It took three days for Veronica Mars to change the way movies are made.
Or maybe it didn’t.
As the Kickstarter for the Veronica Mars Movie Project sailed past its $2 million goal in a scant 10 hours—as I write, the budget is at $3.3 million and counting—bereft fans of Terriers, Chuck, Pushing Daisies, and, for all anyone knows, Twin Peaks, EZ Streets and Mama’s Family, started dreaming of a cinematic extension to their tragically truncated shows. But while TV fans took heart, independent filmmakers and cinephiles heard alarm bells. John Boldrick, whose Twitter account identifies him as a “moving image professional,” worried that the crowdfunding of a studio project “could destroy Kickstarter & possibly the movie business.” (A previous tweet was hashtagged #EndTimes.) Critic James Rocchi called it “Food Stamps for the 1%.”
Apart from rankling artists who’ve used Kickstarter to fund projects more adventurous and less commercial than a reboot of a failed TV series, the Veronica Mars fundraiser seemed to set a terrible precedent. Why should a major entertainment studio like Warner Bros. risk their own money when they can get fans to pay in advance? Investors expect a return on their investment, but the VMMP’s backers paid many times the value of the rewards they could expect to receive: $50 for a DVD and a t-shirt; $100 to add a Blu-ray and a poster.
Of course, return on investment isn’t the point. Fans are used to accepting intangibles as payment: the sense of community that comes with sharing a beloved object with others; a grateful nod from a creator or star (such as “GOOD GOD YOU GUYS RULE” from Kristen Bell, Veronica herself, on Twitter); or, in this case, the knowledge that, as someone involved is sure to say sooner or later, “You made this happen!” Whether or not the Veronica Mars movie comes to fruition—and let’s all think happy thoughts, shall we?—history, one way or another, has been made.
But is it the dawning of a new day or the end of an era? Will Veronica Mars be looked at as a watershed in demonstrating the power of fans to move a corporation’s will, one more step on the long road from Comic-Con? Or will it be seen as the moment Hollywood got wise and realized they no longer needed to wait until a movie or a TV show or an album actually exists to soak fans with an overpriced deluxe package?
Imagine if you could sell the complete Battlestar Galactica in a plastic Cylon head before you’d shot a single frame—shareholders would love those quarterly profits. Movies are often funded by preselling territories: so-and-so many millions for Southeast Asia, based on the value of a given star’s name. In a sense, all Veronica Mars has done is presell its own audience. Perhaps they’ve cannibalized ticket sales in the process, but since Warner Bros. isn’t putting up the money, the worst-case scenario is that they make nothing on a movie they would never have made otherwise.
(One thing, at least, is certain. As semi-employed showrunners rush into the breach, we’re not far from another, less glorious, moment in history: The first show to try a fan-funded reboot and fail. Whether by asking for too much, overestimating the ardor of their fans, or simply falling victim to reboot fatigue, some unlucky program will once again be canceled, this time by its own fans.)
Has Veronica Mars ruined Kickstarter? They’ve certainly expanded its boundaries, reaching (and then some) the highest goal in the site’s history. But the risk that the entertainment industry will try to shunt future costs to individual consumers—any more than they already do, that is—seems remote. Two millions dollars is a hefty sum, but in Hollywood terms, it’s a pittance, budgeting the kind of movie studios pick up after it’s made, if they notice it at all. Let Disney try hawking T-shirts and set visits to fund Iron Man 4 and see how far they get. The Veronica Mars movie was appealing because it seemed like an underdog, and it got to seeming that way through years of failure, endless reports that creator Rob Thomas had again come up short on convincing the corporate powers-that-be to take a shot. There aren’t many shows with such a galvanizingly dismal track record.
And what of the little guys, the experimental art films and the new albums from cult rock bands who’ve never had the promotional might of a major studio behind them? They’ll struggle the same way they have since Kickstarter began, tapping friends and coaxing dollars from middle-class culture vultures who get a rosy glow from the thought of playing Medici in miniature. Those projects—several of which I’ve happily given my own meager sums to—exist in a different world from Veronica Mars, to say nothing of tech startups hawking a Bluetooth-enabled wristwatch. Now that they’ve met their goal, though, it’s time for Thomas and Bell to turn their followers towards more risky endeavors. After you’ve given Veronica Mars $50, maybe drop $10 on a fascinating project you’ve never heard of and help make the world a more interesting place.
And if the Deadwood Kickstarter ever happens, put me down for a C-note.