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Seriously, James?

not-this-shit-againIf you’re a regular reader, you know by now that David and I have some pretty strong opinions on what should and shouldn’t be crowd sourced.  No matter how the narratives around Kickstarter and Indiegogo may be changing to become more inclusive of established creators, the institution of crowd funding is rooted in the idea that people with the means to give can support the creative endeavors of people without the means to realize them.  I’m talking about helping out the little guy–the weekend warrior, the lay craftsperson, the dreamer–get a leg up and maybe bring something wonderful into the world.  We’ve long held that the more established creators that leverage the crowd, the less support there will be for the indie creators.  This is especially true in media driven categories like video games, movies, and music, where backers are likely to fund an obvious winner, or where fans may choose to back a favorite, rather than try their luck with an untested  indie artist looking for a break…

That lengthy preamble brings us to today’s news: James Franco has launched a project on Indiegogo.

I’m pretty sure crowd funding jumped the shark today.

Before I go any further, you may have surmised that this post will get a little ranty.  I’ll try to keep it brief.

First, a bit about the project.  Franco wrote a book of short stories and now wants to see some of them become films, and he has tapped some novice filmmakers to realize his aspirations.  He’s asking the crowd for $500,000 (but its a flex campaign, so he’ll get whatever the crowd gives).  In return for your support, James a bunch of inane crap (but no, you know, copies of the film, which is a cardinal sin, IMO).  On the plus side, all profits derived from the films will be donated to Franco’s choice charity.  No word on whether profits will be calculated using ‘accounting’ or ‘Hollywood accounting’…

I’ll be blunt: A Hollywood freaking A-lister has no place crowdfunding a pet project.  Period.  End of discussion.  Franco knows producers.  He has money.  Achieving this ‘dream’ is totally within his reach.  He doesn’t need the charitable contributions of work-a-day folks to get it done (unless what you’re really after is an original Franco painting for the modest investment of $7000… “A veritable steal,” said no one, ever).  Franco is a leading man.  He may not be pulling down Robert Downey Jr. money, but I’m sure he’s doing alright.  Turning to the crowd is just… tacky.  And it robs truly needy indie artists of monies that may have otherwise gone to their projects, if Franco’s wasn’t there grabbing attention.

I blame the likes of Zach Braff and Amanda Palmer for setting the precedent that this shit is okay.  I accept that people can vote with their money, but frankly, it’s fucking poor form for these projects with meaningful connections to real industry money to undermine and crowd out (figuratively, if not literally), the projects that earnestly need the help.  It’s a vile use of celebrity and, if the administrators of Kickstarter or Indiegogo had a scruple between them, they’d challenge these kinds of celebrity vanity projects to demonstrate real need before they go live.  So long as the admins earn their bread on the backs of projects like these, things will only get worse.

I think I’m going to take a bit of break from trolling Kickstarter and Indiegogo.  It’s bad for my blood pressure.

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This entry was posted by Chris Avery.

21 thoughts on “Seriously, James?

  1. I’ve still only looked through Kickstarter a small handfull of times but from how I understand the system to work, I fully agree with this post and previous posts citing similar projects by other “well knowns.” To me, Kickstarter seems like the place for the little-guy or the indie artist-designer-developer-whatever they happen to be. It does not feel like a place for Hollywood to stick their greedy paws for a slice of someone else’s pie.
    Great post guys!

  2. I agree that Franco should never have gone to crowdfunding for his money. Hell, all those friends he makes movies with could probably kick in $500k out of their pocket money.

    My only disagreement with you is lumping Amanda Palmer in with Franco and Zach Braff. Sure, she’s everywhere NOW, but when she put that KS project up, she was still just another indie artist with a vocal following.

    Of course, I still disagree that big celebrity projects necessarily draw all that much away from smaller projects. I think we’re a lot more likely to see a bunch of first-time backers come in for the projects, who may or may not back other things. Still, I’d be happy to see celebrity crowd funding go away.

