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Zach Braff has been in the news a lot over the last month.

Braff, the main character on NBC comedy Scrubs and of the surprise 2004 hit film Garden State which he wrote, directed and starred in (and of which I have a poster in my apartment), wanted to make another film as a long-awaited follow-up to Garden State. But to do that he needed money, apparently, and so he took to Kickstarter.

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It’s been mentioned in nearly every article about Zach Braff’s Kickstarter project that the would-be makers of a Veronica Mars film tried this first, and were wildly successful. Kickstarter, which allows people to go online and ask for help funding their business projects, got the Veronica Mars people to their goal of $2 million…plus another $3.7 million on top of that.

Using a similar formula, Zach Braff took to Kickstarter to appeal to his fan base–myself included–to help finance his next project, a film called Wish I Was Here. Braff explained  on the site that he needed $2 million from fans to get the movie made in the way he wanted to make it, rather than going through the traditional channels, i.e. financiers, who would then dictate the way he made the film, i.e. final cut.

I was a little skeptical that a TV and movie star didn’t have enough cash of his own or enough juice in Hollywood (or enough rich friends he could trust) to get a movie made without appealing to fans to pay for it ahead of time. Still, as long-time fan of Braff’s, I seriously considered donating $10, 20, or even $50 to the campaign to see the thing get made. After all, it was likely that the movie he ended up making would be the kind I would want to see. More than that, Braff was giving away a variety of items, from Braff-autographed merch to advanced online screenings of Wish I Was Here to tickets for the movie’s premieres in major cities.

But in the end, I decided not to contribute because of the following three tenets which I believe to be true:

  • It is not the responsibility of the audience–whether that audience is made up of loyal fans or someone who’s never seen an artist’s work–to fund an artist’s creative projects before those projects have been completed.
  • Once the project is completed it is then the audience’s choice, not their responsibility, to support the project (i.e. purchase a movie ticket) once they know enough about the finished product to make an educated decision (e.g. viewing the trailer or reading reviews).
  • Should an artist ask someone–either the average person or a wealthy financier–to invest in their work in progress before it is created, that investor should have the opportunity to make a profit from their investment.

On that last point, Braff addresses it in his Kickstarter in the FAQs:

Current SEC laws prevent Kickstarter from offering equity or financial returns. As Kickstarter explains in Kickstarter Basics: “Project creators keep 100% ownership of their work.  Kickstarter cannot be used to offer financial returns or equity, or solicit loans.  Some projects that are funded on Kickstarter may go on to make money, but backers are supporting projects to help them come to life, not financially profit.”

Fine, I guess. Though I didn’t contribute to the campaign, I was glad it got its $2 million, and vowed–pending the reviews, which I expect to be largely positive–to see the film when it is completed. (I also look forward to some day when I can invest in a film like I would a stock, and potentially see a financial return on my investment.)

But then this past week a story came out about the project: Zach Braff is getting money from financiers after all.

Was Zach Braff misleading his backers? Did he not really need that $2 million at all, and was just trying to keep from having to pull it from his own pockets? Is Zach Braff a dick?

Well, not really. In his original Kickstarter he noted that “With a combination of my own personal funds, backing from my fans and the sale of some of the film’s foreign rights, I will be able to make the film I intended to make which I am hoping is a film you want to see.”

This is classic fine print and was readily available to any would-be Kickstarter backer who cared to read it. From what I gather on the internet, the world’s most reliable source of information, everything here is above board. Braff later “hit back,” as the tabloids say, at the negative story with his own response on Kickstarter. It essentially said that this was the plan all along, that nothing has changed from the original Kickstarter campaign, and that haters gon’ hate no matter what and not to get caught up in the negativity.

The sketchy dealings of the movie business aside–of which I know about solely from watching HBO’s Entourage–Braff’s trying something different in virtually uncharted waters. He’s doing what he believes he needs to do to make the best film possible, and we can hardly fault him for that.

