Entertainment

03.15.13

The ‘Veronica Mars’ Kickstarter Smash: 5 Burning Questions

Is the entire movie industry about to be turned on its head? Could a Freaks and Geeks movie be next? What the Kickstarter success story really means.

Six years ago, the CW canceled the sleuth drama Veronica Mars, which for three seasons starred Kristen Bell as a modern-day, all-grown-up Nancy Drew solving mysteries in the fictional seaside town of Neptune, California. The series may have been low rated, but is remarkable for the intense passion for all things Mars its fans had, and continue to have. On Wednesday, those fans enjoyed the geek-out of their lives.

After six years of dreaming a dream—that their cherished show would one day be revived as a film—creator Rob Thomas announced that the movie version of Veronica Mars was a go. And it’s those very fans he had to thank for it. Using crowd-funding site Kickstarter, they helped raise—in just one day—the $2 million needed to fund the film project.

And it’s not just Mars fanatics that are squealing over the news. Fans of other long-canceled shows are giddy over what the success of the crowd-funding campaign could mean for resuscitating their beloved series, while pundits wonder whether this could turn the entire filmmaking on its head. Channeling Veronica Mars herself, we did some digging on the biggest questions about the burning questions raised by this crowd-funding success.

What happened here?

Fans really loved Veronica Mars. Creator Rob Thomas really loved making Veronica Mars. Actress Kristen Bell really loved starring in Veronica Mars. Taking all this into account, Thomas first went to Warner Bros., the studio behind the original series, about a year ago with the idea to have fans fund their long-sought-after Veronica Mars movie, so long as the studio agreed to help with marketing and distribution costs. Thomas came up with a script which would, shockingly, revolve around a murder mystery that Veronica helps to solve, and convinced—and, he said, it took some real convincing—to get them on board with the idea should he be able to prove there was enough interest in the movie.

And was there ever. The goal was to raise $2 million in 30 days. Other projects have raised more, but their goals were significantly lower. The goal was met in just 11 hours, a Kickstarter record. Some big-ticket rewards for larger donations certainly helped—the opportunity to name a character, host a screening for 50 friends, and win a speaking role in the movie—but most of the fundraising was done through smaller fan donations. With 28 days to go, the project has already raised $3.3 million.

The film will shoot this summer, have a limited theatrical release in early 2014, and will be distributed online and through VOD.

How rare is this?

There are loads of films that owe their existence to Kickstarter. Crowd-funding a film project is nothing new. There are 31 Kickstarter films currently showing at SXSW in Austin. Lindsay Lohan can thank Kickstarter for keeping her somewhat relevant—her upcoming film The Canyons was funded through the site. The makers of Christian indie Blue Like Jazz turned to the site when an investor pulled his promised $250,000. Kickstarter contributions revived the project, which otherwise would have been scrapped.

The difference: The Canyons was funded for $100,000 (and earned $159,000). Blue Like Jazz accrued $345,992. The amount of money raised for Veronica Mars blows those totals away. When one considers how quickly fans helped Thomas meet his goal, the success of the campaign is absolutely astounding. As Thomas himself said, “My mind is blown."

Does that mean that Kickstarter is essentially bankrolling Warner Bros.?

In a way, yes. The movie is funded by the fans, but the fans aren’t investors in the film. They will not make any money if it does well, and they don’t have the right to demand an audit if it underperforms. “It’s an incredibly great deal for Warner Bros.,” said Dorothy Pomerantz at Forbes. It only has to pony up the marketing money. If the Mars movie makes that back, the rest is just money in the bank, since there are no investors to pay out.

John Rogers, who co-created the independently-financed TNT drama Leverage, said studios relegating the burdens of funding to fans is “a mixture of exploitation and empowerment.” Joss Whedon, the creator of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Firefly, shares these mixed feelings. Asking fans to donate money to a project they won’t be actual investors “feels not as pure, and the presence of a studio makes it disingenuous somehow,” he said. “But people clearly understood what was happening and just wanted to see more of the thing they love. To give them that opportunity doesn’t feel wrong. If it was truly a wrong move, I don’t think it would have worked.”

One way to look at it: people shell out a lot of money each year for movies they don’t like or never really wanted to see in the first place. Paying a bit more to ensure that a movie you want in your theater actually gets made and makes it there is a worthwhile incentive, then, for many people.

