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Q&A: Zach Braff on Kickstarter, indie filmmaking and the skeptics

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Zach Braff made headlines last week when he became one of the first top-tier Hollywood personalities to try -- and succeed in -- financing a movie via Kickstarter. Just a few days after listing his idiosyncratic project “Wish I Was Here,” which he aims to direct and star in, he had raised the Kickstarter target of $2 million to make the movie. The total is now at about $2.3 million and 31,000 backers, with three weeks to go.)

It was a remarkable turnaround. For nearly a year, Braff, 38, had tried to make the dramatic comedy about a thirtysomething Los Angeles man who decides to homeschool his children. It was met with skepticism from many traditional financiers, who told him they'd need to cast a very particular set of stars, and would also need to retain final cut, before they’d consider sinking equity into the project.

The "Garden State” helmer didn’t want to make those compromises. So, working with the veteran producer Stacey Sher and a few legal experts, he spent months building out a Kickstarter plan -- while at the same time taking into account reservations about being the first to jump into the pool. (As Sher said in an interview, “We kept backing off even as we pressed forward,” describing a process that had begun before another Kickstarter film, 'Veronica Mars,' began raising its funds).

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Last week, they launched, and the results were remarkable: Within a few days, a movie Braff dreamed about was suddenly in sight. He and Sher have now hired veteran casting director Avy Kaufman and aim to shoot the movie this summer, possibly in Los Angeles. (Traditional financiers would have required that the film shoot in rebate-rich Vancouver; Braff and Sher hope to use some of the Kickstarter money to keep it local. )

The idea of a movie star going directly to civilians raises some tantalizing possibilities about the future of filmmaking. Will directors, as Braff alludes to in his Kickstarter video, be mostly free of the note-giving process that has accompanied traditional film financing? (And if so, is that an unmitigatedly good thing?)

And will fans, with their enthusiasm and pocketbooks, essentially be able to will even a name-brand movie into existence, as they also did recently with the 'Veronica Mars' film?

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But with all this has come plenty of fallout. Almost as quickly as Braff had raised the money, critics were labeling him a carpetbagger who took advantage of a system meant for scrappy unknowns. Others questioned his playing with other people’s money -- people who would see little in the way of return in the event of the film's success -- when he seemed to have plenty of money of his own.

In a candid conversation, Braff refuted these accusations, saying he’s more like the fans than the A-listers his critics lump him in with. He said that there are misconceptions about the role the Kickstarter money will play in his movie. (Despite the ballyhooed $2-million figure, the budget will actually be in the range of $5 million, he said, with the remaining coming from select foreign sales as well as Braff’s own pocket. He wouldn’t put a number on his investment but described it as a "[butt] ton.”)

And he wondered if, like it or not, we've just entered a new era of filmmaking that will turn the system on its head.

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Here's an excerpt of our conversation.

Movies Now: Let's start with what you've accomplished. You spent a long time knocking on doors to get this quirky little script that few had heard of made. And now within a few days you not only made practically every film fan aware of this project but secured $2 million for it. Did the speed of all this surprise you?

Zach Braff: Well, it has been overwhelming to see how fans come out in support of something that I've cared about. I always hoped that the fans, the people who like what I do, would embrace this. But it actually hasn't been easy. We spent a long time building this, thinking about how to do it, engaging with fans. It wasn't an overnight kind of thing.

MN: Did you have reservations about putting yourself out there this way? You had to know that some people wouldn't like it.

ZB: This is a very personal story. I wrote it with my brother [Adam], and like 'Garden State,' it’s something that I feel passionately about. It's been funny to hear that people think this is some kind of money-grab. It would be the worst get-rich-quick scheme ever. If I wanted to make a lot of money I would have reteamed with my friend Bill Lawrence (creator of 'Scrubs') for a new TV show. Or written a huge romantic comedy. That's not what this movie is.
 
MN: You mention that some people thought you were in this for the money. Were you surprised by the degree of backlash? I was reading some blog comments earlier, and there was some pretty harsh talk about this being crowdfunding on steroids and suggesting you might be abusing the system.

