Zach Braff’s Wish I Was Here, his controversially Kickstarter-backed follow-up to his debut feature Garden State, was picked up by Focus Features for U.S. distribution after its world premiere this weekend at the Sundance Film Festival. This purchase is notable for a number of reasons, mostly for the impact of what crowd-funding sites like Kickstarter might lie in the future of Hollywood filmmaking. The debut of Wish I Was Here, coming right on the heels of the upcoming partially Kickstarter-funded Veronica Mars film, marks the first instance of such a film top-lined by major stars and to premiere at the Sundance Film Festival.
Initial response to the film, which seemingly picks up on quarter life crisis essayed in Garden State aged ten years, was mixed at best. In their review, The Hollywood Reporter called the film, “[A] funny and emotionally satisfying tale of thirtysomethings trying to come to terms with life itself,” while Variety said, “Zach Braff tries – and fails – for a thirtysomething Garden State redux in Kickstarter-funded sophomore effort.” Yet the film film still earned a standing ovation after its premiere at the Eccles Theater and sparked a buyers interest from not just Focus Features, but also Lionsgate Films and Fox Searchlight Picture (who released Garden State.) Braff stars as Aidan Bloom, a 35-year-old struggling actor in the midst of trying to balance career and family; Kate Hudson, Mandy Patinkin and Josh Gad (currently delighting audiences as the voice of Olaf the Snowman in Disney’s hugely popular Frozen) co-star.
A certain degree of controversy will likely dog Wish I Was Here until the film is released (Focus has committed to theatrical agreement of putting the film on at least 500 screens) and there was a bit of an ado at the Park City premiere itself, with some Kickstarter supporters protesting the screening when some were unable to attend the premiere. Still, Braff does have a bit goodwill on his shoulders; Garden State was a critically and commercially well regarded film – it even won the Best First Feature prize at the 2005 Independent Spirit Awards.
Wish I Was Here is also notable because it’s the first major purchase made by a transitioning Focus Features since former CEO James Schamus was ousted last fall. Schamus sculpted the boutique division of Universal Pictures into a force in the industry with the savvy managing of commercially and critically respected films like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Brokeback Mountain, The Kids Are All Right, Milk, Atonement and current multiple Oscar nominee Dallas Buyers Club. Peter Schlessel is now in charge of Focus, with expectations and uncertainty looming about the future. So for a lightly dramatic comedy, Wish I Was Here comes ripe with drama.