But if we (myself included) decide that we don’t like what Braff is trying to do with his film, there’s no shortage of movie sequels and prequels and threequels and remakes and reboots of films that Hollywood wants you to see instead. Speaking of which, Fast & Furious 7 starts filming this summer.

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The movies is a term that’s generally associated with long lines on Friday and Saturday nights at multiplexes and megaplexes, big-budget summer blockbusters, and giant tubs of butter-doused popcorn. But for the subculture of so-called “art house” moviegoers, which eschews nearly all of those things (save for, perhaps, the popcorn) the movies means something entirely different. This other type of moviegoer isn’t there for big explosions or surround sound; no, they just want to be told a compelling story and will often go to great lengths to find one.

If you weren’t looking for the Cinema Arts Centre, you might never notice it. Tucked away on the suburban side streets of Huntington, Long Island, the single-level building looks like it might be a library or a community center or maybe a day care facility–anything but a movie theater.

In 1973 two film-loving ex-Manhattanites, Vic Skolnick and Charlotte Sky, started their New Community Cinema–which later became the Cinema Arts Centre–with little more than a projector borrowed from the public library and a bed sheet hung on the wall of a friend’s dance studio.

“It’s hard to picture how little was going on in the suburbs,” says Dylan Skolnick, CAC co-director and son of Vic and Charlotte, about Long Island in the 1970s. “Here was chain theaters with new movies, that was it. No cable, no DVDs, no VHS. Just The Late Show on TV. Instead of grumbling and being miserable, they started showing movies.”

The Cinema Arts Centre in Huntington, Long Island. (Photo courtesy of petrocelliinc.com).

Ginger Polisner and her husband Stuart, who sponsor two annual events at the theater, have been CAC members for over 30 years. “We had seen a small ad somewhere and we were looking for something different to do,” says Mrs. Polisner, recounting the first time they attended one of Vic and Charlotte’s film nights. “We watched a film about freedom fighters. The film kept breaking, so everyone would huddle over a fire escape, smoke cigarettes, and wait for them to fix the film. The bed sheet would move, the subtitles weren’t legible. [Afterwards] we looked at one another and said, ‘I don’t know what they put in the water, but we gotta go back to that place.’”

Today, with 8,000 members, the CAC is a long way from bed sheets and borrowed equipment. Originally “membership” entailed a suggested donation of $1 to help rent the following week’s film reel; a CAC membership now costs $55 annually and includes discounted tickets ($6 versus the non-member price of $11). For their part, the CAC–a nonprofit organization–gets cash up front to pour back into the theater.

“When you come to see Moonrise Kingdom, 50% of every dollar goes to Focus Features–we  only get to keep half,” says Skolnick. “When you buy a membership, it’s all ours to use on the many, many bills and expenses we have.” But membership fees are not just about paying the bills, says Skolnick. “We want people to feel that when they become a member, that they’re a part of our cinema family and they have involvement and feel like it’s their place.”

Though movie theaters large and small must give a large chunk of their ticket sales back to the studios, they get to keep their earnings from concessions sales. This is why moviegoers see such huge markups on items like soda, candy and popcorn at most chain movie theaters. But the CAC even does its food a little differently. Sure, they sell popcorn–organic popcorn–but their menu also includes soups, salads, wraps, and even quiche. By way of movie “candy,” they offer a variety of gourmet-style pastries and snacks. The CAC also has an intriguing weekday special: for $28, filmgoers get lunch, a movie, and a post-screening discussion with Charlotte and Dylan.

As you might guess, an art house theater like the CAC tends to skew older in terms of demographics. “The older audience is undervalued,” says Skolnick. “The younger audience might have a lot of other things they might be doing. They’re fickle.”

