I feel the need to drop at least two prefaces on this one – your patience, as ever, is appreciated.
Preface #1: I don’t have a dog in this fight. At all. As far as I can recall, I never actually saw a full episode of Veronica Mars, and if I did it clearly left no meaningful impression on me. I was aware of it, in as much as I knew its basic premise (Nancy Drew: 2000 to save you the trouble of heading to Wikipedia) and that it was apparently the reason that I was supposed to somehow distinguish Kristen Bell from the thousands of other waifish blonde ingénues vying for next-big-thing-hood in the early 2000s. It never interested me (that it was a UPN/CW series is, frankly, a huge red flag) but it also never looked like something I’d actively dislike, its fanbase is clearly sincere and includes many friends of mine, so if they see something profound or even just tremendously likable in it that’s good enough for me.
Preface #2: I have never myself been the direct beneficiary of or impetus for a Kickstarter campaign. But I have participated in, contributed to and been involved in (voluntarily) promoting several Kickstarters in the past. I’ve got nothing against Kickstarter as a business or so-called “crowdfunding” as a concept – in fact, I support it.
That having been said …
So, this past Wednesday, Veronica Mars creator Rob Thomas and Veronica Mars performer Kristen Bell announced a Kickstarter campaign on behalf of a theoretical feature film spin off of the show. The pitch? If they met a certain financial goal regarding production budget, Warner Bros. (who had previously passed on the project as too “expensive” given its pedigree as a TV show canceled by a network whose name is synonymous with “Nobody is watching.”) would agree to distribute and market it. That goal? $2 Million in 30 days.
They reached it in 11 hours.
Barring any unforeseen issues, the project is now a go. Fans of the series are celebrating. A whole gaggle of actors who (at least under cursory glance) don’t appear to have gone on to do all that much else for the most part will be getting a fresh paycheck. And the Hollywood studio system will wake up tomorrow to a world where the audience/filmmaker power dynamic may have shifted just a tiny bit from where it was before …
… and to be honest, the whole thing makes me just a little bit uncomfortable.
Again, see above: I’ve got nothing against Veronica Mars, Kickstarter or any of the other attendant parts of this. Nothing at all. I get fandom, in all of its extremes and passions. I understand feeling like something ended too soon. I can relate to signing petitions to revive/continue this or that series, or buying DVDs hoping that the sales numbers would help spur a sequel. And I can even relate to the feeling of wishing there was a way to throw money at a property’s holder if it would make them do whatever it is I wanted them to do. Hell, it’s such a common thing in fandom we have whole memes for it – “I’m shoving money at the screen and nothing’s happening!”, or “SHUT UP AND TAKE MY MONEY!”
Here’s the thing, though – as sincere as the emotion in those concepts was, the actual things they described were always couched in a certain level of fan self-mockery (“Shut up and take my money” is a direct reference to a Futurama episode making fun of overzealous consumerism, after all) and the impossibility of the transaction itself. I want this thing so badly I would do something as extreme and sort of pathetic as thrusting my dollars at an already obscenely wealthy corporation in an act of hopeful financial fealty: “Please, sirs, I’ve brought my whole piggybank. I know it’s not much, but if you could just find it in your hearts to spare Gravity Falls for another season …” And this was okay to joke about, because the mechanism to do such a thing didn’t actually exist. There was no actual altar upon which to make your sacrifice – ritualistically emptying your wallet as a show of sincerity to The Greenlight Gods.
But now, thanks to Rob Thomas and Kristen Bell, there is.
It’s not that I’m opposed to Kickstarters that aim to ultimately turn a profit (again, I’m not even opposed to this Kickstarter!), but I can’t just ignore that the original spirit of crowdfunding was all about a leveling of the field. It’s a way to give small operations or people with financially risky ideas a way to raise money that was otherwise only available through oversight or subservient “partnership” with a major corporate backer. Crowdfunding was, to use an unfortunately tarnished phrased, “indie” in the purest sense of the word, at least, theoretically. Smaller venue fan conventions used Kickstarter. Artists used Kickstarter. Independent filmmakers like the ones behind Zero Charisma (which I’m hearing great things about out of SXSW) used Kickstarter. Big studios, though? They’ve got their own money – money that they earn from us by making products that we want to buy. That’s how it works.
Sure, sometimes they ask our opinions about which products to make in the first place – either through direct questionnaire or (more often) by analyzing our previous buying habits – but the basic premise of The Market has always been “You (studio/company/etc.) make the product, and if we (the consumer) like it we’ll then consider giving you money for it.”
This Veronica Mars scenario upends all of that, effectively creating a new paradigm: “You (the consumer) give us (the company) money to make something, and if we get enough of it you will then have the option of giving us more money so you can now buy it!” Oh, and maybe they’ll also give you a hat or something if you gave enough money initially.
