When the Veronica Mars Kickstarter campaign went live, I discovered how many people in my Twitter feed really loved the show. For the whole of the ten hours it took for the project to earn it’s 2 million dollars, update after stunned update popped up, until it set records and was deemed a go. It was fun watching the fervor, but since then, the doubters have started popping up with greater frequency. They range from outraged that rich Hollywood types would steal from indie auteurs (yawn), to really outraged that rich actors and writers would ask fans instead of ponying up their own dough (also weak sauce), to those concerned this would lead to a new paradigm, where studios would expect fans to ante up money before even green lighting a project. The first two, and variations thereof, Are pretty standard any time a project goes up that’s even remotely attached to a recognizable name, but the last one really surprises me, because it seems to ignore a few glaring reasons this project is the exception, not a developing rule.
First, let’s take a second to dismiss the first two. Number one, Rob Thomas and Kristen Bell took nothing from other Kickstarter projects. While there may be a population who visit the site regularly to support artists and designers they find interesting, the vast majority of people who go to Kickstarter have a specific project they want to fund. So the Veronica Mars funders aren’t angel investors lured from struggling artists, they’re fans who went specifically to jump in to get this movie made. Second, asking fans to pitch in monetarily wasn’t necessarily because Bell and Thomas couldn’t writer personal checks (or get a group of buddies to do the same) to fund the project. 2 million was the approximate cost per episode when the show was on the air, so for a true feature film they were always going to need more, not to mention a line of funding in case things go over budget or any of the other delays that increase the cost of movies occur. The real reason for running this project was to display a level of fan involvement, and build a grass roots promotion team with skin in the game.
That last point is why this isn’t going to be a new business model for studios. The Transformers movies made billions of dollars, and the fourth one will surely make millions as well. But if Michael Bay threw up a Kickstarter for the fifth, I’d bet it would struggle. People will pay for a ticket to watch Transformers: Explosions without Plot when it’s readily available to them, but they’re not really invested in the product. To the same point, if Warner Brothers put up a Kickstarter page seeking funding for a Veronica Mars movie, directed by Gore Verbinski and starring Elle Fanning, it wouldn’t see nearly the attention Thomas and Bell generated.
Veronica Mars fans are interested in seeing more of the stories they fell in love with, performed by the actors they associate with those roles and created by the writer who brought these characters forth in the first place. Nostalgia may figure into this desire, but considering how often they re-watch episodes of all three seasons on DVD, it’s also a desire for something new they can expect to fit with what they already love. Ultimately, Rob Thomas can do whatever he wants with the story, either giving a greater sense of closure on this world or leaving the door open to keep coming back, as long as the tone and style fit what he’s already crafted.
For the uninitiated, though, Veronica Mars means about as much as John Carter meant to those not steeped in classic Sci-Fi. It’s just a girl’s name, Bell is a TV actress, not a box office draw, and Thomas is that guy from Matchbox Twenty (not really, but you see what I’m getting at). Warner Brothers would never green light this movie without something showing them they’ll see a return on any investment they make, even if it’s only distribution and advertising. Fan websites and DVD sales aren’t enough to make that happen, as neither are indicative of a big opening weekend. What does present proof are thousands of investors who are now jazzed at the prospect of this becoming reality. They’ll follow production and spend this year and next buzzing about this movie. They’ll blog about re-watching the series, speculate about what the movie will be like, and generally draw attention Warner Brothers can build on when it’s time to release posters and set shots and trailers. Add that to the buzz surrounding the out-of-the-box method that brought the movie to life, and they could do very well opening weekend. If the movie itself is well made and doesn’t speak only to fans, they could do really well overall.
But their success will be difficult to replicate, after all the X Files‘ second movie, which came out long after the series had ended, did very poorly even with the principle actors and Chris Carter involved, and strong fan desire to see more Mulder and Scully. So perhaps the next show to try this model won’t set their sits on theatrical, aiming instead for the kind of TV specials Columbo and Perry Mason used to be known for, only aimed at streaming services like Netflix or Amazon. Streaming is the path Arrested Development is taking, and it’s success there will probably play a big part in determining whether that show actually makes the jump to feature film, as it’s creators have discussed wanting to try. A trend only becomes the norm when it can be replicated. Veronica Mars may have hit a remarkable funding threshold, but it hasn’t even started filming, much less hit theaters. Die-hard Firefly fans couldn’t turn their love into a series of movies, and once Serenity died at the box office so did any hope of a revival of that show, even with the juice Joss Whedon’s recent Avengers mojo.
What fans of movies and pretty much any other entertainment medium should take from this is the reminder that new means of interacting with the creators of those things we love gives us an opportunity to advocate for our interests earlier in the development process. The success of this Kickstarter told Warner Brothers that fans of the show were very interested in seeing a feature version, written and directed by Thomas and starring Bell and the original cast. The speed at which it hit it’s threshold has most likely convinced Warner to open the pursestrings to make sure the finished product is as high quality as possible, and to make sure they keep building on the publicity that fell into their laps. Now Rob Thomas knows he needs to deliver a final product that lives up to the expectations of the fans, and if he does so they’ll reward him with repeated viewings and positive word of mouth to build new fans.
Asking fans to put skin in the game up front is an excellent way to give the artists we love greater leverage. In a time of media consolidation it means projects that don’t fit traditional marketing models can find an audience, so long as they can develop a hook to generate buzz. The devotees of artists and properties have always been willing to shell out more than the average fan, and giving them a sense they helped make the art they enjoy possible is a great way to work with that tendency to generate attention in an increasingly noisy media environment. If nothing else, it keeps the conversation going on how fans and consumers can be more involved. Anything that makes content creators view their fan base as people rather than sheep to be fleeced is worth noting, and possibly repeating.