Editorial: The Case against Kickstarting the VERONICA MARS Movie

     March 14, 2013

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Yesterday, Rob Thomas launched a Kickstarter for a film adaptation of his cult TV series, Veronica Mars.  The goal was 30 days to reach $2 million.  The Kickstarter quickly reached its goal in less than a day, and of this posting has received $2.8 million in donations.  Some people celebrated this not only as a way to finally get a Veronica Mars movie, but as a new dawn for financing mainstream feature films.  Personally, I felt everything about it was a bit…off.  I couldn’t quite place my finger on it, but as I’ve spoken with more people and read other editorials discussing the Kickstarter’s success, I’ve become more inclined to believe that Warner Bros., the studio that owns Veronica Mars, has gamed the system, misled fans, and opened a door to diminishing the spirit of Kickstarter in order to serve corporate interests.

If you haven’t already written me off for being an inherently pessimistic person, hit the jump for why I’m against Kickstarting Veronica Mars.

veronica_mars_kristen_bellA brief disclaimer: I want to look beyond the individual project, and not make this about Veronica Mars, but the larger implications of what its Kickstarter means.  As for my personal feelings on the show itself, I’ve seen all three seasons, I liked the first season, but found it to be a series of diminishing returns.

Furthermore, I’m appraising the facts as they currently stand.  I don’t believe all the cards are on the table at this point, but I’m drawing the best conclusions I can from the information we currently have, which is what everyone writing these kinds of editorials is also doing.

Earlier today, Scott Beggs over at Film School Rejects wrote an article in favor of the Kickstarter, and I would like to take the opportunity to rebut his arguments:

1)    It took courage to kickstart a Veronica Mars movie because what if it had flopped?

Then people would find out that Veronica Mars wasn’t as popular as they thought.  Fans would remain fans, and the indifferent would remain indifferent.  It would only affect the perception of Veronica Mars, and Thomas should be proud of his show no matter what happens on Kickstarter.

2)    Beggs compares the “hand-wringing” over the Kickstarter to opposition over remakes. 

That feels like apples to oranges.  A remake is still owned by the corporation and they’re free to do with it what they want.  The original still exists, and it’s the corporation’s right to spend their money as they see fit.  It’s their money.

3)    Veronica Mars is an “ultra rare phenomenon”. 

Actually, it’s not.  Fans have been campaigning to get back the TV they love for decades.  Read Matt Zoller Seitz article over at Vulture for the number of shows that have attempted and succeeded at resurrection or continuation.  The assumption that the success of Veronica Mars won’t open the floodgates of other resurrections undermines Beggs’ argument.  Either Mars is important or it’s not.  Executives like to copy the successes of others (in that way, his remake argument is apt).

4)    “Who is any single person to tell fans who to give their money to?”

Fans are free to spend their money how they want.  I’m free to chastise them for their purchases.  They’re not immune from criticism.

5)    “If someone has waited a decade for a new Firefly series, isn’t $35 for a t-shirt and a digital download a steal at twice the price?”

A t-shirt made in Taiwan costs about a dollar to make, and digital downloads are cheap.  I don’t know if it’s the fan doing the stealing in this case.

6)    It’s ridiculous to think Veronica Mars is taking away from any other Kickstarter.  If anything, it makes Kickstarter even more popular.  A rising tide lifts all ships.

I would agree that no Kickstarter is necessarily hurt by the success of Veronica Mars, but I highly doubt they would benefit.  Kickstarter is already pretty well known, and even if it’s not, its recognition doesn’t automatically lead to users funding smaller projects.  Kickstarting Veronica Mars is the multiplex invading the art house.  Indies don’t make more money because they’re playing at the same theater as a blockbuster.  People want to spend their money on what they feel is their best bet.  Veronica Mars is a known quantity to its fans.

7)    Yes, it was easier to sell Veronica Mars, but it’s unfair to criticize it for being good at Kickstarter.  It’s still “a creator selling the public on a vision”.