One attempt to expand its audience base is the CAC’s Youth Advisory Board, a project designed to engage a young film fans in the community thorough a special film series. Board members will help program the films, promote events, and fundraise.  The CAC also participates in the Summer Camp Cinema Series, which features cult classic double features during summer Friday nights such as The Matrix and Inception, to draw a younger crowd to the theater.

Jacob Stebel, 30, has been a large part of the CAC’s youth movement. Stebel has worked full-time for the CAC since he was 23, and had been a patron before that since age 15. An amateur filmmaker himself, Stebel even premiered his own film, Freaks Nerds and Romantics, at the CAC in 2010. “Vic Skolnick … gave us advice all the way through,” says Stebel about the late CAC co-founder, who passed away in June 2010. “The cinema is a fantastic resource for filmmakers. Our [theater] directors have seen more films than anyone you’ve ever met. Who better to critique your film?”

The CAC has seen many talented and notable filmmakers and actors pass through its doors over the years, from Ang Lee to Spike Lee, Carol Burnett, Steve Buscemi and Tony Shalhoub. “That’s the ace up our sleeve,” says Stebel, who believes events like these, for which someone associated with the film is invited to speak, can draw a broader audience to the theater and add value beyond just the film itself.

“I always say [the CAC] is the place my parents thought they sent me to get a college degree,” says Mrs. Polisner about the education she’s received from the theater over the years. “[College] didn’t prepare me for life the way the Cinema has. Every side of political issues, economic, environmental. Speakers from all over the world, all walks of life, actors, filmmakers, musicians, anthropologists, scientists, the Tuskegee airmen before anyone knew about them.”

Despite a loyal following and a slew of famous friends, running this or any independent theater in 2012 is not without its challenges. As movie studios are on the brink of moving exclusively to digital prints–meaning no more physical film reels–smaller theaters without the resources to upgrade to digital projectors may start to disappear.

Digital projectors, according to Skolnick, run about $70,000 apiece–meaning it would cost about $200,000 in total to upgrade his three auditoriums. “It’s unfortunate. Technology changes, the world changes. You have to move forward,” says Skolnick. On its website, the CAC has launched the Digital Cinema Campaign in an effort to raise money for its new projectors with donations from the community. (At this writing, the CAC has collected about $60,000 in donations.)

That fundraising campaign may be bittersweet for some of the long-time members like the Polisners when it comes to exposing the hidden gem they’ve enjoyed for so many years. “The Cinema is still a secret that we both want to share and guard jealously,” says Mrs. Polisner.

Still, Skolnick seems confident that the CAC is staying put, no matter what challenges it may face. “I think we’re gonna be alright.”

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It appears that Louis C.K. has beaten the system.

In a span of about six months, the stand-up comedian and star of FX’s hit series Louie, has managed to circumvent network comedy specials and ticket selling services to deliver his comedy to his fans at affordable prices. So far, it’s paid off big time.

Louis C.K. is currently selling tickets to his upcoming tour on his own website exclusively (that means no Ticketmaster) and is charging a flat fee of $45. As of today he’s sold 100,000 tickets–yes, your math is right: that’s $4.5 million. This comes about six months after he sold his self-produced comedy album Shameless electronically on his website for $5. (For that experiment, he took in about a million bucks.) I came across a quote from Louis C.K. the other day about his ticket-selling enterprise:

Doing things this way means I’m making less than I would have made if I did a standard tour, using the usual very excellent but expensive ticketing service. In some cities I’ve had to play smaller venues and do more shows. But I like doing more shows and about a year ago I reached a place where I realized I am making enough money doing comedy so the next thing that interested me is bringing your price down. Either way, I still make a whole lot more than my grandfather who taught math and raised chickens in Michigan. (www.shortformblog.com)

 

Enough money? When was the last time you heard anyone say they make enough money, especially an entertainer? Athletes regularly bolt from their old team to a new team for the promise of a big contract. Sometimes they even hold out (meaning they don’t show up for work) a year after signing the contract because they feel they deserve more than what was contractually agreed to. Eddie Murphy has made ungodly sums of money over the last ten years despite rarely doing a movie you legitimately enjoyed.

