Zach Braff's Kickstarter Is Still the Problem with Celebrity Kickstarters

The man of Scrubs-financed leisure has a successful new crowdfunding operation for his follow-up to Garden State, like Veronica Mars and others not long before it. But are we ready for a world in which we pay for something that doesn't exist, just because some rich celebrity asked us?

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We are truly living in a new era. A little over a month after the Veronica Mars movie crowdfunded its way to a green light, we have become firmly ensconced in a time when even the rich and famous can hold out their hats and ask the fine people of the Internet to finance their projects. Today marks another momentous milestone: Zach Braff, the man who gave squishy indie voice to the year 2004 with his movie Garden State, has created a Kickstarter campaign looking for $2,000,000 to fund a new movie called Wish I Was Here. It has, as of this posting, raised close to $775,000 in a little over nine hours. So this is happening. Zach Braff, man of Scrubs-financed leisure, has reached out to the masses and the masses have reached back, digital cash in hand, and said, "Go make this crazy thing." So what does that all mean?

Well, I don't want another Veronica Mars Kickstarter controversy on my hands. When I wrote that post last month, the backlash was loud and intense, fans of the show and supporters of Kickstarter's mission coming at me in droves in the comments and on Twitter to point out the various ways that I was wrong, stupid, and bad at my job. I will readily confess to not particularly considering the details of the whole operation when writing the gentle rant, but one point I won't really concede. I still find it strange and, yes, a bit distasteful that these rich and successful Hollywood people are asking people for, at times, thousands of dollars for a product that in no way yet exists. Yes, yes, I understand that the people sending the money don't mind, that they're perfectly willing to pay what they can in order to help something get made by someone they love. I realize of course that those people are free to do with their money what they please. Plus, yes, they are getting various gifts in return — copies of the movie, T-shirts, set visits, whatever. So there is an exchange, it's not unilateral. I get that.

But something about what this implies for the future still vaguely unsettles me. There's the unseemliness, yes, of rich celebrities asking random people for thousands of dollars and offering them no accountability for money spent or share in the profits, before anything has really been seen. (A Broadway ticket buyer who pays sometimes $200 for a ticket, for example, at least can read a review or see B-roll or something.) But there's also the sense that we as the audience are setting ourselves up for potential grand disappointment. What happens to all those loyal Veronica Mars fans if the movie comes out and it totally sucks? (TV shows made into movies tend to suck, guys. Face it.) Or, y'know, if something happens and production has to shut down? In "normal" cases the people who lose money are investors who assumed the risk with the possibility of profitable gain in the end. It's professional. But in this case it's just fans, people zapping their money over the Internet and hoping that what comes out a year later is worth it, something that can make them happy and give them some time with actors, musicians, whomever that they love. What if it all goes wrong?

Maybe that's concern trolling. I don't know. Maybe what I really want to say is that it just downright seems crazy to me to pay so much for something that doesn't exist just because some celebrity asked me to. That might be the hard fact of it. But I'm trying to adapt to this new world and so am attempting to ask a more delicate question. At least in Veronica Mars's case we know the cast and the writer and the director and, y'know, the characters and the vague world they live in. But with Braff's project it's all pretty vague. It will be in the same tone of Garden State, and really all we know are some sketchy plot details — a struggling actor and family man looks for "a purpose for his life." Is that enough? Clearly, judging by the campaign's day-one success, it is for many people. But I'd be curious to talk to lots of those people after the movie comes out. Was it worth it? I guess there's only one way to find out. And maybe that's what these early Kickstarter movies have created, a strange waiting game. Maybe there is an assumed risk, it's just more emotional than it is financial. The rewards could be great — "Hey, I made that happen!" — or the results could prove embittering. But whatever the case, people were willing to give it a go and try for something good. There's probably some value in that.

And, hey, the world isn't changing that drastically. I mean, not every celebrity is a crowdfunding phenom. I guess there are always going to be the Bjorks and the Amanda Palmers, the Melissa Joan Harts and the Zach Braffs. Not everyone can mobilize a fanbase. So I suppose there is some natural selection going on here, the system functioning at the whims of the consumer mass. Meaning, maybe I shouldn't worry that this whole system could get really co-opted by cynical players. The people decide, and that's just that. And whereas right now I can't imagine myself paying much more than what I'd pay at a movie theater or on iTunes for a movie or an album, maybe that will change. I mean, what if they wanted to do a Buffy movie?? Or Joni Mitchell and James Taylor wanted to make a duets album together? Maybe my problem is that my particular passions have yet to be stoked. Or maybe I'm just more afraid of disappointment than other people. Whatever it is, I still think these crowdfunders are crazy. But that doesn't mean they're not right.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.