James Dempsey: Crowd funded movies could change the face of the industry
A CANCELLED TV show about a high school private eye that you’ve probably never heard of may have changed the film industry overnight earlier this month.
Veronica Mars, starring Kristen Bell and created by Rob Thomas, was cut in its prime back in 2007, after three seasons and 64 episodes that were well received by fans and critics, but which failed to catch on with audiences in any number greater than the population of Latvia. In fact, in its original run, the best Veronica Mars can claim to have done is be the 11th least watch TV show on American airwaves.
But those 2.5m people have turned out to be a loyal and extremely generous cult following, to the point of breaking records.
A Veronica Mars movie has been in the pipeline for years, in the way that cancelled television shows that are fondly remembered always seem to have a movie in the pipeline. Arrested Development, the sitcom cancelled by Fox in 2006, has been gestating rumours of a film for years, and is finally being resurrected by Netflix next month, with fans seriously hoping that the on-demand network won’t be uttering the series’ catchphrase “I’ve made a huge mistake.”
But the film route is no guarantee of a lifeline, as Avengers’ director Joss Whedon discovered. His criminally overlooked Serenity, a feature follow-up to the cherished and cancelled sci-fi show Firefly, made only $39m at the global box office, and failed to reignite the Fox’s fervour for the flailing series. Even after banking over a billion dollars with the Marvel superheroes, it’s unlikely that Whedon has the cache nor the cash to Firefly back off the ground.
Veronica Mars, however, has shown there’s a new way to go about financing a film. After the show’s creator approached Warner Bros., which owns the rights to the show, the company deemed the investment into a Mars movie uneconomic. Times are hard in the studio system, and previously bankable stars can’t guarantee a hit, let alone TV actors from a cancelled show. Rob Thomas persisted, and Warner Bros. agreed to distribute the film if he could source an investment of $2m.
So Thomas and Bell, along with other actors from the show, went to the Internet, and asked fans to donate via Kick Starter, the world’s largest funding platform for creative projects. Aiming to raise the $2m in 30 days, after four hours they had already sourced half. After 12, they’d reached the target. Today, halfway through passing the digital hat around, they’re up to $3.9m, just under $2 for every person who watched the show back in its heyday.
The snickers of laughter from studio executives who doubted Veronica Mars have been well and truly wiped off their faces. Instead, Hollywood executives will be wondering just how a television show cancelled six years ago could have become such a game-changer?
By respecting their audience, first and foremost. That doesn’t just mean the various perks being offered to backers, ranging from copies of the script on PDF, DVDs and even walk-on parts for those whose pockets go as deep as $10,000. Veronica Mars’ cast and crew have interacted and worked in the intervening to build that cult following into the cash-rolling behemoth it has become.
Add to this a slickly edited and wryly comic pledge-video that debuted with the campaign and was widely distributed across the blogosphere to get the ball rolling. The video, filmed in Kristen Bell’s home, was produced back in February 2012, which goes to show just how long this project has been laying in wait for all of the pieces to come together.
Though the campaign has been a massive success, it has not gone without its detractors. Many have commented on the feasibility of crowd-funded features, wondering how willing audiences are to add the price of their entry ticket to the money they’ve already donated. There’s also some mystery over who reaps the profits if the film is a success, and where the rest of the film’s budget is going to come from?
Furthermore, does Veronica Mars’ success mean that cash-strapped studios will view this as the only route for producing features of cancelled shows that appeal to loyal fans, adding more to the glut of remakes, reboots and sequels in an already creatively sterile Hollywood? Even more troubling is the reality that crowd-sourced movies rely on familiarity, as audiences won’t pay for something they don’t know that they want yet. What newer culture, movies or television shows, are faltering financially as a result of the goodwill from all corners towards DIY projects of beloved failures that had their shot?
As for Veronica Mars, this sleuth has surpassed all expectations, and filming is due to start later on this year. And it doesn’t take a private detective to figure out how she did it.
Follow James: @James_Proclaims