The mechanics of crowdfunding fascinate me. A television show owned by an enormous corporation that barely lasted three seasons on UPN and The CW raises $2 million in a single day. One of the most acclaimed filmmakers of his generation, working totally independently in a variety of genres, raises just $185,000 in three days.
The show is Veronica Mars, which is now in production on a reunion movie with the funds it received from more than 90,000 online backers on Kickstarter. The director is Spike Lee, who, upon hearing about Veronica Mars and other successful Kickstarter campaigns, launched his own fundraiser for a new film. With 26 days to go, he’s still more than $1 million away from his goal.
The elated reaction to the Veronica Mars Kickstarter and the more muted response to Lee’s reveals how differently people can approach crowdfunded projects from major filmmakers and properties. Comparing the two yields some important distinctions and lessons that other artists in similar situations might want to consider in the future. Notably:
1. Donors want to know what they’re buying.
Veronica Mars donors knew exactly what they were getting for their money: a Veronica Mars movie. They’d watched the show for years, and understood the finished product completely. On Kickstarter, Spike Lee’s versatility as a director actually works against him. His initial video and description were unclear about his plan, and because Lee makes documentaries, concert films, comedies, dramas, thrillers, and everything in between, it was hard to tell just what the donations were going toward.
Lee didn’t do himself any favors by playing coy. At first, all he said was that the film was about people with an “addiction of blood.” So is that a vampire movie? Or maybe a documentary about people obsessed with donating blood? Nobody knew, and that made an impact. There’s a difference between “Take my $10 and make a specific movie I know I want to see” and “Take my $10 and make whatever movie you want.”
“This film is a BLOOD THRILLER. It’s about people who are not Vampires but nonetheless are BLOOD ADDICTS. It’s also a Psychological Thriller. It will work on several different layers. The Audience will be scared, but there will be good amounts of humor too. Like in most of my previous work I like to mix stuff up.”
In the same update, Lee says his hesitance to divulge more information stems from his frustration with trailers, adding that modern movie audiences “know too much before they even see a film.” And he might be right, but there’s a difference between taking a leap of faith to watch a movie and taking one to make a movie. Not many Hollywood studios would give Spike Lee (or anybody else) $1.25 million without knowing what the money was for. By turning to Kickstarter, Lee is transforming his fans into financiers. And when filmmakers are stingy with their details, financiers get stingy with their money.
2. The project has to feel special.
Once again, Lee’s prodigious skills and prolific career work against him in the world of crowdfunding. On his project’s Kickstarter page, the first visible thing is this picture of Lee standing in front of the wall inscribed with the titles of all of his movies. It’s a great photo—and a very bad sales pitch for Kickstarter. Looking at it, you see just how productive Spike Lee has been lately. In 2012, he made two movies: the coming-of-age film Red Hook Summer, and the Michael Jackson documentary Bad 25.
Rightly or wrongly, that wall of achievements suggests there will be a new Spike Lee movie whether people donate or not. Even if Lee doesn’t hit his target, there will be a new Spike Lee joint this year; his Oldboy remake starring Josh Brolin opens in October. By contrast, Veronica Mars has been off the air for six years. Fans felt the Kickstarter was their last chance to ever see those characters again.
A Kickstarter for this kind of big-budget, high-profile project needs to feel special. Zach Braff is a successful actor with millions of dollars, but he also hadn’t directed a movie since Garden State almost 10 years ago. Did Zach Braff need to crowdfund his new film to get it made? Probably not. But he’s had a decade to make a movie through more traditional means, and for whatever reason, he hasn’t done it. That was enough justification for Garden State fans to support him. Braff’s Kickstarter for Wish I Was Here wound up raising $3.1 million, well over its $2 million goal.
3. The rewards actually matter.
When all was said and done, the Veronica Mars Kickstarter offered up a whopping 32 different rewards, ranging from T-shirts to posters to copies of the completed movie, all the way up to personalized Kristen Bell voicemail messages, San Diego Comic-Con meet-and-greets with the cast and crew, and a speaking role in the movie. Lee’s Kickstarter opened with a significantly less expansive assortment of goodies for backers. Sure, a cool $10,000 earns a front-row seat to a New York Knicks game with Lee. But the other options aren’t as varied or inspired. Lee's pre-worn Nikes for $500? That sounds like a lot of money for a new pair of shoes.
Veronica Mars’ Kickstarter eventually topped out at $5.7 million. Spike Lee’s may get to his $1.25 million goal (as a Spike Lee fan, I’m hoping he does), but it won’t be easy. Still, there’s plenty of time left. While I was writing this article, Lee added a bunch of new rewards, including a variety of autographed posters. He's already raised another $10,000.