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Celebrities on Kickstarter: Why Spike Lee's campaign was a successful failure

Should celebrities be allowed on kickstarter? It's a good question, because many have come to see crowdfunding as a  way for the little guy to make it big, not for the big guy to have an easy slice of pie.

If you haven't yet seen his campaign, here it is: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/spikelee/the-newest-hottest-spike-lee-joint 

The big kickoff to big people using kickstarter was the Veronica Mars project, bringing in close to 6 million USD from over 91,000 backers. Their pitch video was good, it was funny, got to the point of what they're doing, and kept it light. It ran a bit long but they already had fans of the VM brand. They did all that they needed to do, which was keep it simple and let the fans do the rest. They didn't got into why they're on kickstarter until you read the page text where they do go a bit into it but don't harp on it for long. They for the most part ignored the 'we could have paid for the movie ourselves' issue. 

It worked too, because while many people were put off by the project being on kickstarter, people that watched the original show were happy to invest in seeing the movie made. In fact, the only off putting statement i read on their kickstarter page was: "if we could get 30,000 people to give the average donation, we could finance the movie, particularly if the cast and I were willing to work cheap". Really? You're going to talk about how little money you're all going to take? They may have meant it in more of a "we're all doing this for cost of living" king of way. But it comes off plainly as "We'll tell our agents not to grab too much cash from the production"

Then the Braff launched his later named Wish you were Here kickstarter. He took a different approach and went more into his reasons for using kickstarter. Like VM he didn't come out and say that he and his potentially wealthy friends wouldn't fork up the cash to do it themselves, though he does mention in the text that he will be putting some of his own money into the production. He went over the reasons he didn't want to go to the studios, and asked that his fans help him make the movie that he wants to make, not what the studios might want. It was a very impassioned and well put video, he was clear, direct, and to the point about what he was making and asked his fans to help him and be a part of it. That, interlaced with good chunks of humor that any of his fans will appreciate, and you've got an enticing pitch video. I would venture to say that the backlash from this project was about the same as VM, people were leery of this other big player now using the little guy platform, but Braff did a commendable job of being 'real' about it and not coming off as a leech. He reels in just over 3 million from over 46,000 backers. 

Then Spike lumbers in.

I've never met Spike, i don't keep up on his doings, all i have to go on are what he set before me on his kickstarter campaign.

Watching his pitch video and reading the text, i got a large feeling that someone is trying to ride the success of other celebrity kickstarters for an easy buck. I didn't get any sense of what i might be buying into, just someone sitting there asking for money for something they refused to even tell me about.

Did this not violate kickstarters rules? Remarkably, kickstarter has no rule against not telling people what they're buying into. OK, you're buying into a film, a Spike Lee film. But that's it folks, no synopsis, no tagling, nothing except this 1 liner: "Human beings who are addicted to Blood. Funny, Sexy and Bloody. A new kind of love story (and not a remake of "Blacula")". He at least specifies it as a "THRILLER".

Spike does give his reason as to why he won't tell us more about the project, and it's just plain lame: "[...]can’t know a whole lot before they sit down in a Theatre to see it. ... TRUST ME. I hope you have seen some things over the past 3 decades making FILMS that can earn your TRUST."

First off Spike, who do you think you are? I wouldn't even expect an A list director to make such a request and expect it to fly. Second, you don't have to give away the whole damn story,  a synopsis, tagline, ANYTHING that tells people what this movie is about, is not going to hurt your film. People will have to know at some point, and if you're trying to pull what The Six Sense pulled.... well, good luck with that. M. Night's half dozen retries didn't exactly pan out like TSS.


Spike is also reportedly a great film marketer. But let me ask a silly question... how does one market a film without being able to say anything about that film? The only answer i can figure is a bare boned grass roots, few theater opening with built up momentum over time type thing.... Yea it could work, it did for My Big Fat Greek Wedding, but they actually told people what it was they were selling. Then there's the even more basic of marketing needs, at some point the distributor is going to need to know what the heck it is they are supposed to be getting people in the seats for. 

Right after Spike tells us we can't know what his film is about and that we should trust him based on his prior films, he starts the very next paragraph with: "...I have never made a film like this" 

...

You must be joking.

