Poor Zach Braff just can’t catch a break. You would think he’d be on top of the world: successful actor-turned-director with a new movie playing at Sundance that just sold for seven figures. But that’s not what’s getting him attention. Various outlets have noted that while Braff is riding high in Park City, the Kickstarter backers who financed a significant chunk of the budget for his film, Wish I Was Here, have been reduced to begging for tickets outside of screenings and wondering why they haven’t even received the meager rewards (T-shirts, posters, and the like) attached to their contributions. From a PR standpoint, Wish I Was Here is turning into a cautionary tale on the dangers of mixing direct fundraising with Hollywood inefficiency.
For those playing catch-up: Wish I Was Here, Braff’s feature directorial follow-up to 2004’s Garden State, was partially funded ($3.1 million of a reported $5.5 million budget) by the crowd-funding site Kickstarter, a move Braff said he made in order to wrest creative control from the evil “money people” who would prohibit him from retaining final cut and casting the film as he wished (though, as noted in our review of the movie, he might’ve benefited from a bit less of that control). He easily surpassed his original $2 million fundraising goal, but the well-paid actor’s decision to hit up his fans for cash (and the — perhaps unfair — general dislike for Mr. Braff in some quarters) prompted a fairly loud backlash, particularly after a traditional gap-financing deal was inked following the Kickstarter campaign.
The ticket-hungry Kickstarter backers — first reported on Twitter, and mentioned in our coverage — are an unfortunate optical, but nothing the folks behind the film could do anything about. And in all fairness, none of the backers were promised Sundance tickets among their rewards; as Variety notes, “a chunk of seats were roped off for Kickstarter fans,” albeit those who made larger contributions than $500 donor Bryant Woodard, the focus of their story. This was bound to happen; with tens of thousands of backers (and only a percentage of festival screening tickets available to the filmmakers), people were gonna get turned away. That’s just math.
Here’s where it gets sticky. Back to Variety: “Bryant Woodard… donated about $500. In return, he received a copy of Braff’s latest play. He had still not received autographed memorabilia he’d been promised.” NBC News talked to Metafilter founder and Wish I Was Here backer Matt Haughey, who asked, “What about the backers?” and shrugged, “It just would be nice to get a message saying, ‘Hey, the rewards are coming in the mail’ or whatever.”
Those rewards include a Wish I Was Here T-shirt for pledges of $40 or more, art prints (of concept art or production stills) to those pledging $60 or more, and a movie logo director’s chair back for $75. In other words, these are the items promised to the small donors, the people who can’t write a giant check and jet off to a festival premiere or an advance screening in L.A. or New York. When you’re throwing around that “46,000 backers” figure, this is who you’re talking about. And if you’re smart, these are the people you take care of.
In an interview with BuzzFeed, producer Stacey Sher stressed, “We have hundreds of thousands of dollars of rewards. We’re making T-shirts for 24,000 people. We have posters for thousands of people. We have screenings in 11 cities around the world with meet-and-greets and Q&As, and Zach is flying to every single one of them. That all has to be budgeted as well.” In other words, We’re doing it, give us a break already. But from the beginning, Braff has talked about how he and his team were inspired to take Wish I Was Here to Kickstarter by the astonishing success of the Veronica Mars campaign. The key difference is that Veronica Mars took care of its backers on the quick. I got my Mars T-shirt months ago, and while I’m sure it was a pain in the ass for them to take care of those rewards, they understood the value of getting to it sooner rather than later. And not complaining about it.
Web developer Jason Garber, a more sympathetic Wish backer, told NBC, “I anticipate rewards will be sent out in a reasonable fashion and that Zach will be out in front of any delays or changes. He’s thus far been very open, appreciative, and communicative with backers which is great to see.” That’s not exactly what happened. After the NBC story went live, Braff reached out to Matt Haughey, the critical backer in the piece. Haughey was kind enough to post a screenshot of Braff’s message on Twitter:
Um, Zach, you’re not helping. Instead of apologizing for the slowness of the rewards and the perceived slights of his backers, Braff instead climbs up on the cross that he’s nailed himself to since the Kickstarter backlash began. “Trashing us in the media is unfair, Matt,” he whines. “I know I’m an easy target, and I’ll take my hits from people who haven’t been following all the video blogs and updates and emails I’ve sent to my amazing backers.”
Late delivery of rewards is a tiny thing, and probably not deserving of the kind of intense scrutiny it’s getting. But it’s something to attach to in what seemed, and is exceedingly proving to be, a case of Hollywood people getting over on their devoted public. Wish I Was Here is going to make somebody a lot of money — the Focus Features deal covers about half of the budget, they’ll presumably make up the rest (or close to it) in foreign sales, so even if the film only matches the $26 million of Garden State’s gross, it’ll post a very healthy profit. The Kickstarter backers won’t taste any of that. As Sher carefully (but correctly) tells BuzzFeed, “That’s not what we promised anybody.” But if you’re going to take your financing to the people, you’ve got to attend to your supporters with the same care as the guy in Greenpoint with the $10,000 experimental short. And if you fall down on that job, you don’t go chewing out the backers who rightfully complain about it.