What’s Really Going On With The Zach Braff Kickstarter Firestorm?

The amiable Scrubs actor’s crowdfunding project has resulted in both major fan support and some serious criticism. So, what’s the truth?

Alberto E. Rodriguez / Getty Images

How did the smiley doctor from a cult favorite sitcom become the biggest lightning rod in Hollywood and on the internet?

Last month, Zach Braff launched a Kickstarter drive to finance a new feature film, Wish I Was Here; he had already written the script, about a struggling actor trying to balance fatherhood and his artistic ambition, and he would serve as director and star as well.

The film hit its $2 million goal in just a few days (it’s now at $2.6 million), but it also earned him scorn. Bloggers and industry members snarked over Twitter — Tim Heidecker wrote out a particularly cruel fake scene for the film — and independent filmmakers debated whether the influx of celebrity-driven projects would bring more attention to Kickstarter (as Braff had promised) or deplete the pool of money for those that truly needed it.

“We’ve been living both under the microscope and in the spotlight at the same time,” Stacey Sher, the producer on his film, told BuzzFeed, noting her surprise at the attention the campaign has garnered.

Braff took to Twitter and media appearances to quiet the storm, but it began anew on Wednesday with The Hollywood Reporter’s report from Cannes that the movie had secured “traditional” financing from Worldview Media. The reaction was swift; bloggers called for the over 38,000 people that have backed Braff’s film to pull back their pledges, since it seemed that he didn’t really need their cash at all.

Once again, Braff had to put out a fire. The money from Worldview, as he wrote in a note on Kickstarter and Sher told BuzzFeed on Thursday, is not so much financing as it is a loan, meant to help him start production while he awaits the funds he earned on Kickstarter and from selling the rights to distribute the film to foreign countries, a process happening at Cannes right now. Worldview isn’t giving him money to make the movie so much as giving him a bit of cash now in exchange for repayment — with interest — in the future.

“Normally, when you pre-sell a film in foreign, you end up going to secure a bank loan because you cannot get that money until you deliver the film,” Sher said. “So that’s what is referred to as gap financing. A bank takes a service charge for that. It usually takes 10 weeks to secure a bank loan. Because of our schedule for making the film, which is, we begin principal photography in the first week of August, we don’t have the time to get at traditional bank loan against our foreign pre-sale agreements… Worldview will provide that right away for us in exchange for the same kind of fees a bank would get and other things a bank wouldn’t get because we don’t have enough time to get a bank loan.”

This particular project has been about a year in the making, though Braff had been working on scripts since Garden State proved a surprise hit in 2004. In 2011, free of his commitment to the hit sitcom Scrubs, the New Jersey native mounted his theatrical writing debut, the Off-Broadway play All New People.

“He did his play that summer in New York, which also grew out of the frustration of him being a personal iconoclastic filmmaking voice, but it didn’t really translate readily to what’s going on right at this moment in mainstream Hollywood,” Sher says. He also began writing with his brother Adam the script that would become Wish I Was Here, which he finished last summer.

Braff has explained that the project, a follow-up to his sole previous directorial effort, 2004’s Garden State, was too personal for him to subject it to the creative interference — or meddling — of the financiers that usually back independent films.

Sher read it this past winter and signed on to produce along with her business partner, Michael Shamberg. She was surprised, she says, that they weren’t finding the money to mount what was not a sequel to Garden State but at least, as she calls it, “an emotional kindred spirit.” Today, Hollywood places a much higher value on tentpole action movies, the big summer blockbusters like Iron Man and Transformers that can return megabucks around the world if successful; they swing for the fences, hoping for a grand slam instead of stringing together solid singles and doubles.

And so, Braff and Sher took stock of what they thought producing the film would require, financially, and saw an uncertain road ahead.

“Foreign sales is a very quirky market, and what is valued and what isn’t valued explains the kind of packages we get in the multiplex sometimes, where people go, ‘How did that cast come together?’” she says. “Well, it’s a function of how you pre-sell foreign and the eccentricities and complications of independent film finance. And basically we just decided to take a risk.”

In March, Rob Thomas launched the Veronica Mars movie Kickstarter campaign, breaking crowdsourcing records with a nearly $6 million haul. It became clear that Kickstarter could be used to finance a multimillion-dollar movie, though without the built-in fan base of the cult CW hit, there was some uncertainty whether Wish I Was Here could be one of them. There has also been an element of critical derision of Garden State, a sort of backlash to what was seen as a defining indie film that is now both loved and tweaked for its quirks, which made things even more uncertain.

They decided to take the leap, anyway, and made the crowdfunding site one of three avenues they’d take to reaching the $5-6 million budget. The other two would be whatever they could earn in foreign distributor fees, and then Braff’s own money, which Sher calls “a very large contribution.”

“I’m not taking a fee on the film, people aren’t taking fees, and those that have to take fees are working for scale,” Sher says, defending her star against charges that, as a millionaire making a continuous income via Scrubs syndication, he’s lining his pockets’ with fan money. “That’s one of the things that has been odd about some of the stuff that’s been written.”

In his note last night, Braff explained the financing situation and then offered fans a chance to take back their money.

“Let’s be frank. There are people out there who don’t want this to work. There are people out there rooting for me and you (if you’re a backer) to fail,” he wrote. “There are bloggers writing hateful things about me. I can take it. I’m kind of used to it. I hope you can. But if you feel misinformed or you no longer like this, you can cancel your support anytime in the next 8 days.”

Before he wrote that note, it was announced earlier Wednesday that Mandy Patinkin and Josh Gad had been cast in the film, something that Sher says was a product of the unique approach they have taken to making the project.

“Worldview has no creative control over the film. None of our partners have creative control over the film,” she says. “When people say Zach found full financing, that’s just not true. If we wanted to give everything away, the fact that his film could be taken away from him, that he wouldn’t have control over who he cast, then we would have taken the traditional model… Because of our 38,000 backers to date, we can cast Josh Gad for a part that somebody would have wanted a much larger star for based on foreign value.”

Most stories based on the THR report have been updated with the clarification Braff provided last night, with criticism at least slightly muted for now.

The SEC is currently evaluating Slated, an online exchange with which investors can put money into a film project and receive financial returns, not just the prizes — T-shirts, digital downloads, set visits — that can be offered to Kickstarter contributors. That could quiet the criticism that projects like Braff’s receive, though Slate’s launch date is still in question.

There remains a debate to be had over whether it’s helpful or right for mainstream filmmakers to be using what was initially meant to be a platform for truly independent artists to make their projects outside the mainstream system. Perhaps more importantly, whether the enthusiasm for these seemingly unlikely projects will change traditional financiers’ minds about funding them also remains to be seen.

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