Earlier this month, an indie thriller called Blue Ruin opened in cinemas. Already a hit at film festivals, it was warmly received by British critics who praised it for its originality, powerful performances, tense storyline and stunning cinematography. Some compared it to Blood Simple, Joel and Ethan Coen’s debut, others to a Greek tragedy. Either way, it seemed to mark the arrival of a major new talent, in the form of Jeremy Saulnier, the film’s gifted writer/director.
Most of the credit for the film’s success goes to Saulnier, of course. But the film would never have existed without the crowdfunding website Kickstarter.
“My wife and I had funded it as much as we could on our credit cards and we were all ready to go, but the payroll company needed $35,000 from a checking account and we simply didn’t have it,” says Saulnier. “I suddenly realised, without Kickstarter it wasn’t going to happen.”
Twenty-five years after Sir Tim Berners-Lee first put forward a proposal for a “universal linked information system” to colleagues at CERN, it has become almost trite to talk about the capacity of websites to change the world. But Kickstarter really is turning out to be one of the most influential and ground-breaking companies ever to emerge online.
The brainchild of a former old nursery-school teacher called Perry Chen, who became frustrated when he failed to raise enough money to stage a concert in New Orleans, the website is simply a platform for people with creative ideas to appeal for public donations.
Ideas or “projects”, as they must be called on Kickstarter, have to fall into one of 13 categories – film, photography, design, art, comics, dance, fashion, food, games, music, publishing, technology or theatre – and must have a clear goal, such as making an album or writing a book. Something specific has to be produced.
But within these parameters, if you can persuade enough people of the merit of your project, then Kickstarter can help you to raise funds and realise an idea in a way that was just not possible a few years ago. So revolutionary is Chen’s concept, in fact, that people in the arts have started talking about a new dating system: BK (Before Kickstarter) and AK (After Kickstarter).
Five years into the AK era (the site launched in April 2009), Kickstarter has funded more than 60,000 projects all over the world, from organic food companies and public parks, to photography exhibitions, museums and fashion lines. It has given life to new novels, operas and musicals, a skatepark in Philadelphia, an underwater robot, several mini satellites, and a bizarre product called the Ostrich Pillow that is a godsend to anyone trying to have a power nap on a train, aeroplane or bus, and who doesn’t mind looking ridiculous.
Not surprisingly, since this is the web, a sizeable proportion of the projects that have reached their funding targets are video games and comic books (if a project fails to reach its target within the specified time limit, any pledges that have been made are cancelled and the project gets nothing). But the most popular category is Film & Video, which, so far has hosted just over 35,000 proposals, and seen almost 14,000 reach their goal.
Of those, 70 have been selected for the influential Sundance Film Festival in Utah, more than 100 have played at SXSW in Texas and seven have been nominated for an Oscar, with one, Inocente, winning Best Documentary Short in 2013.
There have also been a number of animations and a high-profile campaign to produce a film version of the cult American TV series, Veronica Mars, which raised $2m in just 11 hours, went on to amass $5.7m and is the most funded film in Kickstarter history.
Yancey Strickler, a co-founder and CEO of the website, believes the Mars project was a perfect demonstration of the Kickstarter ideology. “[The creator] Rob Thomas and [star] Kristen Bell spent seven years trying to get their movie funded,” he says when we meet for breakfast in central London. “Hollywood told them, “Nobody will see it”. They then got the chance to put it to the public and 10 hours later the public said, ‘Yes, by all means’. They raised $6m which, Hollywood-wise, is a tiny budget but the idea that an artist and 90,000 fans can make a movie is a huge breakthrough.”
Backers, who can pledge as little as $1, are not investors – they don’t have any equity in the project. Their incentive is simply to see an idea they like turn from concept into reality, although project creators also offer backers rewards, such as T-shirts, signed posters, exclusive casting news, updates from the set, and even walk-on parts in the film.
Without the normal strings attached, the money, Strickler believes, goes towards funding a project that is creatively “pure”.
“The only way you get money to make something, culturally, is if someone else thinks it’s going to make them money,” he states. “It’s very rationally profit motivated. And that is not wrong because these are companies that are publicly traded and all that stuff, but it has very little relation to music or film or whatever. Kickstarter is a corner of the universe where things can happen just because people think they are cool.”