  3. You know, Brian – you do have a point. These big celebrity projects do have a power that smaller, indie projects do not, and that is that they can attract first time backers like no other. I will definitely concede you that. Whether those folks become part of the wider community is debatable, but there is no way for us to know. I’d like to think that some subset get bitten by the bug and become backers of smaller projects. I’ve also seen anecdotal evidence in comment threads that a subset of backers are only attracted to the big name projects. Those folks wouldn’t be contributing to the little guys, regardless.

    As for Amanda Palmer, I guess she’s been playing in my house for a long time (looking over at my wife as I say that), and when you take the Dresden Dolls into consideration, I think she’d be able to crank out an LP and tour without turning to the crowd. The insult, I think, was the shitty, absurdly priced rewards, and the fact it became a “charity tour” — she was looking for local unpaid musicians to play for her audiences that were paying to see her. Shady all around. Gawker did a nice critical piece that also highlights some problems with Kickstarter here: http://gawker.com/5944050/amanda-palmers-million+dollar-music-project-and-kickstarters-accountability-problem

    • Oh sure, I’ve been listening to her since Dresden Dolls as well, but they were never that big. Certainly not Zach Braff or James Franco big. She’s been doing the indie thing since her split from Roadrunner, but I don’t think anyone could have anticipated how much of an impact that had made with her fans until that Kickstarter. How she dealt with it in the aftermath…well, that was just crap, and deserves all the scorn it’s gotten, in my opinion. Hers is definitely a cautionary tale, but I think it’s a different one from Franco’s.

  4. Wonderful post Chris. I don’t feel the need to comment past what you have already said. Also – props to the peanut gallery for their wonderful devils-advocacy.

  5. I guess I’m going to have to be the sole dissenting voice on this one.

    First off, I had to look up who James Franco was. Totally didn’t recognize the name (but that’s me I don’t pay much attention to actors.) Even after looking at his list I wouldn’t call him an “A” list but again that’s just my thinking.

    As for “famous folks jumping on the KS bandwagon” I have to once again disagree that this is a bad thing. Tacky? Maybe, but bad, definitely not.

    I’ve got two examples from different parts of KS: Michael Laine and the Liftport groups Space elevator project, and Double Fine Adventure.

    Michael Laine was known in the space community, and managed to draw a good bit of attention to Kickstarter with his project. After the project it was shown that a majority of the backers of the Liftport Group activity were first time backers. That “localized celebrity” does a lot to improve the image of Crowdfunding in general and allows more to see what’s going on with a project they can get behind.

    Double Fine made that even MORE apparent with their first Kickstarter. Before Double Fine it’s not even arguable that Video Games on Kickstarter were all small projects. Nothing that has happened in the space since Double Fine would probably have happened as creators might never have even heard of KS let alone discovered it was a viable platform. Look at my past interviews, have you seen how many people listed “Double Fine” as the reason they heard of KS?

    These “name brand” people as it were, are a GOOD thing for crowdfunding. To those of us on “the inside” yeah it’s the “normals” busting in on us. We’re very much like the hipsters who were “here before it was cool,” but even with the numbers we’ve seen in KS and Indiegogo for the recent years we’re still very much a niche community. It’ll take big names to draw the “normal folks” over here to keep crowdfunding growing.

    Now, if you want to argue you don’t WANT KS and IGG to get bigger and you want them to maintain their “indie cred” as it were that’s fine. Me? I want more eyes, more faces, and in the end more money looking at all these deserving projects. That will happen as these “popular folks” show up and bring their fans’ eyes with them.

    Real Life Comics summed things up in their usual manner a few weeks back: http://www.reallifecomics.com/comics/2013/20130509_3020.jpg

    • Excellent comment, James, and I think you make some good points, but I think you miss the mark in a few places.

      I wouldn’t say I pay much attention to actors, but I argue that James Franco is a household name. He is one of today’s “Hollywood Prettyboys” and he shows up in the tabloid space, etc. Again, he’s not a Robert Downey Jr., but he is hardly small potatoes–and he undoubtedly has the money and connections to make his film happen without our help.

