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The NYU Cinema Research Institute brings together innovators in film and media finance, production, marketing, and distribution to imagine and realize a new future for artist-entrepreneurs. 


Whoopi's Wisdom, Or Why Famous Folks Who Don't Need Them Are Turning To Crowds

Claire Harlam

In this IndieWire interview, Whoopi Goldberg explains her decision to use Kickstarter to fund "I Got Somethin To Tell You," her documentary on Moms Mabley, a black, female comedian who influenced Whoopi and many other comedians with a penchant for addressing some of the less comfy issues of their times. In discussing why she turned to the crowd, Whoopi notes:

I could have gone back to one of the cable stations, but what that means is you don't get to do the project the way you want to. This project is about the impact that Moms had on people. Impact on comics. It's less about her life story and about what she brought. She was the only female comic for about 40 years! That's never been celebrated and it's never been celebrated as a woman. She was on the cutting edge, a pioneer, talking about things that nobody was really talking about at the time and how she did it. So that's what this is about.

The sentiment here (which is similarly apparent in remarks like "[My crowd-funders] want to see good stuff and they don't mind contributing what they can," or "This isn't a little bullshitty project") is uniquely that of someone who is established and connected but still choosing to step outside of a system that can work but not without an often impeding amount of begging and meetings and opinions and begging. Whoopi, like Paul, Amanda, and Louis, simply gets it: if I can get my fans to fund what I do directly, I can do it how I want to do it, plus I can give them rewards, shield them from middle-man screwing, and other such heart-warming perks. Of course simply getting it is easier if you already have a lot of loyal fans, but one of the goals of my CRI project is to figure out how filmmakers can find the folks who love what they do--to figure out how to define community and build it. So, stay tuned.

For now, back to Whoopi and co. If you're reading this, you're undoubtedly reading lots of other writing on the disruption, the disintermediation that these established artists' decisions to turn to their fans for direct support signify. Chris Dorr, who has generously shared his expert perspective with me and helped to hone the approach and scope of my CRI project, has some really fantastic related posts like this one on Amanda Palmer and "True Fans."

I want to add an observation to this dialogue that is simple but speaks to a critical and oddly overlooked aspect of direct to fan activity: these famous folks who don't need them are turning to crowds, in part, because they (the folks) love them (the crowds) back. There is something (the something I am here trying to define) that is really refreshing about Whoopi, Amanda, and Paul's frank, gloriously unironic campaign videos, about Louis' sincere, typo-ridden emails. There are actual people poking out of the screen, people who aren't particularly polished or aware of themselves, but people aren't supposed to be this way--brands are. PEOPLE ARE NOT BRANDS. More on that in just a bit.

Whoopi emphasizes that her project isn't little and bullshitty because she knows her fans "want to see good stuff." I wonder if every filmmaker with a Kickstarter campaign really believes that (or has at least considered whether) the crowds of potential fans whom they are trying to reach wouldn't find their project little and bullshitty. This is not to say that people should make what they think their fans want them to make, but it is to say (very much so) that once an artist starts asking the crowd for something, he has an (ethical? strategic? humane?) imperative to respect and understand the people who comprise it. Whoopi wants the freedom to make what she wants, but she consistently refers back to the fact that what she wants is what the fans want (and is what Moms delivered): something edgy, discomforting, and honest--"so that's what this is about." She recognizes that in the particular story of "I Got Somethin' To Tell You," the fans want the thing that they can themselves fund, and this thing will be different from the thing that the cable station would have funded. So, that's what this is, and it's pretty special.

I think the "something" that these artists all seem to possess in their campaigning and which I'm trying to define here is an open and honest appreciation for fans, an inherent respect for the people who are into what they're ostensibly into because they're making it. The most incredible thing that the internet has done for filmmakers is that it has allowed them to actively give a shit about their fans. Crowd-funding tools, with Kickstarter at the helm, seem at this point to be the only online platforms that realize how incredible the human reality of this disintermediation is and thus build the tools into their platforms to facilitate seamless connection.

The more I read that filmmakers need to "brand" themselves and have more of a "presence" so they can be "relevant" (and other words that make me feel ill), the more I understand why so many of us are loathe to explore direct to fan options. That said, many of these options themselves seem built around the premise of branding and selling. Throughout the course of my research, I am going to look deeply at platforms and tools that are trying to support real connection and community, as well as ones that want to help filmmakers find their fans. I'll also explore what connection and community are as concepts and practices in both real reality and the digital one, so that my analysis of these platforms counts for something (and so that I feel less pretentious using both words ad nauseam in one blog post). I am happy to share my working bibliography and very happy to receive feedback--just let me know. I will post it once it's slightly less of a mess.

Thanks for reading!