Recently, while flipping through back issues of Entertainment Weekly, I came across a letter to the editor in which an individual, after reading of the astounding overnight success of the Veronica Mars movie Kickstarter campaign, bemoaned the fact that people raised 2 million dollars in less than 24 hours to fund a movie when there are so many worthy causes that are “more deserving” of funding. The implication was that people have a clear choice about how to spend their money, and they, according to the commenter, chose poorly.
The comment fails to take into account the fact that many of the Veronica Mars supporters may, in fact, also donate their time and money to a variety of charitable causes. One may simply look to the most recent national tragedy—whether it be Hurricane Sandy or the fatal tornadoes in Oklahoma—for support of the assertion that people do step up and donate en masse when the occasion arises. The comment also devalues the importance of entertainment to a society and its popular culture, and may be viewed as hypocritical given the fact that the comment appeared in an entertainment magazine and was submitted by a reader of that magazine.
I could write, and will spare you all, a dissertation on the topic of entertainment’s function in and importance to society. What intrigues me more, at the moment, is the concept of Kickstarter and the way in which it liberates and empowers modern consumers of entertainment. The way in which crowdfunding offers us the power of choice as we have never experienced it before.
Until Kickstarter, Indiegogo, and other grassroots crowdfunding sites popped into being, consumers had very little voting power when it comes to what we would like to see, hear and read. As a child of the 80’s, I vividly remember watching The Wizard of Oz and a multitude of Charlie Brown specials on TV because there was nothing else on, and every night the “Star Spangled Banner” would play and the TV would switch to snow because the networks went off air. Too bad if you worked nights; no TV for you! As for choice, the Nielsen ratings gave some idea of what people watched or heard, but at any time, TV shows could be cancelled if the ratings just weren’t meeting a network’s expectation.
In the world of books, bestseller lists indicated which books were trending. Publishers decided what went into print and what stayed in print, while bookstores decided which books would make it onto the shelves. Radio stations played the same songs, over and over; until the Internet, most of us never heard of a band unless they were signed by a prominent record label and given perpetual airtime on the radio.
Enter the Internet. Musicians were the first to realize that they could put their music out there to a wider audience without a big label’s permission. Joss Whedon's Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog proved to citizens and studios alike that quality content could be broadcast on the internet for free. Thanks to Amazon and self-publishing, new writers have been “discovered,” and more and more authors are finding that agents and traditional print publishers are no longer necessary steps toward finding an audience. The recent successes of Amanda Hocking and Fifty Shades of Grey all attest to the fact that the traditional gatekeepers are losing control of their keys.
Enter Kickstarter and Indiegogo. For the first time since the days when authors and artists required patrons to survive, the consumer can take an active role in bringing a project to fruition. Rather than voting to keep an author’s books on the shelf by spending money on the end product, consumers can now purchase a product, directly from the creator, in advance. The creator has the potential to make a larger profit, the buyer has the satisfaction of knowing he or she played an integral part in bringing that product to fruition. Everybody wins.
Or… maybe not. While advantageous for creators and consumers unhappy about cancellations of favorites like Veronica Mars, sites like Kickstarter pose a huge threat to the creative status quo. While I don’t think Hollywood studios are running in fear of the crowdfunding model—because really, can we all afford to fund Iron Man 4?—I do believe that publishers, agents, and brick-and-mortar bookstores ought to start paying attention to which projects are funding and who is backing them. More and more, the average citizen is voting with his or her dollar, and they are not voting for overpriced e-books or mediocre “big name” fiction at full retail price. They are voting for the quirky sci-fi and fantasy projects, the likeable author super-excited by his own supporters, the fantastic singer who never got a big break, but can, on his worst day, out-sing both Josh Groban and Justin Bieber. Ultimately, they are voting to back real people, not corporations; people who express genuine gratitude for those hard-earned dollars in personalized products and heartfelt emails.
Ultimately, should charities fear Kickstarter? Absolutely not. People who donate their time and money to charities will continue to do so. But studios, record companies, publishers, and the theaters and stores that retail their products need to take a good, hard look at how crowdfunding came to be, how it works, and where it will take us in the future. This Pandora’s box is well and truly open. Now that we have tasted choice, people will be far less accepting of the typical bland fare the media provides.