Is Crowd-Funding the New Test of Celebrity Popularity?

A thing isn’t a thing until James Franco has put his multitasking paws all over it, so it probably shouldn’t come as a surprise that the actor/director/writer/grad student/performance artist/visual artist/soap opera stunt performer is the latest celebrity to decide his adoring fans should fund his passion project. Said project is a trio of feature films based on stories from the book Palo Alto — a collection penned by, huh, who’da thunk it, James Franco. Surprisingly, he won’t direct the films, instead turning them over to young filmmakers he admires. Any profits will be donated to the non-profit organization Art of Elysium. Franco and crew are funding the project through Indiegogo, and the price tag is half a million bucks.

This is probably the appropriate point to mention that Mr. Franco collected a cool $7 million for half-assing his way through Oz the Great and Powerful — enough to fund the project 14 times over. In other words, as I Watch Stuff wryly puts it, “James Franco is looking to the internet to support his next film venture and help him not have to dip too far into the Oz ‘fun money.’” The question of rich celebrities looking to anonymous fans to bankroll their projects is one that’s been widely discussed, here and elsewhere, and that discussion will continue. What’s interesting is how, now that the novelty is worn off, we’re starting to see that a famous face doesn’t necessarily equal instant Internet crowd-funding.

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Take, for example, the sad story of Melissa Joan Hart: former Sabrina the Teenage Witch, former all-explaining Clarissa, star of Drive Me Crazy, onetime candy shop owner. After the success of the Kickstarter-funded Veronica Mars movie, Hart apparently thought, “Well, I’m the former title character of a television show too, so I’d like the Internet to put me in a movie!” So she created a Kickstarer for Darci’s Walk of Shame, which Hart promised would give her “the chance to once again be in a fun and hilarious Rom-Com much like Drive Me Crazy…only all grown up and having a roll in the hay with the hot actors in the film!” As much fun as that sounded like for all of us, the project raised a mere $51,605 of its $2 million funding goal, and she was forced to pull the plug.

And that brings us to Mr. Franco’s project, which despite his high-profile, non-stop ubiquity, and the ultimately admirable aims of boosting fledgling filmmakers and a worthy non-profit, has only raised (as of this writing) slightly north of $25K. The project has, it must be noted, only been online a day or so. But it’s generated plenty of coverage (as does seemingly everything Mr. Franco touches) — and don’t forget, Veronica Mars hit its $2 million goal within its first 24 hours. Franco’s project still has a long, long way to go.

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Could it be a good old-fashioned case of backlash? The Mars film and Zach Braff’s Wish I Was Here easily hit their fundraising goals, but they also provoked plenty of grousing (again, here and elsewhere) about the fairness of wealthy, well-established Hollywood types forwarding the bill for their work to fans, and taking the focus of crowd-funding sites away from the starving artists they were ostensibly created to empower.

But there could be more to it than that. In a strange way, crowd-funding is turning into an elaborate game of “Hot or not?,” in which a celebrity’s online credibility and popularity is measured in the most concrete terms available: the amount of money the public at large will spend to see their hypothetical work. Braff boasts over 1.1 million Twitter followers, as does Veronica Mars star Kristen Bell. But such Kickstarter non-starters as Hart, Shemar Moore, and Zosia Mamet prove that “Hey, that’s somebody I’ve heard of!” isn’t enough to guarantee crowd-funding success. Mars and Braff were brands with built-in audiences. Whether Franco is — Oz notwithstanding — remains to be seen.