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When Kickstarter kicks back

Has supporting the arts ever felt this maddening?

Christopher Borrelli

August 2, 2013

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Everyone thinks Kickstarter is wonderful, the answer to a struggling artist's prayers, the future of arts funding itself. And maybe it is, considering that last year the National Endowment for the Arts appropriated $146 million for arts funding while donations on Kickstarter — the 4-year-old, dream-it-and-a-crowd-of-family-friends-and-strangers-will-fund-it website — brought in $324 million for art and design projects.

Which is remarkable, heartening: What could be the backlash to a process so guileless?

Just wait.

One day it gets personal: One day, someone from college, someone you haven't spoken to in ages, hits you up to Kickstart his Americana CD. Then someone from work asks you to back her project, which has a goal of $7,000 and so far has raised $3,500 in microdonations and please won't you give? Then three different friends ask you to back their projects on not only Kickstarter but on lesser-known crowd funder Indiegogo.

And so, you give a bit — $10 to a poetry chapbook, $20 to the CD, $30 to a nature documentary …

In fact, you might feel guilty about not giving more. Or anything. (Since pleas tend to arrive in the form of Facebook messages, mass emails and tweets, it's not hard to play dumb when that hat gets passed.)

Kris Swanberg — a Chicago-based filmmaker who once raised $7,600 on Kickstarter to fund Nice Cream, her now-defunct ice cream business — told me she "usually gives $25 to friends' projects," then added, "But I am getting asked constantly these days." Indeed, being married to well-known indie filmmaker Joe Swanberg, her Kickstarter-prone circle is big.

"When Kickstarter began, I was like, 'What the (expletive)? I made a film on credit cards! This is on you.' Now, being asked (to Kickstart projects) is so commonplace, I feel obligated to give. I may not want the framed CD they offer as incentive, but my $25 says, 'OK, cool.'"

Until the day comes when someone you know doesn't need the money asks you for backing on Kickstarter. Then, a famous actor or director you assume doesn't need money (and probably has more avenues to funding than the average artist), asks you to back his movie on Kickstarter. (Come on, it's only $2 million.) Finally, someone hits you up on Kickstarter, and feeling jaundiced now, you wonder, Is she just being lazy?

This is how a backlash begins.

It's also why the backlash that's been bubbling — spurred by famous names' (like Zach Braff and Spike Lee) use of Kickstarter and pushed along by crowd funding's growing ubiquitousness, influence and relative open-endedness — tends to obscure and oversimplify the debate that we should be having. Namely, how should Kickstarter be? What should it become? An oasis for grass-roots artists with few options? A platform for the marketing, audience-building and supplemental funding of projects that would get off the ground with or without Kickstarter? An open door to every creative whim, regardless of personal or corporate intentions?

Or all of the above?

Let it be said, if we have to put a date on the start of the Kickstarter backlash, it should be April 24, 2013, the day writer-actor-director Braff turned heads by creating a Kickstarter campaign to ask for $2 million for his next film — a film that he admitted would be financed using a combination of money from the sale of distribution rights, his own personal investments and Kickstarter funds. He raised $3.1 million in 30 days. The film begins production this month. Braff's was far from the first celebrity-led Kickstarter campaign: Just a couple of weeks earlier, the creator of "Veronica Mars" — the long-gone, beloved TV series starring Kristen Bell — began a Kickstarter campaign for a movie version, asking for $2 million (and ultimately raising $5.7 million). But Braff's film, the follow-up to his 2004 hit "Garden State," became ground zero for the backlash.

Fairly, I think: Should a person with connections, and access to cash, use Kickstarter to seek more cash?

Before you answer, consider the following, a local illustration of how this argument doesn't just pertain to movie people anymore: Last spring, World Business Chicago, the city's economic development branch, launched Seed Chicago, a city-curated Kickstarter page of local projects it would like to succeed. The first round of campaigns brought mixed results — only five of the first 11 Seed projects met their Kickstarter goal. (On Kickstarter, if you don't reach your financial goal, you don't receive any of the money pledged; on the other hand, even if you do, you're not required to finish the project, and backers aren't guaranteed anything in return.) A week and a half ago, the second round of Seed campaigns was posted. Each has 30 days to hit its goal. Many are doing poorly. As of Thursday, the nonprofit Chicago Urban Arts Society, which is asking for $9,000 to bring public arts programs to "art poor communities," had raised only $135.

When I spoke to Lauren Pacheco, the society's co-founder, a young, well-regarded mover and shaker on Chicago's nonprofit arts and performance scene, she conceded: "Yeah, it is not going to happen for us."

Meanwhile, another Seed project launched the same day, Geek Bar Chicago, described as a bar and grill for the local pop-culture nerd community — "where a Chicago geek can get his drink on," project leader David Zoltan explained — raised $18,000 in its first 24 hours. Zoltan, whose background is in marketing, had asked for $9,750. He was also upfront in his pitch: This bar is going to open in March regardless of Kickstarter.

Because … he already had investors lined up, enough at the moment to sign a lease for a North Side location and create a bare-bones version of what he envisions. The Kickstarter campaign?

"Part of our strategy to build an audience, bring in community backers, offer a sense of ownership to our audience," he said. "We did not do this on an assumption the Kickstarter would work. But it did make our investors more excited."

In short: It's clever marketing.

And now Zoltan — who has devoted all of his time to launching Geek Bar — is $20,000 ahead.

