Penn Jillette’s Film Takes Crowdfunding to the Extreme

Everyone's in the producer pool by funding 'Director's Cut,' a movie about crowdfunding

Pop_Culture_10_17_christopher_jones_WEBPenn Jillette wants to be bad. It’s a perfectly reasonable request. After all, who among us hasn’t entertained thoughts of Hostel-ing some anonymous tourists/obnoxious celebrities/friends and co-workers? (Hah-hah, just kidding friends and co-workers. Maybe.)

And who are we to deny him?

Jillette is teaming up with director Adam Rifkin (Look, Detroit Rock City) to do Director’s Cut, a horror flick-within-a-horror-flick that casts the genial magician as the movie’s big bad. He may have used the words “hulking, evil sasquatch” to describe himself. Or at least his character.

More to the point: Jillette wants you to be the one to make him the bad guy. Through a crowdfunding campaign at, Jillette and Rifkin are aiming to secure $1 million to finance the picture. As of October 14, more than 2,700 people have contributed to the tune of $585,000-plus.

It’s enough to actually start the moviemaking process, pushing everything into pre-production. That’s rare, to start a crowdfunded film before the full goal has been met, but Jillette is confident that the campaign will hit the $1 million mark by the November 2 deadline.

Jillette isn’t the first to leverage celebrity to pay for a movie in the Wild Crowdfundin’ West—Zach Braff netted more than $3 million on Kickstarter for Wish I Was Here, and Spike Lee pulled in $1.4 million for The Newest Hottest Spike Lee Joint (which he insisted is not a Blacula remake, unfortunately). And this isn’t the first notable Vegas-related crowdfunding venture, either. The Save the Huntridge campaign on IndieGoGo was worth $200,000, including donations from the Killers and the Pawn Stars cast.

He is, however, the first to use actual crowdfunding to do a movie that’s about crowdfunding a movie. (And also murder, but that’s somewhat beside the point.) It’s a metatextual Ouroboros, but with PayPal.

The reasons for that seem to have as much to do with the confluence of trend and technology that have pushed crowdfunding to the forefront of independent arts projects as they do with timing. (Donate to a horror movie in October when the entirety of my film-watching time is spent watching Texas Chainsaw Massacre murder supercuts while shoveling Frankenberry into my gaping maw? Sure!)

Jillette’s own personal boisterous fandom is a factor, too. Of the making of mall-zombie masterwork Dawn of the Dead, Jillette notes, “If you’d have told me I could have a script as they were shooting with the rewrites from George Romero going in, and I could show up on the set and watch Romero work, and I could be a zombie and I could have lunch with him, I would’ve gone out of my mind. That would’ve been worth selling my car.” As it was, he says he hunted down a paper copy of the script he paid $200 for at the time—about $700 in today’s coin.

It’s that kind of fandom that Jillette says drives the enterprise, and to be sure, he and Rifkin have offered a fanboy’s wet dream of rewards for those obsessed with horror movies, Jillette’s career or both. Rewards run from a digital copy of the script to having Jillette follow you on Twitter for a year to—for $25,000—collecting both Rifkin’s and Jillette’s severed ponytails. In case you have very specific voodoo needs, I guess.

The crowdfunding machine couldn’t turn as hard as it does if we weren’t so willingly Balkanized into a million little niches. If you want proof, scope out the preponderance of Duck Dynasty merch flooding every aisle of your local Walmart. Convincing people who aren’t genre fiction fans to shell out for a set of towels with Willie Robertson’s face on them is like finding a massive, untapped oil reserve for brand-loyalty profiteers. It gives non-geeks an inroad into the exciting world of defining themselves almost exclusively by the stuff they like. (Confidential to you newcomers—stay away from off-brand Wikipedia sites devoted strictly to the show/movie/sprawling-yet-depressing fantasy series you’re into. That shit will suck days off your life.)

This sort of thing used to be reserved exclusively for children and us sorry nerds who obsessed over trivia, like Grand Moff Tarkin’s first name was “Wilhuff.”  (And if you have no idea what I’m talking about, congratulations on your respectable dating record in high school.) That part of it works especially well for a horror jam, where fans have been faithful and single-minded longer than most independent city-states of geek.

But there’s a flipside to that kind of militant fandom. It taps into a sense of ownership that buying tickets, DVDs, posters, lunch boxes, key chains and Grand Moff Tarkin replica cheekbones doesn’t quite confer. It also, though, taps into a slew of delightful anxieties: fear of missing out on cool extras; inferiority about the quality of one’s fandom compared to those kicking in a couple hundred bucks; dread at not seeing a project come to completion because it fell just short of the finish line.

It’s become a form of cultural tithing, demanding sacrifice and discipline from the faithful for the glory of the greater good.

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, mind you. It essentially just democratizes the concept of patronage. Only now instead of Lorenzo de’ Medici shelling out a mountain of florins from his vast fortune for a nice da Vinci painting or two, it’s thousands of people distributing a little cash from their tiny fortunes to see Jillette kidnap and torture someone on camera. Either way someone’s getting a last supper.

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