Most interestingly, Sørensen argues that there are few reasons to believe that Kickstarter and its brethren would weaken the dominance of TV broadcasters or film festivals—the cultural gatekeepers that crowdfunding seeks to circumvent. Those behind the documentaries that make it big online know how to leverage—rather than renounce—their status in the industry. They play up the fact that their director might have won an Oscar or that their producer has a solid track-record or that some TV broadcasters have already expressed interest in the film. This makes perfect sense: To assess a film's odds of success (because even crowdfunders don’t want to back a loser), a prospective funder would want to know what people in the know—who are part of the “industry” in one way or another—make of it. This is the point often missed by those hailing Kickstarter as a revolutionary project that could emancipate the artists: What defines potential “success” for their film is still very much defined by the industry heavyweights.
A recent Kickstarter initiative to raise funds for an indie film called Hotel Noir is a case in point. The project has successfully raised its target of $50,000. But what do they need the money for? To get the film distributed the old way—via cinemas. Here is how the film's director put it: “We need to put the movie in a theater in New York and LA because ideally, we want this movie not just on VOD and digital platforms but ALSO on good old-fashioned, popcorn-serving movie theaters. ... [W]e believe that a run in New York and LA—while FANTASTIC—could be the start of something bigger.” Obviously, the assumption here is that this “something bigger” would not just naturally happen on iTunes or YouTube.
As Sørensen notes, “although crowdfunding and crowd investment ventures ... are often perceived as level playing fields with no or low entry barriers, it is not only the material capital, but very much also the cultural capital that a project is able to accumulate which determines whether a film receives funding in the first place and, subsequently, reaches a significant audience.”
From this perspective, the power of the cultural gatekeepers might only get entrenched—albeit now it would function in a much more invisible and decentralized manner. The industry would still get the filmmakers to do what it wants—only now everyone would believe in self-empowerment, Oprah-style. Not a reason to oppose crowdfunding as such—only a reminder that we need to embrace it with a critical, perhaps even skeptical, mind.
This article arises from Future Tense, a collaboration among Arizona State University, the New America Foundation, and Slate. Future Tense explores the ways emerging technologies affect society, policy, and culture. To read more, visit the Future Tense blog and the Future Tense home page. You can also follow us on Twitter.