Zach Braff Kickstarter Success: Will Crowdfunding Transform Showbiz?

Film projects have pocketed $119 million on site over the past four years

Zach Braff Garden State

Kickstarter has leveled the playing field for artists in need of funding. But the influx of pros like Zach Braff has many wondering how crowdfunding will be transformed by showbiz (and vice versa).

Over the past four years, Kickstarter has earned a reputation as the place where creators can make their dreams come true by tapping funding outside of traditional industry sources.

It’s not an inaccurate picture of the website, but it’s hardly a complete one. The perception is somewhat blurred by the entry in recent months of high-profile projects that successfully mined millions of dollars in donations, including a Warner Bros.-backed film adaptation of the defunct TV series “Veronica Mars” and Zach Braff-led indie pic “Wish I Was Here.” Studio-based projects with name talent attached will likely follow, carrying with them the potential to reshape at least one corner of the film-financing world.

“We’re a guinea pig, and if we do well, we’ll see more movies in the $3 million to $10 million budget range,” said Rob Thomas, creator of “Veronica Mars.”

But by and large, Kickstarter is a place where relative unknowns seek donations to fund creative projects of all kinds, and some of them aren’t thrilled to be sharing the site’s collective largesse with those who have a higher profile — and a presumed advantage to accessing capital.

Regardless, both the famous and anonymous on Kickstarter have come to know it is far from being a consistent hit-maker. Projects launched by people or organizations that already have a following tend to benefit most, and can gain exposure to an even larger audience; for those without a degree of notoriety, it’s difficult to find backing.

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“The biggest successes tend to be known properties or have known brands attached to them,” said Scott Steinberg, author of “The Crowdfunding Bible.” “It’s not ‘Field of Dreams.’ If you build it, they won’t come. You have to get them to come or bring it to them.”

Film projects have pocketed an impressive $119 million on Kickstarter over the past four years. Ten percent of the films at Sundance were backed by Kickstarter users — with four winning awards. The site also can boast an Oscar winner: “Inocente,” a documentary about a 15-year-old homeless San Diego girl, won the most recent Academy Award for Documentary Short.

Perhaps it was inevitable then that Kickstarter would move mainstream. Thomas and his UTA reps convinced Warners to launch a monthlong campaign for a feature-length version of “Veronica Mars,” with star Kristen Bell. The project raised $5.7 million — $3.7 million above its goal — from 91,585 fans, in return for prizes such as DVDs, scripts, posters, a personal greeting from a star, a role as an extra, character-naming privileges and one speaking role for a backer who contributed $10,000. It became the biggest film Kickstarter campaign in history, and perked up the ears of studio execs and stars with passion projects.

Inspired in part by the success of “Mars,” Braff teamed with producers Stacey Sher and Michael Shamberg last month to launch a Kickstarter campaign that fetched $3.1 million from 46,520 donors for the follow-up to their 2004 Fox Searchlight cult hit “Garden State.”

But something else brought Braff & Co. to Kickstarter: Modestly budgeted films are finding it increasingly difficult to get studio backing, and even indies budgeted at less than $10 million can be nearly impossible to finance without significant strings attached.

SEE ALSO: Mandy Patinkin Joins Zach Braff’s ‘Wish I Was Here’

“We pursued the traditional indie route, and it proved to be too restrictive, both in where we could shoot and who we could cast,” Sher said.

Braff is putting up an undisclosed portion of the $5 million-$5.5 million budget himself. But that hasn’t inoculated him from social-media backlash over whether Kickstarter is intended to be used by wellheeled celebrities.

Kickstarter itself recently responded to the “Mars”/Braff backlash with a blog post saying that the two films “have brought tens of thousands of new people to Kickstarter. Sixty-three percent of those people had never backed a project before. Thousands of them have since gone on to back other projects, with more than $400,000 pledged to 2,200 projects so far. Nearly 40% of that has gone to other film projects.”

“There’s been some backlash with people saying, ‘Why are we giving The Man the money?,” noted Milana Rabkin, an agent at UTA who specializes in digital media. “But as long as the answer from creators is justified–saying ‘I have no other way of making this’ or ‘This is something I can’t let not happen, and therefore I’m coming to you, my fans, and giving you an opportunity to work with me to bring this idea to life,’– people are really attracted to that.”

Said Thomas: “I haven’t gotten my head around why people seem to be upset. People seem very angry that Zach Braff is going this route to raise money, but he’s very specific on his website about what he wants it for, and people have the choice of either backing or not backing it.”

It took Thomas nearly two years to convince Warners to try the Kickstarter campaign on “Mars.” It nearly died when the Warner Horizon division folded, Thomas recalled, but it was resuscitated by Warner Bros. Digital Distribution after an unreleased campaign video featuring Bell spread virally within the studio.

One person who’s paying close attention to Thomas’ tale is his friend, “Pushing Daisies” creator Bryan Fuller. Back in Los Angeles after eight months shooting NBC’s “Hannibal” in Toronto, he’s just now talking with his agent at WME to ascertain who to buttonhole within the just-reorganized Warners to see if a bigscreen version of “Daisies,” budgeted at $10 million-$15 million, would be a good fit for Kickstarter.

