When Spike Lee announced that he would be using crowdfunding platform Kickstarter to raise $1.25 million for his next movie project—a.k.a, the “Newest Hottest Spike Lee Joint”—his explanation might have sounded a bit off to some fans. In his plea for donations, the acclaimed director explained that the current Hollywood climate is not good for independent filmmakers, which meant that he would have to look to his fans for support:
Super Heroes, Comic Books, 3D Special EFX, Blowing up the Planet Nine Times and Fly through the Air while Transforming is not my Thang. To me it’s not just that these Films are being made but it seems like these are the only films getting made. 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 after Sequel after Sequel after Sequel after Sequel.
Lee says in the video accompanying the statement that he was inspired to turn to Kickstarter by the success of the Zach Braff and Veronica Mars drives. And, though Braff’s reasoning had more to do with creative control than with getting approval, the Mars movie wound up Kickstarter due to the creators’ inability to get studio approval in traditional ways. The difference between a Spike Lee Joint and a Veronica Mars movie is that Lee has had success—lots of it—making his movies within the Hollywood system in the past. So is it really possible that even Spike Lee can’t get his movie made?
In an interview with Variety about his decision to use Kickstarter, Lee praised former Universal execs for backing movies like Do the Right Thing. Since then, however, things have changed. “Universal would not make Do the Right Thing today,” he said.
Universal declined to comment for this article but, according to entertainment-industry analyst Doug Creutz at Cowen and Company, there are plenty of reasons for Lee to believe what he says.
“Compared to the ’80s, I don’t know that it’s any harder [to make an independent movie],” Creutz tells TIME. “I don’t know that it was ever easy, but it is true that the big studios have focused on blockbusters for the time being.”
(MORE: TIME on Spike Lee in 1989)
And that affects proven directors like Spike Lee , not just first-timers. There are reasons studios turn to big action movies and franchises, says Creutz, even when (as has been the case this summer), they sometimes lead to expensive flops. For one thing, a typical movie might earn only 40% of its box office in the U.S. these days—versus 60% a decade ago, and perhaps even less in the future—and, while “explosions are not culturally specific,” edgy and personal movies don’t often perform well overseas.
Another reason is that a successful blockbuster can offset a box-office dud on a corporate balance sheet. Disney, for example, might be much more worried about The Lone Ranger if they hadn’t had Iron Man 3 to break the former’s fall. But a relatively successful smaller movie might not earn enough to make up for a flop that cost hundreds of millions of dollars, even if that smaller movie earned back many times its own budget. In addition, Creutz says that studio heads are much more likely to be blamed for losing money on an ambitious one-off than on a play-it-safe sequel that ends up failing—though sequels are generally such good bets that they’re looking for new franchises when not continuing old ones.
“I think that the big studios increasingly are focused on movies that they can turn into franchises and it’s just sort of not worth their time, increasingly, to make a small movie,” says Creutz. “Look at this summer. Basically, every movie that was a sequel has done very well. And every movie that wasn’t a sequel, I’m talking about big action movies and animated ones, bombed. The reality is the guys who run the studios would love to win Oscars, they would love to make edgy movies, but at the end of the day they want to keep their jobs. The best way to keep your job is not to take what’s perceived to be a stupid risk.”
The other factor getting in the way of smaller movies finding financing the old-fashioned way comes from outside Hollywood. In the ’90s heyday of indie cinema, people who had lots of money were eager to bankroll movies for prestige and fun. With money tight nationwide, fewer people are ready to invest in a project that won’t necessarily make back their investments.
(MORE: The Kickstarter Economy)
Which is why, Creutz says, Kickstarter might make sense for stars—who, after Braff and Mars, have shown they can raise the money. There are fewer random investors in Hollywood willing to finance a movie that might not be a blockbuster when they hope to get their money back, but there are plenty of random fans who are willing to chip in $20 (or $10,000, if they’re Steven Soderbergh) with no thoughts of recouping that investment.
“Most movies don’t make money and large corporations are not in the business of doing things that don’t make money; they do this for a living and have a reasonable idea what’s going to be successful or not,” says Creutz. “People who fund Kickstarter projects have no idea.” Nor do they particularly care: Kickstarter donors are voicing confidence in Lee as a filmmaker, not hoping that this specific film—about which he shares few details—will be good business.
Still, Kickstarter can’t solve everything. Even if a movie can be made on the cheap, it then has to be distributed and marketed. (Perhaps why Braff eventually got more help from Worldview Entertainment after his drive succeeded.) Stars who turn to their fans for money may also face backlash, even if their projects end up funded—and Creutz guesses they may not be able to rely on the platform for very long. “I suspect the more often people go to the well on [Kickstarter] it will work less and less, because there’s only so much money,” he says. “The first few times it’s cool, but the 25th time it happens I think people will be a little bit more selective.”
Which would mean there’s another thing Spike Lee got right: timing.