Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Kicking the Hand that Starts You

It's pessimistic to rain on everyone's "we can do this" parade, yes, but wealthy celebrities drumming up consequence-free cash for their next projects just doesn't feel like the proper use of a site like Kickstarter. Want to start a campaign to, I dunno, send a dying person on a nice trip? Sure, go right ahead. It doesn't even have to be as serious as that. Use Kickstarter to get a sports team some new equipment, whatever. But when it's used to pay production costs for a Warner Bros. movie, the system seems abused.

- "Anybody Know Of A Better Charity Than the Veronica Mars Movie?", Richard Lawson

So, Kickstarter. I'm not a fan. Let me explain why.

At first, I thought the idea of Kickstarter, or more accurately the generic concept of 'crowdsourcing' -- i.e.: using the Internet to raise funds for something that you aren't able to raise funds for in more traditional methods -- was a cool idea. As I understand it, the proof-of-concept was Dr. Howard Dean's use of internet funding, first in his campaign for President of the U.S. in 2004, and then for the Democratic National Committee as its chairman afterward. (Wikipedia disagrees, considering the Oxford English Dictionary one of the first historical crowdsourced projects, and suggests that what I'm talking about is more precisely a subset of crowdsourcing called 'crowdfunding'.)

Kickstarter launched in 2009 and received some curious media coverage when it did so. It showed up on my radar, though, when it proved its utility in the geek sphere, specifically when Rich Berlew's Kickstarter drive to reprint his out-of-print softcover "Order of the Stick" collections became the first Kickstarter to break $1 million.

At the time, I thought, "Wow, that's impressive."

Some time later, the Pathfinder Online massive multiplayer game, currently in development, launched its own Kickstarter. This time, though, one million dollars was the goal. And, confusingly enough, though many assumed the kickstarter was being organized by Pathfinder IP owner Paizo Publishing, the real beneficiary of the project was the game's developer, Goblinworks, Inc. This, too, succeeded.

I was a bit less sanguine about this success, though. First off, the amount was at least an order of magnitude higher than Burlew's -- he'd only set out to raise a bit over $50k to cover his publishing costs, and the $1 million was a windfall bonus. Goblinworks was setting out to reap the windfall right off the top. In a sense, it was reasonable -- MMO's are expensive, and Goblinworks was a development house with no appreciable experience under their belts -- their 'big deal' was that they were founded (at least in part) by Ryan Dancey, the same man who introduced the Open Gaming License to the world and who basically made Pathfinder possible once Wizards of the Coast decided to stop producing Third Edition Dungeons & Dragons. OK, guys that know each other want to work together (most of Paizo's staff also consists of former WotC staffers, after all), but the whole thing had a bit of a whiff of, well, something not entirely wholesome.

Add to this the realization that Goblinworks and Paizo, gamers all, had apparently cracked Kickstarter -- the secret was to offer incentives for high-money contributors that look cool, and that people would be willing to pay for, but that don't actually cost you much if any of your own money to provide. Examples:

  • Pledge $15, and get a PDF!
  • Pledge $50, and get the downloadable soundtrack we'll be selling on iTunes after launch!
  • Pledge $300, and your character's name will be associated with one of the drinks for sale at the in-game taverns!

You get the idea. A lot of this stuff requires minimal effort, or was being done anyway, but Dancey (who according to his bio linked above is sometimes called the 'Steve Jobs of MMO marketing') figured out how to market these things to be worth many times their cost. Great, right? Isn't that how capitalism is supposed to work?

Now, the news referred to in the quote that leads this essay. The creator of the teen-detective television series 'Veronica Mars' has decided that he wants to make a movie, and he's putting together a $2 million Kickstarter to do it. The kicker? It's already over 3/4 of the way to funded and at the time I write this, there's still a month left in the fundraising period.

Thomas has done his homework well. Consider the rewards for donating at the $175 donation level:

  • a PDF of the shooting script
  • a limited edition T-shirt
  • a digital download of the movie
  • a physical DVD of the movie with bonus documentary material on the making of the film and the Kickstarter campaign
  • a copy of the official movie poster
  • another physical DVD, but this one in Blu-Ray and with stuff not on the other DVD
  • all three seasons of the original TV show

In other words, except for the T-shirt, a bunch of stuff we already have or were planning to make anyway! You've got to get up to the $350 level to get somewhere where someone has to put in significant effort -- that's where any member of the cast (except Kirsten, who plays the title character, who's probably the person you'd most want to do this) will record a 15 second voice mail message for you -- which of course the guys at Wait, Wait, Don't Tell Me have been doing for years, for free. (OK, you have to be on their show and win one of their quiz games...)

Now it makes sense that Rob Thomas, the creator, would go to Kickstarter for this once he figured out how to package the incentives -- his show was certainly beloved by its fans, but it's a three-season TV show that went off the air six years ago, and any interest in a film from traditional producers probably died within two years of the show's hiatus. Good on Thomas for finding a way to pursue what I'm assuming is either a dream, or a way to keep paying the bills for a while longer -- either is admirable.

What worries me is where this is heading. What if Marvel Studios launched a $250 million Kickstarter for "Avengers 2"? What if the $100k level had a benefit of 'hang out on the set for a day with Joss and the cast'? That wouldn't be at all popular, would it? I think that it would.

More importantly, it would do two other things that would be harmful to the whole crowdsourcing concept:

- It would eat up funds that would otherwise go to worthy smaller projects.

Turns out that not everyone agrees with me on this. John Rogers, the co-creator and showrunner of Leverage, and a guy I admire, got into a brief discussion with me on Twitter where he responded to my Avengers 2 question by saying "That assumes a finite audience. Which is ... wrong, I think." But that's not right, either -- the audience is finite, because there are only so many people. And the portion of the audience that can and will donate to projects is even more finite, because we know there are fans who don't donate. The question is not 'is the pool finite or infinite' but 'how deep does it go'? If it's not very deep, a few big-ticket projects will certainly dry it right up.

But that's only a small part of the problem -- the bigger one is this:

- It would allow 'big content' to subsume the sources of crowdsourcing and treat them as just another profit center.

Kickstarter basically gets paid based on the size of the donations. (The actual mechanism, oddly enough, is just Amazon Payments.) So say Marvel makes their $250 million goal and "Avengers 2" is funded. Marvel would love to put their "Avengers 3" on Kickstarter, too, but they're a little concerned about some of Kickstarter's business practices...

This is why my response to Rogers suggested that he could have written a kick-ass Leverage episode about where this is apparently going.

Kickstarter rewards content creators with recognizable, popular intellectual property that can be leveraged in ways that don't cost the IP owner much in order to attract attention and funding. Big Content (Marvel, Disney, etc.) can do this way more efficiently than independent creators, and Big Content has a vested interest in squishing ways that independent creators can get made outside of their gatekeeping. How long until you *have* to be doing a million dollar project to get on Kickstarter? How long until the minimum becomes $10 million?

So what, you may ask. If Kickstarter stops doing small projects, some other startup will come along and fill the void, right?

Oh, my friend, you know so little about how the real market works.

The real problem is, I'm not at all sure what to do about this situation -- it seems inevitable, like watching a cute baby gorilla slowly grow up until it's large enough to terrorize you and everyone else in your home.

Oh, well -- the Kickstarter era was fun while it lasted, anyway.

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