Zach Braff, And What It Means To Be An “Artist” In the Age of Kickstarter

A few weeks ago, Zach Braff’s second feature film, Wish I Was Here, was released into theaters. It wasn’t all that well reviewed (earning a 40% splat on the Tomato Meter and 43 out of 100 on Metacritic indicating “mixed or average reviews"), but that’s better than many of this summer’s movies. Nevertheless, it’s sparked way more discussion, much of it negative or nasty, than one would expect for a mediocre comedic second feature by a second-tier TV actor, even one whose first movie was a cult hit, in good part because of its soundtrack.

Those who have followed this story know that the reason Braff’s movie is getting so much attention is the Kickstarter crowd funding campaign he created to raise the money to make it — which is now mentioned in every article and review written about the film. The campaign created a huge backlash against him and his project, to the point where I’d imagine he probably regrets having raised that $2.6 million. The backlashers (including Kevin Smith) said that he should have paid for the film himself or via traditional film financing because by funding it through Kickstarter, he was taking money away from truly independent filmmakers and other artists for whom that method of funding was designed.

There are many hateable things about Zach Braff and his films — in fact, I was initially going to call this piece “Why We All Hate on Zach Braff,” but then I found a great blog post with almost exactly that title, which explains a lot of it really well. The main point this particular piece makes is that Braff is a navel-gazing white guy who has become the “face of crowd-sourcing entitlement” — in other words, someone who thinks he shouldn’t have to go the funding route that everyone else in Hollywood is forced to take because he is an artist and his voice is special. He also hasn’t fulfilled his obligations to the majority of his Kickstarter backers by sending them the measly t-shirts and posters and so on that they’re supposed to receive — despite the fact that the film is already in theaters and he and his team certainly could have done that by now — and he hasn’t exactly been apologetic about that, in fact, he’s been arrogant. But this might all be forgivable if Braff was the indie “artist” he thinks he is — in other words, if the new film he made was actually any good, and his voice actually was special, which, the blog takes pains to point out, it isn’t.

But let’s take a step back from the hating and break all of this down a little better. 

First of all, the Kickstarter backlash. I don’t really think Braff took money away from independents by going to Kickstarter, because I don’t think the money that went to him would have gone to other projects like, just for example, the 2011 Kickstarter for my documentary about the impact of the war in Iraq on the families of American soldiers. Not really the same audience, or the same reason for giving money — people gave us money because they were our friends and supporters, were interested in the work-in-progress they saw in the trailer, or were interested in the topic/issue, and I think that’s why most people give Kickstarter money to small films in general. While he absolutely said it for self-serving reasons, Braff is actually probably right that his campaign brought people to Kickstarter who wouldn’t have been there. Are the Zach Braff fans now going to look around the site and give money to documentaries and other, smaller projects? That’s anyone’s guess, but it’s certainly more possible than if they hadn’t gone there in the first place. So while I appreciate Kevin Smith’s honesty and integrity in recognizing that he’s had success and he should make use of that success, I don’t think the gain of Kevin Smith, or Zach Braff, adds up to my loss.

Next, the entitlement. Yep, Zach Braff is definitely an entitled white guy, and kind of a jerk in how un-self-aware he is about that. But our American pop culture world is chock full of entitled white guys, they pretty much created and define it. (Though some of them deserve credit for getting more self-aware, like Smith and Judd Apatow – whose support of Kristin Wiig and Lena Dunham has been an important factor in getting their work made – even if their own work, sadly, doesn’t necessarily reflect that). And when it comes right down to it, aren’t most artists, to one degree or another, navel-gazing narcissists? To decide to spend your life serving your own artistic vision and think it’s important enough that the world should support you in doing so, by allowing you to earn your living that way — that’s pretty much the definition of narcissism. And then if your artistic medium is film, you’re kind of even more of that, because you can’t just pick up a paintbrush or a pen and do it, you need all of this expensive shit, and at least a handful of (but often more like 50-300) other people to make it happen. To take all of that money and kind of stick it into your own navel? Now that’s entitlement. The only difference with an independent art film is that you think it’s art, not pure entertainment, not pure money-making, and you pretend not to care what anyone else thinks. Once again, that automatically kind of makes you a jerk. 