A bouffant-haired 35-year-old, with screwed-up Walter Matthau eyes and a smile permanently playing on his lips, Strickler comes across as one of the least obnoxious tech evangelists ever to ride a fixed-gear bicycle. But he was not always so sunny. A self-confessed “culture hound” he worked for several years as a rock critic in New York and admits he became rather too fond of his own opinions.
“Being a music critic is an extremely cynical job,” he says. “It’s like, ‘Who can have an opinion stronger and faster than anyone else?’ You begin to take it for granted that there are a million musicians in the world.
“Sometimes I wouldn’t even remember what I’d said about an artist. My friends would say, ‘I bought that record you liked’ and I would say, ‘What was that again?’ I was such an a__hole!”
What stopped him becoming even more of an “a__hole” was a decision, while working at eMusic, a digital music store, to set up his own record label, issuing debut albums by bands he liked. He soon realised he got a real buzz from introducing an act he was passionate about to a wider audience and getting the artist paid.
“We would put up a band’s record, it would sell 10,000 copies and we’d get to give them 60 grand, which I knew changed their life,” he says. “That was really instructive. I thought, ‘I can be a fan or there is this other level where you can actually support someone’s livelihood.’”
Kickstarter co-founders Charles Adler, Perry Chen and Yancey Strickler
It was around this time that he met Chen and Chen told him about his idea for Kickstarter, although, at the time, it had a different name: “Critical Mass”. The two entrepreneurs soon realised there were hundreds of companies with the same name, so they changed it to “Kickstartr”, but without the “e” (mainly because the URL with the “e” was more expensive). But, finally, a year before launch, they stumped up the money for kickstarter.com and, with a third team member on board, a web designer called Charles Adler, the look and the feel of the website began to take shape.
The first project to meet its target was called Drawing for Dollars, a proposal by a Queens resident to draw pictures for people in exchange for money. Three backers pledged $35. Not exactly ground-breaking. But the watershed moment the founders were hoping for didn’t take long.
Three weeks after the site went live a New York-based singer/songwriter called Allison Weiss appealed for $2,000 to record her first full-length album. The pitch epitomised everything the founders had envisioned for the site: it was sincere, funny, slightly quirky, a little bit niche and it was funded within eight hours. “You could feel it,” says Strickler. “We all said, ‘This is a real thing.’”
Since then, the site has branched out in a thousand different and unpredictable directions, constrained only by its users’ imagination. A photography exhibition has been staged in Kabul, two rappers from Washington DC have filmed a music video in North Korea, London has been given its first travelling tea shop, Philadelphia (again) has the world’s first pizza museum (with the world’s largest collection of pizza-related items) and the city of Chatanooga, in Tennessee, has its own unique font, which now features on local government literature, road markings and street signs.
Of course, not all projects have been successful. In fact, less than half receive their funding goal and 12 per cent don’t receive a single pledge, a fate, ironically, that befell “Please Love Me”, a proposal for a “hilarious one-woman show” by a stand-up comic called Henrietta. T-shirts bearing the legend, “I Love you Mom” also struck out as did something called “Love of Music”, a “photo exploration of women posed in various romantic and erotic relationships with musical instruments”.
But, it is not the failures that have surprised observers; it’s the fact that anyone at all has been funded. More than six million users so far have agreed to part with their money to help fund projects by people they have never met, who are under no legal obligation to follow through on the projects they have proposed.
Why? The New York Times writer Rob Trump pondered this very question in a brilliant essay last year entitled “Why In The World Would You Ever Give Money Through Kickstarter?” and concluded that it had something to do with the “logic of gift giving”. We all crave connections with our fellow human beings, Trump argued, and the act of giving a gift to someone forms a personal bond that cannot be measured in monetary terms. Kickstarter, in other words, doesn’t just create art; it builds friendships and communities.
Strickler agrees. “We are led to believe that capitalism is entirely about self interest,” he says. “But even Adam Smith identified human connection as one of the primary drivers of economic action, and I think that is what this is kind of about. For me, it demonstrates that there are things we value more than money. Community and ideas are significantly more important.”
