Is the relationship between creators and fans today a healthy one? Has the new closeness made things ever more personal? Kickstarter and other crowdfunded content are coming under increased scrutiny with the biggest lesson so far being that when backers contribute money, they don’t make requests, they make demands.
This month I chat with Jeff Cooper and Grahaeme Cowie of Smoking Doors Productions about their animated webseries Impotents and the Kickstarter campaign their currently running to get it made. Besides spilling the beans on the series itself and what we can expect, we discuss why they chose Kickstarter and how much planning and effort goes into running a campaign. If you’ve ever been curious about it, you’ll want to have a listen.
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No really, hear me out. I’ve waxed lyrical about Kickstarter projects before. I think it’s a great tool for the independent animator/producer who’s project is perhaps a bit too risky for a serious investor. Some great projects have found backing through it while others have stuttered to a halt despite 6-figures in backing; not naming any names. Yet Kickstarter could actually result in less animation being made. That sounds mad, right?
Kickstarter is a service that continues to enjoy a lot of popularity among filmmakers and entertainers. One of the main reasons that people turn to Kickstarter is to help fun the actual content. That carries a certain amount of risk though, so it’s always good to see someone using Kickstarter to fund something other than the animation, like what WAKFU is aiming to achieve.
A while back, I did a comparison of three, quite different Kickstarter campaigns for animated projects. Today, we’re taking a look at three more. Again, they’re all quite different but all hope to raise enough money to fund the production of top-quality animation. They are: Bee & Puppycat, Dead Meat and Morph.
A while back, independent animator and open culture advocate Nina Paley pined for an open source, 2-D vector animation program. Now her prayers have been answered; sort of. Tupi is a Kickstarter project whose goal is to create a fully functioning 2-D animation program that is also open source. But that’s not all, there’s also another Kickstarter project that aims to upend the ubiquituous animation GIF.
Kickstarter is white-hot right now (that means the customary fall from grace/popularity is just around the corner) and we’re seeing projects, specifically animetion ones, popping up all over the place. While some are to fund entire films or TV series, others are a lot simpler, but no less ambitious. For example this one, which purports to model every Pixar character over a 12 month time frame. Ambitious, yes. Legal? It’s not so clear. Let’s take a look at how this particular project once again highlights the tricky intersection of copyright and trademarks.
It’s Copyright Infringement
What may be abundantly clear is that yes, it features the use of Pixar’s copyrighted characters and designs. For many studios, that’s a no-brainer. The creator is proposing to recreate (as accurately as possible), every major character from all of Pixar’s films without permission.
Furthermore, he is performing exact replication. Even though his own efforts are going into creating the models from scratch, he is essentially creating facsimiles. In order to ‘escape’ the copyright protection afforded Pixar, he would have to make them transformative in some way. Something he does nto appear to be doing.
It’s Trademark Infringement
The copyright aspect is clear enough, but what about the trademarks? Ah, you say, he’s not selling anything or masquerading as Pixar so it doesn’t matter.
Well, actually, it does. While he is not pretending, or even pretending to pretend to be Pixar, trademark law also looks at things like brand dilution. By creating Pixar characters and such, he is, in a way, diluting Pixar’s abiity to sell those characters that also function as trademarks in the same way that Mickey Mouse does for Disney.
On top of that, his project requires funding to begin with; it isn’t being done for charity. The money raised will feed and clothe the creator for a year while he produces the models. That makes it a commercial enterprise and almost certainly puts it under brand dilution.
The final aspect to the trademark case is that many of the characters in Toy Story aren’t even owned by Pixar. The original ones (Buzz, Woody, the martians, etc.) are, but almost every other toy in the film is owned by another corporation who hold the trademarks. Selling models of those toys, even if they are based on a Pixar film, will infringe on those trademarks instead and almost certainly again be covered by dilution.
Escape From Infringement Via Fair Use
Fair use is a clause within US copyright law that shields users from the perils of copyright infringement provided it is for certain, codified functions or situations. An example would be news reporting, or critical commentary.
Another aspect is education:
In determining whether the use made of a work in any particular case is a fair use the factors to be considered shall include:
- the purpose and character of the use, including whether such use is of a commercial nature or is for nonprofit educational purposes;
So, is this a “commercial” venture? Ostensibly no, but the fact that he will be living off of the monies raised certainly complicates matters. A court would likely find that it is, if not on the basis of the living expenses, but on the basis of him distributing DVDs of his work.