And yet Louis C.K., who wrote and directed 2001’s Pootie Tang (which grossed just $3.3 million in theaters) and whose 2006 HBO series Lucky Louie lasted just one season, says he’s making enough money doing comedy that he no longer needs network specials or Ticketmaster. Apparently, he actually made too much money so he gave $280,000 of it to charity!

If you’ve heard Louis C.K.’s stand-up or seen his show Louie, on which he also has complete creative control as the star, writer, and director, you know the guy’s hardly a saint. But that said, perhaps it takes the life experience–he’s put in 27 years in the business–of a vulgar, and sometimes sophomoric 44-year-old single father of two daughters to figure out that there’s more than one way to make a living doing comedy, and that it doesn’t always have to come at the cost of the people who are laughing at the jokes.

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Michael Lewis’ baseball-book-that’s-not-really-about-baseball, Moneyball, has gotten plenty of attention in recent weeks since it’s been made into a feature film starring Brad Pitt. The book suggests that it’s statistical data (and hardcore crunching of that data) that allows us to make the best decisions–not our gut instincts, strong as they may be.

Moneyball ruined, or at least changed, the way many baseball fans enjoyed baseball. We could no longer praise our favorite player for being a dynamite fielder or a clutch hitter when the game was on the line, because if we took a closer look at the newfangled stats we’d realize our perception was nowhere near reality. It was like having a favorite restaurant but knowing that if you went into to its kitchen and saw something gross, you’d never be able to eat there again.

But it also taught us not to take things at face value. That before we make a decision based on what the supposed experts say, maybe we should see what the data says, too. Or, as John Cusack says in High Fidelity, “I’ve come to the conclusion that my guts have shit for brains.”

Oddly enough, my thinking about Moneyball the last few weeks had nothing to do with the hoopla surrounding the movie. It was actually another author, Gary Vaynerchuk, in his book The Thank You Economy. Vaynerchuk, a wine expert and social media guru with a book deal, stresses the importance of  about caring more about your customers than your competitors do as one of the biggest keys to any successful business venture. (And this is done largely through social media channels.)

At conference last year, an audience member asked Vaynerchuk what he says when someone can’t get past the fact that the efficacy of social media isn’t really quantifiable. His response: “If you do not understand what the monetary, financial value of having a relationship with the customer is, you have no fucking idea what business is about.”

Great answer. In his books, Vaynerchuk says lots of stuff like this. You can’t measure how much you care about your customer, same as you can’t measure the emotional impact that caring has on the customer, but you just know it works. Great business practices, he says, produce great business. Makes sense, I guess. But as I read on, I got to thinking. Vaynerchuk is an undoubtedly progressive thinker. However he’s also suggesting we trust our instincts, not the numbers. How un-Moneyball-like!

Steve Jobs was once asked about how much market research went into the iPad.  “None,” he said. “It’s not the customers’ jobs to know what they want.” Arrogantly but correctly, he purported to know more than anyone else what was best. Same as Vaynerchuk, Jobs trusted his gut more than the data.

The other school of thought, as suggested in books like Peter Sims’ Little Bets, is that if you can cheaply and quickly test an idea, it’ll allow you to tweak a good idea until it’s great or rule out a bad idea all together. An example Sims’ uses is comedian Chris Rock, who practices his new stand-up material in small nightclubs rather than assuming it’ll be funny simply because he’s Chris Rock. Some of his new jokes are OK, some are really funny, but many of them stink. But by the time he pieces together an act using the best material from his “market research” and shedding the rest, he’s got the whole room laughing again.

There is, of course, no right answer. It’s hard to argue with the methods of anyone who’s reached the top of their field–they obviously knew enough to have gotten there in the first place, right?

Each of us has to do a little research (or not) to find our own style. What’s yours?

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