Most fans of film are fans of some type of television, and every TV season (whatever that really means anymore) brings with it shows that are better than many of the movies we watch. And just as joy comes with watching our favorite series (my current fave is The Walking Dead), so too comes sorrow when that series comes to what we think is an untimely end. For me, it was Heroes. The 2006-2010 fantasy/drama, starring Hayden Panetteiere and Zachary Quinto, followed the lives of ordinary people with extraordinary abilities, and lasted only four seasons, the first of which was marketed with one of my favorite taglines in any medium, “Save the cheerleader, save the world.”
In the past, when a fan favorite or critically-acclaimed show had met an early demise, the options to rescue the show had been limited. In the case of Seth McFarlane’s animated comedy Family Guy, the show was cancelled, but after strong showings in DVD sales and syndication, the series was revived years later. In some cases, shows were picked up by different networks (examples include Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Friday Night Lights). And in one instance, when post-apocalyptic drama Jericho was cancelled, fans protested the show’s cancellation by sending tons of peanuts to CBS’ headquarters (an inside reference to the show). But beyond these exceptions, fans have had little choice but to voice their ire and disappointment, relive the memories online, or continue storylines via various written outlets.
But now there’s a new option in town.
Internetville exploded again this week when actress Kristen Bell (Forgetting Sarah Marshall) and writer Rob Thomas (2008’s 90210), the star and creator/writer (respectively) of TV’s Veronica Mars, a show that was a hit with both fans and critics but was cancelled after three seasons, announced that they were launching a Kickstarter campaign to raise $2MM (US) in 30 days to make a Veronica Mars movie.
(A little history for the uninitiated: Veronica Mars was a crime drama that followed the exploits of its teen title character as she solved mysteries from week to week. Kickstarter is a central funding platform where people with creative projects – movies, video games, whatever – can solicit donations to reach a predetermined goal.)
The reason for the Mars Model is that Warner Bros. did not have enough faith to fund or market the project in the traditional sense; after all, Hollywood is all about business first. But the studio made a deal: if Bell and Thomas could raise the minimum amount of cash, Warner would cover the costs of distribution and promotion of the film, which would first be released theatrically, followed by a wider release via various digital outlets.
To help spur interest, Bell and Thomas wisely sweetened the deal for the fans. Based on how much each person donates, perks can include anything from a copy of the script (for a $10 donation) to a part in the film (that’ll set you back $10,000). The Mars fans (VerMartians?), and I’m thinking despite the perks, rose up in numbers in support of the project and took not 30 days, but only 10 hours to pledge the $2MM minimum. (As of this writing, over 53,000 people have pledged in excess of $3.5MM.) The film is slated to begin shooting later this year, with a tentative US release in early 2014.
I have no skin in this game. I’ve not seen one episode of Veronica Mars, so I don’t yearn to revisit that fictitious world. I might see the film when it’s released, but only for review purposes and to judge the film on its merit, not from the position of being a fan of the source material. And while I like Bell (a Heroes alum), she’s not on my list of luminaries whose entire body of work I feel compelled to see.
But I am very interested in following how this all plays out.
It all seems perfect. The much-desired (and they are always much-desired) film adaptation gets made, the fans are treated to one last romp with a bunch of dear friends, the creative types get one more wear out of a comfortable old role, the spirit of independent filmmaking wafts through the air, and the power of social media triumphs again. It all seems perfect. And yet.
What’s in it for the suits?
All studios … not just Warner … will be watching this closely to see if the Mars Model is a success. If it is, and if the profit margin works, and because Hollywood is nothing if not one giant copy machine, every other studio holding rights to existing popular (yet stagnant) content will start Kickstarter (or the like) campaigns with the hope of replicating the success of the Mars Model. Again, it seems perfect. The studio makes easy money and the fans get the content they want. But at what price?
Based on the numbers already raised for the Mars Model, the average donation per person is $66.00, which does not include the price of theatrical admission once the film is released (around $10) or the expense of purchasing the digital content (about the same) if the film does not run at a theater near you. So, for the chance for one more ride with Veronica Mars, the hardcore fan has paid over $75 and has nothing to show for it but a ticket stub and a copy of the script.
And the studios know this. And this is bad. It puts the fan in the role of hostage to the studio’s captor.
The minute this thing makes money, a studio will say, “Folks, if you want to see a film adaptation of [Insert Title of Moderately Obscure But Much-Beloved-And-They-Are-Always-Much-Beloved Property Here] then start donating or it will never happen, because really, if we were to make this film on our own, we would gamble the $2MM with the hopes that you would give us your $10, instead of spending nothing and ensuring $75 from each of you. Oh yeah, and here’s a trinket for your troubles.” And the money will come, because the fans want just one more ride.
That’s not creative fundraising. That’s extortion.
I sincerely hope, for both fans and filmmakers, that the Veronica Mars film is a huge success. I also hope that once its run is over, this notion of fan-funded filmmaking is viewed as nothing more than a fad that had a nice run.