Granted, that’s exactly the same paradigm as Kickstarters for genuinely independent projects, but the (at least hypothetical) trade off there is that the initial donors are willingly taking care of the overhead. Business operations are expensive to run, after all. That’s why widget makers have corporations above them instead of just their factories and why moviemakers have movie studios. Zero Charisma didn’t have a major studio handling its overhead, so they used Kickstarter.
And on the surface, to be sure, Veronica Mars: The Movie probably doesn’t seem all that different. The studio that owns the property clearly didn’t think it was worth spending even a paltry $2 million on, but its creator and fans evidently wanted to take a shot. So they went to Kickstarter, just like any other scrappy little project just looking for its shot, right?
Actually, no. I don’t profess any special knowledge of how the Mars Kickstarter got together, mostly because I don’t need it. Basic understanding of Hollywood business dealings and common sense will do. See, while Rob Thomas may be the creator of Veronica Mars with a likely not-insubstantial financial stake in the property via his Rob Thomas Productions, it has corporate owners too. The reason they (Thomas and Bell) could say right upfront that Warner Bros. had already agreed to the funding “if only” was because they would have to run this entire proposal by WB and their legal department before they said one word about it in public – hell, just for mentioning the company’s possible involvement in the end product they’d have to do that, even if Thomas did own the property outright. And you’d better believe that Warner Bros. had some very real number crunching to turn to for that magic $2 million number. (I welcome the correction, by the way, if I am at all incorrect or mistaken about any of that.)
In other words, while there’s no reason to doubt that the plan and the passion were all hatched by Thomas just like he said, what has effectively happened here is that Warner Bros. – acting through Rob Thomas, Kristen Bell and Kickstarter – has conducted a market research survey as to interest in Veronica Mars: The Movie where “Yes!” answers came in the form a financial donation. Fans paid a collective $2 million dollars for the privilege of saying “Yes, mister, we are interested in your at this point entirely hypothetical movie project.”
But, okay. The spectacle of one of the most powerful multimedia conglomerates in the history of planet Earth latching onto a service originally designed to help the kind of projects that their entire infrastructure exists to say “No!” to as a way to say “Oh, you guys like Veronica Mars? Prove it!” rubs me the wrong way and feels inappropriate. But it’s not unethical or wrong.
It does give me pause, though, all the same.
Firstly, it’s an open invitation for studios or other corporate entities to really abuse the system. It took mainstream Hollywood a good long while to understand fandom and devotion of geek culture, but they’ve figured out how to monetize that devotion with astounding quickness. The idea that they can now potentially ransom fans of this TV show or that movie for their continuation will be the big take away from these events for a lot of the industry, and the implications are pretty grim.
Hollywood budgets are illusory horrors designed specifically to ensure that as few people outside those who’ll reap the final profits actually understand or even know what anything actually costs. If an unscrupulous studio executive was to say, “Y’know, we’re already more or less decided on renewing this show, but before we make it ‘official’ we might as well toss up a Kickstarter implying it’s in danger of not coming back and see if we can’t get those gullible fans to lower our production costs a little more!”, there’d be no real way of preventing it or even proving that anything “untoward” went down – after all, who’s to say they didn’t need just that little extra million or so? Do you know what catering costs in this town?
But even beyond outright malfeasance, it feels like yet another step away from creativity and risk taking within the industry. Contrary to popular belief, Hollywood has not run out of new ideas. There are screenwriters with piles of new ideas out there. The problem is that movies are expensive to make and “new” equals “financially risky.” Who wants to risk their job on some new, unproven concept when you can just sequelize (or remake, or reboot, or reimagine) a concept that you already know sold once and can probably sell again? Believe it or not, the offices of Hollywood’s wealthy and powerful are not generally stocked with DVDs of cult classic 80s horror movies and Silver Age Marvel and/or DC comics – movie theaters are dominated by comic book adaptations and remakes because they’re known quantities backed up by market data.
Now, do original ideas get Kickstarted? Sure. But for the most part, the stuff that really brings in the big crowdfunding bucks are known quantities. The Ouya (which promises to run Android software) or revivals of old IPs in TV, movies, games, etc. This is unsurprising, since people are always more willing to pay for what they already know they like. The proof, now, is in the pudding: The biggest and most-visible “major” movie financed via crowdfunding is Veronica Mars – a spin off of a TV show. And it won’t be the last.
After all, now that the studios have been invited to the Kickstarter scene, what do you think they’ll be Kickstarting? Original projects? Not likely – to gain any kind of traction they’d need at least trailers, or production stills, or concept art, and if they had the overhead to produce that they probably wouldn’t be using Kickstarter. But TV spin offs? More sequels? More remakes? More adaptations, reboots and reimaginings? Yeah, that sounds about right.
A few years ago, we called crowdfunding a “revolution.” Revolutions aren’t supposed to look exactly like what came before.
Bob Chipman is a film critic and independent filmmaker. If you’ve heard of him before, you have officially been spending way too much time on the internet.