“On the studio level, everyone’s realizing this is a great opportunity, because they don’t have to lose money,” Fuller said.

Which isn’t to say everyone in Hollywood is swooning.

There are still plenty of skeptics, like Bold Films co-prexy Gary Michael Walters, exec producer and financier of Warners’ upcoming Ryan Gosling-helmed “How to Catch a Monster.” Walters said he mainly uses Kickstarter to discover new properties, and has little interest in donation-based crowdfunding.

“It’ll remain viable in some cases, but it could easily be abused,” he said. “You have to watch it. You can over-fish the resource.”

The worst nightmare of any star trying out Kickstarter came true last month when the perhaps appropriately named Melissa Joan Hart-toplined romantic comedy “Darci’s Walk of Shame” earned just $51,605 of its $2 million goal from 315 backers. Another TV star, Shemar Moore of CBS’ “Criminal Minds,” is struggling to get a rom-com of his own off the ground, collecting $127,000 with 22 days to go, far short of his $1.5 million goal.

Indeed, 56% of Kickstarter projects fall short of their funding goals, according to the site’s analytics. Of these, 28% are film and video projects. Another 18% are music projects.

But even in success, Kickstarter pitfalls persist. Blur Studio’s Jeff Fowler and Tim Miller turned to the crowdfunder for their feature directoral debut, an animated adaptation of Eric Powell’s cult hit comic “The Goon,” with David Fincher executive producing, Dark Horse Entertainment (“Hellboy”) producing and Paul Giamatti voicing, only after other means had failed to raise the $400,000 needed for a 90-minute professional-quality story reel aimed at attracting $35 million in feature financing.

While their campaign hit the mark, they discovered that collecting all the donations isn’t so easy. First, Kickstarter takes a 5% cut of all pledges on successful campaigns (if a project fails to get funding, Kickstarter doesn’t take anything).

“Even though Kickstarter will kind of vet your donation before you submit it, people do default on their payments in the two weeks Kickstarter takes to collect all your money,” Fowler said. “Fortunately we were overfunded, so we met our original goal.”

Miller said the thrill of meeting their goal was followed quickly by the reality of having to fulfill all the promises made to secure funding, including sending out T-shirts and other prizes. They get about 10 emails a day with backers’ new addresses and other changes. “They say, ‘I wrote “small” but I really meant an extra large T-shirt,’ or, ‘Can I give you $10 more and get the poster as well as the T-shirt?’ It’s sort of a neverending stream,” Miller said.

And, Miller said, during the campaign, there was some negative press, saying, “Why does David Fincher need fans’ money?” “It was kind of annoying to see the negativity,” he added.

For many, Kickstarter is a way to get noticed — by fans and by larger organizations within the industry.

A year ago, videogame developers Pwnee Studios successfully funded “Cloudberry Kingdom,” raising more than $23,000 for the platform vidgame. That was enough to not only fund a PC prototype of the game, it put the company on Ubisoft’s radar. The game publishing giant struck a deal with Pwnee, and this summer a console version of “Cloudberry” will hit stores.

“Kickstarter gives an alternate source of funding to develop and prototype a full game and then bring it to publishers,” said Chris Early, VP of digital publishing at Ubisoft. “It’s beyond proof of concept at that point. That reduces our risk considerably.”

Ethan Calk and actors Tim Russ and Walter Koenig are hoping for a similar fate. The Kickstarter for “Star Trek: Renegades” was successfully funded last November to create a pilot episode for a new “Star Trek” series, which the group plans to pitch to CBS, with an eye toward becoming a Web-based series. Russ, who played Tuvok on “Star Trek: Voyager,” will direct, while Koenig, the original “Star Trek’s” Chekov, is executive consultant and will appear in the show.

“Renegades” wasn’t a breakaway hit, though. It cleared its $200,000 goal by 21%, but people failing to honor their pledges and the cost of shipping out rewards has had a noticeable impact. And Kickstarter’s 5% fee, along with a 3%-5% charge from Amazon, which handles payments, further lowered the total. As a result, the group may not have enough money to accomplish what it set out to do.

“We’ve looked at maybe doing some further fund-raising, maybe on Kickstarter, maybe Indiegogo,” Calk said. “We’ve also looked at cutting back, but don’t want to.”

Second rounds are risky, though, since original backers can feel betrayed. That’s especially dangerous if you have a dedicated following that has already contributed once.

But success on Kickstarter isn’t always tied to dollars raised. The crowdfunding site can be a publicity machine and one of the best marketing tools on the Web, particularly for up-and-coming filmmakers, musicians and other artists who show a knack for self-promotion.

“What you’re trying to do is build a relationship with an audience and build a mailing list,” said “Crowdfunding Bible” author Steinberg.

