do-the-right-thing-DI

On a recent lovely balmy evening, a group of friends and I were drinking at an outdoor bar when an older shabbily dressed panhandler asked us for a cigarette. Panhandlers in Poland tend to be persistent, especially with foreigners, partly because as elsewhere in the world locals can be more strident with rejections. I sat there quietly as I usually do in these situations, letting my Polish friends deal with it. The compassionate side in me wants to give them a cigarette, but the pragmatic side in me tends to ignore them until they go away. I usually rationalize it by telling myself that I shouldn’t encourage such behavior by rewarding them. But often my reactions are driven by much baser motives, like that of simply not wanting to earn the ire of the poor bar employees whose job it is to discourage such scenes.

Then later that evening at the same bar, an attractive young female asked our group for a sip of beer. She simply happened to be passing by in a hurry, was flustered by some situation, and asked us for a sip of beer. We, a mixed group of men and women, were all amused and too happy to oblige her. In fact, we wouldn’t have minded had she joined our group and regaled us with her story of exasperation. After some time, we ended up going to another bar when I ran out of cigarettes. I asked for a pack at the counter, when the pretty waitress told me that they don’t sell cigarettes but that I was free to take one of hers. There were only three cigarettes left in her pack. I surmise that she wouldn’t have given away one of those three remaining cigarettes to a panhandler.

I relate this rather mundane story because it illustrates a fundamental paradox of human behavior. Even when it comes to perfect strangers whom we are unlikely to ever see again, we tend to help the seemingly more successful and reject the seemingly less successful. That also means that we extend our generosity to those who do not need it. This leads to another fascinating paradox–all of the available scientific research suggests that it is the have-nots who tend to be more giving than the haves. All of these unfortunate psychological paradoxes were illustrated for the independent film community by Spike Lee’s ongoing and already successful Kickstarter campaign to raise $1.25 million for a film for which he provided zero details except the following: “Human beings who are addicted to Blood. Funny, Sexy and Bloody. A new kind of love story (and not a remake of “Blacula”).” He has already raised well over $1.3 million with three days left in the campaign. Spike will likely end up with around $1.4 million when the campaign is over, which means that within a month’s period much poorer people just gave a man worth $40 million an amount that is tantamount to more than 1/30 of that unimaginable wealth.

Motherfuck you! You want how many millions?

When the campaign kicked off and I first heard about it, I was in disbelief. No, Spike Lee is no longer the artistically and culturally relevant director who made She’s Gotta Have It, Do the Right thing and Malcolm X. But here is a man who once upon a time so deftly captured the racial zeitgeist of contemporary America and in the process spoke for the disenfranchised and the underrepresented. Now the man who has vowed to “keep fighting the powers that be” is out to fleece the general public and screw over the genuinely independent filmmakers whose projects could be funded for 1/100th of what he’s asking for.

And while the genuinely independent filmmakers must spend enormous amount of effort and time to describe the nature of their projects, Spike’s campaign said essentially nothing about his project. It was basically a filthy rich man asking for a handout with no strings attached. Finally, on something like the ninth day of Lee’s KS campaign, I decided to make a donation of $1, just because donors are allowed to make posts on the comments page and I wanted to write a long public invective for all to see.

Josh Brolin isn’t the only one confused by Spike’s Oldboy, a $30 million Hollywood remake of a South Korean adaptation of a Japanese comic book.

Director Spike Lee,

I came of age with your early work. Your films like She’s Gotta Have It and Do the Right Thing had a profound impact on me, as they portrayed people of color, the underprivileged, and so on with the kind of depth that I just didn’t see in rest of Hollywood.And it is because of this very impact that you’ve had on me personally and on American cinema that I, as a financially struggling filmmaker, find your Kickstarter campaign objectionable.

You conclude your video with these powerful words: “”This is a motherfucking tough business, and I’m gonna keep fighting the powers that be.” But I’m not sure if you mean them. In your blurb, you complain of Hollywood’s obsession with comic books and say “To The Studios it seems like every Film must be a Home run on a Global scale, a Tent Pole Enterprise, able to spin off Sequel after Sequel…” Yet the $30 million film you just directed is a studio remake of a Korean film adaptation of a Japanese comic book. Are you not perpetuating the system? You seem to be in cahoots with the “powers that be” you pledge to keep fighting. Then you ask the people for a $1.25 million check with no strings attached. In a sense, we donors are the producers of this film, yet you provide next to zero information.