Will the success of this campaign change how other movies will be made?

While the way the Mars movie was financed is certainly revolutionary, it’s not the watershed moment in filmmaking that some pundits and hopeful fans think it could be. Many stars had to align in order for this campaign to be so fruitful. Sure, there’s the loyal Mars fanbase. But there also already was a script written, the major players—Rob Thomas, star Kristen Bell—were already committed to taking part, and Warner Bros. had already agreed to distribute the film if enough money was raised. All three of those things are rare for Kickstarter projects and even rarer for those fan “I want a movie!” pipedreams.

In fact, a chief concern over this Mars campaign is that it will open the floodgates—fans of Friday Night Lights, Freaks and Geeks, Firefly, and many other cult series will demand, expect, and launch campaigns to revive the TV shows on film. That may not be a good thing, and could even hurt indie financing. “If the film does very well, distributors might start to expect filmmakers to be able to raise money on their own from fans but that’s easier said than done,” said Pomerantz. Plus, as with any business venture, an early success story sparks a glut of wide-eyed hopefuls hoping to imitate that victory. That means an increasingly crowded market and fewer breakouts. “As with any new market, those who first embrace the change are most likely to see early success,” said Michael Wolf, chief analyst at Next/Market, “but as the market matures the likelihood for success may go down.”

Buzzfeed is even more frank. “The Veronica Mars Kickstarter is a fluke,” it said. For over 70 percent of the fans that donated, this was their first Kickstarter project they funded. Over 50 percent of the fans had joined Kickstarter specifically to donate to this project. More than half of them were women, and they’re unlikely to ever contribute to a campaign again, as Kickstarter has an incredible gender disparity—77 percent of users are men. “Unlike a lot of potential Hollywood movies that have built-in fanbases start using Kickstarter, it’s unlikely that another project will get this far anytime soon,” wrote Buzzfeed's Kate Dries.

That’s not to say there’s only pessimism about how this will affect movie development. Save-my-show petitions and campaigns can only do so much to convince executives that a low-rated series deserves reviving. But “actual monetary pledges to foot production costs speak more loudly to studios than petition signatures, mail-in campaign stunts and trade-pub advertisements,” said Rebecca Sun at The Hollywood Reporter. So going forward then, fans should note that a Kickstarter campaign like this has more of a chance of resuscitating a dead series than, say, buying Subway sandwiches.

Could this happen with other shows?

“When I saw [the campaign] online, I said to my agent immediately, ‘Can we do this with Pushing Daisies or Wonderfalls?” Bryan Fuller, who created the two short-lived series with respective rabid cult followings, told The Hollywood Reporter. He also, however, hit on what makes Mars uniquely suited for this kind of crowd-funded independent film in a way most other TV series aren’t: it’s cheap. “Veronica Mars hinges on its charming cast and writing and isn’t as effects-laden and dependent on huge productions. You can make a $2 million or $4 million Veronica Mars movie.” Pushing Daisies, on the other hand, cost around $3 million per episode. A film would run a tab in the $10 million range—a near-impossible goal for something like Kickstarter.

While there are built-in fanbases for these series, as the Mars Kickstarter certainly proves, studios are logically still wary to funnel such money into TV properties that already failed once. Remember, though Kickstarter funded the Veronica Mars production costs, Warner Bros. still has to foot the marketing bill. “So much of the budget goes into advertising,” said Zachary Levi, who starred on Chuck, a series that lasted for five seasons thanks to perennial save-my-show campaigns from fans. Therefore, fans and creators of these beloved cult series should take advantage of the many online and VOD platforms available today—essentially, release the film directly to the fans who want at as little cost as possible.

“If we came out with a Chuck movie now, I don’t know how many more people who didn’t watch Chuck would watch this movie,” Levi said. “You’d want to do an online release, and if people want to pay extra dollars to get the DVD and Blu-ray, you can make money from those purchases. I would keep the overhead as low as possible [with] social marketing.”

In other words, we're in a wild frontier. Veronica Mars may be a noble pioneer and could pave the way for new and exciting film endeavors, but it's unlikely that what just occurred with Kickstarter will start a bona fide movement.