 You just told people to trust you based on your experience with your prior films, and now threw that all out by saying you have no experience with the type of film you're seeking investment for. I get it you know how to make films, but when's the last Michael Bay love story you ever watched? Some directors are good at genre A, some are good at genre B, it's not to say you can't be good at several genres, but what you just told us is that the money you take in will be an experiment in how well you handle a genre you've never handled. Again, this is not to say he won't be capable, just that the sloppy way he worded his text makes it sound rather questionable.

Not off to a good start, and we haven't even started the pitch video yet. The pitch video is the heavy hitter in any kickstarter campaign, it's likely the first and many times the last thing a person will see on any given campaign. Good pitch videos are typically no more than a few minutes in length, have an impassioned person telling you about the project, and visuals of what's been done, what's being done, who else is involved, etc...

Diving into the video spike greets us from the "republic" of Brooklyn NY, which came off as more than a bit racially encouraging, but OK, continue... He then tells us we're in a 30 day grind. Meaning the 30 days of the kickstarter campaign. First off Spike, no, most people are not THAT stupid, to think that you've had any sort of grind for a long, long time. You're making a movie, not building a bridge in Rowanda, and you're not relying on kickstarter for this movie to get made if the campaign fails, you're a person of means making a piece of entertainment. So no, no grind for you.

What comes next is possibly the lamest line i've ever hear of someone trying to spin something: "I've been doing kickstarter before there was kickstarter" So basically, Spike has chosen not to avoid the issue of him being on kickstarter and instead has decided to justify himself by entitling himself. His reasoning is that since he has been raising funds for his past films even before the internet and kickstarter, that of course he should be on kickstarter because he's been doing it all along, just not on this website actually called kickstarter. He's tried to turn kickstarter the site, into kickstarter the adjective and have both be one and the same. But they're not one and the same spike. Sites like kickstarter may be open to the public, but people of means should either tread carefully when gaining from such sites, or leave them be altogether so those who are in far greater need than yourself can benefit from it. 

It's at this point in the video, barely 40 seconds in, that you realize that the entire video is going to be just this: Spike sitting there talking to you. Not very dynamic and  not very engaging. It comes off as him saying "i'm good enough i can just sit here and my face and words will sell this". Kinda arrogant, but like i said, i don't know Spike, and maybe he just didn't think it through, maybe he was sincerely just unprepared. All i know is what he's presented and how it rubs me.

For the next several minutes he rattles off his prior movies and how he 'kickstarted' them without kickstarter by making phone calls, writing letters, etc... It's at this point you start to really wonder what the hell you're watching this video for, because at 2 and a half minutes in, not a single word about the project he's making. So after mentioning the death of his mother and grandparents (Sorry Spike, while can appreciate your feelings on the matter, they have nothing to do with this kickstarter campaign) He tells us that on Malcom X they had just run out of money and the bond company was about to take over the production unless he came up with more cash and what oh what was he going to do?.... He had a revalation! "Spike, you know some (rich) black folks." That's right folks, he had to have a revelation to realize he had famous people with money he could call upon. He drops half a dozen big names all of whom gave him money to complete the film. There's just too much to process here...

First, let's take special note of his distinction of "You know some black folks". Tuck that in your pocket, we'll come back to it in a jiff.

WHAT?! You could have called up all of these wealthy people to just ask them for money? How is this supposed to convince me to donate my occasionally hard earned buck to this film which i still know nothing about? He's got the answer: "You can't go back to the well" meaning that once he asked that favor from them, he couldn't do it again. If that makes sense to you, then you're not getting your vitamins, because it makes ZERO sense. 

Let's look at how possibly these personal loans could have panned out:

Situation 1: He borrowed the money and paid it back.

OK, even if he didn't give them any return on their investment but did in fact pay them back the full amount they invested, then why in the hell couldn't you ask them again? You've proven that you can repay your debts. If you did give them a return on their investment, then explain to me how they would turn you down a second time? So no, not a valid reason why you can't go back to that well.

Situation 2: He borrowed the money and didn't pay it back.

If this is the case, then yes of course you can't go back to that well because you're a toxic investment and they know it. And what you're basically saying is that you've dried up that well because those people know what a risky investment you are and you're trying to raise money from people who don't know what a risky investment you are. It's a bit different in the case of kickstarter because it's not a general investment, rather people are buying a specific thing, but we're just talking about the reasons why you can't go back to your rich people well. This again, is a nonsensical possible reason.

Can we stop and talk for a second about this...

What's with your face? This is the first thing people see when they get to the project, and it just rubs be very wrong. Maybe he has a different perception of his look, but he needs to realize he's not an actor. (Grand total of 15 credits as an actor on imdb)

And just what is this music? I'm pretty sure i heard it before, when i was 12 and taking an interest in 80's porn.

