And so there will be a “Veronica Mars” movie, because on Wednesday some 30,000 fans (and counting) pledged $2 million (and counting) via Kickstarter, the popular crowd-funding website, to make it so.
I very much liked the show, which was created by Rob Thomas (“Party Down”) and starred Kristen Bell as a teenage girl detective in fictional, coastal Neptune, Calif. (It was canceled in 2007 after two seasons on UPN and one on the CW, into which UPN had been folded.) But affection aside, it was quite thrilling to watch the money, or the promises of money, pour in: At one point Wednesday afternoon, by my monitoring of the online tote board, the project was raising $1,000 every 20 seconds.
By 9 a.m. Thursday, Thomas had exceeded his stated goal — the amount a Kickstarter project has to reach or the pledges are voided — by nearly $700,000, with 29 out of 30 fund-raising days left to go. By Sunday morning, nearly 55,000 backers had signed on, pledging more than $3.5 million.
There is a sense of communal ownership when it comes to television, a kind of silent partnership forged over time. You see it expressed in the fan fiction that extends the life of a series beyond its cancellation and in YouTube videos where kids stage their own supplementary “Doctor Who” adventures. For the true believers, too much is never enough, and the only time to cancel a beloved series is never.
I happen to disagree — I’m happy to see even my favorite shows pack it in before the bloom is off the rose. But there are are times, to be sure, when a show is canceled before the people who make it, as much as its fans, are ready to say goodbye: “I have never fallen so deeply in love with a character,” Bell said of Veronica to Entertainment Weekly. On his Kickstarter page, Thomas wrote, “Kristen is in. I’m in. Let’s do it.”
Significantly, Thomas did not run into this thing half-cocked; he cleared the idea with Warner Bros., which owns the property and will pay to market, promote and distribute the film — it’s expected to have a limited theatrical run before going to various digital platforms — and he seems to have at least a general idea of what the story will entail. (Veronica, retired from sleuthing, returns to Neptune for her 10-year high school reunion.) Most important, he secured the services of his main cast in advance: He is offering not a vague hope, then, but an actual, if yet to be realized, movie.
The question that still remains open, and will until the 30-day fund-raising window closes, is how big a budget it will have: “The more money we raise,” Thomas wrote, “the cooler movie we can make. A two million dollar fundraising total probably means cross words are exchanged at the class reunion. Three million? We can afford a full-on brawl. Ten million? Who knows... For some reason the Neptune High class reunion takes place on a nuclear submarine!” Or as “Veronica Mars” regular Ryan Hansen says in their Kickstarter promotional video, “That extra cash will be our car crash and nudity fund.”
Unlike backers in the usual sense, the thousands who are financing “Veronica Mars: The Movie,” will not be entitled to a percentage of the profits, and Thomas has volunteered no answer to the question of who makes money if the film makes money; indeed, it is not a question that these backers would even ask. That part of show business is mostly invisible or irrelevant to the customers, anyway, whose profit here is the movie itself, which would not otherwise be made — Thomas tried and failed once to get Warner Bros. interested in a “Veronica Mars” film — and the happiness it will presumably (and most probably) bring them. That is the whole point of the exercise.
It is often said that the Young People, who have been raised in a downloadable world where things that weren’t actually given away free were easy to steal, are disinclined to pay for their pop culture — some of this has to do with entitlement, and some surely has to do with poverty. But there is nothing necessarily permanent, or new, about this point of view.
Americans who watched TV for free for years — a sort of payment was being exacted, certainly, in the form of commercials — got used to paying for cable and its various add-ons. We subscribe to public television and radio, and now to Netflix and Hulu and Amazon Prime in numbers enough to encourage them to create or acquire original content.
And then there is Kickstarter (and similar sites, like New Jelly, Peerbackers and GoFundMe). What matters in the new show business economics is a sense of participation: By chipping in a little cash, or a lot if you have it, you bring to life the world you want to live in: a world, say, with a “Veronica Mars” movie in it. (This is, of course, what we do with our money all the time, less consciously.)
You pay for your ticket (or your CD or whatever) upfront — your ticket and perhaps a little more: “Veronica Mars” premiums range from a pdf of the shooting script, for $10, to a line in the movie, for $10,000. Perhaps the oddest premium: for $400, Thomas and Bell will follow you for a year on Twitter. All the really big-ticket perks were snagged within the first 24 hours.
Indeed, this is less like a business than it is like a barn-raising, a mix of altruism and community spirit and an expression of enlightened self-interest. Thomas had a huge advantage, of course. “Veronica Mars” was a cult hit: Its audience had longed for this day, they were a flood waiting for the gates to open. Most such projects won’t succeed so wildly.
But if crowd-funding never becomes the backbone of the entertainment industry, which relies on bigger paydays than Kickstarter is liable to provide, it nevertheless adds a new route to Making Things Happen: a way paved with love.