In Hollywood, as the saying goes, you dance with who they tell you to or you don’t dance at all. 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.
The point of these scenes, as much as it is possible to glean a definitive reading from a Lynch movie, is that Hollywood studios remain in control one way or another. 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 “J.D.” 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. Two million dollars, to be exact.
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In a colourful video address Braff complained that “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. If a director decides to do something bold and crazy like, say, cast Pauly Shore as the lead in a $50 million action movie, they are suddenly upping the stakes considerably in a gamble with vast amounts of capital that isn’t theirs.
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.” This is typical of his playful, mildly risque sense of humour. It is also by definition (“a person who offers his talent or work for unworthy purposes” — though a good leg rub doesn’t go astray), and in the nicest possible way, prostitution (something to add to the CV).
“I (will) get to only cast the actors I think are perfect for the role,” Braff says, 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 re: 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.
Let’s push aside the question of whether it is ethical for a celebrity to ask his or her fans to cough up roughly one quarter of the amount of money they made in a single year, and consider how the success of Wish I Was Here’s campaign may impact the status quo in tinsel town.
Braff and the Veronica Mars crew have opened the gates for Hollywood to look at ventures such as Kickstarter as new streams of revenue for already commercially viable productions. Want to see Ryan Gosling play Batman? Millions of fan boys/girls would presumably shell out for that, for little reward, then shell out again when the movie eventually arrives at their local multiplex. Crowdsourcing websites could also provide powerful tools for audience research. Warner Bros, for example, now know there is unequivocally a market for a Veronica Mars movie.
But the commentary surrounding Zach Braff’s game-changing gambit has missed an important component: what he will do with his movie once that coveted final cut has been made. It is safe to assume Braff wants as many people to see Wish I Was Here as possible, which means pursuing a wide release — and this means, in America at least, he will face the task of selling his movie to the same people he walked away from.
Major Hollywood distributors and major Hollywood studios are owned by the same companies (until 1950, after the US government clamped down on vertical integration, they also owned the major exhibitors). An independently produced feature film needs to be bought by a distributor, and that distributor needs to be convinced there is value in taking on the production and the financial risks associated with it. There have been countless occasions when distributors have acquired indie films on the proviso that certain elements must be changed; one of the great living moguls, Miramax’s Harvey “Scissorhands” Weinstein, earned his moniker for that reason. If Braff finds himself involved in such conversations (“we want to release your movie, but this bit has to change…”) he will have inadvertently provided a biting satire of the cyclical nature of the American film industry. There is plenty of time left for the entrepreneurial indie star to meet the cowboy from Mulholland Drive.
There is a good chance a major distributor will embrace Wish I Was Here and market it as a left-of-centre feature from a filmmaker brave enough to work outside the system. But that deal would still need to be made, and the same people will be calling the shots. In the top end of town you dance with who they tell you to or you don’t dance at all, and in the end, the big guns dictate the terms. The essence of Zach Braff’s new role might not reflect the way he described it in his video, as a man contemplating “the next chapter of life in your 30s.” It may become a sort of reverse Robin Hood: a rich man taking money from the public and funneling it back into the same infrastructure he so passionately denounced.