      That said, I have no problems with either project you cite. The big difference is that without the crowd, neither Laine’s nor Schaffer’s project would have gotten off the ground. I have no problem with leaders in a field looking for backing if there is real need. I have a problem with wealthy people turning to the crowd to support their vanity projects. If Elon Musk launched a project to build a better cybernetic, auto-correcting, omniversal mousetrap tomorrow, you better believe I’d be railing against it–he has the personal resources and the connections in VC circles to get it done without the crowd’s help.

      I also have zero interest in keeping KS or IGG for insiders, or some hipster notion of exclusive. Far from it. I want lots of people on board, channeling buckets of money into worthy projects. However, my gut tells me you’re more likely to get repeat visitors from a fringe project like Laine’s, than you are from a project like Zach Braff’s or James Franco’s.

      A Hollywood film on IGG or KS may drive traffic to the site, or heighten the visibility of crowd sourcing (certainly, Vanity Fair, Gawker, and other outlets caught wind of Franco’s project and wrote about it), but it’s laughable to think the traffic that Braff’s movie got will have a lasting impact on the KS community. First time backers came for Garden State 2, or to back ‘the Scrubs guy’–they’re not sticking around to build space elevators. They’ll be back when Michael Bay wants to Kickstart bigger ‘splosions in Transformers 7.

      As for the RLC–it’s cute, but wrong. Real Life is actually somewhere in between. Of course no one is limited to backing one project at a time, but there are limits to what a person can give at any point in time–advocates of your position seem to have a hard time admitting that. The value differs from person to person and from household to household, but budget is a constraint, and high visibility projects with “smash, boom, pow” rewards may drain the average budget pretty quickly. The unintended consequence is that big projects can drown out more “indie” projects. There is, quite literally, only so much money to go around.

      Frankly, I’d rather give mine right to the charity that Franco’s project purportedly supports–and I like the guy! I just don’t think he has any business on IGG.

      • I would argue that companies like Game Salute and Queen Games are far more funds-draining than James Franco or Zach Braff. Their non-stop flood of games regularly overshoots goals that I’m sure are artificially low so that they can get more money in through stretch goals and add-ons. THAT is going tie up money that a games fan might spend on a more needy indie game. The latest $500k video game offering that sucks in backers is going to draw money away from other video game projects far more than James Franco.

        Well, that and fraud like the recent Kobe Red beef jerky debacle. Enough people lose their money to scams, that’ll hurt small projects more than Veronica Mars.

        Also…Transformers 7? No, just no. Kickstarter will never be a credible source of funding for large films. I think Bay is more likely to fund them himself than ask fans. I know you were exaggerating, but really, there’s an upper limit to what ANY project can reasonably expect to earn.

      • Well there are really only two options to increase revenue. Take more from the pie you already have, or make the pie bigger. These projects make the pie bigger.

        Now I don’t have your “gut” I can only go by data as reported by Kickstarter and those I interview. Unfortunately I have to wait for responses (which I doubt I’ll get) to get complete data so I can only go by a sample. Unfortunately Indiegogo doesn’t make the data easy to find on the backers page, and Kickstarter just streams the entire list so I can jump to one end or the other. 😐

        So I’ve looked at the Veronica Mars backer list and the Zach Braff backer lists. It is incredibly tedious but even a casual look shows that many of the backers on the list are NOT one time only backers.

        http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/559914737/the-veronica-mars-movie-project/backers
        Now I’ll grant I can’t search or even sift for when people found out about the project. These COULD mostly be people of the community jumping on at the end (I’m sure Mr. 348 backed projects is! O.o) but are you going to honestly try and believe that any kind of a majority of folks on there only backed Veronica Mars? (I think I found 5 in the first 100 or so) We all look at Kickstarter because we BELIEVE in these projects. We genuinely want to support good projects and if it takes a Veronica Mars to raise awareness then I’m all for it. I mean do you dislike celebrities doing things to raise awareness to Charities? It’s the same thing as they can “just give their own money” but the charity and Kickstarter all benefit from the added “Hey what’s that guy doing?” Factor.