Which makes Pacheco — who admitted she's been too busy with the Urban Arts Society, as well as Ald. Danny Solis' public art initiative for the 25th Ward, to conduct a decent Kickstarter campaign — irked.

"(Geek Bar) would be successful on its own," she said. "So it's frustrating. They have money in the bank! What was cool about Kickstarter once was how it was full of projects that weren't sure things and only found supporters on Kickstarter. What the hell is a bar with investors doing here? It's not like the North Side is hurting for culture. Have you seen Spike Lee's Kickstarter? The same thing: Dude, you have no place here."

This is how a backlash builds.

The grass-roots-colored glasses come off — unapologetically.

Even actor Colin Hanks raised $92,000 on Kickstarter to make a documentary about Towers Records.

And where is Colin Hanks going to find $92,000?

Not that having money and contacts is any promise of wild crowd funding success: Zosia Mamet, daughter of David Mamet and co-star of "Girls," recently tried to raise $32,000 on Kickstarter to make a music video with her sister. She topped out at $2,700 (and received nothing). James Franco, with a goal of $500,000 on Indiegogo, raised a more modest $328,000 for three short films (on the upside, Indiegogo lets you keep whatever you raise, regardless of reaching your goal). But Spike Lee, who launched a Kickstarter campaign in late July to fund a movie, has already raised more then $500,000, with a goal of $1.25 million.

He'll probably hit his goal (the campaign ends Aug. 21). He even posted an update on Kickstarter anticipating the backlash, explaining: "I have every right as anybody else (to use Kickstarter). I'm an independent filmmaker and I want to try this."

To be honest, I don't know how I feel:

Is this good for crowd funding? (Kickstarter has a lot of statistics pointing out that the influx of backers to well-known Kickstarter projects tends to trickle down and sprinkle money across less-obvious projects.)

Or is it a step toward co-opting?

The nice thing about being on the fence is I have company. There is no consensus: Author Neil Gaiman recently tweeted he was so irritated at online gripes about Lee's right to use Kickstarter that he donated to the project. (Steven Soderbergh also gave $10,000, entitling him to dinner and a New York Knicks game with Lee, the reward to anyone who gives the filmmaker at least $10,000.) Meanwhile, Chicago artist Lyra Hill, who has a campaign running right now, told me she usually won't support Kickstarter projects if it seems the artist could raise money elsewhere.

I heard this often.

Chicago filmmaker Cyrus Dowlatshahi has been on two sides of this argument: A couple of years ago this fall he raised more than $25,000 on Kickstarter for a documentary about the everyday life of the South Side. He landed about 250 backers, many of whom were friends, family and acquaintances — everyone but a family friend who, Dowlatshahi recalled, was blunt and "told me that 'I think this is something you should save your money and work hard to accomplish.' I disagreed with him at the time. But now I agree. Though Kickstarter worked great for me, and I like the pressure of not wanting to let down the people who have backed me, some things on Kickstarter? Some people on Kickstarter? It's a moral question. They should hustle. I have a cousin raising money on Kickstarter so she can go to India for yoga training — some people don't need Kickstarter."

If there's any agreement about Kickstarter — particularly among artists who've used Kickstarter — it's that few artists (and fewer of their backers) entirely grasp the etiquette, expectations and ramifications of crowd funding yet. Which leads to backlash. One artist asked me: Is it OK for a friend who didn't reach his goal on Kickstarter to now ask for money using Indiegogo? (She didn't know.) Another quipped that she has friends who don't seem to get out of bed unless they can raise $2,500 on Kickstarter first. But mostly I heard two things. No 1: Any successful Kickstarter campaign is a full-time job. Katie Olson, the strategy manager for World Business Chicago, said, "It's an incredible amount of work, and it's also really about your network."

Betsy Sikma of Accion, the nonprofit microlender that's helped Olson find projects for Seed Chicago, said, "In the end, you are sort of running in a charity race in a way; you're tugging at the hearts of your circle."

The other thing I heard: Be careful what you wish for.

Consider Chicago artist Rob Loukotka, who had a great idea last winter: an art print showing all of the Acme products that have appeared in Looney Tunes shorts. He asked for $3,000. By Christmas, he received $105,000.

"Suddenly I was in a new tax bracket," he said. He said he had to hire an accountant, arrange for the printing and shipping of 3,400 prints — and listen to the complaints of backers who didn't receive prints (one of the rewards for donating money) fast enough. Loukotka, dealing with the problem of distributing and printing exponentially more than he expected to, delivered his posters four months after he promised them.

He said he probably won't use Kickstarter again; the headaches of success were too intense.

Pablo Garcia, an assistant professor at the School of the Art Institute, sympathizes.

"Artists tend to lean heavy on funding and forget there's a crowd," he said. He should know. In May, using Kickstarter, he raised $425,000 to make an updated version of the camera lucida, a 19th-century optical drawing tool. He crafted a thoughtful, well-reasoned pitch. He expected to raise $15,000 and produce 500. Now he has to make 9,000.

Basically, he had to set up a small business on the fly. And he's OK with that.

"I think the grass-roots thing about Kickstarter is actually wrong. I think the backlash is misplaced. I support Spike Lee and Zach Braff and whomever. Because I had no investors and (Kickstarter), at the end of the day, was really an empowerment tool. You don't have any middlemen. What you receive is not so much money as freedom."

This month he flies to China. Someone has to manufacture all those camera lucidas.

cborrelli@tribune.com

Twitter @borrelli