Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Kickstart Me Up



Kickstarter has, by all accounts, been a huge success, and for good reason: It has found a way to make everyone a winner. As is always the case, of course, there are still loads of people who want to piss all over it.

Kickstarter, for those who do not know, is a crowdsourcing site. “Crowdsourcing” is a new enough concept that it fails my word processor’s spellcheck. (Oddly, so does “spellcheck.” At least my computer isn't going to be self-aware anytime soon.) Basically, people who have projects they wish to produce (be they gadgets, businesses, or creative works) put their idea up on the site. Open to all of the internet, other people may then contribute to the project, and if the predetermined target funding is reached, the recipient gets the money to make the product. Technically this is not an investment, so donors aren’t guaranteed anything, but oftentimes people will offer some sort of gift or product based on the level of contribution. (Donors know ahead of time that the project is a risk that may not pan out the way the creator invisions; business plans are usually put up, and creators must list any risks or unknowns with the project ahead of time.) For their part, Kickstarter gets a cut of each donation. 

So, basically, everyone wins: people get projects put up. People who want to see the project get done can put their money where their mouth is. If it doesn’t meet its goal, no money changes hands (and thus no risk to donors) and the project creator knows their idea most likely will fail and they need to either fix or drop it, all done without investing any money (or, at the very least, a token amount of money to produce a prototype). Kickstarter gets a cut. It’s all voluntary and basically everyone wins. The only thing that can go wrong (and it’s a rather big “only thing”) is that someone gets the money and then doesn’t produce the product. This is a risk (and not an insignificant one) but so far hasn’t been a huge issue.

It’s a fascinating idea that is here to stay. It’s been especially productive in the creative world. In the past, studios and publishers wielded control over the creative process, but if a writer or actor can get the funding ahead of time they are no longer beholden to an organization with more of a financial stake than a creative one. Crowdsourcing has given a huge amount of control over to creative types, and fans are notoriously generous when it comes to making more of the stuff they love. The poster child for huge media products is the much-missed and beloved Veronica Mars movie, which managed to far surpass its target funding date to create a movie from a TV show that’s been off the air for over five years.

And, of course, that brings us full circle to the complaints. Recently, Zach Braff launched a Kickstarter campaign to help partially fund a follow-up to his cult hit Garden State. It met its modest goal of $2 million (he used traditional Hollywood fundraising for the remaining budget, about $20 million more), but he faced criticism from many circles. Why use fan’s money to fund a movie when he has plenty of money himself? Why use something like Kickstarter when he is a reasonably well-known actor who could certainly pull off a larger budget without taking cash from average Joes—cash that is not going to yield any reward (aside from a few modest token prizes based on contribution level)? Braff’s defense—he has money but not that much money—is valid enough, but I think it misses the point completely.

So what if Braff wants to fundraise a movie? And how is this any different than the Veronica Mars campaign, which is almost identical? Everyone involved in each of these transactions did so voluntarily. Braff was upfront that the funding he was getting from fans wasn’t necessary—it was enough to give him casting and final cut options, but the movie could be made with funds already raised. If fans want to contribute and there isn’t any misinformation out there, who cares?

Likewise, in my own hobby of board gaming, Kickstarter has created a huge opportunity for small publishers to produce games. (The world of board games and Kickstarter is a column for another day. Summary description: It's fantastically awesome.) However, some of the bigger names in board gaming have jumped in as well. The current controversy is with Steve Jackson Games, who reprinted his classic game Ogre via Kickstarter. Many in the industry were upset, stating that the company had the money to front the game without resorting to Kickstarter. But as before—who cares? If someone wanted to get in on the Ogre action, they can do so. It’s not hurting anyone else, and even for large, established companies it’s incredibly useful for finding out exactly what the public is interested in—if a project isn’t worth producing, people won’t buy into it.

About the only thing that critics could legitimately complain about is that by throwing large products up, established companies are soaking up the available money that donors have. But, still, in the end, does it matter? If I really, really want Ogre or a Zach Braff movie, I’m going to see it when it’s produced and spend the money then. What difference does it make? And won’t spending the money earlier (and letting the producers know the exact sort of products that are wanted) going to eventually lead to a better final product for everyone?

In the end, I suspect the critics won’t change anything, nor should they. Like anything else, letting projects stand or fall is part of the process. It is rarely a good idea to interfere with it in either case.

The Pledge: People are dickholes who don't like other people to be happy. Anyone should be able to start, and fund, whatever they want on Kickstarter without people getting all butt-menstrual about it.

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