No one can save Hollywood from itself, but the industry could learn a thing or two from the site that's disrupting it.
It didn’t take much to get Andrea Mayfield to help fund the "Veronica Mars" movie.
The Chicagoan had been obsessed with the TV series long before it got killed in 2007 and the chance to attend the movie premiere in Los Angeles was simply too good to pass up. After consulting her best friend, they each agreed to pledge $500 to help bring the teen gumshoe back to life.
“The Kickstarter project seemed like the perfect chance to voice my opinion about the value of the show by voting with my dollar and saying, ‘Even though Hollywood doesn’t think this is a worthwhile project, I do,’” she wrote in an email. “This is the kind of story I want to see created.”
Mayfield wasn’t alone: More than 90,000 fans of the cult TV series helped creator Rob Thomas raise a staggering $5.7 million on Kickstarter, surpassing the $2 million originally needed to get Warner Bros. to make the film. It’s too soon to tell how it will fare at the box office, but the Veronica Mars movie, which just wrapped filming this week in Los Angeles, will be one for the history books.
Too bad the same can’t be said of The Lone Ranger, After Earth, White House Down, Turbo, or Pacific Rim. Those duds, which cost $130 million to $225 million to make, according to The New York Times, were dead on arrival with poor domestic ticket sales and press. The Lone Ranger cost Disney more than $225 million to produce and took in $48.7 at the box office over the Independence Day weekend. Worse still, the film, which The Times' Brook Barnes dubbed "Pirates of the Caribbean in Old Western drag," may lead to a loss of $100 million to $190 million, according to Hollywood analysts.
"They will think not twice, but maybe five times, before they do another $225-million picture," Harold Vogel of Vogel Capital Management told The Los Angeles Times. "This is going to make it a lot tougher for any other budding auteur to come in and say, 'I want to do this $225-million extravaganza.' It's not going to happen any time soon at Disney.”
What happened to the summer of shoot-em-ups, robots, and buddy cops? Like Mayfield, moviegoers voted with their dollars. Pairing big names with titular explosions, give or take a franchise, isn’t enough to pack theaters these days. Which, as producer Lynda Obst argues in her book, Sleepless in Hollywood: Tales From the New Abnormal in the Movie Business, is why Kickstarter take off in the first place. “It shows this hunger for original material,” she said. “Perhaps it’s some weird effect that reality television has had on the business that people think, ‘If they can't do it, we can.’ Or perhaps it's a kind of participatory democracy at a time when we feel powerless.”
Since Kickstarter launched in 2009, a total of $720 million has been raised by the site, with film being the second to largest category after music. Thousands of people have contributed to nearly 30,000 films on Kickstarter. For fans like Mayfield, “The most exciting part has been getting updates about the movie from Rob Thomas and discussing them with my friends who are Veronica Mars fans,” she wrote. “It’s fun to be intimately connected to a movie that I care about.”
Whatever is driving these numbers, the crowdfunding site seems to have its finger on the pulse of what filmgoers want. Zach Braff successfully funded his Garden State sequel, Wish I Was Here, to the tune of more than $3 million, while last year’s darling of Sundance, the documentary Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry, took in $52,175 on the crowdfunding site--more than twice its original goal. Following in their footsteps, Spike Lee turned to Kickstarter this week in a bid to make a film about “humans who are addicted to blood.”
Both Lee and Braff have been criticized for their use of the crowdfunding site, with many speculating whether their star power undermines the site’s original mission of giving lesser-known projects a voice. Braff secured a leading film financier, Worldview Entertainment, to top off his Kickstarter funding, while Lee, a Knicks season ticket-holder and the artistic director of New York University’s graduate film program, isn't hurting for money.
Why Kickstarter Matters
But, even for Hollywood insiders, Kickstarter may offer more meaningful feedback than traditional market research. “I think what 'Veronica Mars' has certainly shown is that it’s almost like very early audience testing,” says Norman Hollyn, a film professor at the University of Southern California. Kickstarter not only comes with built in social media tools, but it allows filmmakers to gauge their audience by who’s willing to fund their vision and where they reside. “If you can identify enough people who will contribute $5 million, then that means there's many times that many people who will see it in a theater. We’ve already seen campaigns that have failed."
Judging by its progress so far, Lee’s Kickstarter campaign might be among the failures, despite the project being attached to his name and a $10,000 pledge from Steven Soderbergh. As Slate put it Thursday, the campaign itself is sorely lacking in the storytelling department. There is no mention of Lee's early days struggling to bring Malcolm X to the screen, nor is there any indication of what the movie will be about, besides an assurance that it will feature plenty “butt-naked black people” and not be like Blacula.
As of publication on July 29, Lee’s Kickstarter campaign had received $356,333 in pledges from 1,847 backers--far from its $1,250,000 goal. Though Kickstarter is proving to be a valuable tool for Hollywood, you have to know how to use it. As Lee's campaign may demonstrate, it takes more than a big name to sell a picture.