'Veronica Mars,' Kickstarter and (maybe) the brave new world of fan-funded projects

veronica-mars-kickstarter.jpgA "Veronica Mars" movie is (finally) happening. After blowing past its Kickstarter goal of raising $2 million to finance production in under 12 hours Wednesday (March 13), the project is, as of this posting, approaching $2.9 million raised. That's almost enough to fund a "full-on brawl" at Veronica's ( Kristen Bell) 10-year high school reunion, as series creator Rob Thomas put it on the movie's Kickstarter page.

It's a feel-good story for all the fans of the show who have longed to see Veronica and Keith, Logan, Wallace, Mac and Weevil again, right? Well, yeah -- mostly.

Thomas and Bell's gambit also raised some really interesting (and some silly) questions about using crowdfunding as a business model, the ethics of fans funding a corporate project with no expectation of a monetary return on their investment and more. Even if "Veronica Mars" doesn't open the door to a new way to keep small but fiercely loved shows or movies alive, it's going to be a fascinating case study.

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There is a valid argument to be made against funding a movie or TV show this way (more on that in a couple of paragraphs). But one of the common complaints about it circulating online Wednesday -- aren't there more worthy causes that could use that money? -- is specious.

For starters, as Salon critic Willa Paskin notes, there's not a lot of difference between someone giving $25 to the "Veronica Mars" Kickstarter now and spending that money to take a friend to see the movie when it's released next year. In this case, fans of the show are paying up front to ensure the movie gets made, rather than seeing, say, "The Incredible Burt Wonderstone" and hoping it's profitable enough to make Warner Bros. consider funding a small "VM" production.

As to whether there are more deserving causes than making a movie based on a cult TV show, of course there are. No one "needs" to see a movie in the way that people need to eat or have a roof over their heads. But I'd be willing to bet that for the vast majority of the 47,000 or so people who have contributed to the "Veronica Mars" Kickstarter as of this post, it's not a zero-sum game between that and giving to charity. It seems far more likely that someone would take the $57 (the average contribution so far) they gave to the movie's production out of their normal entertainment budget than say, "Sorry, UNICEF, but I need to see Veronica and Logan again."

A fairer question would be, "Why didn't Thomas and Bell put up the money themselves?" The creator and star, with help from Thomas' fellow "VM" producers and Bell's castmates, probably could have come up with $2 million on their own. But as Thomas writes in his Kickstarter pitch, part of Warner Bros. agreeing to distribute the movie was to prove there was enough fan interest to warrant it.

Fans have been pleading for a "Veronica Mars" movie for years: These two online petitions have a combined 13,260 signatures. But with Kickstarter, people are putting their money where their passion is, and that speaks louder to a studio executive than a hundred thousand petition signatures. More than 31,000 contributors have already pledged $35 or more, which entitles them to at least a digital copy of the movie.

The last question is the trickiest one to answer: Will the success of "Veronica Mars" on Kickstarter lead to a flood of other fan-funded projects. TV creators, including Shawn Ryan of "Terriers," have definitely taken notice. But it won't exactly be easy.

"Veronica Mars" had more than a few things working in its favor, including the huge fact that Warner Bros., which owns the rights to the property, gave its blessing to Thomas and Bell. It also didn't come out of nowhere -- Thomas has pitched movie ideas to the studio in the past, and there has been persistent buzz from devoted fans about the possibility of a movie ever since the show ended six years ago. It also helps that Thomas and Bell have actively championed the project in public.

The next show to mount such a campaign might not have all those things break its way, as HitFix's Alan Sepinwall argues. It won't be as novel, for one thing, and it might not have the combination of star/producer and studio backing that made this one work.

And, as ever, campaigns to revive shows that don't involve the creators or studios are likely to die at the wall of rights claims. After Nathan Fillion joked that he'd buy the rights to "Firefly" should he win a huge lottery jackpot, fans created a website that had nearly $1 million in pledges (though it didn't collect any money) before Fillion and "Firefly" creator Joss Whedon asked them to back off. That's not likely to change much in the Kickstarter era.

Something good that could come of the "Veronica Mars" experiment, though, is measuring the depth of fan interest, even if the breadth isn't that great, as Paskin and Time's James Poniewozik point out. Only about 3 million people watched "Veronica Mars" at its high point, so a big- or even medium-budget movie was probably never in the cards for the show.

But this is a low-risk move for Warner Bros. It's distributing and marketing a movie it already knows that at least a small and devoted audience wants to see -- has already paid to see, in a large number of cases. If it gets studios to think about new ways to serve smaller but more or less guaranteed audiences, that will be a positive thing.
Photo/Video credit: Warner Bros. TV
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