Monday, June 20, 2011

The problem I'm having with Kickstarter

I'm a fan of Kickstarter and their team. I've used it for films I've helped as a consultant, and I've contributed to several projects (not all of them film related) through it. There's nothing wrong with supporting projects you love, and yes, there's a little bit of a funding revolution going on as a result. That's all well and good, but...

I've been thinking a lot lately about the unintended negative consequences of it, and particularly how these relate to our current political situation and the future of both funding for the arts and of what types of projects get support. We build our society and our future with little decisions. We tend to make them quickly and just focus on the novelty of new mechanisms, instead of thinking about their bigger implications. This critique isn't a thesis, but rather my initial thoughts on the subject.

On the face of it, Kickstarter is pretty harmless, and I think the founder's intentions are good. It's great that people can raise money for cool things from the crowd. It's hard to raise money, especially for the arts, and there have always been a lot of gatekeepers in the way. Now, the people can decide what gets funded.

I fear, however, that this particular phenomenon fits a little too squarely with the right-wing agenda in the US (and elsewhere, actually). Government support for the arts has always been miniscule, but it's now disappearing rapidly, with many states moving to cut their state arts commissions and one that already has. This year, we saw more attacks on the NEA, CPB and other public funding for media and the arts. Yes, crowdfunding helps bridge the increasing gap, but I'd be much more excited if I received calls to action to support public funding for the arts every five minutes, instead of another email announcing a Kickstarter campaign I can help fund.

Why should I need to help fund some filmmaker I love, when I pay taxes that I believe should support the arts, but don't. This smacks of the "big society" ideas going around in the UK to me. The government doesn't need to help the people anymore, the people can help the people. While contributing to a Kickstarter campaign doesn't make you a right-wing, arts-cutting person, by any means, the adoption of such trends can be detrimental to the argument for public funding of the arts.

Now, I'm not sure that's such a bad thing, to play devil's advocate. Heck, the State Arts Agencies are probably a lost cause, and the NEA hasn't been very effective (although their new leadership is trying hard). A crowdfunding system is better than no system at all, and I've seen multiple projects raise more money in less time through Kickstarter than the average government grant. But I'm also weary of some other things this trend reinforces.

First, I've already witnessed the following:
  • Funders who have already determined that they don't need to fund production and distribution, because anyone can shoot a film for cheap and give it away on YouTube, who now also add that it's easy to fund a movie, so why should they? Trust me, I've heard these arguments already.
  • Funders who understand that good films can be expensive to make and distribute, but who think that you should show them a successful crowdfunding campaign, to show community support. I'm all for the power of the audience, but some art isn't necessarily popular, and making it a popularity contest won't make better, or more effective, art.
  • Funders who don't know anything about any of this, but they smell a trendy subject easily, and are easily swayed. Many of these are now asking how your campaign went, even though they've never even looked at Kickstarter.
My biggest concern, however is this - guess who usually gets help when the people help the people? The rich and connected people. That's who. They've traditionally been the ones able to make indie films, by the way, even though people don't like to talk about it. This isn't exclusively true, of course, but it tends to be true - filmmaking has been a rich person's game for most of its history. In addition, the doc community is nothing if not an insider's clique, and Kickstarter isn't changing that much. There's a big danger, and it's a very likely scenario, that we'll just get more of the same in terms of what and who gets funded.

Take a look at who you hear from and support on Kickstarter. Unless you are an exceptional scout, I'm willing to bet the list is disproportionately Western, White and middle-class or above. Take a look at the most funded projects on Kickstarter, again it appears (from an unscientific survey) to hold up these assumptions.

Perhaps this will change. Perhaps I am wrong. Perhaps we'll live in a crowd-funded world in the future and it won't look like this. I'm not so sure. Are you? I, for one, would like to see things mature to something different - government funding for the arts, that is accountable to, open to and influenced by the people. Perhaps augmented by the crowd, but not solely supported by it. Diverse in both projects funded and who funds them.

In the meantime, I'll keep supporting the projects I love on Kickstarter. Perhaps someone will start a Kickstarter campaign to build an arts agency that takes the place of the NEA someday. I'll contribute to that too!


Laure said...

Crowdfunding Won't Hurt You

Anonymous said...

...and you're unsubscribed.

James Eowan said...

Maybe there is a way to use Kickstarter to enhance government support -- something like the way public radio does. For instance, if a project reaches a certain goal on Kickstarter, a grant kicks in from the Endowment. I don't think that will necessarily quell the calls from conservatives for the end of government support of the arts, but it might be a powerful way for government-funded support to stretch its budget further.

The still-in-production film, The Pirate Bay: Away From Keyboard exposed another form of crowd-funding that doesn't seem to have taken off the same way that Kickstarter has here in the US, but from what I can tell is more popular in Europe, is Flattr, which allows micropayment support of projects.