What about the educational aspect though? The whole aim of the project is to illustrate and explain the process of modelling a 3-D CGI character, right? Yes, absolutely! However, does that count as being educational for the purposes of copyright?
On the surface, it is. Delving deeper though, it again gets pretty complicated. It could easily be argued that the creator could simply use his own designs; he’s clearly talented enough. The use of Pixar’s characters is admirable and would be beneficial, but their use does not preclude other possibilities, especially non-copyrighted ones. Lastly, educational purposes generally do not create things for use by others, rather they are instructional. In this instance, the models created will be available for others to use; not use for their own education.
Once again, we see how easily it is to get bogged down in some of the legal concepts that govern animation.
It would be nice if Pixar released their own models, or even instructions on how to make them, but that is not the case. Disney is well known for being overly protective of its creative designs.
Filmmakers like David OReilly are leading the way by making their character rigs available for non-commercial purposes, but until a process of sorts is formalised, Kickstarter projects like this on are on shake legal ground.
We’ve discussed the Trigger short Little Witch Academia on the blog here before, and it’s nice to see the studio do so many things right with it. So much so, that when a Kickstarter project was released, it was fully funded to the tune of $150,000 in just about three hours! So what has been done to get things so right? Unsurprisingly, its all down to common sense and a bit of luck.
The Original Little Witch Academia Had Risk-Free Funding
Yes, as discussed before, the original was funded by a grant from the Japanese government. That meant that Trigger was free to indulge in a bit of remarkable creativity and inevitably create something that has garnered a lot of critical praise in addition to being commercially viable.
It Was The Epitome Of Superb Content
There’s no doubt about it; Little Witch Academia is what is meant by the descriptor ‘top-notch’. It oozes high quality and craftsmanship the likes of which even Disney has been unable to replicate in the last decade or so. The story is enchanting, the characters are delightful and the animation is nothing short of downright gobsmacking.
Yup, Little Witch Academia illustrates all to clearly how a devotion to quality can work real and lasting wonders.
Trigger Engaged With Fans
Being based in Japan, Trigger could all too easily have ignored fans outside of the country altogether. Instead though, they did everything right with an eye to boosting their presence. Right off the bat, they didn’t pull down the unofficial YouTube leaks; rather, they released an official version replete with corrected English subtitles!
They also listened to fans and continually communicated with a positive attitude about wanting to make more animated Little Witch Academia content.
They Did Things One Step At A Time
Just recently, it was announced that a Blu-Ray home media release of Little Witch Academia is slated for later in 2013. Could this have been done earlier in the year? Sure, but rather than risking a lot of money by making something that potentially wouldn’t sell, Trigger instead waited. When the short’s popularity soared through the roof, they cut a deal. Tying in again with the quality of the content as mentioned above, there should be no problem shifting those discs come August.
The Lessons This Success Story Should Teach
It’s unfortunate that the simple, basic steps that Trigger has taken with Little Witch Academia are so roundly ignored on a daily basis by animation studios around the world. While it’s understandable that they have to work within the confines of TV networks for some of their work, it’s hard to believe that they take the same approach to their own stuff, and seek to impose to everyone the kinds of restrictions they are bound to.
This case highlights the fact that true and meaningful success is totally and easily achievable with the two simple things of great content and a willingness to listen and communicate with those who watch it.
This blog hasn’t been shy about Kickstarter in the past. It’s a great service and one that enables independent creators to fund their creations in an efficient and relatively risk-free manner. Of interest to us is the animation-related projects (naturally) and with the recent success of the Cyanide & Happiness campaign, there has been much to celebrate in that regard. That said, as with any successful service, the big boys eventually come knocking and that’s where the problems begin when it comes to determining who owns Kickstarter projects once their funded.
Backers Are Technically Investors
Think about it, if you put money towards something (tangible or not) you’re really investing in its success. Projects that aim to create a physical object generally offer said project as the reward for backing. Projects concerning content also tend to offer the content (or access to it) as rewards because (naturally) people who back something want to be able to see it too.
The problem is that content projects generally depend on lots of people watching it. Those lots of people won’t be backers, they’ll be members of the general public who heard or read about it from somewhere else. Since they have nothing to do with the original Kickstarter campaign, that essentially makes the original backers investors instead of donors. Concepts such as ownership of the completed works and the nature of any copyrights associated with them have so far gone unaddressed in many Kickstarter campaigns despite the fact that they are often a sore spot in traditional models.
