to a wider audience upon release without alienating your fans and backers. The version of Veronica Mars that Warner Bros. would’ve put into 2,000 theaters (as opposed to the 291-theater release it did get) probably wouldn’t have been as faithful to the source material as the one that ultimately got made, which is steeped in the mythology of the series. Attracting new fans without losing old ones is a terrible catch 22 faced by the makers of any adaptation, but Kickstarter amplifies the risks because you’re asking fans to give you more than just their time. You’re asking fans to financially invest in the success of the film, without actually rewarding them if new fans do show up. All you’re doing is risking pissing them off.

If you don’t have an established fan base to target, you’re basically screwed for crowd sourcing.

Zach Braff was very open about his reason for turning to Kickstarter. Despite having other options, he turned to Kickstarter in order to retain as much creative control as possible, as taking money from a studio (or any other single investor) before a film is made frequently comes with strings attached. Braff won. He got his movie made while retaining complete control of the project. But Wish I Was Here wasn’t nearly as successful as Garden State. Could a studio partner at the onset have changed the film’s fortunes? Possibly, but I think the “critical consensus” on RottenTomatoes.com summed things up best:

“There’s no denying Wish I Was Here is heartfelt, but it covers narrative ground that’s already been well trod — particularly by director Zach Braff’s previous features.”

Zach Braff delivered exactly what the film’s Kickstarter supports wanted – a thematic sequel to his directorial debut. That also limited its appeal beyond the diehard fans of Garden State.

There’s a reason why the overwhelming majority of successful crowd-sourced film campaigns are documentaries and short films: Those kinds of projects aren’t reliant on a theatrical exhibition for success. Until crowd-sourcing gets its own My Big Fat Greek Wedding or Napolean Dynamite (two low budget crowd-pleasers that defied their indie roots to find mainstream success), that’s going to continue to be the case.

Making any movie is a nearly impossible task, and if Kickstarter can help make a film that otherwise wouldn’t exist, go for it. But when making a movie with crowd funding, you had better be prepared to appease the crowd.