Still, it’s true that many successful Kickstarters come from people and companies who are already known quantities. Leveraging the community of fans to donate and then act as evangelists for your product is essential.

Explosm, the makers of the Web comic “Cyanide and Happiness,” had negotiated with traditional studios for years about creating an animated series around the strip, but were never happy with the creative control they’d have to give up to do so. After seeing peers achieve success, they turned to Kickstarter, where they raised more than $770,000 — nearly three times their initial goal.

Derek Miller, the company’s business manager, ticked off the factors critical to the Explosm’s campaign. First and foremost was getting the established fan base excited. More than one-third of the referral traffic to the Kickstarter page came from the “Cyanide and Happiness” website, with another 20% coming from the site’s Facebook page.

Social media is critical, in fact, and can be a good barometer of whether a project will reach its goals. A thesis paper from Alexey Moisseyev at the U. of Nebraska at Lincoln, published this year, studied the effects of social media on crowdfunding projects — and found a correlation between Facebook “likes” and success, even going so far as to suggest an exact number as critical mass.

“A total of 546 ‘likes’ can be sufficient to fundraise an intended amount,” Moisseyev wrote. “Though this number generated through the derived equation cannot be taken as a sort of magic number that guarantees results, it can provide project creators with a benchmark to help them complete the project successfully.”

Though thesis papers and the real world don’t always make for comfortable bedfellows, the Explosm team also found relevance in being responsive to those who pledge, particularly among patrons who have bargained for something in return. When the design for backers’ T-shirts was met with a high degree of negativity, an apology was quickly issued, with a vow to change the design, incorporating solutions to the complaints that had been registered. Just as quickly, positive feedback returned, and Explosm dedicated an employee to ensure any question or comment was answered within 30 minutes for the remainder of the campaign.

“Instead of having to please investors, you have to tell fans, ‘We care about you. We love you. You’re the reason we can do this,’ ” Explosm’s Miller said.

Because of the potential impact Kickstarter has on independent filmmakers and other entertainers, some have questioned whether it redefines what “indie” is. The answer depends on your perspective.

Most artists have been scraping up money for their projects for years, often finding they still have to compete for funds against those who are more established. In that vein, Kickstarter isn’t all that different from other financing sources. It simply streamlines the process a bit.

Where the model changes is when accountability is considered; artists on Kickstarter retain creative control of their projects.

“The big shift here is if you sign with a major production company, your customer is your higher-up,” said Miller. “If your numbers are not looking great, they can cancel you.”

But some creatives work best when they’re being held tight to deadlines and limits, and the freedom to do whatever they like can lead to project sprawl, which makes delivery dates increasingly fuzzy.

Projects that catch the cultural zeitgeist are particularly vulnerable to delays, noted Ethan Mollick, a professor of management at the U. of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School.

“The vast majority of (creators) attempt to deliver products promised to funders, but relatively few do so in a timely manner, a problem exacerbated in large or overfunded projects,” Mollick said, describing a shortcoming endemic to bloated studio films as well.

There’s also the looming threat of an artist’s vision evolving over the course of a project, but heading in a direction that backers disagree with. The ethical gray area of promising one thing and delivering another is a weight under which many of the less pedigreed entertainment Kickstarters struggle.

“Veronica Mars'” Thomas is pleased with the process, but plans to use conventional financing for a feature-length revival of his other cult hit, the 2009-10 Starz comedy “Party Down.” “In no way do I think this is the new model for filmmaking,” Thomas said. “It’s not something I would do for everything, but for some things I would.”

Any way you look at it, funding for entertainment projects on Kickstarter has only been rising. A U. of Toronto study last December showed the rate of recent growth in film, games and music donations towered over virtually every other Kickstarter category. And projections for future growth show no signs of a slowdown.

“Tastemakers are no longer a select group of individuals,” Steinberg said. “Now, everyone can be one.”

Kickstarter Alternatives

Kickstarter is the biggest crowdfunding site around these days, but it hardly has a lock on the field:

Indiegogo: The second largest crowdfunding site is sometimes used in conjunction with Kickstarter, allowing artists to double down. Success stories include Project for Awesome, a coordinated campaign by artists to raise awareness of social issues on YouTube, and a new album from Protest the Hero, which eschewed label financing for fan-based coin.

RocketHub: The dollar amounts are smaller here, but there is TV exposure. A&E has partnered with RocketHub to showcase the more interesting projects on A&E’s upcoming show “Project Startup.” The network is also providing some of the campaigns with seed money.

FundAnything: Even Donald Trump is jumping into crowdfunding these days. In this co-venture with Learning Annex founder Bill Zanker, the Donald says he will personally invest in some projects, while others rely on more typical methods. Any project is eligible to seek funding on the site, which launched in early May.

Ulule: Europe’s first crowdfunding site has a strong focus on entertainment, with films and music among the projects most funded. It has yet to have a Kickstarter-like breakaway fundraising hit, though.

Community Funded: While the focus of this crowdfunding site leans more toward social causes, it has backed small arts and culture titles along the way, and has several entertainment categories.