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 exceedingly 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 $58 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 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 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.
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"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."