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'Veronica Mars' and the Kickstarter model: Who's it for?

MoviesEntertainmentServices and ShoppingTelevision IndustryKickstarterArts and CultureKristen Bell

The tweets were coming fast and furious before many of the weekend screenings had rolled their credits: “Veronica Mars,” the Rob Thomas cult show revived as a Kickstarter film to much fanfare last year, was a bust.

You probably saw five in your feed before breakfast Sunday, and the gist of many of them was the same. Just $2 million in box office for a movie that had garnered so much attention? This was, the naysayers said, just one more example of the overinflated role of crowdfunding in the new Hollywood, one more example of the online echo chamber giving disproportionate attention to what a few hard-core fans were interested in.

But was it really such a bust?

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Sure, even factoring in the limited release of 291 theaters and an absence of traditional marketing, it would be hard to call the film’s $2 million in box office (its $6 million budget was financed predominantly by 91,000 crowdfunders) a hit-worthy figure.

But there is, as more reasoned voices pointed out, the fact that it was available on VOD and digital platforms, which makes the true number of viewers unknowable. And maybe more important, there’s this: It was never designed to be more than a niche release.

“Veronica Mars” was a cult TV show, watched by a few million people (many of them not when it was on). If you assume even conservatively that a few hundred thousand also saw on VOD and digital this weekend, and a few hundred thousand more turn out to see it in theaters or buy it on VOD in the coming few weeks--coupled with the 300,000 or so the $2 million in ticket sales work out to--you’re left with somewhere around 1 million to 1.5 million people. A broad hit? Of course not. But that’s a high retention rate for any adapted property.

It makes sense that, as Kickstarter enters the mainstream, it will be judged accordingly. It’s one thing if a tough documentary raises some dollars on Kickstarter; it’s another if Kristen Bell does.

Still, the idea that nearly 100,000 donated to get a movie made that Hollywood wouldn’t have made, and then at least 10 times that number paid to see it, well, that doesn’t seem like a bust, just a niche release that satisfied its audience. As for whether the 91,000 are happy, there were a number of digital snafus that prompted a refund offer—and those are bugs that absolutely need to be worked out—but in the end that’s more of a technical issue than a fundamental flaw in the model.

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(Incidentally, the math for distributor Warner Bros. does get a little dicey because the studio opted to four-wall it at AMC—that is, rent entire theaters for a fee and collect the ticket revenue. It’s also unclear what they spent on marketing, which outside of distribution is the company’s main cost.)

It’s a function of this all-or-nothing world of box office that we judge the economic success of films the way we do—thumbs up or thumbs down, bust or blockbuster. But a crowdfunded movie isn’t built to be either. There's a new set of metrics, a new language, even, and we're just now beginning to figure it out.

Interestingly, this was also reflected in the creative side. As many reviewers noted, “Veronica Mars” was a film not just by the fans but for the fans.

The Times’ Betsy Sharkey said in her review, calling out to the crowdfunders, that "it is clear in every frame that the filmmakers and actors really appreciate that loyalty. It doesn't make for a particularly ambitious film, but it is a satisfying one as it moves easy, breezy over familiar terrain."

Other skepticism was also balanced out by phrases such as “sure to delight crowdfunding backers and other fans of the source series,” as the Hollywood Reporter wrote.

This summer we’ll get the next crowdfunded test case when Focus releases Zach Braff’s “Wish I Was Here," the dramatic comedy that was financed by 47,000 fans on Kickstarter. It may become a breakout hit, or it may play to the Braff faithful (which, given the totals on “Garden State,” isn’t small). Yet again, it may draw comparisons using traditional metrics. And, yet again, it may well satisfy its core audience (at least judging by its Sundance reaction) and work financially, even if the numbers are comparatively small beer.

Kickstarter may not take over the world--even Bell noted that she wouldn't necessarily want to do a potential sequel this way, saying in an interview that "studios exist for a reason. We were in a very special circumstance." But the system gives the fans what they want—an experience and a film for a small outlay of dollars--and no one’s bleeding major money.  That may not be a radically new model. But it’s better than plenty of versions of the old one.

 Amy Kaufman contributed to this report

ALSO:

Veronica Mars a case for die-hard fans, reviewers say

'Veronica Mars' movie a case of pleasing many masters

Zach Braff's 'Wish I Was Here' will hit theaters July 18

Follow me on Twitter at http://twitter.com/ZeitchikLAT

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