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Discuss: Is The Success Of The 'Veronica Mars' Movie Kickstarter Campaign A Blessing Or A Curse?

Features
by Oliver Lyttelton
March 14, 2013 10:59 AM
19 Comments
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Veronica Mars

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.

Kristen Bell Veronica Mars

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.

Louis C.K.

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.

But hanging over all of this is the biggest issue with the "Veronica Mars" kickstarter: the shadow of corporate exploitation. While Thomas and Bell are coming from a place of genuine enthusiasm and love for the show, it's the involvement of Warner Bros that strikes the sour note. While they are footing the bill for the logistical aspects, did they really not have $2 million bucks lying around to just produce the movie in the first place? Whether or not they put some of their own money into the production remains to seen, but essentially, they just got a bunch of regular moviegoers to a fully-fund a project. And oh yeah, all those people who donated to Kickstarter? They'll have to buy a movie ticket to see it on top that that.


Carl Weathers Arrested Development

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. 

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19 Comments

  • Marko | March 17, 2013 10:43 AMReply

    I don't think they have much to worry about as far as disappointing the fans goes. If you shelled out lets's say $60 for the project, chances are you are a pretty big fan and you'll probably be ecstatic to see the characters you love on the big screen regardless if its not the greatest two hours of Veronica mars. Also you are part of the project now in a way and you want it to succeed. I can't remember the name they use in marketing but its basically the opposite of buyers remorse. Regardless of how good the product is, you look past the negatives and accent tr positives in your mind in order to justify the purchase. Like if you are an apple fan boy, chances are you are going buy and love the new apple product even if its not that much of an improvement on the last generation one. Of course if the film turns out to be complete garbage there is going to be an uproar but as long as its mediocre or better they are in the clear. Just look at the twilight movies. Those are terrible movies but the fans are so die hard it doesn't matter they'll see and love whatever is put out with the twilight name attached. Plus seeing as the reason this movie is being made is beause the creative team behind it is so passionate to make it, and it's not just some sequel churned out to milk profits, chances are that it's going to be pretty good or at least satisfy the fans.

  • Blue Rose | March 17, 2013 4:15 AMReply

    I personally don't like it. I've known people who have funded both movie and music projects via Kickstarter and it should be reserved for people who don't have connections. I feel the makers of this project have enough connections to raise 2 million outside of Kickstarter. eBay started out as a supposed "mom and pop" business platform and now it's very corporation and large business based. It slowly choked up its original users. For 2 millions, countless small bands and beginning film makers could make thousands of products instead of just this one. I wouldn't want it to end up like eBay.

  • Zinjo | March 15, 2013 8:29 PMReply

    I love it.

    Finally fans have discovered the medium that the Hollywood bean counters will understand = MONEY! If a fan is willing to pony up some cash to see his/her favorite show/book/media made into a motion picture, then a Hollywood accountant executive type will see a vein of gold to be mined and will react. Letter writing campaigns have only worked a few times, but when money is involved that gets a business school graduate's attention.

    The more we as fans do these things, the stronger the film industry will become as their is a critical lack of willingness for studios to gamble on "unknown" quality scripts or what they deem as "fringe" properties like Veronica Mars, Firefly, etc...

    Power to the people!

  • realityengineer | March 14, 2013 6:33 PMReply

    The ideal thing would have been to sell stock in a startup company this way to let fans actually invest and get a return on their investment. The problem is that is illegal using the usual ways to start a company. Big companies hate innovative new competitors so they got sleazy politicians to limit the number of investors a startup can have, and enact rules making it easier to take money only from "accredited investors", i.e. rich people who fill out paperwork to prove it. It might be possible (though I'm unsure if they could qualify with a startup) to take a company "public" like those on a stock exchange.. but the cost would be so vast it wouldn't be worthwhile. The last changes to the rules made it so costly some companies left the stock exchange to go private, and it stopped many tech companies from going public to raise money to compete with the big players. They justify this claiming it is to protect people from investing in scams.. but in reality that argument is a huge scam to protect big companies from competition.

    They worked with the system the best way possible at the moment. People need to get sleazy politicians to change the system to let fans get a return on their investment and make more projects, indie and otherwise, possible.

  • sr | March 14, 2013 6:33 PMReply

    I wish it had been for something like "Kings." Man, I miss that show.

  • Michael | March 14, 2013 6:14 PMReply

    I think if we are going to pay for these movies to be made then we should also get money from the profit. I gave to Veronica Mars because i believe in Rob Thomas and I love his shows. So I help pay to get the movie made, I pay for a ticket once the movie comes out But Universal or Warner who will distribute this movie will make MILLIONS! So I guess as the public we need to figure out how to get a cut or we're just going to be paying twice as much to see a movie where all we receive are goods & autographs. Not worth it. Like I said I gave because I believe in the shows creator Rob Thomas but we as a public can't keep giving away our hard earned money for a Tv Show or a movie idea and not reap the rewards, unless you're cool with a tshirt and some signed stuff while fat cats do nothing but collect.

  • Justine | March 14, 2013 2:01 PMReply

    I admit I was hesitant to donate for reasons listed in this piece, i.e. corporation exploitation, however my adoration for the characters and desire for the closure I have so longed for since the show's cancelation made me put aside any hesitation. I look forward to seeing what creator Rob Thomas and the cast are able to produce with the aid of the Kickstarter fund and am sure it will not disappoint. LoVe

  • berk | March 14, 2013 1:22 PMReply

    What is the option for donators if Rob Thomas makes the movie and Warner Brothers shelves it? An extreme scenario, but plausible. Does Thomas own the rights to VM to release on his own Louis CK style? Anyway, this isn't going to get anything other than a direct to dvd/VOD release in any case.

