‘Veronica Mars’ and the brave new world (perhaps) of crowdsourced film financing

How much would you pay to hear some more witty quips?

Last Wednesday, March 13, was an interesting day. At 7:30 a.m. West Coast time,  Veronica Mars creator Rob Thomas launched a Kickstarter campaign for a Veronica Mars movie. Thomas’ Kickstarter page has his pitch to fans, as well as a post from actress Kristen Bell; both are amusing and heartfelt, testifying to how this public fund-raising campaign is the last, best hope for a Veronica Mars film. (What is Veronica Mars, you ask?)

I’ve seen periodic mention of Thomas’ efforts to get a Veronica Mars movie off the ground. I would be the first person to line up for such a movie, and yet I’ll confess that for the last couple years it has struck me that Thomas must be waging a lonely, quixotic campaign. Surely the world has moved on from a low-rated TV show about a teenage detective that aired from 2004 to 2007 on the underdog UPN and CW networks? (To quote the Dandy Warhols track that was the show’s indelible theme song, “A long time ago, we used to be friends/But I haven’t thought of you lately.”)

Even Veronica couldn't believe how fast the donations were rolling in. © Copyright Warner Bros.

More fool me. The goal of the Kickstarter campaign was to raise $2,000,000 within 30 days. Warner Bros., which owns the rights to Veronica Mars, agreed to market and distribute the movie if Thomas and Bell could persuade the Internet to pony up the 2 million bucks. No problem there — the Kickstarter page became the fastest such campaign to reach one million dollars (it took all of four hours). The entire $2,000,000 budget was pledged by 5:30 p.m., from more than 32,000 backers, less than 10 hours after the campaign was announced.

(To emphasize what a feat this was, and how faithful the show’s fans still are, it’s worth noting that Veronica Mars has been off the air for nearly six years, an eternity in popular culture, and in that time there has been nothing in the way of merchandise or licensing — no comic books, no novelizations, podcasts, smoke signals, etc. — to keep the franchise alive.)

If you know even one film student or aspiring filmmaker, chances are you’ve received at least one email pleading for a Kickstarter donation to somebody’s short film. Over the last couple years my dilemma here in L.A. has been having to decide which, or how many short films to contribute to. I make my humble donations with fingers crossed, thinking, “Here ya go, kid — please don’t let me read two years from now that Hollywood has hired you to remake a Hitchcock movie.” It feels like good karma to pledge some money, no matter how modest the amount, to some sincere, fledgling effort.

A Veronica Mars movie is no fledgling effort, of course. While the Kickstarter campaign got a wildly enthusiastic response that first day, there have also been some salutary “Wait a minute” reactions. The most thoughtful commentary came from Salon.com TV critic Willa Paskin:

…I understand feeling uncomfortable that what seems like an independent, DIY project is also a capitalist exercise that, if successful, will line the coffers of a seriously not DIY business. But this is uncomfortable irrespective of Veronica Mars. (Whether Kickstarter should be in the business of helping big business is a whole other question.) Welcome to 21st century America, where chances are always good that you’re paying a huge corporation for something you want.

More bluntly, The Hollywood Reporter’s Tim Goodman tweeted, “So is the next Kickstarter campaign going to be funding the salaries of Warner Bros. executives? Come on, people.”

All of us who donate to the campaign are helping a big studio minimize its risk — if not guaranteeing that studio a profit. The instant hoopla surrounding the Veronica Mars Kickstarter campaign has given the movie a huge publicity boost before filming even begins, and there will likely be another wave of free publicity when the movie comes out. Not only that, but Veronica Mars: The Motion Picture Experience, or whatever it ends up being called, will not be sleuthing and snarking its way onto 3,000+ screens across the country. Warner Bros. has protected itself further by agreeing only to release the movie in a limited number of cities, before the DVD and On Demand releases (which naturally will follow soon after the theatrical premiere, to benefit from that same free publicity).

Funded by its target audience, the movie would appear to be that rare Hollywood project that is all upside for its distributor. I presume the studio will also benefit from a small but steady upward tick in the number of old Veronica Mars episodes purchased from iTunes and Amazon, and from increased sales of the DVD and Blu-Ray box sets. The movie that Warner Bros. isn’t paying for could be a convenient way to move some inventory.

Veronica Mars? Done. NOW how much would you pay...

Naturally Hollywood took notice of what’s happened with the Veronica Mars Kickstarter — surely every creator of a TV show that was axed too soon is wondering if he or she could pull off something similar. To cite the most obvious example, within 48 hours Joss Whedon let it be known publicly that between the Avengers sequel and a S.H.I.E.L.D. TV series, he’ll be tied up with Marvel for the next three years, so no one need start pledging their life savings to a Firefly campaign just yet.

Could this become a new model for getting features made? For me an important qualifier is that we Veronica Mars fans are pledging money to something that we’ve already seen, and want to see more of, or at least brought to a satisfying conclusion. If Rob Thomas and Kristen Bell had launched a Kickstarter campaign for a new project, with all new characters, how long would it have taken them to hit 2 million dollars?

Maybe this isn’t necessarily a healthy model for the future. If there’s one thing film and TV culture doesn’t need more of, it’s milking existing franchises for every last dollar of revenue, through sequels, spinoffs and remakes (or “reboots,” to use the face-saving euphemism) — anything that can play off the brand name and buzz of a onetime hit. If the Veronica Mars Kickstarter is a paradigm shifter, maybe it’s just a new way of paying for something you’ve already seen and want more of — you just fund it yourself. Less adventurous projects for less adventurous audiences.

Over too soon: The truncated third and final season.

But a counterargument is that the Kickstarter route is apparently the only way a Veronica Mars film will ever get made. For once this isn’t about wringing every last dime out of a brand name. Thomas pitched a bigger-budget version to Warner Bros. a few years ago and got shot down, because the studio brass reckoned the TV show’s fan base wasn’t big enough to justify making a movie. (How many of Veronica’s roughly 2.7 million viewers will shell out for a movie ticket years later? A Veronica Mars movie with an average studio budget might not break even.) Kristen Bell reportedly offered to finance the movie herself; Warner Bros. said no to that, too.

The path that Thomas and Bell eventually chose is like a weird hybrid of commercial venture and a financing model more closely associated with the fine arts, which are often subscription based and heavily reliant on the largesse of donors. Veronica Mars the series was critically acclaimed but not a big popular success as these things are measured in Hollywood; the fact that the movie is now getting made is a small victory — a vindication for a niche audience and a DIY ethic, even if the property happens to be owned by a major studio. Leave it to a guy from Austin, i.e., Rob Thomas, to not let corporate balance sheets or mainstream tastes keep him from realizing his vision. (We used to call that “indie,” right?)

In search of a clue, but never clueless. © Copyright Warner Bros.

In just under a week the Veronica Mars Kickstarter has raised almost $3.7 million from 56,302 backers. Decent production values beckon. I made my own humble contribution to that total: I won’t have a speaking part in the movie (that requires a $10,000 donation), but I look forward to receiving the poster, the script and the DVD, which of course I’ll watch — after I see the movie in a theater.

(Postscript: The Veronica Mars Kickstarter campaign closed on April 12 with a whopping $5,702,153 from 91,585 backers.)

Just what the heck was Veronica Mars, and why should you care? Click here.

Thomas and Bell shot a video for the Kickstarter page that also features some of the show’s other cast members. Loaded with in-jokes, it’s plenty amusing if you watched the show, and probably somewhat inscrutable if you didn’t. You can watch it here:

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