How This Becomes Problematic
The impetus for this post comes from Dara Naraghi who commented on the recent Veronica Mars Kickstarter campaign. If you are not familiar, the gist is that major studio Warner Bros. ‘told’ the series creator that if they could raise $2 million, the studio would consider a feature film. Needless to say, that target was blown away within hours (its at $4 million as of writing).
Dara however, sees a massive problem :
First of all, allow me to congratulate Warner Bros. for being so incredibly generous to “allow” people to give them free money, with absolutely zero risk to the studio. What great movie making folks they are. And secondly, if the phrases “met with the Warner Bros. brass” and “they agreed to allow us to take this shot” make you feel confident that the movie studio is obligated, ethically and legally, to make this movie, then you’re either the world’s biggest optimist, or stupidest investor. Seriously.
He’s right too, but the problems extend far beyond the above attempt to make a film. In the past, if you put money towards a project, you were also (generally) entitled to a share of any profits generated (its one of the founding theories of capitalism). With Kickstarter, no such guarantees exist. Essentially once a film/series is funded, you (the backer) are no longer entitled to anything beyond what you were originally promised, and even then you may be left in the lurch.
Under certain circumstances, such a scenario is acceptable though. Think an independent animator who just wants to get their film onto DVD, or the comic artist who wants to publish a book.
Those kinds of campaigns are different though as the content has already been created. The projects this post is concerned about are the ones whose goal is to fund the content itself. Problematic insofar as content tends to live on for quite a while and can generate revenue for decades after they are created. Is it really fair to the people who paid for it to see the money raised go straight into the pockets of the creators who essentially put up nothing besides the idea? (If you disagree, please by all means add a comment below.)
How This Can Lead to Abuses
While many people freely donate/invest knowing this, where it could potentially become a problem is when larger players get involved. Projects like the Cyanide and Happiness one are done by individuals with a strong connection to their fans and who gladly give the content away for free afterwards, but what if a major studio (such as Warners) did the same? Do you think they would make it freely available afterwards? Nope, not a chance. What about the money they would make from it, would that be distributed among the people who donate? Again, not a chance. Heck, Hollywood studios are already notorious for not even giving out the money their contractually obliged to. What hope to thousands of individuals have?
Naturally if you only throw $25-50 at a project chances are you won’t be too put out, but some campaigns have donors who pledge $10,000 or more! That’s certainly not a pledge but a true investment; even more so since they often come with a ‘producer’ credit.
How To Mitigate For Abuses of Kickstarter Backers
As you can probably tell, the issue here isn’t people receiving nothing, or people receiving little but rather people seeing their generosity taken advantage of. Independents keep this in mind, but larger studios certainly won’t. If Warners receives the Veronica Mars Kickstarter money, rest assured it will disappear into the black hole of development hell. Why? Because it’s 100% profit for them and having $4 million in their hands is worth a heck of a lot more than a potential $100 million box office.
The simplest and most effective way to mitigate is to simply let the content created roam free either in the public domain or (more sensibly) under a Creative Commons license. Put simply, the latter does not prohibit creators from making money, but does not preclude investors from enjoying and sharing it either.
What Do You Think?
Lastly, I want to hear what you think. Time pressures meant I was unable to contact and query the people I wanted to before writing this post, so I’m eager to hear what you think. Would you feel cheated/angry if a Kickstarter project made lots of money after you backed it? How about being told you can no longer enjoy it thanks to copyright restrictions?
Leave a comment below and feel free to share this post too!
Kickstarter is a great service and one that I’ve covered before in some detail, but recently I got around to thinking, just who is Kickstarter ideally suited for (from the animation world)? What got me started on this train of thought was a project that I’ll discuss in detail further down (that was brought to my attention by Amid Amidi), and after looking at it, I did spend some time perusing the other animation projects on the site but came away scratching my head.
The reason is simple, there’s a complete smorgasbord of projects on there and it’s hard to make a distinction between all of them (unless of course a major name is attached). However, what did become apparent is that there are a few main types of projects:
- Short films
- Production “sprints”
- Feature films
Starting with the pitches, they are basically exactly that; a Kickstarter to make something that will be used to convince someone else that the project is a good idea. I discussed one extensively in this post and was a bit harsh on the guy, but it was justifiable (and to be fair, we emailed afterward so everything’s cool). This kind most recently came to light with The Goon; essentially a very expensive pitch reel to be used on major studios. That’s great and all, but the budget for that film was astronomical, and a huge name was attached too. The vast majority of this kind of Kickstarter are of this variety; small, independent guys trying to find their way in the world. Kickstarter isn’t ideally suited to them for the precise reason that they’re using it in the first place; nobody knows them!