  • Ryan Sartor | March 14, 2013 12:45 PMReply

    It seems silly to discuss the 'Veronica Mars' movie in these terms. I was a sort-of fan of the show, but I never would have donated to this campaign.

    At every step of this, though, anyone could have said 'No': Warner Bros. could have let the project lie dormant, Rob Thomas could have said that he didn't want to fund the project in this way, fans could have decided that they didn't want to fund it. Everyone is responsibility for their role in this project.

    If the movie sucks, of course, there will be a great uproar, but it will be relegated to comment threads such as this one. No one burned down Hollywood because 'Robin Hood' sucked, and they would have lived if 'Prometheus' had been terrible. Likewise, fans will still go see Rob Thomas' next project, be it a 'Party Down' or 'Cupid' movie.

    Also, Warner Bros. definitely does not have $2 million lying around and if they spend it, for no good reason, on a film reboot of a failed UPN drama--rather than using it to pay out a dividend to stockholders or fly out Mike Tyson and his tiger for the 'Hangover Part II' premiere--the executive who greenlit it would have had some explaining to do.

    If Warner does conduct a fairly strict VOD, limited theatrical release, as is the plan, they'll still spend a bit on promotion, but it will be a negligible amount and the $2 million is a nice indicator that they might even turn a profit, and if not, at least their mailbags will be a little bit lighter for a while, until the film is released and if people hate it, the mail starts right back in again.

  • Jess | March 14, 2013 11:34 AMReply

    I honestly think that a lot of commentary neglects a major reason that many of the contributors gave money -- in its own right, it was kind of a fun thing to be part of. Surely that was at least part of the real phenomenon on display here -- it's not just about who's willing to pay for a new movie, it was about the process of contribution becoming something communal, zeitgeist-y and oddly enjoyable.

    So the charity argument doesn't really apply -- that money would more likely have been going on a new iPhone game or another bottle of wine or whatever than to AIDS research on any other day. And I'm glad you pointed out the dubious territory that the charity argument leads us into -- we're film bloggers, after all, we advocate vehemently that people go to their theaters and spend money on movies. Let's not get into a moral debate over how much good anyone's personal arts/entertainment budget could do curing blindness, let's assume people can make that decision on their own. I know I do.

    It also means that a lot of the furore over this was due to novelty. I'm sure others will try a similar strategy and will experience lesser returns, especially because I agree that it's almost impossible for this movie to live up to the expectations of all those fans who now consider themselves not just consumers, but investors.

  • Anil | March 14, 2013 12:37 PM

    I don't think the bandwagon theory you offer here applies because it happened so quickly. From here on out you could make the case that contributors want to join in for the "feel-good" aspect of it, but this initial outpouring of backers comes from die-hard fans of the show longing for a return of the characters.

  • Mister Proffitt | March 14, 2013 12:29 PM

    What's going on here is that the uber-fans jumped on this and pushed it over the top. The passion of 40K fans was enough to fund this project and speaks to the power of a core of true fans to sustain an artist's work. What Thomas did was appeal to patrons of his art for support to create anew. Kickstarter gave Thomas the platform to reach out to them and WB was smart enough to let him push it out to his fans and just sit back and watch the response. Fortunately the show had enough super fans waiting for a follow-up to the series that they in deed responded, passionately and with fists clenching dollar bills.

  • tom | March 14, 2013 11:34 AMReply

    yo Prometheus was fresh

  • Daniel Delago | March 14, 2013 11:20 AMReply

    The only problem I have with it is that the person who donated $10,000 to the project, gets a talking role in the movie. Something seems unethical about buying an acting role in a film.

  • Blue Rose | March 17, 2013 4:09 AM

    The movie industry is founded on nepotism. I don't find someone paying for a role any different than a known person in the industry giving a job to their not so talented nephew. Who knows? Maybe that person will make a career out of it.

  • MrMLK | March 15, 2013 12:50 PM

    Why is it unethical to buy an acting role in a movie?

  • Kemlin | March 14, 2013 12:09 PM

    Not unique to this film. This is the case with all non-micro budget independent films (and by all i mean somewhere between 100% and 100%). Anything with budgets from the $1m-25 million budget range are financed at least in part by investors who want a bit part for either themselves or a family member in the finished film.

  • BEF | March 14, 2013 11:14 AMReply

    More troublesome is if Hollywood uses this as a bar for filmmakers -- make $2 million from fans first -- and then maybe we'll fund the rest. Hollywood already doesn't want to make niche films, only superhero films, and cheap horror movies. I want to see Charlie Kaufman's "Frank or Francis" and they need another $10 million that the studio isn't willing to spend. I certainly would put down some money for that, haha. (I doubt they could make $10) ... but the fact that VM made $2 million in less than one day is disconcerting for Hollywood making anything interesting. Go to Megan Ellison or go to Kickstarter and then come back to us.

  • BEF | March 14, 2013 11:16 AM

    And Amazon gets 5% of all kickstarter campaigns, I'm sure they love this .... hell, maybe down the line there'll be a "20th Century Fox and Amazon presents ..."

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