It’s Not About the Money: Kickstarter and Celebrity Campaigns

Ultimately, because of their established careers they have more access to people who can, have and will continue to take financial risks on them. So could celebrities find other avenues for funding and leave online crowdfunding to the socially un-elite? Sure they could, but why would they? If it works for you, why shouldn't it work for them?

KQED – Michele Carlson – People are pissed. The new trend that’s got everyone heated is the rise of celebrities using online crowdfunding platforms, like Kickstarter or Indiegogo, to fund their high-budget passion projects. Popular history suggests these platforms are for “the little guys,” or those left out of other funding sources, to have a place to find funds for their creative projects. And fund they do. According to Kickstarter’s website, over $798 million have been given to over 48,000 projects. Except $5,702,153 of that went to Rob Thomas’ campaign to make a Veronica Mars movie.

So, I get the sentiment. Do celebrities the likes of Spike Lee or Zach Braff or James Franco really need to ask for our money (and I’m talking millions) to fund their passion or fan projects? I mean Vin Diesel just refinanced his home to fund Riddick, so how come others can’t find ways to foot their own bills?

Kickstarter emphasizes “independent” projects. And therein lies one of the problems. Ultimately, Kickstarter has a financial interest in larger budget projects and gets around 5 percent from successfully funded campaigns. So, keeping the definition of independent, let’s say “open” is worth their while (cough, bottom line). So, then who is indie? On one hand, Spike Lee is a celebrity and a successful filmmaker. On the other, Lee, though high profile, has a history of self-funding, working both within and outside of the mainstream. Looking at the path of his career, he justifiably considers himself an independent filmmaker. Should his bank account, which I might add we don’t know anything about, though is presumably larger than mine or yours (no judgment), segregate him from using this populist-spirited funding source?

In reality, how much cash celebrities — or any of the other users — have access to has nothing to do with the legitimacy of their Kickstarter campaigns or the quality of their projects. And celebrity doesn’t guarantee they will be funded (looking at you Melissa Joan Hart or Mamet sisters recent music video fail). If personal finances mattered then it would also matter how much money everyone else who started a Kickstarter campaign had. You feel the slope getting slippery? And who gets to determine this sort of exclusivity? I, personally, can think of a number of projects I was invited to donate to by artists whose parents, I suspect, could probably have footed the bill. But again, that’s not the point.

Ironically, it’s not all about the money. Sure, with star power there also comes a social and professional economy that is paired with a public trust (and a solid dose of skepticism). Ultimately, because of their established careers they have more access to people who can, have and will continue to take financial risks on them. So could celebrities find other avenues for funding and leave online crowdfunding to the socially un-elite? Sure they could, but why would they? If it works for you, why shouldn’t it work for them?

And are high-profile campaigns really competition for the “little guy?” According to Kickstarter, the answer is no. They suggest that these celebrities actually bring new users to the system, who then go on to donate to other projects. In many ways, celebrities bring a level of legitimacy to those holding out. I mean if Sylvester Stallone is involved in a Kickstarter, then this hammock backpack or these bike prints must be OK too. And is the funder who is dropping $1,000 to golf with Tom Sizemore really the same as the one funding a new quick-release flashlight or artisanal energy bar?

And that’s the thing, Kickstarter helps smaller projects not only get funded but, more importantly, find an audience. On the audience side, Kickstarter is rather brilliant. Sure, it’s got a built-in marketing agent for campaigners, but it does more than generate an audience. Crowdfunding offers an opportunity to not only locate and gather an audience, but for that audience to engage with the project as more than simply viewers or consumers. Crowd funders — fingers crossed — become fans.

Fans, unlike a more general audience, make both a social investment and take a financial stake in the work, whether that is donating what they can to a crowdfunding program or buying the director’s cut DVD, and every edition thereafter. Fans forward, retweet, and Google-stalk all aspects of the project. Fans annoy their lovers until they either become fans themselves or turn into haters. Fans embody the project and characters (hey, cosplay). Crowdfunding inherently creates fans by giving them different levels of social investment and physical return, from swag to a credited role as Executive Producer. But celebrities, by default already have this, which is why it digs to see them using their built-in fan base to fund projects. The have-nots are more conspicuous when positioned against this ominous shadow.

It may be more tacky than unethical for stars to crowdfund. But beginning to qualify and quantify who is allowed to use online crowdfunding platforms based on assumed class status or wealth is not only a slippery slope but fundamentally undermines the very nature and spirit of these activities. And ultimately, crowdfunding isn’t new. In fact, it’s been around for centuries. The online platforms we have now are new mediums facilitating this age-old practice of asking people for financial support in return for something else. Only time will tell if this method of funding has long-term staying power. So, does the celebrity presence suggest the early stages of co-opting a once grassroots org? Perhaps. What is certain is that, like crowdfunding throughout history, when this model is no longer useful the people will just create a new one.

Source: KQED NPR – By Michele Carlson | Sep 28, 2013

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