ZB: There’s been some deliciously yummy vitriol. I guess I was a little naive about this coming in. I didn't think that people would care that much about a little movie, which I was wrong about. But I can’t say I totally get it. It's not like I've taken over Kickstarter. It's not like when you go to the home page there's a big picture of me smiling at you; you have to click through past a lot of other worthy projects to find it. It’s not like I lobbied Congress to pass a tax to finance my movie. It’s just sitting there in a corner of the site. If you want to wave at it and back it as you’re passing by, great. If not, you can just move along and that’s fine too.

MN: Some of the critics have made a more subtle argument -- that by putting your film on Kickstarter you're diverting money away from films by lesser-known directors. What's your response to that?

ZB: I have something every detractor doesn’t have: the analytics. Most of the backers of my film aren’t people on Kickstarter who had $10 and were deciding where to give it, and then gave it to me instead of someone else. They came to Kickstarter because of me, because of this project. They wouldn’t have been there otherwise. In fact, a lot of people who didn't know about Kickstarter came and wound up giving money to a lot of other projects too. So for people to say, 'That’s ... up; you’re stealing money from documentaries' is just not a sensible argument.

MN: Part of the reason I think this discussion has become so charged is because people really see in this a new model, one where fans are almost as important in getting a movie made as the professionals. Do you think that's where this is headed? Or is that a bit of digital utopianism?

ZB: That's the big question. No one knows exactly how it will turn out. But I do think one day people will be able to get equity in a project like this. They’ll be able to invest in a movie like a stock. It's not legal yet. But there are some very smart people, people a lot smarter than me, figuring out the legalities. And anyone watching this knows that's where it's going.

MN: Would you have gone that route if you could?

ZB: Absolutely. I want to involve fans as much as I can. We’re giving people T-shirts and script pages and parts in the movie. That’s what fans want. I want to give them more, but it's not legal yet. I'll give them whatever I can in exchange for their support.

MN: Some of the backlash I think has been about your celebrity. Their objection is to the idea that a guy who had a hit like 'Scrubs' or starred in 'Oz: The Great and Powerful' should be on Kickstarter.

ZB: I think that's a misconception about who I am. I make my own stuff. I'm not the person who people are banging down their door to be in their movie. I've always done my own indie thing. I think 'Oz' was the first big Hollywood movie I made. This is a labor of love. I wouldn’t spend the next year and a half of my life on it if that wasn’t the case.

MN: Let’s talk a little about the film. What are some details you could offer. What’s it about thematically?

ZB: It’s about a struggling man, a guy in his 30’s. He and his wife are seeing their dreams slip away. They're getting by, but barely. And the man, the character I'm going to play, looks at his kids [5 and 12] and when he realizes he can't afford private school anymore, he says ‘I’m going to try to teach them.’ So he decides to homeschool them. He’s not an academic by any stretch of the imagination. And he can’t teach them about academic things. But he tries to teach them about life and what he knows as a 35-year-old man who’s been around for a little while.

MN: How much will it feel like ‘Garden State'? Will it have a similar emo tone?

ZB: “I think if you like ‘Garden State’ or ‘Scrubs,’ if you like what I do, you ‘ll really like this. Also, the 'Garden State' soundtrack was a huge success, and here will be a ton of killer music on this soundtrack.

MN: Have any industry types who’d rejected you before come and said, ‘You know, maybe we were too hasty. Can we get back in?'

ZB: Of course. It’s always like that for me. It was like that with 'Garden State. It was like that with the play I did a few years ago (the dialogue-heavy comedy 'All New People,' which played off-Broadway and then on the West End). People who were cold suddenly are hot after it comes out.

MN: Would you take any of their money now?

ZB: I think that would be in bad taste for all the people who are backing this. It wouldn’t be in the spirit of the thing.

MN: We've certainly not heard the last word on star-driven Kickstarter films. Do you imagine we're soon going to see a lot more of these from people like you?

ZB: I wasn't trying to be a poster boy for any of this. I do think it's exciting. I don't know all of the answers. But we need to welcome the possibilities. The city of Hollywood is ready for this conversation. The Earth is ready for this conversation.

ALSO:

Zach Braff, playwright, in 'All New People'

Zach Braff tries to 'Kickstart' 'Garden-State' follow-up

Veronica Mars film a go, thanks to a Kick from Kickstarter

Twitter.com/ZeitchikLAT

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