Netflix, Kickstarter and the Future of Enterainment
Well, well, well this is a bit new isn’t it? As you may have noticed, I haven’t really ventured into anything other than my weekly articles for awhile so this feels a bit special. If I’m being honest, the idea for this article (or some form of it) has been kicking around in my brain for months, practically since House of Cards debuted on Netflix, but it was only after I saw the vitriol and outrage over Zach Braff (Scrubs) starting a Kickstarter for his film, Wish I Was Here, that I felt I could say something more than, “yeah, sounds like fun stuff for the future.” As you can imagine, that doesn’t make for a very compelling piece of writing. So, I put the idea on the backburner a bit, hoping that the idea would evolve to the point where it would be, at the very least, a slightly compelling piece of writing. I think I’ve reached that point, thanks to the previously mentioned vitriol, albeit a bit indirectly. I say indirect because there’s a part of this that has nothing to do with Zach Braff’s Kickstarter. I recognize the tenuous-at-best link between Netflix and Kickstarter but I also believe that both will be very important in shaping how we not only view entertainment (the Netflix of it all) in the future, but also how it gets made (the Kickstarter of it all).
Before I get into the Kickstarter stuff, let’s talk about Netflix for a moment. As I stated above, I’ve had the itch to do this article since the premiere of House of Cards because I find the future of TV pretty fascinating. There are just so many different avenues that we can explore to deliver entertainment content that Netflix is really just the tip of the iceberg. The model it used with House of Cards (releasing all 13 episodes of the season at once) is fairly revolutionary, as it allows the viewer to watch the show at their own pace instead of having to wait a week for the next episode. It’s a great concept because one, people hate waiting for the next episode of an engrossing show. Seriously, I know I hate having to wait another week to watch the latest Game of Thrones. And two, I think it allows the viewer a better understanding of the story being told to them. As I outlined in a term paper last year, one of the reasons there isn’t any great literature anymore is because the medium in which great creative minds, for long-form narrative writing, work is TV, not writing books. That seems pretty arrogant and self-serving for a guy who wants to get into the business but just look at the past 15 years of television and tell me I’m wrong. The Wire, The Sopranos, Breaking Bad, Mad Men (just to name a few; I could go on for ages)…these are all intricately plotted pieces of fiction; the only difference is that 100 years ago, they would’ve been books.
There wasn’t a lot criticism levied against the company for the model but it wasn’t non-existent, either. That said, most of it came from a place of fear by TV critics. They were worried that the model would, at best, drastically change the way they covered TV and at worst, eliminate their profession altogether. I’m not entirely sure how much truth there is to that, though. After all, why can’t you review and critique an episode of TV without having to wait a week? If anything, I think it allows critics to judge a show more fairly, as the narrative of the story isn’t broken up into pieces. So, I don’t really get the criticism against the idea of releasing them all at once because it allows a story to be told uninterrupted.
The Kickstarter stuff is a bit different because there has been noticeable backlash against people in Hollywood using it to finance their own projects. There were some grumblings by people when Veronica Mars creator Rob Thomas (no, not the singer of Matchbox 20) created a Kickstarter to fund the oft-rumored but never financially feasible, Veronica Mars movie, but not quite as much as there seems to be with Zach Braff’s latest project. In case you didn’t know, Braff (writer/director/star of 2004’s Garden State) recently started his own Kickstarter campaign to fund his next directorial effort, Wish I Was Here. By all accounts, his project has been just as, if not more, successful than the Veronica Mars campaign. Yet, there are those who are crying wolf, claiming that it’s exploiting the system (it’s not) or wondering why he’s not paying for it himself since he’s a big movie star (he’s not).
First, who are they to tell me what to do with my money? Admittedly, this is the point used most often against the detractors but it’s a fair question. If I’m a big Zach Braff fan and he makes behind-the-scenes videos available for $10 and I think that’s a good deal, who are you to say otherwise? How is that bad? Because you don’t think it’s worth it? People have different opinions on value. For example, I would never buy $100 jeans because it’s not worth it to me. Does that mean I chastise people at the mall because they do? Of course I don’t because I couldn’t care less how they spend their money and neither should you when I choose to fund a Kickstarter that was created by one of my favorite actors.
The idea that it shouldn’t be available to people from Hollywood because they had success before shows a certain naivety about the business. Just because they’ve had success does not mean that it automatically equals that their next project will get made. Just look at how long it’s taken Will Ferrell (Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgandy) to get Anchorman 2 off the ground, something he’s been trying to do for years. Using Braff’s campaign as part of that analogy isn’t perfect because supposedly he did have financing for the film but wanted to pursue a different avenue to avoid some of the pitfalls that comes with dealing with outside financiers. People say that the reasons he gives are BS because sometimes you have to sacrifice things to get what you want. There’s certain merit to that argument but only if that’s the only way you can get it and judging by the reaction from the Kickstarter campaign, he obviously had a different and better option. Wouldn’t you choose the option that allows you to avoid sacrifices while still getting what you want?
There’s also the argument that it detracts from current or future Kickstarter projects but that’s been debunked by those running the site. In fact, they’ve said that the Veronica Mars and Wish I Was Here campaigns have created thousands of first-time contributors (meaning people new to the site), which, in turn, has led to more backers on other projects since a lot of those people just found out the site was a thing that existed. It’s clearly raising the profile of the site in general but that’s somehow a bad thing? The bottom line, celebrities are helping to legitimize Kickstarter in a way that changes the site from just a site an indie filmmaker uses to fund his passion project to something much more.
What I really hate the most, though, is when someone brings up the idea of getting money back if the film’s a success. First of all, the idea that it’s pointless to contribute unless you get money back later is an inherently greedy perspective that I’d rather not encourage. I’m honestly not sure why more people don’t’ bring that up. Second, you don’t expect it with the smaller films that get financed on Kickstarter so why do you expect it from Veronica Mars or Wish I Was Here? The only difference is that the starting number is a little higher…that’s it. But the small indie film that you supported has just as good (obviously hyperbole but it’s entirely possible) a chance to make 10x its money back as the one Zach Braff started.
Plus, it’s merely a naïve assumption to think of a $2 million film as a big money-making opportunity. As he states in the interview I posted below, if he wanted to make a lot of money he’d go back to TV, not make a small (by Hollywood standards) indie film. He’s not trying to get rich off of this, he’s making a piece of art that is important to him and something that he believes will have an impact on the lives of others.
Which brings me to the inherent flaw in the logic that people are using to argue against it: filmmaking is an art form. Perhaps it’s easy to forget that with headlines about major box office results from films like Iron Man 3 but in the end, it’s art. So, of course an artist would like to make the project (whatever it may be) he envisions, instead of having to kowtow to outside interests because he’s not in control of the money. And that’s what Braff is trying to do. Oh and for those of you who think he should use his own money? He is.
Critics are also pretty vocal about the slippery slope that these campaigns present but that’s an incredibly cynical way of looking at it. Don’t get me wrong, that cynicism doesn’t surprise me because we, as a society, are pretty reluctant to embrace change and that’s what these campaigns really represent: change. And that brings me back to how Netflix and Kickstarter are linked: they’re both getting an incredible amount of buzz but more importantly, they represent the beginning of innovation in an otherwise stagnant entertainment industry. They don’t represent a slippery slope of being exploited, they represent an overhaul on things (film/TV) are made and how we’ll eventually see those things.
There are optimists and there are pessimists in this world and what the vitriol and outrage ultimately does is outline who is who. So, the next time you jump to criticize a celebrity using Kickstarter to fund their next project, stop and think about what you identify yourself as because chances are, you’re lying to yourself. And nobody likes a liar.