So coming back to the issue of art, the question then becomes, was it good? Or at least, will enough people agree with you that what you made was good, or at least worth it? Well, I haven’t seen Wish I Was Here, but it sounds like it’s a lot like Garden State – only people are just kind of over it now, because Garden State was ten years ago and Braff is essentially making the same, self-centered movie about himself and his problems now that he’s middle-aged and should know better. Given that, my reaction is kind of like, “Well, you knew what this guy did last time he decided to write, direct and star in his own film, what did you expect now that he’s more famous and successful, essentially because he’s been rewarded for being the dude who made that movie?” Plus, the situation was already skewed against the movie succeeding “artistically” in the media anyway, because Braff had essentially sold himself to the internet masses. When you’re a celebrity, you do kind of belong to the public, and when you’re a celebrity who directs and produces their own movie, you belong to your studio/investors. But when you’re a celebrity who starts a Kickstarter campaign, you belong to all the people who gave you money and everyone they know. You’re beholden to public opinion in a way that you wouldn’t otherwise be, because that public invested not just their money but their personal faith in your project. And because of that they feel what, exactly? Um, entitled perhaps? To some sort of connection to you, to pass judgment on your work, to some sort of payback. You can mitigate this and help people to think you are deserving by being humble and gracious and sending people the goods that you’ve promised them in a timely fashion. Well, Braff didn’t do that. He thought that he was making an independent film that would allow him to be just be the artist Zach Braff, or at least the one that he thinks he is. Alas, it’s not that simple, and he found that out the hard way. But going to Kickstarter to try to make something he thought was going to be true to his vision, and therefore, based on what everyone said about Garden State, good — can you blame him for that? 

Look, I have my own reasons to hate Zach Braff. For one thing, he went to my Maplewood, New Jersey high school (I was in the same class as his older brother) so I understand pretty well the type of comfortable and shallow suburban background that he comes from — and I don’t particularly like it, precisely because it was shallow and suburban. I also didn’t really think Garden State was very good to begin with, because it was pretty clear to me that it ultimately wasn’t about much of anything other than the self-pitying ennui of someone who was, well, shallow and suburban, and because Natalie Portman’s character in that film was one of the women for whom the term Manic Pixie Dream Girl was literally invented (by film critic Nathan Rabin, to describe“that bubbly, shallow cinematic creature that exists solely in the fevered imaginations of sensitive writer-directors to teach broodingly soulful young men to embrace life and its infinite mysteries and adventures”). Plus, as a filmmaker myself, let’s face it: I’m jealous and full of schadenfreude. Here’s a guy from my town who’s now a successful actor-writer-director — things I’d like to be (maybe not the actor part, but I guess if I wasn’t terrified of that I might desire it). And now, on top of that, he’s been able to raise money to make a second film through not just the means successful people traditionally have access to, like their own wealth and connections, but Kickstarter — the funding mechanism that’s supposed to belong to the rest of us, who aren’t known or successful — and he’s raised more money on it than any unsuccessful person could hope to do, precisely because he isn’t one of us. And then, he got money from traditional film financiers on top of that, something that is also incredibly hard for most of us filmmakers to do, because they won’t even look at low-level nobodies like us who can’t guarantee them a profit. Then, the fact that his film was going to go to Sundance and get picked up for distribution was basically a foregone conclusion, because he was already successful.

But as a filmmaker, I don’t like watching they guy get flayed for trying to do his own thing with whatever tools he’s got, essentially the money and power that we — and by we I don’t just mean the people who supported him on Kickstarter, but the public that supports the entire movie-making industry that gave birth to him and his ilk of auteurs — gave him. Deep down, we all might think we could be him and do it better than he does, without being such a dick about it, but the reality is, the American system of moviemaking made him that way and we’re a party to that. And you know what’s worse than vision-driven independent “artist” assholes? An industry that takes away all of their creative freedom in order to just make money. Maybe Braff isn’t entitled to artistic freedom any more than anyone else, but he also isn’t less entitled to it. And taking to Kickstarter because he wants the freedom to make a film the way we should all be allowed to make a film? I can’t begrudge him that. I wouldn’t wish it on anyone to have to make movies for the rest of their life within the Hollywood system — even Zach Braff.

We have this powerful new tool of internet crowd funding to support the types of artists and media we think are meaningful. So let’s do that: support the artists and media we think are meaningful. Tearing down who and what we don’t doesn’t help any of us, and opens all artists up to similar questions and attacks regarding why any of us “need” or “deserve” artistic freedom. Maybe we don’t need or deserve it, but I’m not going to blame anybody for wanting it.

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