Episodes and Series
Moving up the scale, episodes and series are quite popular with many projects aiming to create either a single episode or a series of episodes/shorts. The budgets for these are generally higher but the production values tend to be larger too. These projects can be solicited by either individuals or small studios. One that I am familiar with is the one I helped back, the Vegtoons series. The Kickstarter was for one episode but the ultimate goal is an entire series with production being done by Cartoon Saloon.
These projects tend to have a lot more of the unknown about them insofar that what happens after the episode or series is created is sometimes undefined. At least in the Vegtoons instance, a series is promised. It should be noted that there is a lot of crossover between this category and the one above. Plenty of projects are for one episode in a potential series that can be used to gauge interest or as a proof of concept for an investor.
These projects are ideally suited to a small studio rather than an individual. The reason is simple; a studio would be in a more immediate position to get going should production commence. An individual would still need to find a studio and organise the production.
The short films projects are very common with plenty of individual animators and collectives looking to get the funds necessary to complete their masterpieces. The scope of these projects varies but almost all are for funds to complete either the entire of the remainder of production. The latter coming almost always after the creator runs out of their own time/money to complete things in a successful manner.
These projects have even more unknowns than the series’. The reason, quite simply, is what happens to the short film after it is created? I saw one campaign that was simply looking for funds to enter a film in festivals! In any case, the reward of a short film is inevitably the film itself (either in a download or DVD). the economics of these campaigns are more than a bit blurry but at the end of the day they represent the closest approximation of creators interacting with their fans. Naturally there will be disappointments from time to time (I’ve heard noises about John K’s project potentially being one of them) but short film campaigns represent both the largest variety within the Kickstarter community and the closest point where creators and fans interact and meet each others needs.
These projects are the odd man out of the other Kickstarter projects in that they are not complete projects. Rather, they are campaigns to complete stages of a project. The notion being that initial stages require less money and therefore fewer backers whereas the middle or final stages of production will require significantly more money and therefore more backers. The idea behind this structure is that word of mouth can build during production so that the largest potential pool of backers is acquired at just the right time.
Such a method can greatly enhance the success of a project, especially if the audience has yet to be reached. Michael Sporn’s POE film fell just short of funding but could well have been successful (on Kickstarter at least; he eventually received significant funds through Indiegogo) had he broken the production into more segments and run a campaign for each of them.
This method requires multiple visits to the ‘trough’ that may eventually run dry. That said, if a production is well run and keeps its fans informed and updated, there is little reason to suspect that they will stop supporting it. the TUBE Open Movie project is one such example; wherein it is being funded in stages but keeps its backers up to date on progress and even invites them to help!
This is, literally, the holy grail of campaigning. Getting a feature film funded is one of the most difficult tasks in the entertainment business. There are countless stories of independent filmmakers taking on multiple credit cards of debt just to get their films made. Professional investment is tricky and time-consuming and the results aren’t guaranteed (deals falling through, investor jitters, etc.) Kickstarter takes a lot of that out of the equation but it doesn’t help in the budgeting department. Animated feature films are still phenomenally expansive and successful Kickstarter campaigns have all been well below what a theatrical-standard feature film would cost.
Some have gone for the “sprint” route discussed above (the TUBE Open Movie is just one example) whereas others have managed to go the whole hog (Dick Figures) although in fairness, they were not going to maximum quality (or length). It’s hard to see how feature films can find a true home on Kickstarter as the costs are so huge and since only studios are likely to undertake one, they will already have sufficient abilities to raise money or at least talk directly to the people that do.
Is Kickstarter a replacement for traditional investment? No, but that isn’t stopping some people from trying, like this project. Granted, the $250,000 isn’t to finish the entire film, but it does represent a significant chunk of the cost of a film. Michael Barrier has a good opinion of Kickstarter on his website and Mark Sonntag chimes in in the comments with some thoughts that echo my feeling of Kickstarter when it comes to major films. That is, it’s hard to solicit funds from people for such a major project with little more than gifts being the reward. Equity makes people sit up and take notice, and the lure of a return is even better. One way that feature films could succeed on Kickstarter is to basically give everyone a piece of the pie. It’s something that may come along eventually, but for now, it seems that Kickstarter is off-limits to large budget feature films.