        http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1869987317/wish-i-was-here-1/backers
        Heck the Zach Braff one has a higher number of single backers in my sample (10 in the first 100 or so. Again it is a PAIN to find this stuff out on your own) it still brought in how many people to Kickstarter? Through the negative article alone if nothing else!

        http://www.kickstarter.com/blog/the-year-of-the-game
        Kickstarter’s Blog shows just how dramatically things changed once Doublefine Showed up on the scene. This year we might see similar results in the film category thanks to these big projects, only time, and statistics will tell.

      • Those are interesting statistics, James, but I don’t think they tell quite the whole story. For the backers of Veronica Mars or Zach Braff to back something else is great, but less important to the discussion if they backed other things first. What I’d like to see is the number of people who joined specifically to support VM or ZB and THEN pledged to something else.

      • http://www.kickstarter.com/blog/who-is-kickstarter-for is as close as you will get the statistics got are looking for. I wish they had provided more detail there, given that the framing of the article seeks to paint this phenomenon in the best possible light.

        James, I think that every mega project brings a few new repeat crowd funders with it, and the pie does grow when that happens. Wasteland 2 brought me on board, after all. But when people are pledging big dollars on one of these giant projects, they don’t spare much for other projects.

        I would love to see more data to prove or disprove these assertions. I would also love to see what percent (by backers or dollars) of activity is going over time to sub $1000, sub $10000, and $1,000,000 or greater projects.

        I strongly suspect that the pendulum is swinging from the micro to the mega, and away from those who need those dollars the most to achieve their dreams.

      • @David Yeah that was a very thin post. I mean sure it’s good to see “63% 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.”
        Yeah all well and good but what percentage of that 63% have done anything since? Are currently active? Those are big deals.

        @Brian
        True, who knows how many of the “2 or 3 backed” project people backed those before the big names. My point is that one of the big complaints folks have is that these projects either take away from others or only pull in money for themselves and no one else.

        If they only got first time backers than you’d see most of the backers having only that one backed project. Which is my point, most of the backers on the list I could pull up were NOT just single project backers. They had multiple projects backed.

        As for do they take away funds from other projects? Probably. Though not as bad as I think folks might imagine. As I said before we’re talking about increasing the pool of money and not just taking away from others. Sure most folks have to pick and choose what projects they back so any project going at the same time as a mega project might take a hit, but those before are unaffected and those after have a good chance at having a boost especially if they’re in the same market.

        If the Kickstarter stats are true 65% of those backers didn’t exist before Zach Braff and Veronica Mars. They wouldn’t have backed “some other project” before regardless and if they back others later (which seems to be the case) then all well and good.

  6. @Brian I was being hyperbolic about Transformers, to be fair. 😉 But I’m very much in agreement with you vis a vis Queen Games and Game Salute’s impact, and their business practices on Kickstarter.

    @James Re: my “gut” — like you, I’m limited in what kind of backer data is available to me, and like you, I’m more or less limited to anecdotal evidence, e.g. what I see when I click through the backer list, etc. I am actually a professional social scientist, and I’m very conscious of the limits of my data in these cases. So sometimes I have to go with my gut…

    I’m in agreement with you on one point–many of the Veronica Mars and Zach Braff backers are not one time backers. Some proportion undoubtedly came to crowd funding because of one or the other of those projects and have since backed additional projects. I’m not saying this doesn’t happen. It most certainly does. However, some (and I suspect, the significantly larger) proportion of those backers were already present in the community. That’s neither here nor there, but I never suggested that the majority of backers to these kinds of projects are new faces that never return. I’m just suggesting that those people aren’t meaningful additions to the community–that in those cases, the added visibility of a high profile project garnered nothing, but may have cost other projects the support of the extant community.