This is the ninth day of your campaign. In those nine days, countless promising projects died without meeting the goal. You have not given one red cent or one wooden nickel to any KS campaign. But you have found the time to do a PR damage control interview in which you say, “I’m bringing people to Kickstarter who never even heard of Kickstarter; I’m talking a lot of people of color who’ve never heard of Kickstarter, who’ve never made a pledge on Kickstarter,” As a person of color myself, I am offended by your claims. I helped out with a KS campaign some three years ago. I made my first donation two years ago. KS is hardly new to financially struggling artists of color. What is new is this odious trend of wealthy celebrities like yourself and Zach Braff capitalizing on your fame. You argue that people like you and Braff are not taking crumbs from poorer artists, but creating a bigger pie for all of us. Well, the idea that the ultra-rich should be given financial benefits because they will create more wealth for the poor to share in is called trickle-down economics. And such system, as we are all witnessing, cannot be maintained.

Your blurb says that ” Kickstarter is an all or nothing venture. If we don’t attain our goal of raising $1,250,000 in 30 DAYS all pledges will be released and it won’t get made and we can’t let that be an option.” I find this flabbergasting. So if you cannot get people significantly poorer than you to cough up $1.25 million, you won’t finance it yourself when your personal fortune is estimated to be $40 million? And you call yourself an independent filmmaker who’s “gonna keep fighting the powers that be”? May I remind you of a quote by the great American independent filmmaker John Cassavetes? “You make movies because you need to make movies. Everything else is unimportant. If you wait to get the money to make a movie then you shouldn’t make the movie.”

And not that I even have the $500, but I’d like to ask you this anyway. Do the Nikes worn by you come with Odor Eaters or would one have to purchase those separately, because you know, this whole venture of yours stinks to high heavens.

Sincerely,
A former fan and an actual independent filmmaker

No clue as to why Spike capitalizes certain words, although “Cahoots” could be the name of his yacht or jet.

To his credit, Spike did not duck my post but gave me a direct reply and even wished me to “go with God”, although I was disappointed to find out that the phrase is one which he reserves for his “haters”. And within a matter of less than 24 hours, Spike–or most likely one of his interns–posted a four-part reply that addressed much of what I had brought up in my challenge.

She, no, he’s gotta have it. $1.25 million, that is.

QUESTION #1 – Why are you on Kickstarter? You’re an established wealthy Filmmaker!

I’m an Indie Filmmaker and I will always be an Indie Filmmaker. Indie Filmmakers are always in search of financing because their work, their vision sometimes does not coincide with Studio Pictures. But I do put my own money in my films. I self-financed RED HOOK SUMMER. My fee for MALCOLM X was put back into the budget. The truth is I’ve been doing KICKSTARTER before there was KICKSTARTER, there was no Internet. Social Media was writing letters, making phone calls, beating the bushes. I’m now using TECHNOLOGY with what I’ve been doing.

I had to do a PRE-KICKSTARTER Campaign to get my first feature SHE’S GOTTA HAVE IT done way back in 1985. The budget was $175,000. I Had to do a PRE-KICKSTARTER Campaign to get MALCOLM X finished in 1991 when the production ran out of money. It was people like: PRINCE, JANET JACKSON, TRACY CHAPMAN, PEGGY COOPER, CAY FRITZ, MS. WINFREY, MAGIC JOHNSON AND MICHAEL JORDAN who STOOD UP, came to our rescue so you could see the MALCOLM X on screen we envisioned. I daresay without that PRE-KICKSTARTER approach Denzel’s epic performance in it’s entirety would not have seen the light of day. I say this all to say, what we are doing on KICKSTARTER is not new. Indie Filmmmakers need MONEY to do their ART. The ARTFORM of FILM COSTS MONEY. We are appealing to people who have enjoyed and supported my work in the past and would like it to continue into the FUTURE.

QUESTION #2 – You have never backed anyone on KICKSTARTER so why should we expect you to support us.

For the past 15 years I’ve been a Professor of Film at The NYU Graduate Film School and the Artistic Director for the last 5. What people do not know is that I’ve had a SPIKE LEE PRODUCTION FUND to assist NYU GRAD FILM STUDENTS with grants to do their FILMS. Since the 1989/90 NYU School Year I have given out Production Grants to 44 NYU GRAD FILM students totally over $300,000.

I did not give back on KICKSTARTER in the past because I was backing my NYU students. Now that I’m on KICKSTARTER that will change. This narrative that I’m greedy, do not support, care or nurture young Filmmakers is so far from the truth it’s not even funny. I would not be teaching FILM for as long as I have if I didn’t care about young Filmmakers.

QUESTION #3 – Spike, you on KICKSTARTER is hurting the young filmmakers.

This is another fallacy. The fact of the matter is I’m bringing exposure to KICKSTARTER, backers to KICKSTARTER who have never even heard of KICKSTARTER before. The same was true of the VERONICA MARS and ZACH BRAFF’S projects. There was also a study done that had data to prove we did not hurt the young filmmakers on KICKSTARTER either.

QUESTION #4 – Why are you not more forthcoming on the Details of your KICKSTARTER Project?

