How Celebrities Are Ruining Kickstarter

Tricia Romano on the growing frustration with celebrities using Kickstarter to finance their pet projects.

Illustration by The Daily Beast

Three years ago, when actress Lake Bell ran a Kickstarter campaign asking for funds to complete a short film, Worst Enemy, she was one of the few celebrities using the social media fundraising site. Today, her goal—$8,000—seems positively quaint in comparison to the $3.1 million that Zach Braff raised for his follow up to Garden State, Wish I Was Here, or the $5.7 million that Rob Thomas generated for the Veronica Mars movie.

Not to worry, the anti-celebrity backlash is well under way. Last week, Girls co-star Zosia Mamet, and her half-sister, Clara Mamet (they are the daughters of David Mamet), were the subject of scorn and ridicule when they posted a Kickstarter asking for $32,000 to make a video for a song from their hobby project, a folky band they called The Cabin Sisters.

Nobody bought it. With 70 hours left, the sister’s Kickstarter stood still at $2,672 and proved ripe for the mocking.

In the Guardian, Sophie Heawood wrote a piece entitled, “Zosia Mamet: the trouble with crowd-funding”: “Where to begin. Let’s forget the fact that you can shoot a video for a lot less than that these days (for free, on your phone). Or that both sisters have great careers (Clara acts on U.S. show The Neighbors). Or that their dad’s got a massive house or three.”

Celebrities on Kickstarter make for easy—and some would say, fair—targets. Last week, Jon Lajoie, a comedian who stars on FX’s The League, made a parody video. In the satire, he doesn’t have a project to promote. His goal was more transparent: he wanted to become “super rich, like Jay-Z rich. Unfortunately that’s proven to be a little complicated. That’s where Kickstarter comes in.”

Lajoie opined,“After I saw how Veronica Mars and Zach Braff fans responded to their projects in a mind-blowing way, I couldn’t help but think: What if instead of relying on traditional methods of wealth acquisition, I tried something different? What if I turned to you, my fans, for the money? By you simply handing over your hard-earned money to me, I could become super rich, without all the added pressure of actually doing something.”

There’s even a Facebook page (albeit not a very popular one) called “Keep Celebs Off Kickstarter,” which pointed out that Braff made $350,000 an episode on Scrubs.

The celebrity projects are a far cry from the site’s humble beginnings, when local artists took to it to drum up a few thousand dollars.

Selene Luna, a Los Angeles-based actress, comic, and burlesque performer currently touring with Dita Von Teese, used Kickstarter a few years ago to fund her project, an online soap opera.

When she first heard of high-profile celebrities busking for millions, she said, “I thought it was ludicrous. I couldn’t believe people had the gall to ask for that much money.” She added: “Part of me was like, ‘Fuck, why didn’t I ask for 20 grand?’”

Indeed, these celebrity Kickstarter campaigns have become so successful that Variety wondered if they would actually begin to transform how Hollywood did business, noting that the Veronica Mars project was already backed by Warner Bros.

Post-Braff and Mars, Variety wrote, “Studio-based projects with name talent attached will likely follow, carrying with them the potential to reshape at least one corner of the film-financing world.”

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Representatives for Kickstarter declined to comment on-the-record and referred to their public response posted on their site to the backlash. They wrote: “We’re a tool available to anyone (in the U.S. and U.K., currently) to fund and build a community around their creative project. Big or small, established or indie, serious or fun. Judged on their own, these two projects squarely fit our guidelines and our mission.”

To hear Kickstarter tell it, it’s the project that matters, not the dollar signs. They are helping art, big and small, get made, that’s their ultimate goal.

It all sounds nice and artist-friendly, however, one could argue that Kickstarter’s owners have a vested interest—literally—in big celebrity fundraisers, as Kickstarter keeps five percent of all monies raised. Per their own numbers, over $647 million has been raised since its inception in 2009. Doing the math, it’s not hard to see why they would be in favor of keeping these bigger projects featuring the already rich and already famous coming.

In its post, Kickstarter pointed out that many people who donated to Braff’s and the Mars project also turned around and funded smaller, indie projects, but there’s still the problem of celebrities stealing the thunder of the struggling artist. Brian Fargo started a site called Kicking It Forward, which aims to encourage people to put 5 percent of the profits from their successful campaigns to other Kickstarters that might need an extra boost. But that’s purely an honor system.

And while Braff himself is a prolific Kickstarter backer, having funded 13 other projects, he’s still getting the lion’s share of the money and, maybe more importantly, the press. (Both his project and the Veronica Mars revival film are in the top 10 of biggest funded projects on the site).

“I think it’s probably hurts more than helps,” said Luna of celebrities on Kickstarter. “Again, there are some people out there that legitimately are independent artists who can’t seem to get a break and really need help to get their projects done. And then you have these celebrities with large budgets coming in; it just knocks the indie artists back down again.

“It’s like, ‘Can you just stay off my corner for two seconds?’” she said. “It’s basically fucking with a hooker’s corner.”

While she was grateful for the $5,000 she raised, Luna said she most likely wouldn’t do it again.

“Well, I think it’s really weird. It’s the new rent party. I honestly had a very difficult time getting through it. You are asking for a handout. We grew up in a time where you have to earn everything,” said Luna, who is 41. “At least that’s what I was taught.”