First, a few disclaimers: 1. I’m not a Veronica Mars fan, and therefore have no stake in the outcome of the Kickstarter campaign to fund a VM movie. 2. I’m an official part of the street team for an actor/indie filmmaker who uses merch sales and direct donations to run his production company. 3. I’m a self-published author. 4. I left journalism because there was no way to make a living in it without selling my soul, since virtually all news media is controlled by a handful of large corps.
Now that that’s out of the way …
Today’s Tweetstorm was about the aforementioned Kickstarter project, and a subsequent article in the Atlantic grousing about the idea in a ridiculous way. In among the blather about art for art’s sake (Really? How about journalism for journalism’s sake, Sparky?) he did have a point: Warner Brothers has no business at all being involved in this, even just on the distribution end, and Kickstarters involving other corps or big-name folks who have access to other kinds of funding are really missing the point of crowdfunding.
As I’ve mentioned before, just because a given creative sort has had a measure of mass-market success doesn’t guarantee that they’re rich and can bleed money for their next project. The actor/filmmaker I mention above has quite a few credits to his name, but none of it was huge blockbuster stuff; he’s not swimming in cash, and therefore asking fans to help fund his filmmaking is reasonable. Likewise, it’s reasonable for a well-known name to crowdfund small-scale projects that aren’t in line with their usual area of work: Say, a TV writer going in on a graphic-novel project, or experimenting with a web series. It’s also reasonable for big names to lend their higher profile to indie artists for a given project. A well-known actor agreeing to do some film student’s senior project for next to no pay is perfectly fine. But that’s not what’s happening here. What’s happening is that WB is abusing a system meant to fund indie artists because they’re seeing entertainment dollars flow away from them and other large-scale middlemen, and they want it back.
Unlike the doof at the Atlantic who babbled about art for art’s sake, that’s not what this is about. It’s about art for money’s sake: money that indie artists desperately need to do what they do. Crowdfunding is a way for audiences to play investor on a very small scale–a scale that wouldn’t remotely be achievable by larger investors who require everything they fund to bring back a lot of cash. Remember my explanation about how TV shows get funded? The reason that awesome little cult show you liked got cancelled is because it didn’t appeal to enough people (of the target demographics) to make advertisers pony up for commercial time. Not enough ad money to support production costs = the show gets killed. Scripted TV is very expensive to make, so it has to appeal to a very wide audience in order to even get off the ground. If it doesn’t make back enough to cover that, plus a reasonable profit margin for the distributors, then it doesn’t get funded anymore. That’s basic business, and there’s no way of getting around it. Networks are in the business of making money, not making art, and because they’re so huge, they need to make a lot of money.
Mass-market art distribution is all about pleasing the lowest common denominator to get the largest return. It’s about making brain candy for the millions. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that, unless that distribution method is the only path from artist to audience and you’re a) someone making something else or b) someone who wants something else. Until recently, mass-market was the only way artists could get their work to audiences in a way they could get paid for, so niche art just never got made. But that’s finally changing. Traditional distribution channels–book and record stores, TV networks, movie theaters, etc.–are no longer the only option, and digital file formats are more or less eliminating costs for manufacturing, warehousing, physical storefronts and shipping. Add in freelancers helping with the details (graphic design, for instance), and the barriers between creator and consumer are finally down. A great deal of that is thanks to alternate means of funding production, and distribution channels that don’t have a mass-market gatekeeper making sure they only buy stuff for mainstream audiences.
Now, there is the fact that those gatekeepers traditionally also filtered for quality. One of the big issues remaining in self-publishing is that many authors really shouldn’t quit their day jobs, or at the very least need to hire editors. Self-published works got a rep for being crap because literally anyone, however dreadful, could get published. But along the way, crowdsourcing has sort of ended up working out for this, too. Some readers do have to take a leap of faith based solely on blurbs and cover art for new authors, but once reviews start coming in, readers start knowing whether they should invest $2.99 and their time in something otherwise untested. It’s basically a more formalized version of viral marketing. Granted that the review system can be abused–review buying, etc.–but it’s still acting as a decent filter, and one that doesn’t skim stuff right off the top just because there’s no proof it’ll, as they say, play in Peoria.