The vision was already sold, and this leads to one of my biggest problems with Veronica Mars muscling in on Kickstarter.  Veronica Mars had its shot.  It was made by the studio system.  It was funded by a major studio, and played on network television.  It couldn’t sustain an audience on even the miniscule CW network, and its DVD sales weren’t great.  In the fair market that Beggs celebrates earlier in his piece, Veronica Mars was deemed only good enough for a cult fanbase.

Thomas tried for years to get a movie made, but Warner Bros., looking at the numbers, decided there wasn’t enough interest.  Rather than leave it at that, Thomas took his established project and his fans, and brought them to a new marketplace that’s built around movies that never even got a head start, which is why they need to be kick-started.

And this isn’t really Thomas, but Warner Bros. pulling the strings.  I was talking with Badass Digest‘s Devin Faraci last night, and he made the good point that if this was Thomas trying to buy the rights back, it would be a different story.  But he still has the corporate support of Warner Bros., which will do the legwork of distribution, marketing, etc.  This isn’t “the star quarterback joining the chess club and turning out to be a natural” as Beggs argues.  This is the privileged kid deciding he didn’t want to use his own money to buy something, so he used his popularity to get people to donate.

veronica-mars-tv-posterIf you want to believe that a Veronica Mars movie only costs $2 million (and it doesn’t; as Devin also pointed out to me, the cost of unions makes things more expensive and Warner Bros. has contracts with the unions; I don’t know how Warner Bros. can own the property but then go outside their own system), then you have to believe that Warner Bros. was pleading poverty when they said they couldn’t spend $2 million on a movie, and the Veronica Mars Kickstarter pages makes no mention of how the studio plans to market the film to a larger audience.

This is where the Kickstarter page starts getting misleading, and studios could use this same kind of slight-of-hand to con fans into thinking that the cost of making a studio picture is as simple as buying any other product.  Warner Bros. isn’t in the business of making only $20 million total on a picture.  No major studio is.  That’s perceived as a flop.  When Kevin Smith disingenuously raged against marketing costs and that’s why he was four-walling Red State (remember that game-changer?), he neglected to mention that marketing is leverage.  If you take a $2 million movie like Veronica Marsand take only the people who are fans and spreading word of mouth, you’ll maybe get $4 million at best, although as of this posting, even if all 46,738 backers bought a $10 ticket, the movie would only make $467,380.  If you pour in $20 million into marketing, you might get $40 million back.  That’s the risk the studios take, and that’s why they only do ad blitzes: so they can get the biggest audience possible.

Fans that are funding the Veronica Mars movie are basically buying a ticket twice, and the film is only marginally for them.  It’s for Warner Bros., and I have difficulty believing Warner Bros. will adhere to the terms laid out on the Kickstarter page.  Not even VOD titles open theatrically and then release for digital distribution a few days later.  They work the other way around.  Are we supposed to believe that Warner Bros. will go to the trouble of prints and advertising (P&A) only to cut themselves off at the knees after one weekend?  Furthermore, the Kickstarter page also doesn’t specify how wide the studio will release the film, so if you live in a small town and want to see the Veronica Mars movie on the big screen, you might not get what you thought you were paying for.

Kickstarter can conceivably be both for indies and studio films, but the latter feels like exploitation of the fans.  Yes, the fans are free to spend their money however they see fit, but shouldn’t their money at least pay for the cost of a ticket?  This reminds me of when Universal was “test-screening” Serenity and fans were paying to attend a screening of an unfinished film.  Any other movie test-screens for free, but Universal took advantage of a fandom’s “support”.  Warner Bros. will ease their own financial burden on Veronica Mars while double-charging fans.

If fans want to be double-charged, that’s their business.  As we’ve been told, no one can tell them how to spend their money.  I’m glad the fans are getting their movie, but they don’t seem like the big winners here, and neither do indie films on Kickstarter.  The big winner is a studio that gauged interest by making fans pay, and will now run away with their money.  Warner Bros. is entitled to profit, but it’s uncomfortable seeing a studio walk away from the risk but still reap the reward.

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