Yesterday actor/director Zach Braff made a stir by launching a Kickstarter campaign to raise $2 million to finance a new film called Wish I Was Here. This is the second major film project, after the Veronica Mars movie, to attempt to finance itself via the crowdsourcing website in recent days. Some artists I know are taking a dim view of such projects, arguing that artists who could otherwise receive “traditional” financing are exploiting both the new business model (which was intended to support small, independent projects) and their fans, who are investing in projects (and thereby alleviating already-wealthy artists’ risk) without any of the financial returns that traditional investors could expect to see.
I can see the point. However, I tend to be of the opinion that the primary downside to already-established artists crowdsourcing their projects’ financing is that it may funnel what is likely a finite set of donors’ dollars away from encouraging new artists—replicating the problem that has stultified the Hollywood studio system and the big record labels, and that tools like Kickstarter were created to solve; of course, chances are that if someone has the ducats to send Zach Braff ten grand, they probably wouldn’t blink at laying out another 50 bucks for your boardgame about being a gay golddigger.
Other than that, though, I still think Kickstarter’s odd mix of feudalism and capitalism isn’t bad for either artists or their fans, no matter who is using it to raise however much money. It’s feudalistic in that it’s a return to a much older form of funding art: patronage. Like Kickstarter patrons, when a Venetian nobleman commissioned a painter to create a triptych for an altar, they did not expect financial returns; they did for social (and perhaps spiritual) capital, the satisfaction of having made something beautiful possible (and of being known to have made that thing possible). Of course, there is a crucial difference in that Michelangelo did not receive royalties or residuals, as Zach Braff is likely to do; but then again, the Guild of Wool probably didn’t receive David t-shirts, either.
But, as I mentioned, Kickstarter also manages to combine feudal patronage with pure market capitalism: Braff has created a market in which consumers can express the true value that his work has to them. To me, the ability to see a new Zach Braff movie might be worth the ten dollars I’d pay to see it in the theater; to others, the ability to see that movie (and, importantly, to have that movie be made exactly as Braff wants it, without the interference of meddling producers) is evidently worth a thousand times that much. Of course, they’re also paying for the ability to see themselves as being involved in the production, to accompany Braff to the premiere, etc. All in all, I don’t see much, if any, harm in this. People get a greater say in the art that they want to experience, while artists have the chance to make the art that they want to make while not having to satisfy the desires of investors whose motivation is primarily economic. Seems like a win-win to me.