To conclude, it’s clear that Kickstarter really does help a large swathe of the animation community get their projects up and running. Unfortunately plenty of projects (both worthy and unworthy) go unfunded and perceived quality isn’t really a yardstick for success. Where Kickstarter seems to shine best is in getting physical objects into the hands of backers. Sending DVDs of a short is one thing, but funding DVDs of something that is already successful is another thing.
Take for example the webcomic Narbonic. Cartoonist Shaenon Garrity successfully funded two print volumes (proudly displayed on my bookshelf) through Kickstarter. She was able to take advantage of the fact that she was funding physical objects and the fact that Narbonic was a great webcomic with a devoted fanbase. Animators looking to use Kickstarter should take note; it’s much easier to raise funds when you already have an audience but when you do, Kickstarter can be a great tool to fulfilling your dreams.
With all the talk of Kickstarter these days and how it’s enabling creators in ways never thought of before, I thought comparing animated Kickstarter projects would make for a good blog post. The three in question are John K’s Cans Without Labels, Vegtoons and Lunatics. All represent the goal of getting something animated in production, but all three take a different approach to the Kickstarter process and their ultimate goal.
The goal is to create an animated cartoon, naturally, but while Cans Without Labels and Lunatics focus more on the entertainment side while Vegtoons is more evenly balanced between entertainment and education. So far so good.
Where things really start to differ though, is what each project hopes to use the funds raised for. Cans Without Labels and Vegtoons will use them to actually create a completed cartoon. That’s things like the animation, backgrounds, sound, music and so forth. Both projects have their voices recorded already. Where they diverge is that Cans Without Labels is a once-off (at least for now). In contrast, Vegtoons aims to be an entire series. The aim here is to fund the first episode through Kickstarter and then use that as a proof-of-concept for an investor to take a chance on a full-fledged series.
As you can probably tell, I haven’t mentioned one yet. That’s because the Lunatics project is by far the black sheep. Instead of raising money to create the vast bulk of the project, the creators are instead asking for only enough to complete the next stage of the production process. In this instance it is the voice tracks and the animatic, both of which are fully budgeted in the description. This kind of piecemeal approach may suit independent projects like Lunatics which can’t benefit from the celebrity and experience of John Kricfalusi or the studio and talents of Cartoon Saloon.
The context for all three projects are also relatively different. Cans Without Labels is meant for entertainment plain and simply. Vegtoons aims for a mixture of entertainment mixed with education and Lunatics is primed for entertainment but with a heavy leaning towards the “what-if” theory.
Clearly we have three different projects gunning for three different audiences. That speaks to the value of Kickstarter in providing a platform for a variety of projects. Now obviously something that is pure entertainment like Cans Without Labels will fare better for the simple reason that it appeals to a wider audience, but for the other two, Kickstarter provides an even platform on which to attract potential backers.
This is where things get really interesting. All three are aiming for the same ultimate goal, but all three believe that the cost to get there will be different.
Vegtoons reckons they can complete a full episode for about $20,000 (they’re asking for $16K to complete the first episode). Presumably that’s for an 11 minute cartoon in the style of flash animation we’re all used to on TV.
Lunatics is asking for just $4,235 although that covers only part of production. An original Kickstarer project attempted to raise $100,000 for a complete episode but was unsuccessful. As noted in the current project’s description, that was perhaps a bit of an adventurous goal for a small, independent project. As a result they have re-launched with the piecemeal approach and appear to be having much more success raising the necessary funds.
Cans Without Labels blows both out of the water with its $110,000 budget (and $136,724 raised). In contrast, to the other two projects, this is for a single cartoon, Both Vegtoons and Lunatics are aiming for a series (with the latter actually aiming to squeeze two episodes out of their original budget).
Will the quality differ? Undoubtedly, but with all the modern technology at people’s disposal, it does seem to be hard to justify a budget of a hundred grand for a single cartoon. Vegtoons will use Flash and Lunatics is aiming to use as much open source software as they can to keep costs down.
Although two of the projects are ongoing at this point in time. It is clear that two of them are focusing on the people associated with the projects (John K. and Tomm Moore) while the third is choosing to focus more on the goals and results. Not to say that the first approach is wrong (it’s the reason Disney made sure his name was present on every film he made), but in particular with Cans Without Labels, its easy to choose style over substance.