I don't assume that I'm the first person to think of this collaboration between the public's direct support, and, well, the public's indirect support through the NEA, NEH, etc. So hopefully the wheels are turning as the budgets are tightening and it gets harder and harder to make independent film. Especially now that the entire enterprise could be deemed a hobby.

SeanHackett said...

I personally believe that we are a good 6-10 months away from seeing the results from the Kickstarter boom.

Kickstarter is a currently very small clique . Filmmakers helping filmmakers. Artists helping Artists. Family members helping Family members without interest in anything outside of that.

The general public hasn't latched on to the fascination of KickStarter for your thesis to be tested entirely.

Where Kickstarter might fall or flourish is when the economy bounces back. Americans who are tired of Big Corporate or have little faith the Stock Market / Banking System might invest into a local small business opportunity. The government has made it impossible for communities invest into PA & MA ideas. KS seems to be the best bet.

I'd love to throw 150 dollars into a new sub shop in Altadena if they promised me a free drink every time I came in and bought a sandwich.

Yet, those investments - like corporations - rely on the faith of the business mand with the idea... not just the dream behind it.

Tom Weber said...

I first have to say that I recently used Kickstarter to raise completion funding for a documentary, the rest of which was self-financed, and I found the people who run Kickstarter to be wonderful, very enthusiastic and helpful.

What I find a little disturbing about Kickstarter is that pledges must be funneled through Amazon Payments, which charges a processing fee. Add up the thousands of projects big and small being run through Kickstarter, and you're talking real money.

It would be nice if Amazon returned the favor by giving something back to the artists, musicians and filmmakers who are doing the crowdfunding. But I don't see Amazon stepping up as a source of matching funds for projects -- it appears that they're only in it for the money.

Crowdfunding works, and I plan to use it on my next project, although possibly in a way that gives me more control over what is done with the money I raise.

I have always thought it depressing to live in the only rich capitalist country in the world that does not support the arts with significant public funding. Now that the already meager funds for the arts are dwindling to nothing, and now that foundations and other private funding sources are making up for government cuts in social spending, we must rely on the "crowd" for the money to sustain our work.

Donna K. said...

I was just writing a post about the same fear...! I've seen a lot of arts professionals I know who rely on grants (both public and private) forced to move to kickstarter and I worry about what that is going to do to the future of arts funding too...

Brian Newman said...

Thanks all for the feedback. Let me just reiterate – I’m a fan of Kickstarter and crowdfunding, generally speaking, and am not afraid it will hurt me or anyone else. I just think we also need to think about these other consequences and ideas.

I like what James Eowan asks, about using it to enhance government support. I think one angle could be such a project (but not all decisions should be left to the crowd,, of course). There was a proposal for such an idea, but with foundations instead of government, in the 20 Under 40 book, which is linked in my post (the someone linked above).

I also agree with SeanHackett – we’re at the early stages of crowdfunding, and will likely see many changes and improvements and more success stories. In fact, that’s part of the reason I wrote this – to influence the conversation about the future a bit.

Last, one person on Twitter stated that I’m only seeing non-diverse projects because that’s my network and who I follow and what I like. But this isn’t remotely true. My network (real world, not just online) is very diverse. If you look at the history of my career, I’ve been very involved in funding and supporting work from diverse communities, and it’s what I’d prefer to see more of. I make a point of trying to find and support such work today, but it’s not as prevalent. That might change, and I’ve supported some diverse projects on kickstarter, but we can’t deny that the majority of what is up there is currently very white, middle (and above)-class stuff.

Unknown said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Saskia said...

nice post, and thanks (again) brian for making me think.

perhaps the most relevant and rhetorical question: is filmmaking (or the film community in general) elitist.

my money's on yeah, but less so every day.

Mike said...

One thing I have not heard of people doing, so let me know your thoughts: I live in a small town where people would support my documentary, but not want to give their bank account info online through kickstarter. Why couldnt you open a fundraising account at a local bank for people to contribute to, then if you are short at the last minute for kickstarter, use those funds to make sure you hit your goal?

Brian Newman said...

Mike - I've not heard of the trust issue before with bank accounts. People pay with their credit card through Amazon, so it's pretty safe. But, good to learn of this concern. I think Kickstarter has rules against contributing to your own campaign if falling short (though I know people who have done it), but in theory a group could do this.

Anonymous said...

We are approaching a dark time for arts funding. World governments have spent recklessly over the years and the moneys run out. They will completely cut out funding.

Things like Kickstarter, will for a time, help to bridge that gap. Until we have a few big profile cases of money being taken and nothing being returned in the way of art. Then this too will go.

Appreciate what you have, and whats done in the past.

Subsidized art, in whatever form, is going away forever.

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