This month saw two big crowd-funding successes, as films by Veronica Mars creator Rob Thomas and actor Zach Braff were put into production based on pledges from fans. Brooke talks crowdfunding past and future with Roman Mars, host of the show 99% Invisible, who used Kickstarter to fund his third season.
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BOB GARFIELD: This is On the Media. I'm Bob Garfield.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And I'm Brooke Gladstone. Advertisers have always used a particular calculation to determine the value of a piece of content, something like how many people watch this times what is the average demographic of those people times what percentage of them will buy my product if it’s advertised here. But for us, the audience, affixing value is much trickier. I wouldn't pay two bucks to see, say, Playing for Keeps, but I would pay twice the movie ticket price to see a feature-length sequel to Battlestar Galactica - oh yes, I would.
Economists use the term “consumer surplus” to describe the difference between what something costs and how much more you would have paid for it, if you'd only been asked. And consumer surplus is what drives the newest way to underwrite content, crowd-funding. You can pay whatever piece of art or entertainment is actually worth - to you. The TV mystery show, Veronica Mars, was not a mainstream success, but it was beloved by its fans. Rob Thomas, the show's creator, banked on that love when entreating those fans to pony up $2 million on the funding platform Kickstarter for a Veronica Mars movie.
SPOKESWOMAN: If we reach our fundraising goal, we’ll shoot the movie this summer.
SPOKESMAN: But when we hit the magic number, don’t stop donating.
SPOKESMAN: That extra cash will be our car chase and nudity fund.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: He asked for 2 million, he got 5.7 million. TV star Zach Braff also asked for 2 million on Kickstarter to make a movie. So far, he’s passed 2.5 million, and he still has some time to go.
ZACK BRAFF: There are money guys willing to finance the project, but in order to protect their investment, they're insisting on having final cut. That brings us to Kickstarter.
[TONES] After I saw how the amazing Veronica Mars fans rallied around that project in a mind-blowing way, I couldn’t help but think, like so many others, maybe this could be a new paradigm for filmmakers who want to make smaller, personal films without having to sign away any of their artistic freedom.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: “Consumer surplus” is an expression of passion. Roman Mars, host of the podcast and radio show 99% Invisible, used Kickstarter to fund his third season. The way Kickstarter works is if you don't hit your goal, you get nothing. He asked for $42,000. He got 170,477.
ROMAN MARS: I think they were entranced by this idea that they were joining this club to make a new type of public radio show and podcast, you know, like, “Here’s your shot, kid.” They’re part of a movement, but also the psychological factor. What makes Kickstarter so great is that threshold effect of getting all or nothing. If you don't pass that threshold, you get nothing.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: There's been a fair amount of pushback about Zach Braff's crowd-funding project to make a movie: somebody with so much money asking fans to fund his project. Do you think there’s anything wrong with that?
ROMAN MARS: I think I’ve largely come down to the idea that Kickstarter as a platform, it's meant to be kind of agnostic about these things. What I don't believe is that a Kickstarter like Zack Braff’s or Veronica Mars is taking any money away from an independent producer. I think there’s probably a lot of people that were brought to Kickstarter from those campaigns that had never heard of it before. So, in that sense, it doesn't bother me. You know, for the Veronica Mars one, it is an indirect subsidy of Warner Brothers, you know, making a movie, which somebody who gives money to them should think through. But you’re not compelled to give, so that's okay with me.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: If we step outside of the Kickstarter platform specifically, and just talk about the donation model - and our whole program this week is devoted to trying to grapple with the question, even if we can’t answer it, how we gonna pay for all this stuff - and donation surprisingly seems to be a potentially sustainable way of doing that.
ROMAN MARS: I think that is the way of things, and I like the fact that you are opening up the show to allow people to be a part of it, in some way. And I know it’s kind of corny - it’s one of the things we say on public radio - but it really feels that way. When I did this, people wrote me as if I was giving them a gift, that they could give to the show and be a part of it and help it happen. If you can have audience like that, you can make something.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Has your success using Kickstarter changed your view of your future?
ROMAN MARS: Definitely. I did Kickstarter because I needed a problem solved. I needed to, to pay myself a little bit of something and pay my contributors to do this show, because I was going broke paying them and not paying myself. It was just about that.
What I got from Kickstarter changed the way I viewed like my audience and how I can operate in this world. It gave me time. There's a perversity of money that money follows money [LAUGHS], and so like when I raised money on Kickstarter, I got more underwriting support.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Everybody loves a winnah!
ROMAN MARS: Exactly, that's exactly it. You know, I realized in this process, and part of this is, you know, me enjoying the success of the Kickstarter campaign, is that I kind of like solving the problem of funding the show. I didn't think I would ever enjoy this part.
But I kind of like it. I kind of like this idea of entrepreneurial journalism. It's just a puzzle, like anything else. And I’m a producer, and my job is to solve problems. And this is just the most immediate problem that we have. [LAUGHS] And so, coming up with a creative way to solve that problem that doesn't annoy your audience, that brings them in, that makes them feel part of something and kind of something joyful, in fact, then you’ve done a really good job with it. And you can hear those people who do this well, like Ira Glass, when he goes on and asks for money, he sounds like he's enjoying solving the problem –
- of asking for money. You just make it like everything else that you make. You make it sound good, you make it honest, and a connection is there. And as long as you can do that and solve that problem well, then it’s actually kind of fun.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: I can never get that desperation out of my voice when I’m pledging.
I guess I’m doomed. Roman, thank you very much.
ROMAN MARS: Oh, thank you so much.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Roman Mars is the host of the podcast and radio show 99% Invisible.