Filmmakers can embark on some rigorous word-of-mouth tours to promote their upcoming releases. But few movie barnstormers compare to the one Zach Braff has been on lately for his new film "Wish I Was Here."
On most Mondays this late spring and summer Braff has headed, or will head, to cities across the country and Europe to spread the gospel of his multigenerational dramedy, which raised $3.1 million of its roughly $6 million budget via Kickstarter.
On Monday night Braff traveled to Boston, after previous stops in cities including Austin, Chicago and Los Angeles. (Monday is the actor's day off from his New York stage turn in "Bullets over Broadway.")
Braff's goal is to get the word out for the film ahead of its release from Focus Features on July 18. But it is also to make whole -- and continue to whip up the enthusiasm among -- as many of his movie's 46,500 Kickstarter funders as possible. It's a quintessentially 21st century tack: Use modern means to get a movie made, then turn around and employ those same means to attract people to buy tickets to it.
The Kickstarter screenings have the feel of a fan event mixed with a kind of fundraiser dinner; many of the attendees, after all, have paid hundreds of dollars to be there.
"Good evening, Los Angeles, California," Braff said after a screening at the Dome at Hollywood's Arclight Cinemas two weeks ago, sprinting to the front of the theater as his cowriter and real-life brother Adam Braff and costar and real-life bro Donald Faison followed.
Over the next 30 minutes Braff finessed the room, taking fan questions with the ease of a seasoned politician as Faison flitted around the theater with a microphone, Donahue-style.
"When you sat down to a computer and went to Kickstarter.com," asked one donor, "what were you thinking?"
"It was crazy. I was nervous about doing it. It was a big leap, putting myself out there," Braff replied. "I was incredibly vulnerable, to be honest."
"We go to a lot of formula movies all the time, and the chance to see something [different] ... thank you," one audience member said earnestly.
A moment later, Braff said: "Thank God you guys are all so cool and sane and normal. We only had one or two crazy people and they're not here."
The presentation was vintage Braff: I'm-just-like-you relatability with some comic relief thrown in.
"Wish I Was Here" -- an alternately sentimental and comedic look at an out-of-work actor and dad struggling with family and professional challenges -- follows the release of "Veronica Mars," the first major Kickstarter-funded film project, this spring. In many respects this is a truer test of the form than that branded TV spinoff was; as Braff has been reminding throughout the tour, he wasn't making a sequel to "Garden State" or "Oz: The Great and Powerful."
To enlist donors, he offered a wide range of engagement possibilities; bigger contributors, for instance, had the chance to visit the set during filming. The Arclight screening ran parallel to a higher-end version at the Directors Guild of America. Before that screening, Adam Braff told the Los Angeles Times about his role making sure the Kickstarter donors on set were taken care of.
"A lot of times Zach was not as available because he was working. I was one of the people who would entertain them, and that was a neat experience because you hear them say it all the time, that we love the Kickstarter," he said. "That was just mind-boggling from my perspective."
Actors, too, have been eager to sound the Kickstarter bell.
"I'm so excited," actress Joey King, who plays Braff's daughter in the movie, said before the DGA screening. "I was a backer before I was even thought of for the part." Inside the room she joined the dozens in raising her hand when Braff asked for all funders to identify themselves.
Braff maintained the you-are-my-people vibe he showed at the Dome screening. "When everyone said no, my amazing fans rallied and said yes," he said. "I would not be here without each and every one of you."
Not every donation level earned backers a screening invitation; lower-level donors, like 10 or 20 bucks, received T-shirts and the like. If you pledged $100, though, as 29-year-old Bryan Ortiz did, you might have landed a spot the DGA screening.
Ortiz said he had been funding films on Kickstarter for a while now and that, as a fan of "Garden State," he kicked in the money "immediately after I saw the video on the first day." "It inspired me, it moved me," he said of Braff's 2004 debut.
Kate Miller, 47, who works as a scientist in Northern California, wrote a check for $1,000. She said that she was motivated by the entrepreneurial spirit of the new film.
"I think the way the project was described in the pitch, it just sounded like there was a cohesive vision that ... was going to be realized," she said, then added a self-actualization note. "I guess I'm just kind of at a point in my life where I'm trying new things, so it was just something that I wanted to get involved in."
She added, "It's a testament to the film that I wasn't actually thinking about [my donation] when I was watching it. I got pulled into it. But at the end, yeah, it was definitely feeling ... pretty great to be a part of this, just a small part of this, somehow involved."
How many people will feel similarly to Miller is a key question, both for Braff and independent film at large. The Kickstarter dimension gives the movie a built-in group of grass-roots champions. But the release will show how influential they are. Can a group of supporters with this kind of enthusiasm and investment successfully spread the word?
Or has the core group already spent their money and seen the film, leaving the movie’s marketers to target the more elusive potential audience that remains?
There's also something of a backlash to contend with. At the Sundance Film Festival, several reports noted that, as Braff and the film's principal backers were garnering the rewards of a $2.5-million-plus sale to Focus, the 46,000 Kickstarter contributors were still out the same fifty or a hundred bucks they were before the sales windfall. Though there was a degree of naivete to these reports -- Kickstarter funders were never going to get their investment back; it doesn't work that way, at least for now -- for a certain kind of skeptical fan, it created a negative impression.
Braff, at least, is hoping that his ability to connect with fans translates into ticket sales. He's been tweeting about his barnstorming tour nonstop to his 1.4 million followers -- the promotional tour itself serving as promotional vehicle -- hoping to attract an audience to his populist piece in a time when many in the populace are seeing "Transformers" and "Planet of the Apes."
"I had a month,” to fund the film, he told the Dome audience. "And then it funded in 48 hours. That was just insane. And that was all you guys.” The crowd cheered loudly. Then Braff, wielding a camera phone, asked everyone to stand up, lean in close, and take a giant selfie.