Film

Cinemadope: Brother, Can You Spare A Million?

Funding films in the Internet Age

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Wednesday, July 23, 2014
courtesy of Focus Features
Wish I Was Here

The intersection of Hollywood and the Internet Age has seen its share of fender-benders and near misses, as well as a few straight-up wrecks. Both artistically and technologically, the two sides have had to warm up to each other slowly, with traditional media empires being particularly slow to embrace change—afraid that anyone with a laptop could pick their pockets.

Artistically, things have gotten a lot better in recent years. Gone, mostly, are movies like FearDotCom (about a possessed website that could kill visitors), replaced by more thoughtful fare like The Social Network and Sweden’s The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo series, whose title character is an IT specialist. And on the business side, things have begun to get really interesting thanks to a newly popular idea: crowdfunding. The idea is simple enough: if Hollywood won’t give you the money to make your art, go directly to your fans; if enough of them pony up a few dollars each, you get to make your movie.

That’s how Zach Braff financed Wish I Was Here, the long-gestating followup to his 2004 indie Garden State. Unwilling to accept the offers of what he calls the “money guys” of Hollywood—who demanded final cut of the film, casting control and so on—he turned to Kickstarter, the online site most famous now as the place that raised almost 50 grand for a guy to make a bowl of potato salad. But those kinds of shenanigans aside, it can function as a wonderful way for fans to offer direct support to the artists they love. Braff’s pitch—in which he described crowdfunding as “a new paradigm for filmmakers who want to make smaller, more personal films,” asked for $2 million; when all was said and done, some 45,000 fans had raised over $3 million for his film, earning themselves rewards ranging from T-shirts and advanced screenings all the way to a walk-on role in the film for one big spender.

The idea isn’t without its detractors. When Kickstarter began, it was generally viewed as a place that could help new voices—be they artists or entrepreneurs—get heard above the better-known names. For Braff to come in and ask for money, many thought, bordered on obscene: he had, after all, starred in a hit television comedy for a decade. How much money could he need? The answer is simple: a lot. Making movies is still a hugely expensive business, even for a TV star.

You can decide for yourself if it was worth all the effort when Wish I Was Here screens at Amherst Cinema this week. Braff’s film isn’t a sequel to Garden State, exactly, but it does feel like a companion piece: while that earlier film was about a young man experiencing a “quarter-life crisis,” this new story stars Braff as Aidan, a struggling actor in his thirties who is forced to face the fact that he may not be doing all he needs to for his wife and kids. With his father—long the main support of the family structure—ailing and his brother absent, Aidan begins searching for a way to do more for those he loves without giving up on himself. Kate Hudson and Jim Parsons (The Big Bang Theory) co-star, along with Mandy Patinkin as the aging patriarch.

Will it change the future of moviemaking? Probably not. Even with all that funding, Braff’s film is still dependent on traditional distribution; Focus Features is handling that. And lost in all the novelty of its funding is the question of whether or not it’s even in viewers’ best interest in the first place: not all writers/directors benefit from having complete control over their work. But the fact is that this particular film would never have been made without filmgoers giving Braff the millions to make it—and to make it however he wanted—and that, for better or for worse, is a startling change.•

Jack Brown can be reached at cinemadope@gmail.com.

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