Yesterday, fans of "Veronice Mars" woke up to a surprise announcement that they likely never thought would have been possible. Writer/producer Rob Thomas and actress Kristen Bell unveiled a project on Kickstarter to raise funding for a film version of their cult UPN/CW high-school-set detective series that ran from 2004 to 2007. The show was a critical hit, but never much of a ratings smash, and the ax fell after the third season. But ever since, there's been some talk of a movie spin-off or continuation, but it never seemed quite realistic, particular given that sales figures for DVD sets of the show weren't very good.
But Thomas and Bell took it to the fans, seeking $2 million dollars to produce the picture, and if it was raised, Warner Bros. would agree to pay for the marketing, promotion, and distribution of the "Veronica Mars" movie. And the fans delivered. The film crossed $1 million after four and a half hours, reached its $2 million target after ten hours, and is showing little sign of stopping. As we write, nineteen hours after launch, the project has raised $2.5 million, which all means that "Veronica Mars" is heading to the big screen.
It's not the first film to find success through crowd-sourcing -- short documentary "Inocente" was funded through the site, and won an Oscar a few weeks back, while David Fincher, Charlie Kaufman and Dan Harmon have all mobilized their fanbases to help back various projects. But the attention given to "Veronica Mars," its high profile, and the sheer speed at which it raised a hefty sum means it likely signifies a watershed moment in the crowd-source funding movement. The question is whether it's for better, or for worse.
The Fan POV
If you're one of the creatives or fans of the show, it's undoubtedly great news on the surface. Realistically, this is the only way that a "Veronica Mars" movie was ever going to happen, and there are clearly enough fans -- who've put up between $1 and $10,000, with the average donation coming in around the $60 mark -- who feel that it's worth paying more than the price of a mere ticket or rental to see this happen. And while it's easy to sneer at people ponying up the cash for a long-dead CW detective series (one that, it should be said, was smart and funny and generally well-made, even if we would never have counted it among our favorite shows, or considered dipping into our bank accounts to help it live on), few would deny that there would be some project that would make them consider reaching into their wallets.
A Slippery Slope
Which is not to say that there aren't problems with this approach. For one, if you think fanboys or fangirls are entitled now (and we're talking about fans in general, rather than "Veronica Mars" ones specifically), wait until they've paid six times the price of a movie ticket to part-fund a project. For example, we were all disappointed by "Prometheus," but imagine how that disappointment would have been compounded if you'd paid $70 dollars in exchange for a poster signed by Rafe Spall before you actually saw the movie. We certainly don't envy Thomas the weight of expectations that he'll face from his backers if the film is anything less than the greatest two hours of "Veronica Mars" ever.
You could also easily argue that the money could be much better spent almost anywhere else, and without trying to sound self-righteous, if we gave a thousand dollars to a "Veronica Mars" movie, and nothing ever to charity, we'd probably find it kind of hard to sleep at night (again, not to say that that's the case for even the majority of donors, but it's certainly going to be for some). That said, this is always a slippery slope. It's the same argument used by opponents of state funding for the arts, and if you have a problem with giving money to a movie on Kickstarter over giving to, say, cancer research, it becomes harder to justify the existence of, PBS or NPR, which use a more old-fashioned version of the same funding structure (granted, it's not quite a precise analogy).
Where It Gets Problematic
Perhaps more worrying is the argument that the film is taking away attention, and funding, from the kind of thing that Kickstarter was created for -- raising money for creators and artists at the start of their careers, who don't have the access, connections or resources that Rob Thomas or Kristen Bell have. It's a troubling thought, but we don't know how much water that objection holds. It's not like those who've donated to the "Veronica Mars" movie were about to give that money to some other project on Kickstarter, made by and starring people they've never heard of -- this is capitalizing on a pre-existing fanbase. The great success stories of selling straight to fans -- Radiohead and Louis C.K. spring to mind -- are only possible because of the fans the artists already have. If anything, the publicity for Kickstarter and other similar crowd-sourcing sites might only help encourage those who've just donated for the first time to do so again for less well-known projects.
Funding A Corporation's Project On Your Own Dime.
And we're even more concerned about what this means going forward. As executives around town watch this unfold, its pretty easy to see how the gears in their head might start to turn. Why should Fox have to pay for an "Arrested Development" movie when they can let Mitch Hurwitz go begging from the show's fervent fanbase? Why should AMC back a third season for "The Killing" -- why not let the fans decide with their wallets? Why should NBC bother with "Community" if there are enough supporters willing to give up part of their paycheck? Who should really back a "Party Down" reunion?
It's possible that "Veronica Mars" proves to be something of a blip. Whether it actually makes back its production and P&A budget remains a question mark, and if the movie is a disappointment, it will certainly become a cautionary tale, and make fans more reluctant to try a similar venture with another property down the road. But the times are clearly changing, as it seems creatives are finding innovative ways to sell directly to their fans. But has "Veronica Mars" changed the game in a way that benefits everybody? Or will we look back at it as the opening of a sort of Pandora's Box? What are the ethics of studios taking money from the general public for something they'll make money off of for years to come? Share your thoughts below.