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SciFriday: Kickstarter Model Makes Me Nervous ... Sometimes

Raising money for film projects is great, but it's not investing

As someone who is a champion not only of the creative arts behind television, film, Internet and other media we write about on this very site, it's hard to not support anything that helps create as much of these projects as possible.

Kickstarter is one of those sites that help make it possible. Different from anything else that's really been out there before, Kickstarter gives budding filmmakers a chance to introduce a project to the public, and then have that very public raise funds to help make that project possible.

For many projects, producers are looking to get the entire production funded. Others are more interested in maybe specific aspects of a project, like raising a fund for special effects or equipment.

And before you read on, I want you to know: I think this is great. There are so many projects that would have never happened without Kickstarter, and these are excellent projects that could help create some big-time filmmakers we will love and cherish in the future. I have no issue with projects raising money.

Where I start to get nervous, however, is where too many people I talk to equate this with the micro-financing that has become more and more popular with movie-making these days. While such financing is typically found on larger film projects, like the kind attached to big-name studios, Kickstarter is nowhere near the same thing. And anyone who chooses to give money through a Kickstarter program needs to fully understand that.

When you donate money to a Kickstarter project, you're actually pledging it. If a project is raising $50,000, and you decide to contribute $500, you don't lose that $500 from your account until that project reaches its goal of $50,000. If they don't make it by a deadline, your pledge is erased, and you're out nothing.

But if a project does reach that level, you will have $500 deducted from your account. A small percentage of that goes to Kickstarter itself, and the rest to the filmmakers. What the filmmakers do with that money afterward is totally up to them.

Nothing ties them to their original pitch. So say that the movie you funded was for a documentary on flowers, if the producers decide after the fundraising to make a campy horror film instead, then that's where you're money is going to go.

Even more, there is always a chance that the project will never get made. Nothing on Kickstarter forces filmmakers to actually produce a project, nor are there any mechanisms that would refund your money if a project is never produced. Once that goal is hit -- unless the project was a scam -- your money is sent to those filmmakers, and you will never see it again.

I'm not saying that Kickstarter is bad, or that projects on there are bad. Not in the least. In fact, I think Kickstarter provides something absolutely amazing to not just filmmakers, but creative and innovative people of all kinds. I think it's great ... but only if handled properly, like many great things.

But it's not an investment. When someone provides money to a larger production through different channels, they are doing it looking for a return. So if the movie makes a profit of some kind, they will not only start to get their investment back, but a piece of the profit as well.

Say you contributed $50,000 for the next Star Trek film, and you work through one of Paramount Pictures' or Bad Robot's fundraising divisions, your overall hope is that you will see that $50,000 again, along with some more money based on how much it makes at the box office, on DVD and everywhere else. It's almost like investing in stocks. You buy at $100 a share, and you hope someday you can sell at $300 a share, giving you a $200 a share profit.

Kickstarter is more like writing a check to a charity. But these projects are not charities. Sure, a vast majority of them are projects where no one will get paid anything substantial -- if anything at all -- but you have no guarantee that all projects are going to be like that.

If you donate $500 to something that becomes the next "Paranormal Activity" or the next "Blair Witch Project," the filmmakers could end up raking in millions of dollars, and you will end up with the satisfaction that you once gave $500 to make the film possible.

The nice thing is that many of these projects know that they are asking fans to dig into their pockets to fund something, wanting nothing in return. So you will see rewards like producer credits, set visits, even walk-on roles for big donors. And that's awesome. Some films will even list all their Kickstarter donors in the end credits (and who doesn't like having their name in the end credits?)

Kickstarter is a great service, as long as you are fully aware of what it is your dollars are going to. But just like any donation you make -- be sure it's money you can completely live without, and that you will be perfectly OK with never seeing again. Don't make it your rent money, your grocery money, your children's college education fund, or even your retirement investment.

And who knows ... maybe the little bit of money you spare is what makes the difference to help the world discover the next Quentin Tarantino or Steven Spielberg. If you have the extra dollars and want to do something good, why not give to an independent project.

About the Author

Michael Hinman is the founder and editor-in-chief for Airlock Alpha and the entire GenreNexus. He owns Nexus Media Group Inc., the parent corporation of the GenreNexus and is a veteran print journalist. He lives in Tampa, Fla.
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