    As for my position on celebrity support of charity, I’m all for it. I believe that those with celebrity should leverage it for the greatest good possible. My problems with Franco’s project don’t stem from his promise of charitable contributions, etc. I’m annoyed that the true output of the project, the films, are not part of the reward structure. This means that a backer pays to create the central work, then pays again to enjoy it. That is bullshit double-dipping and abusive of the supporters, in my opinion. So, I suggested that would be backers cut out the middle-man and give to charity, if that is indeed where their ticket stub/Blu-ray money is going to go. My quip about Hollywood accounting (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hollywood_accounting) was a bit of sardonic humour…

    It’s interesting that you point to Doublefine and the game craze it launched though. I am not a huge fan of the nostalgia driven game blitz on Kickstarter, for no other reason that I put those kinds of games to rest a decade ago and they don’t really move me to pick them back up (I want my Fallout 4 damnit, not Wasteland 2… I am looking forward to SRR though). That said, I think the wildly successful nostalgia games (I’m counting SRR, Wasteland, Doublefine, Obsidian, Torment, etc.) are where the biggest circle jerk of support is. I have taken the time to click through (portions) of the backer lists, and I’d say the biggest preponderance of hyper-focused backers live in that space. That is, people attracted to crowd funding by a major videogame project, who have returned for equally large videogame projects, but have never branched out to back a board game, comic book, short film, or what have you. I’m not casting judgement on them, necessarily, but I wonder–how much are they really adding to the community if they’re only backing clear winners with a legacy of success?

    Edit: @Brian’s reply to James: You succinctly summarized what I spent way too long typing. Thanks. 😉

    • Oh the whole “Film isn’t part of the backer rewards part” I’m TOTALLY with you on. Every time I see stuff like that I call it out so we’re in agreement on how the whole James project is working. I was focused more on the “do big projects hurt or help” part. 🙂

      As for the circle jerk thing, I do think there is a bit of that. Mainly because gamers are gamers. I mean have you ever looked at my backing profile? 🙂
      http://www.kickstarter.com/profile/1077884864

      Most of my stuff is games, though not all nostalgia games like you list but yeah many of them. Then again I think that’s what Kickstarter is all about, serving those communities who are into certain things. Those artsy types who only back art projects, or drama folks who only do film and drama, or techies who are only here for Maker type projects. The specialists are very much served the the fun of Kickstarter.

      • I totally grok the idea of backing what you like–my own (public) profile is basically a list of big tabletop game projects…

        I called it a circle jerk only because, well, the lexicon doesn’t have a lot of mechanisms for describing this phenomenon, lol. I’m also not panning the practice, to be honest–Just pointing out that these globs of backers form and may exist pretty far removed from the rest of Kickstarter universe. I haven’t seen much cause to bitch about the big video game projects (with the exception of Pathfinder Online…), since their interests have been need-based.

        I suppose I’d liken a Zach Braff or James Franco project to… Ubisoft launching a project to support the next Assassin’s Creed, or EA Kickstarting Madden 2k14. People will turn up to back it, but should they?

  7. I don’t think we get anywhere with trying to argue that bigger projects are taking anything away from smaller projects – right now. The little bit of evidence we have suggests the opposite, and the only thing passing for evidence for it right now are speculation and anecdotes. However, with more and more big projects coming in, can it eventually overshadow the little guys it was made for?

    Abso-fucking-lutely.

    I’m not sure if it would be really fair for Kickstarter to have a “you’re too famous to need crowdfunding” policy, and it wouldn’t be good for business anyway – they’re probably making ass loads of cash from these projects in a way that would never happen with all of the small projects in the world. So let’s just all agree that this is just tacky, and speak out against it for that reason, instead of trying to prove that we are objectively correct in our distaste?

    If anything is holding back the little guys, it’s Kickstarter’s willingness to let you find them.

    • I think there is wisdom in what you’ve said, David.

      One thing is for certain though: as long as the only way Kickstarter can keep the lights on is by taking their cut from successful projects, it’ll be a free-for-all.

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