OK back to the dissection.

We come to 3 and a half minutes, halfway through and still not a word about the project. Instead we see a title that informs us that Steven Soderberg has backed the project. OK, good for him and you. This title is followed up by an odd defensive stand by spike that people shouldn't "make it seem like this is a black and white thing". I guess because Steven Soderberg is white....

Spike, you've made it a "black and white thing" by making such statements. Barely a minute ago you just made the statement "Spike, you know some black folks", it's only a black and white thing because you seem adamant about it being so. If you weren't, it would have been "Spike you know some folks". I get it, you were talking about Malcom X, important to black history, but by targeting "black folks" you're either saying you didn't want to call up any of your white friends to ask for money,(Couldn't they be involved in an important African american story?) or that you didn't know any. Either way, you didn't need to add "black" to folks, and you drew the race card by doing so, and you drew it yet again by saying it's not a black and white thing. You probably thought that you were denouncing the race card, but you denounced it for no reason, and typically when someone claims to not be pulling the race card, and do so out of nowhere, it usually means they know they're deep in the race card and desperately want people to not think that. Think of how odd it is to tell us that Steven Soderberg, a white fella, backed your project. Instead of just saying how happy you were that he was onboard, you feel the need to set us strait that even though this white filmmaker backed your project, it's not a black and white thing. Which in and of itself makes no sense even if you don't think about it.

After mumbling something incoherent, he then whips out my favorite line to end the whole race card: "white moviegoers, have always been there."

...

I'm sorry but that's just the most hilarious 'justification' I've ever heard.

White moviegoers have always 'been' there? What does that mean!? Yea i'm pretty sure this white dude invented film. 

But what the heck are YOU talking about spike? Are you saying that white movigoers have helped you with your films? Have they helped finance your films? Considering your prior statements about your prior films, neither of those sounds likely. So i guess you're saying that white moviegoers have gone to see your films. That's about as useful of a statement as: "scandinavians have used toilet paper"

Spike then talks about using his own money for the film, the trouble is, he doesn't flat out say he will be using his own funds for THIS film, he talks about how he's used his own money in prior films. While he could be dodging the commitment of directly saying he'll use his own money for this film, it could be simple ignorance in wording.

Then he gets into answering the question of whether or not he's helped other filmmakers, which ties into some text on the page asking why he hasn't backed other kickstarter projects. Once again he's in defensive mode, but at least here he's got something useful to say: He's taught at NYU for X many years, he's donated X amount of dollars to his students for their films, etc... Great stuff, but less impactfull when used as a retort rather than a positive insight. 

I looked around for info about Spike's teaching career, because if he just did a semester or two, i'd say he did it just for himself, and while detailed info about his teaching wasn't easy to come by, this article gives a good insight as to how much involvement Spike has had, and it's is a plenty respectable amount by the articles account: http://diverseeducation.com/article/50051/

He apparently also did some teaching at Harvard back in 1992, and a blub from the harvard crimson on his debut..."While some students said they found Lee's remarks combative and arrogant, others said they felt that he conduced himself well during his first Harvard lecture" Which sounds about right, i imagine he'd respond to tough questions with rough answers, but that's just the sense i've gotten from watching his pitch video and a reading/watching a few interviews.

All of this to justify that he's not a taker, that he also gives. A good subject. But yet again delivered as a defensive justification, keeping the tone of his campaign in the negative. It was all about that he hadn't backed other kickstarter projects, which is not a terrible thing, but people do like to see that anyone asking for money, has also shared the wealth to other kickstarter campaigns. He could have avoided this whole negative tone by simply throwing a few grand around to a few dozen kickstarter projects before he launched his. Then it would be a positive, that he wanted to give back before he asked to be given to, etc... 

After that it's basically a fluff section, where the title asks him why people should contribute to the campaign. He's also now for some reason speaking off camera instead of looking into the camera like he did for the rest of the video. He goes on about success and failure, and how he wants to go directly to his base, etc..etc... all just generalized nonspecific fluff that i see no meaning in. By comparison, Zach Braff when talking about the same thing, went into good detail about WHY he's going to his fans directly. Spike thinks it's perfectly satisfactory to say he's going to his fans because they're his fans.

