In David Lynch’s 2001 neo-noir Mulholland Drive a cocky young director (played by Justin Theroux) is intent on calling the shots for his new studio-financed production. He is instructed to cast a particular (unknown) actor in the lead role. When he refuses, strange things happen. He returns home to find his wife having an affair and is thrown out of his house. He discovers his credit cards no longer work and his bank accounts are empty. In desperation, he meets with a mysterious cowboy who talks in parables and implores the director to make a “good” decision. He falls into line. The role is cast and production goes ahead.
In Hollywood, as the saying goes, you dance with who they tell you to or you don’t dance at all. Iterations of that familiar chestnut “you’ll never work in this town again” have been bandied about by coked-up executives for eons; Darryl F. Zanuck, co-founder of the company that would go on to form 20th Century Fox, famously responded to a dispute about the casting of 1957’s The Sun Also Rises with the line “the kid stays in the picture”.
Zach Braff, best known for playing fresh-faced doctor “JD” on TV sitcom Scrubs, was close to signing a deal to get a new film he and his brother had written off the ground. The 38-year-old writer/actor/director, once one of the highest paid performers in television (collecting US$350,000 an episode for Scrubs, totalling almost US$4 million for a single season) got approval for Wish I Was Here, a follow-up to his breakthrough 2004 feature Garden State, which cost around US$2.5 million and earned over US$35 million at the box office (plus lucrative DVD sales). But Braff, who has an estimated net worth of US$22 million, walked away from the negotiation table and took to popular crowdsourcing website Kickstarter to ask his fans for money. Some $2 million, to be exact.
In a colourful video address, Braff complained “there are money guys willing to finance the project but in order to protect their investment they’re insisting on having final cut. Also they want to control how the film is cast.”
In Hollywood, an industry that survives not by volume of content (most films are not financially successful) but by a small number of productions that do exceptionally good business, final cut is a privilege. The directors who have it generally earned a studio’s trust over a long period of time, or final cut has been added to their contract as an enticement. Films are assigned casting agents who collaborate with the director and make decisions together, which, for non-major parts, are almost always rubber-stamped. It’s true the studio maintains final say, but this is more about a safety net than “control”. It’s not hard to understand why.
Braff was inspired by the recent Veronica Mars Kickstarter, which generated more than US$5.5 million. His direct plea to fans has already proven a massive success, chalking up almost the entire US$2 million target in just three days. As is custom on the revenue-raising website, generally used by cash-strapped artists attempting to raise money for projects they cannot afford to finance themselves, Braff has added a range of perks (none of which include a copy of the film) which change depending on the size of investment.
For $20 you can listen to the film’s soundtrack before it’s released. For $250, you get a 15-second MP3 file of Braff “saying whatever you want”. For $5000, you get to attend the film’s premiere plus after party and — coming good on a joke made in his video spruik — Braff will “place my hand gently on your leg”.
“I [will] get to only cast the actors I think are perfect for the role,” Braff said, on the same page that offers a speaking part in his movie to anybody for $10,000.
Backlash arrived almost as quickly as Braff’s fans lunged for their cyber wallets, with thousands diving onto social media platforms to vent their spleen. Most have taken the angle that a wealthy person should not ask for public handouts for a project they can comfortably afford. Others have complained about the lack of quality benefits for investors, reacted to Braff’s comments on having final cut, observed that the people who pay to finance his movie will also have to pay to see it at the cinema or to own it, and accused Kickstarter of mutating into a corporate monster.