June 18, 2013
The NYT, Zach Braff, and the Ethics of Kickstarter-ing
Posted by Christine Hurt

So, criticizing The Ethicist column in the New York Times is about as new as complaining about the weather.  When the previous Ethicist, Randy Cohen, quit in 2011, I listed some of his columns that angered me the most.  I don't believe the replacement, Chuck Klosterman, is an improvement, but the columns are definitely less definitive (it's easier to be less wrong when you are less clear).  Last week's column, in which Klosterman said it was ethical for a college student to write one paper for two classes, most recently rankled the audience.  The problem is that the NYT has a column called "The Ethicist," ethicists exist, but the NYT doesn't hire any of them for the column.  It's as if there were a column called "The Economist" or "The Cardiologist," but the person writing answers to questions was neither of those things.

But enough about that.  Assuming that the letters are written by actual folks, a letter appeared last month asking whether Zach Braff, who has more money than most people, was unethical by posting a film project on Kickstarter and asking for donations to fund it.  Here is the Kickstarter page for "Wish I Was Here."  The Ethicist's wishy-washy answer is that Braff doesn't lie in his "ask," so he's not unethical, but he might be unethical if he were merely using the Kickstarter page as free advertising, because the page may have led to big-studio follow-on financing in addition to the $3M in donations.

So, a few things the Ethicist doesn't seem to observe.  One, even if Braff is using Kickstarter for something other than raising desperately-needed funds, he may have been using it for information-gathering, not advertising.  The fact that so many folks donated money signals to him, the maker of the movie, and to studios, that there is an audience out there that loves Zach Braff and desperately wants a follow-up to Garden State (not my favorite movie, but apparently popular to many).  Conducting an online poll is not nearly as accurate as a poll where web-clickers click with their credit cards.  As Braff states, the rabid response to a similar Kickstarter project to make a Veronica Mars movie proved that there is a huge cult following who want to pay $9 to see a Veronica Mars movie.  Yes, it's push-advertising, but it's really more valuable information-revealing.

Second, as Mel Brooks so fabulously writes in his play The Producers, "Never Put Your Own Money in the Show."  

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