The end of his video is by far the most useful. At first it seems he's indulging himself by asking people to comment on their favorite Spike Lee film, but then encourages people to let him know what their least favorite films of his were, and that it'll all be in good cheer. There you go! You finally sounded like a human! One that i wouldn't mind having a drink with, whereas the person you were in the rest of the video i wouldn't even care to sit next to in the subway. 

We're now at the end of the pitch video, and i can't help but feeling that spike missed something.... oh that's right, WHAT THE HELL IS THIS PROJECT ABOUT? We just went through 7 minutes of Spike NOT talking about this project he's raising funds for. I think that's a first in kickstarter history.

Perhaps the most interesting part of all this is the question: do celebrities using kickstarter hurt the little guys on kickstarter? Spike says no, citing the VM and Braff campaigns as examples. Those projects brought in a hefty new batch of people who hadn't backed anything on kickstarter before.

The VM people have actually compiled a great bunch of breakdowns about exactly this at http://www.marsinvestigations.net/movie/index.php/stats/pledge_levels

So, for Spike's film, he had 6,421 backers, of which we don't know how many were new members i supposed because VM compiled this list before such data was available. But if we look at VM and WIWH (Braff's), we can guesstimate 50-60% of those were new members. Again comparing to the other two, 10% of those may have gone on to back other projects, so in the area of 3-400 'beneficial' backers introduced because of his project. 

Can't complain about that, can you? No, but this is where we see that Spike did not travel the best path...

Looking at VM and WIWH, they had 91,585 and 46,520 backers respectively. WOW. So even though they raised two and nearly 3 times as much money, they had exponentially more backers than Spike. Which of course translates into exponentially higher(potential) beneficial backers. Looking down the board, Spike had one of the lowest backer counts, meaning overall, he had fewer backers who pledged overall more money per backer than the average VM or WIWH backer. Even though he raised around 1.4 million, he had fewer backers than several projects in the half million dollar range.

It gets more telling when you look at the detailed pledge and backer charts. over 80% of the funds donated, were pledged by fewer than 11% of his backers. Meaning if you took away all backers who gave $1000 or more, Spike would have made off with less than 300 grand. This base of his has some damn deep pockets... The mystery part of the pie is the 'unlisted' amount, meaning someone donated an amount they wanted hidden. In VM and WIWH, that was about 5% of the total, but for Spike, over 42%. It suggests that a small few big investors jumped in, but no one knows for sure but them.

Numbers are hard to argue against, and what the numbers say are that yes, Spike led some people into kickstarter who backed some other projects, but his impact-to-gain ratio was a fraction of the other celebrity campaigns. 

All in all i think it was a lazy campaign and while it did help some other campaigns, i think that is outweighed by the image that it projects: that if you're a celebrity, you can do a half assed campaign, tell people nothing about it, and still rake in a boat load of cash.

Other celebrities have taken more respectable stances. Such as Kevin Smith talking about not using kickstarter to fund his next film:

"It feels like me trying to have a second bite at the apple by going, 'All right man, now I'm going indie again with this Kickstarter thing.' Like, the truth of it is, after all this time, 20 years later, I have access to money," Smith said in the interview. "If I don't use my own money, I can always hit up some of my famous friends."

Meanwhile, spike is reportedly worth around 50 million... even if that's half true, 1.5 million out of his own pocket doesn't change his lifestyle.

James Franco was also doing crowdfunding, but he was doing it for other filmmakers, he chose 3 former students to direct some stories that he originated.

One of kickstarter's co-founders defended Spike, but let's be honest, he's defending the 5% fee that they get out of all campaigns, meaning Spike just made them 70 grand. 

Did i mention the annoying use of ALL CAPS for countless KEYWORDS throughout the campaign TEXT? I can't stand the overuse of all caps, it's a typical sign of someone who doesn't know of any real way to get across what they're trying to say and so they think such emphasis will have the impact they're looking for. Might as well have written it in crayon.

I think my conclusion is pretty clear by my tone of this very lengthy article. Other celebrity kickstarters were questionable, but well presented, and have numbers which suggest they brought in new backers. There will certainly be people who believe that no celebrities or person of millions should be using what's seen as a grassroots/indie/little guy platform. But kickstarter has made it clear that all are welcome. The only variable is how well a celebrity presents their campaign, and i see Spike's campaign as the de-facto standard of how NOT to perform a celebrity kickstarter campaign.

Added on 2014-05-19 by
Darren Levine

Darren Levine

Stimulus Video

DP/Videographer, Video/Film Editor
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