The reason I have not disclosed more info on the story is because: It’s a THRILLER. In order for a film of this type to work the less details the better for this Film to work with the Audience, they can’t know a whole lot before they sit down in a Theatre to see it. Yeah I know, I’m asking for BACKERS for a film they don’t know a lot about. My answer to that is TRUST ME. I hope you have seen some things over the past 3 decades making FILMS that can earn your TRUST.

What I can tell you is this. I have never made a film like this and it excites me very much. I’m doing a semi-genre film about ADDICTION. These people are ADDICTED to BLOOD. Yet however they are not VAMPIRES. It’s going to be SEXY, HUMOROUS and BLOODY. To me that’s a unique combination.

I hope my answers to your questions have been provided the information you asked for. I totally understand how strange it might seem to look for me, Spike Lee on KICKSTARTER asking for BACKERS. I say – welcome to THE WORLD OF CROWDFUNDING. Whether you like it or not it is not going away. The FUTURE is here.

I deeply appreciate everyone and I mean everyone who has stood up, backed our PROJECT so we can MAKE HISTORY.

Peace and Love,
Spike Lee – Filmmaker

The real independent film community is also in a daze over Spike’s KS campaign.

Of course, Spike never addresses the obvious hypocrisy of having just directed a $30 million Hollywood remake of Oldboy. There’s only one reason for that. He can’t. There’s no way around that incontrovertible fact. If he is indeed still an independent filmmaker as he claims in an indignant tone. he would have simply taken what must be millions in pay from having helmed Olboy into this personal project.

The most glaring fallacy in Spike’s defense is his argument that he is creating a bigger pie for Kickstarter of which lesser known filmmakers can share. He has pointed to KS’s own research to back up this claim. But this is hardly impartial research as KS takes 5% of all funds raised. As far as KS is concerned, it is all about the bottom line regardless of whose campaigns are being funded. Even if celebrity campaigns bring some short-lived benefits to lesser-known artists on KS, this is an economic model that cannot be sustained. We have all witnessed the worldwide crash of trickle-down economics. Allowing the already ultra-rich to exploit the existing system without any constraints does not benefit the working class. Spike Lee of Do the Right Thing era would never stand for such antics by the ultra-rich.

Alas, Spike never really understood what Kickstarter was or should be. He had been told by his students that the likes of Zach Braff and producers of Veronica Mars raised millions of dollars. And instead of excoriating their greed, he proceeded with his own campaign of greed. When he appeared on several morning shows to do damage control after some vociferous backlash, he was cantankerous and indignant, genuinely taken aback that the common masses would dare question his money-grabbing campaign in which he offers nothing about the film or the process or why he needs the money. Instead, his modus operandi has been to trot out his multimillionaire celebrity buddies like Josh Brolin, Matthew McConaughey, and Kerry Washington to tell us suckers to pony up our hard-earned dollars.

In a particularly revealing pitch video, the vapid Kerry Washington actually says, “In the past, here are some of the people who have helped Spike Lee get his movies made. Malcolm X, Oprah Winfrey, Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, they all got together to give Spike money to make that movie. Now you get to be as cool as those people and do the right thing. And give Spike money. And be a filmmaker with Spike Lee. Unbelievable opportunity. Stop watching me and go give Spike money. ” Of course, what she meant was that the celebrities became investors of the film Malcolm X, not that Malcolm X rose from the dead to give Spike money. But the faux paus is emblematic of the thoughtlessness and the hastiness with which this whole campaign was conceived. And in the end, hers is the kind of appeal that would be fitting on behalf of a member of the Tea Party, not on behalf of a socially conscious independent filmmaker. As John Steinbeck once noted, “Socialism never took roots in America because the poor see themselves not as an exploited proletariat but as temporarily embarrassed millionaires.”

And lost in all of this is the actual figure of $1.25 million. Spike Lee almost certainly already owns the equipment needed to shoot a feature film. Even if he doesn’t, he could easily land corporate sponsorships that would allow him to use their equipment with no loss of creative control. Three of the more compelling recent American films–Shane Carruth’s Upstream Color, Amy Seimetz’s Sun Don’t Shine, and Dan Sallitt’s The Unspeakable Act–were all made for $50,000 or less. The acclaimed South Korean filmmaker Hong Sang-soo made his 2009 film Like You Know It All for less than $100,000. If Spike Lee, with all of his connections and resources, doesn’t know how to make an independent film with no Hollywood stars for less than a million dollars, should anyone give him a dime?

The ultimate irony in all of this is that even with a film career predicated on “doing the right thing” and fighting the man, Spike Lee himself has become that proverbial man. Now he has lost all perspective and still co-opts the language of the disenfranchised in order to defraud the less fortunate. Spike’s long but certain descent from a pulpit of social consciousness where he so aptly challenged America’s conscience to a crass offering box with which he robs the have-nots serves as a powerful reminder of the ethical artist’s obligations to retain integrity in an amoral world.