All of which doesn’t mean there isn’t sometimes trouble in paradise. Numerous projects, having taken their backers’ money, have run into problems, either because they had underestimated their budgets or because of legal issues or warehouse or distribution hiccups. The video game designer Tim Schafer, for example, raised a staggering $3.36 million (one of 63 projects that have raised more than $1 million) but subsequently had to admit to his backers that the project was going to cost even more.
The singer Amanda Palmer, who raised $1m through Kickstarter (Rex)
The singer Amanda Palmer, another Kickstarter millionaire, faced a barrage of criticism when she announced that she would be using around a quarter of the money she’d raised to pay off debt. She later made things worse by calling for fans to play with her band on tour but offering to pay them nothing except “beer, hugs, high fives and merchandise.”
And Kickstarter itself has been barracked by some users for allowing established film makers like Spike Lee, David Fincher and Zach Braff to post projects on the site. They are not exactly the impoverished artists that people expect to meet on Kickstarter.
Strickler’s smile doesn’t waver. “Even if you’re Spike Lee, you’re still beholden to the system,” he says. “Veronica Mars, Zach Braff, Spike Lee – they all just wanted to make a certain movie and had been told it wasn’t commercially viable.”
But surely big names like them have more avenues to funding than the average artist? Shouldn’t they just work harder, hustle a bit more? Strickler shakes his head. It’s important, he says, to have a single platform for everyone. He also claims the big names have attracted a lot of new people to Kickstarter who have then gone on to support other, more humble projects.
“If you’re a huge Spike Lee fan and Do the Right Thing is your favourite movie, the opportunity to be a part of Spike’s thing is really cool. A project like that speaks to Spike’s audience. If you’re not in Spike’s audience then I can understand why you’re not interested, but I like the idea that an artist and their fan base can work together to create something.”
What about the other criticism – that, since no one is obliged to give a lot of money to anything, the projects are not scrutinised very closely? Strickler, once the cynical music critic, now seems incapable of negative thought.
“I don’t think that’s true,” he replies. “I think it’s harder to get 10,000 people to agree to something than to get one really rich dude to agree to something. Plus, a person who gives you millions of dollars will attach strings and serious expectations – it’s pretty expensive money.”
Does he at least – as a music fan – understand the discontent among many of those who backed Oculus Rift, a new type of virtual reality headset? Palmer Luckey, its inventor, raised $2.4m on Kickstarter in the summer of 2012, then announced in March this year that, before it has even launched, the technology has been sold to Facebook for $2 billion. It’s like your favourite band suddenly signing a record deal with Simon Cowell.
Finally, Strickler gives a little ground. “It raises an interesting question,” he admits. “When is a project done? Those backers feel emotional about it because it’s just so cool. It’s the internet’s favourite tech and when you add Facebook into the mix, which incites a strong response in absolutely everybody, you get the perfect storm.”
Are they wrong to feel betrayed? “I don’t think you can ever say someone’s emotions are wrong. I think it’s understandable. It’s an interesting, challenging situation. Oculus Rift guys are technologists, they’re not business people. They just want to make this thing.”
Interestingly, though, when it comes to a discussion of Kickstarter itself, Strickler makes it very clear: it will never be sold. “We feel we are servants of this idea and of the people who use it,” he says. “Kickstarter is more important than me or anyone who works there. We think of it like a public trust – a thing that should exist.”
It has made money; it takes a five per cent cut of every successfully funded project (a total of around $42.5m so far) but much of that goes towards paying staff salaries and health insurance. “I don’t think it being a publicly-traded company is the best way for Kickstarter to function,” he says. “The demands of the market are very different from the demands of the Kickstarter system. And generally the track record for what happens to organisations that are subsumed by larger companies is not the strongest…”
What about Strickler himself? Has it made him rich? (He grew up in a poor neighbourhood in Virginia, so far out in the sticks that his family didn’t even have cable television.)
He swaps his smile for a nervous laugh. “Er, my life has changed significantly but not because of money,” he replies. “It’s not a goal. It really isn’t. Growing up the way that I did…I remember the first time I got paid more than $50,000 a year was huge. And that was not that long ago…For way too many people, money is the single biggest restraint of their existence. To have the space to worry more about your mental health than your bank account is what true wealth is.”
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