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Can Kickstarter Save the Movie Business?

The fundraising site has financed some star-studded productions, but are celebrities killing the golden goose?

Zach Braff, James Franco and Kristen Bell.
Jerod Harris/WireImage; David M. Benett/Getty Images; Michael Buckner/Getty Images
August 5, 2013 4:10 PM ET

Gone are the days when you could launch a career as a filmmaker by maxing out your credit cards. Movies are expensive, studios have largely gotten out of the indie business, and other sources (MacArthur Fellowships) are few and far between. So how's a would-be filmmaker supposed to raise a budget? Well, as it turns out, there's an app for that, too.

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A number of high-profile productions have recently raised funds from online fundraising sites, particularly Kickstarter. Last summer, veteran director Paul Schrader (American Gigolo) and writer Bret Easton Ellis used Kickstarter to raise $159,000 toward their erotic drama The Canyons. More recently, fans of Veronica Mars turned the long-since-canceled television series into a movie due next year (the producers raised $2 million in just two days). Zach Braff, who hasn't directed a movie since 2004's Garden State, sourced $3.1 million toward his next film, Wish I Was Here. And jack-of-all-trades James Franco is planning an ambitious trilogy of films based on his own short story collection, Palo Alto Stories. He's using rival site Indiegogo to raise $500,000 by July 17th.

Making a pledge to a Kickstarter movie is sort of like making a pledge to PBS. You're not an investor, and you won't get a piece of the profits; you're just helping the recipient to present the kind of material you'd like to see. Your only other reward may be a premium (the equivalent of a DVD or tote bag from PBS). For instance, depending on the size of their contributions, donors to Franco's Palo Alto Stories earn premiums ranging from exclusive production updates (for a $10 donation) to an executive producer credit and a dinner with the star (for $10,000). Unlike PBS, however, Kickstarter collects no money from donors until the pledge reaches its target amount; if it doesn't reach that amount by the fundraising drive's scheduled end date, you keep your money and the drive is canceled.

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But celebrity-driven Kickstarter projects risk some resentment. After all, Franco was the star of one of this year's most successful movies (Oz the Great and Powerful), and Braff spent many years as a well-paid sitcom star. Shouldn't they have the resources to make movies without hitting up their fans?

According to the Wall Street Journal, crowdsourced funding for celebrities' projects has already prompted grumbling among both fans (who may grow impatient waiting to see projects come to fruition during the year or two it takes to make a commercial feature film) and fellow Hollywood folk (who are tired of being panhandled by their friends). A parody video from The Onion spoofs the celebrity money-grubbing trend, citing Mummy franchise star Brendan Fraser as one of the desperate stars trying to jump on the crowdfunding bandwagon. Call it Kicklash.

To be fair, Braff's $3.1 million in Kickstarter money does't represent his entire $5 million budget; some does come from his own pocket, some from sales of foreign distribution rights. Plus, having Kickstarter money will keep the project free from studio interference, a gripe that The Canyons writer Bret Easton Ellis vocalized with RollingStone.com. It will also allow Braff to shoot the film in Los Angeles instead of tax haven Vancouver (a move that a budget-conscious studio would insist upon); as such, he'll have a payroll to spend on American workers.

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Someday, crowdsourced movie funding will allow contributors to own an equity stake in the film, Braff told the Los Angeles Times. " I do think one day people will be able to get equity in a project like this," he said. "They’ll be able to invest in a movie like a stock. It's not legal yet. But there are some very smart people, people a lot smarter than me, figuring out the legalities. And anyone watching this knows that's where it's going."

That would be fine for big-name stars who can attract investors. (Unknown filmmakers, trying to sell a project on their talent and vision alone, will still be out of luck.) But won't equity partners demand a say in the making of the film, the way big backers do now? After all, crowdsourcing the actual content is no guarantee of a good movie, let alone a guarantee that those who contributed to the making of the film will then buy tickets to go see it.

Remember, there was a movie that tried that a few years ago, crowdsourcing everything from the poster design to specific lines of dialogue. The result was Snakes on a Plane.

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