Indie authors, like any other indie artist, rarely make the kinds of money that artists with mass-appeal work can, but they were never going to anyway, no matter how their work got distributed. If you’re making something that only 10,000 people on the planet might be interested in, you’re not going to make billions unless those people are all millionaires willing to give you a large chunk o’ cash for what you’re making. But there’s nothing wrong with that. I haven’t yet even made back my production costs on my book, but I don’t care. It’s out there, the kind of people who want to read it can, and they’ve given me money for that experience. It’s a toehold that I would never have gotten if I’d had to run the gauntlet of traditional publishers, especially as the market tightens. Feminist YA SFF with gay characters and a protagonist who isn’t traditionally pretty would be a very, very hard sell, especially from an untested author. This way, I don’t have to do that hard sell to the suits; I can do a soft one to readers instead. Yay for that.
I can understand the impulse of the fans who want to see this movie. I can’t describe how excited I’d be to see a Primeval/Primeval New World movie finally get made to tie up that universe’s maddening loose ends, and the other shows I like that died before their time number in the dozens. But the way to get something like that made is to do petition campaigns, not to abuse the way indie artists get paid for their stuff. Serenity didn’t get made via crowdfunding, but by popular demand from Browncoats. If large-scale production companies want to prove to bean counters that they’ll make back their investment, they can start different kinds of crowdfunding schemes. For instance: they could set up a site where people pre-buy a DVD for a movie that hasn’t yet been made. Yes, that’s sort of what Kickstarter and IndieGoGo, etc., do, but they’re intended for smaller-scale stuff, not funding goals that start at $2 million. If you’re a bigger dog, find a bigger hydrant to piss on so you don’t hose down the Pomeranian in your way, is all I’m saying.
Now, there is one caveat to all this I’ll admit to, which is the fact that some mid-scale stuff can fall through the cracks this way. Something without enough mass appeal to please big distributors, but which would be too big to truly be called indie doesn’t really have an easy way to go. This movie might well sit in that no-artists’ land, though WB having a hand in it makes me think otherwise. But the solution for these mid-scale projects isn’t to go stomping around in indie territory, abusing the privileges they have of a higher-profile name and bigger starting pockets. It’s to use that privilege to shill for funding in other ways that aren’t accessible to true indie artists. What the people making this film are doing is the equivalent of big movie studios trying to pass off prefab Oscar bait released by their arthouse arms as “indie.” Sorry, folks: Focus Features is not an actual indie studio. It’s a subsidiary of Universal designed for films that appeal to the circle-jerk awards circuit. Don’t fool yourself into thinking you’re supporting indie film by seeing things under that imprint. (You can see it if you want, of course. Just don’t think you’re on higher moral ground for doing so.)
If WB wasn’t involved and they were planning to do direct-to-audience distribution (online, individual DVD sales, etc.), this project wouldn’t bother me half as much. But the fact that money that people might otherwise spend on a true indie project will instead be going in part to an old-boys’ corp really bugs the crap out of me. Unlike new large-scale online distribution like Amazon, Netflix and Hulu*, WB isn’t doing anything to change the industry paradigms that fill their pockets. In co-opting indie funding channels, it’s actually working against that change. Think of this like Ticketmaster getting in the business of handling cover charges for underground clubs, or Wal-Mart selling “locally made” goods. They’re not doing this because they support indie artists. They’re only getting their fingers in that pie because they see money flowing away from them as people skip the big middlemen, and they want it back.
*Side note: Yes, I used Amazon’s self-pub subsidiaries and distribution. Yes, they are a big corp, and are taking a portion of my sales, and would do so even more if I managed to sign on with their in-house pro-publishing op. Yet, they’re still doing better for indie authors than a traditional publisher ever could, because they don’t have the upfront risk that the big guys do, and therefore can take chances on small fry like me. They and other online-only distributors are democratizing how entertainment gets to audiences in a way traditional mass-market distributors can’t do, because their upfront costs are so much lower. There’s a reason a Netflix exec got cocky at the TCAs this year.
And to put a cherry on my point: Had this VM movie project gone through Netflix or Hulu, I’d have been quite supportive of it. The fact that they’re doing WB instead is an investment not in the future of entertainment, but in a system that’s irreparably broken, knows it, and is trying to take down indie artists with them just out of spite.