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Zach Braff in Wish I Was Here

Merie Weismiller Wallace, SMPSP

When I hear about unknown, independent artists who are raising money for a new project on Kickstarter or Indiegogo, I think: "Bless their entrepreneurial hearts; I'm sure their work is interesting and worthy." And if they happen to be my friends, I reach for my credit card.

When I hear about celebrities who are raising money for a new project on Kickstarter or Indiegogo, I think: "Must be a pretty lame offering, if someone with their connections can't get conventional investors on board."

Clearly, I am all but alone in my conviction that if Griffin Dunne and Annabelle Dunne's documentary about their famous aunt, the writer Joan Didion, was going to be a vigorous film, the filmmakers wouldn't need to go cap in hand to her fans. Clearly alone – because they raised $80,000 (U.S.) on Kickstarter in a single day in October.

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Clearly, it is unfair of me to ask why, if Canadian actress Sandra Oh is looking to help raise $130,000 for an animated film in which she will voice the main character, she can't find the money in her own bank account. After all, the former star of Grey's Anatomy must have been paid more than that an episode during her decade on the show. Clearly unfair – because the Indiegogo campaign is now halfway to its goal.

Oh is just the latest celebrity to try crowdsourcing some cash, following on the heels of musician Iggy Pop and filmmaker Dario Argento for their horror movie The Sandman, and Brent Butt for the movie version of Corner Gas. Last year, filmmaker Zach Braff's $2-million (U.S.) Kickstarter campaign for his new movie Wish I Was Here fuelled much debate about whether celeb fundraising is a fair use of sites through which communities are rebuilding playgrounds and unknown bands are recording their first albums.

Braff's experience is telling. The actor/director is known for two things: one is his role on the network drama Scrubs in the 2000s, which left him wealthy enough he could pick and chose roles; the second is his first film Garden State, a 2004 indie feature that was so well received you figured the guy should not have problems getting a second movie made.

A decade later, there he was asking members of the public who loved his previous movie to pony up. He easily raised the $2-million in days but Wish I Was Here got poor reviews this summer from critics who felt it was repetitious of Garden State. I, Frankenstein notwithstanding, perhaps the studios actually do know something.

Spotting celebs on Kickstarter can feel a bit like catching sight of your wealthy neighbours butting into the checkout queue at No Frills. Really, can't they leave the $1.97 orange juice and two-for-the-price-of-one detergent for those in need?

Well, maybe there's no shortage of cheap OJ, and certainly both the spots on a crowdsourcing service and the money that may be donated have no particular limits. In his own defence, Braff argued that he wasn't exactly hijacking Kickstarter with his project: If people wanted to move on by, they could.

But many didn't, because Braff is famous. And that is what gives celebs a huge advantage when it comes to crowdsourcing; they can get the attention to get the money. Just take a look at what Window Horses, an animated film about a Canadian poet who is invited to a literary festival in Iran, can offer if you give money to its Indiegogo campaign. The $20 signed pictures of Sandra Oh are now sold out as are the $1,500 meet-and-greets. What are still available are many small-ticket items that don't involve the Grey's Anatomy star, and four $5,000 opportunities to have dinner with director Ann Marie Fleming and Oh herself, who may at that stage feel it would be easier to simply donate $20,000.

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Of course, I should point out that Oh's project is really Fleming's project and that while she is a well-regarded independent filmmaker, she is not particularly famous, and seems unlikely to pay what might be Oh's regular fee for voice work. We can all suppose that this movie is never going to make any money for Fleming, Oh or anybody else.

But that's speculation on our part; as members of the public all we are being told is this is such a worthy film, we should give money to make it happen.

That is what really annoys me about these campaigns: Nobody is being asked to invest in these artistic projects, nobody is being promised a piece of the action if any of these things succeed. No one is having the financial arrangements explained to them. In exchange for what should properly be called a donation, you are promised some minor brush with the celebrity.

Often the campaigns aren't really raising necessary money; they are marketing the projects before they are released. The Corner Gas campaign was specifically designed to involve fans in a project for which all funding was already secure, while Griffin Dunne expressed delighted surprise at how Didion's fan base was galvanized by his Kickstarter cause.

And maybe his film is a good cause, and maybe Window Horses is too. But on that score there are lots of good causes in the arts in the shape of non-profit organizations whose financial workings are subject to public scrutiny and who offer a tax receipt for your gift. Many of them are located right in your neighbourhood, almost as close at hand as Indiegogo. Happy day after Giving Tuesday.

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