Do Celebrity-Backed Projects Hurt Kickstarter’s Reputation?

When Veronica Mars creator Rob Thomas and star Kristen Bell announced last month that a movie version of the cult show was in the works — via Kickstarter — the internet exploded with excitement. The project hit its $2 million goal in just 11 hours, setting a record on the four-year-old fundraising site. The project was seen as a way to gauge the audience interest rather than a chance to fully fund the production, although Thomas and Bell were able to pull together $5.7 million from Veronica Mars fans.

A few weeks later, actor, writer, and director Zach Braff also launched a Kickstarter for Wish I Was Here, his follow-up to Garden State, after seeing the popular reaction to the Veronica Mars fund; although the $2 million goal was reached in three days, Braff’s project was met with slightly more trepidation and criticism. If famous (and rich) artists were going to the web to get funds from fans rather than using their own money to produce their passion projects, was the Kickstarter community to become overrun with people who can seemingly afford to produce their artistic pursuits, leaving the smaller inventors and artists crushed by the competition?

Yesterday, Kickstarter founders Perry Chen, Yancey Strickler, and Charles Adler published a missive to address this question. Their argument was that Kickstarter was a community first and foremost, and one that did not discriminate against those who may have enough personal funds to accomplish their goals. The Veronica Mars and Zach Braff projects fit within the guidelines of the site, they claimed, and despite the claims of celebrity-backed projects hurting the chances of smaller ventures getting funds, the founders argued that large-scale funds bring awareness to smaller projects. “Two big projects brought tons of new people to Kickstarter who went on to back more than 1,000 other projects in the following weeks, pledging more than $1 million,” their missive read. “Projects bring new backers to other projects. That supports our mission too.”

What is most interesting about the Zach Braff controversy is the negative response to his project compared to the overwhelming praise heaped on the Veronica Mars fund. There’s certainly a taste factor that plays a hand in the criticism of Braff’s project. While Veronica Mars, a short-lived television show that was cancelled in 2007, has grown a cult audience in the last decade, the reaction to Braff’s Garden State has shifted. It’s seen as a self-indulgent film full of “white people problems,” and its hugely successful soundtrack, featuring early-aughts indie heavyweights like Iron & Wine and The Shins, has become a cultural artifact that is regularly seen as representative of a singular, homogenized class of people. It’s no surprise that Zach Braff’s success has had a negative critical effect, while a show that was canceled because no one watched it carries a certain cool sensibility.

Also worth noting is that neither Veronica Mars nor Wish I Was Here are the first celebrity-backed project. Yes, there’s the incredibly polarizing Amanda Palmer, who raised a million dollars to record an album and then asked her fans to perform with her on her tour for free. On the other hand, many other famous and beloved artists of varied success (such as Belle & Sebastian’s Stuart Murdoch, Daniel Johnston, Colin Hanks, Matthew Modine, Jennie Livingston, Paul Schrader, Whoopi Goldberg, Hal Hartley, Eugene Mirman, and Dan Harmon) have used Kickstarter to fund a variety of personal projects. Why are we seeing a major response now? Is it that people are truly offended that a famous actor and director is asking his fans for money, or is it the fact that the actor and director in question is Zach Braff?

It’s understandable that the notion of asking strangers for money to fund personal creative pursuits is a contentious practice. It’s also a relatively new concept, as traditional money-raising efforts required much more of a personal and rigorous effort. In this era of virality, it’s much easier to pull together investments on a small scale. Of course, the internet has also made it possible for literally everyone to share his or her opinion publicly, and while there’s a lot to be said about the notion of a celebrity asking fans for monetary help to fund a film or an album (most importantly, how the DIY sentiment is evolving), the response in the case of Zach Braff is less “should this rich person, whose bank statements I do not have access to, ask me for money?” and more “should this person be creating art?” That’s an important distinction. When taste actually determines the creation of popular art, perhaps then we can discuss whether or not crowdfunding is an acceptable practice.