On a day when the news included the election of a new pope and the public unveiling of the man who tipped the 2012 presidential election, the Twitterverse couldn't stop buzzing about a TV show that went off the air six years ago. In case you missed the Internet-wide call to arms, Veronica Mars — a low-rated but cultishly beloved series that was canceled by The CW in 2007 — had the sudden, unexpected possibility of a revival as a feature film designed to wrap up the series' many dangling plot threads. But this time, the fate of the series would not be determined by the whims of a few studio executives; it would be determined by the show's fans.
Veronica Mars creator Rob Thomas worked out a deal with Warner Bros, which owns the rights to the series: If fans donated a minimum of $2 million to a Kickstarter campaign, Warner Bros would make the movie and handle the distribution and marketing. If the threshold wasn't reached, the movie would never happen.
It's safe to say that Veronica Mars exceeded its goal. Less than 11 hours after the campaign began, the series had already reached $2 million, with more money continuing to pour in around the clock. As I'm writing this article, the Kickstarter tally sits at around $2.6 million; it will be tens of thousands of dollars higher by the time you're reading this.
Whether you're a Veronica Mars fan or not, this is news because it's about more than any single TV series. It's about the way modern audiences consume film and TV, and the passion with which they consume it. It's about the way that social media has blurred the lines between creators and fans. And it's about the very real possibility that consumers of media will play a primary role in determining our media landscape in the future.
Until recently, hardcore fans had one recourse when their favorite TV shows were on the bubble: Bug the networks enough to convince them to change their minds. CBS renewed Jericho when fans sent the company 20 tons of nuts. UPN renewed Roswell when fans mailed in 6,000 bottles of Tabasco sauce. NBC renewed Chuck when fans flocked to buy sandwiches from the show's sponsor, Subway, which featuerd a particularly aggressive group of 600 led by the series' star, Zachary Levi. ("So this is what we have to do? Keep buying sandwiches?" said Levi in a video documenting the stunt.) In fact, Veronica Mars tried the exact same approach back in 2007. When the show landed on the chopping block after three low-rated seasons, fans mailed The CW more than 10,000 Mars Bars.
It didn't work. Despite a desperate, last-ditch attempt to retool the series by moving Veronica from college to the FBI, Veronica Mars was over — and always would have been, until yesterday.
The far simpler model offered by the Veronica Mars-Kickstarter venture — donate enough, and you get what you want — has led thousands of fans to breathlessly speculate about other beloved, prematurely canceled TV series that could be resurrected: HBO's Deadwood, FX's Terriers, Fox's Firefly. (If Netflix hadn't footed the bill for the upcoming Arrested Development reboot, it would surely be a prime contender.) And though Veronica Mars is certainly the most expensive and high-profile campaign to succeed, this isn't the first time that Kickstarter has made a major splash in the film and TV industry. As recent examples go, it's worth remembering that Inocente — this year's Academy Award winner for Best Short Documentary — existed only because 294 generous Kickstarters donated to its filmmakers in July 2012. If just $2,528 less had been donated, we'd have a different Academy Award winner.
Still, the Veronica Mars movie, with its 45,000-plus donors to date, isn't quite the same. No one can doubt the passions of the show's creative team, including star Kristen Bell, who has consistently beaten the drum for a Veronica Mars revival. But the primary financial beneficiary of the movie will probably be Warner Bros, which will now put the movie into production and drum up publicity — which shouldn't be too hard, given the free PR blitz already earned by its Kickstarter experiment. And that's been the sticking point for a number of naysayers: Should fans be asked to subsidize the productions of multibillion-dollar corporations? If the film is profitable, those profits will go back to Warner Bros — not to the fans whose $2 million was required to make the film a reality. That doesn't sit well with some people, like Richard Lawson at The Atlantic Wire:
In Veronica Mars's case, they're asking you to pay for what will ultimately be a studio movie. This is not some independent film, financed on credit cards and bake sales. Nor is this an investment that anyone who donates will ever see a return on; essentially you'll be a pro bono producer. What annoys me is that the campaign's success might embolden other essentially corporate interests to do the same thing. It's free money and they pocket all the profit! It's a great arrangement for them, so why wouldn't they try it? [The Atlantic Wire]
I understand the concern — but the more I've thought about the implications of this new model, the more I've concluded that I hope they do try it. I hope everyone tries it. I hope studios stop making decisions based on ratings and demographic numbers, and start recognizing that a small but passionate fan base is more valuable than a large but apathetic viewership. Wouldn't you rather commit more money to the entertainment you actually care about? The fans who donated 35 dollars yesterday — the most popular reward tier of the campaign — get a PDF copy of the script, a t-shirt, and a digital download of the movie when it's ready. I suspect that those same fans would have paid 35 dollars to download the film after it had been fully financed by a studio. Instead, Thomas and the rest of the team have empirical evidence that there's more than enough interest to do the Veronica Mars movie their way, without the compromises that would surely have been mandated by the studio.
I'll bet the vast majority of fans prefer it that way. This is the biggest voice Veronica Mars fans have ever had, and they spoke very, very loudly. Everyone complains about Hollywood, but no one ever does anything about it — and suddenly, we all have a chance. Your 35 dollars is the new 10,000 Mars Bars, so use it wisely.