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!

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