Friday, March 22, 2013

Netflix, Kickstarter, and New Hollywood

I confess: I'm not a professional movie or television maker. And yet, that hasn't stopped a lot of people from commenting on Netflix's recent foray into television production with House of Cards or the use of Kickstarter to raise capital for Veronica Mars: The Movie. (Dollars to donuts, the movie is going to involve rape or attempted rape in some capacity.)

But I did study the history of Hollywood once, so, I'll be honest: we've seen these sorts of fundamental shake-ups before. In the 00s, it was adding narrative to film, in the 30s, it was the Hays Code and the introduction of sound; in the 50s, it was competition with television and the introduction over various -scopes to compete; in the 60-70s, it was the American New Wave, like Scorsese, Coppola, etc. and the special effects revolution and the creation of the blockbuster and the tie-in (Jaws, Star Wars, etc.); in the 90s, it was the indie movement. Things change, things stay the same, especially if your name is "Woody Allen."

I was thinking of this recently when listening to an episode of Scriptnotes, a podcast with John August and Craig Mazin where they discussed Kickstarter. Putting aside for a moment that Craig Mazin doesn't seem to understand Kickstarter (he doesn't understand the reward tiers and that investors get something back--that, in many cases, supporting a project on Kickstarter is a lot like pre-ordering an item, not donating money to a corporation), I don't think he's wrong when he says there's some potential for waste, fraud, and abuse in Kickstarting intellectual property that belongs to corporations. That is: there's potential. Why does the WB need help funding a Veronica Mars movie if they wanted to make one? Will Kickstarter just be a way to publicly fund ventures that are privately profitable? Will studios turn to the public, hat in one hand and gun to the head of a beloved show in another?

Eh, all things are possible in the future, but I don't see this potential for abuse becoming a major factor in creative ventures. We long ago entered a new phase of entertainment where something that dies can be revived, whether tv-to-movie (Firefly to Serenity), tv-to-tv-following-cult-popularity (Futurama, Family Guy--both revived after cancelation due to excellent DVD sales and rerun ratings), or tv-to-something-else (comic book continuations of Angel and Buffy, Netflix reviving Arrested Development). And all of these revivals had less to do with Kickstarter (fans ponying up cash up front) than with the corporate forecasting that said fans would line up for these later. If Kickstarter takes some of the worry out of this equation by letting fans pre-order tickets, that won't radically change the way things are done.

To further address one of Mazin's worries, that corporations will use Kickstarter as blackmail ("fund this season or we kill your favorite show"), I'm afraid that doesn't really make sense. Fans have always had ways of making their commitment known--before Kickstarter there were letter-writing campaigns. And any corporation that ignores viewers seems to be working against their own interest: if I'm already watching your show, you're making money off of me through advertising revenue. Trying to squeeze more out of your viewers will just make you enemies.

Now, will Kickstarter help accelerate second lives for cancelled intellectual property? That's the real shift here that may happen in the future, though as I noted, this sort of thing has been happening more even without Kickstarter. And as we saw with the attempt to Kickstart an Inspector Space Time show (a Doctor Who-esque show within the Community universe), sometimes corporations like to hold on to their IP even when they're not using it.

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