Last week, Internet Superhighway history was made when a movie based on a short-lived cult TV series that ended six years ago—no, not The Two Coreys—raised an unprecedented $2 million in less than 12 hours. The Kickstarter campaign for Veronica Mars—the CW series starring a then-nearly unknown Kristen Bell as a high school student by day, private investigator by night—has since exceeded that fundraising goal and gone on to bring in $3.6 million and counting. The news likely spurred more headlines than the low-rated series earned during its three-season run. It also landed its creator, Rob Thomas, on the Today show and CNN—occurrences the Austin, Texas-based writer jokingly attributes to Bell’s unavailability (she’s expecting a baby any time).
Thomas, who had to hire a publicist for the first time ever, admits that it’s all been bigger than he had envisioned. He has been tickled that Harvey Weinstein said he’d like to distribute the movie, which Warner Bros. has the rights to; and that The Onion did one of its man-on-the-street-surveys about it. "I feel like I’ve arrived now that The Onion has lampooned us," says Thomas.
Commentary hasn’t been all positive naturally. Kickstarter, after all, has been hailed as a possible savior of the unfunded artist and, according to critics of this project, shouldn’t be used to support Hollywood studio movies.
Rob Thomas tells CO.CREATE that all those involved—from Warner Bros. executives to those who run Kickstarter and Thomas himself—anticipated the backlash. Here, he explains how what they did will actually be good for Kickstarter and indie filmmakers, and why the Veronica Mars movie would never have been made without it.
"Everyone involved was aware of what the backlash would be before we went into it," says Thomas. "Warner Bros. knew that there could be a group of people who think this is uncool—a major studio soliciting money from fans. And Kickstarter knew they could get some backlash—aren’t they supposed to be the place for the little guy? And yet, I felt like it was a kind of brave move."
Thomas feels that the backlash commentaries have been written primarily by people who "have this conception that we are seeking some sort of charity, almost like Warner Bros. is holding Veronica Mars hostage until you cough up enough money to make the movie." But he maintains that he and Warner Bros. are offering up a product commensurate with the donations. For instance, for $35, a donor to the movie will receive a digital version of the finished film within a few days of its theatrical release, a PDF of the shooting script and a T-shirt; those donating $50 get all of that plus a DVD of the movie that also includes a making-of documentary and other bonus features. "I think those are things fans are willing to pay for," says Thomas. "We’re just asking them to buy them first so that the company has confidence the Vernoica Mars movie will be profitable. We’re not asking them to buy those items again once the movie comes out. It seems like a fair exchange."
Thomas uses NPR and PBS as an example of what they’re not doing. "It’s not as if we’re saying, Hey, buy this $4 tote bag for $100. NPR and PBS have a different model; they say, 'We are providing a public good and can you help out of the goodness of heart to keep that public good up and running?' That’s not what we’re doing. We’re saying, 'Hey, we want to make this movie. If you can buy it first, you’ll get your money’s worth.'" Plus, he says, citing recent a shopping experience, you can’t find a decent T-shirt for under $35 these days.
In 2008, Kristen Bell revealed that she and Thomas had pitched the Veronica Mars movie to Warner Bros. and the studio couldn’t muster the enthusiasm to make it. "My hope is that they’ll get letters and want to make it," she told me at the time. It didn’t help that two years earlier the studio had come out with a failed movie version of the classic TV series, Bewitched—and that TV show had been successful. For every Sex and the City movie, there are five The Honeymooners.
Thomas says that Warner Bros. took their pitch seriously. "They did marketing surveys to determine if the idea warranted making a $30 million movie." Thirty million dollars is pretty much the bottom end of what studio movies get made for; then double or triple that figure for the costs of marketing and distribution. Which is why the movie as it currently stands is going to be made by Warner Bros. Digital, a division that usually does films that don’t come out in theaters (Veronica Mars will have a limited theatrical release, with a harder push on VOD and other digital offerings). "I understand the business realities of that decision," says Thomas. "Frankly, I feel like my opportunity for success is so much greater making whatever we end up at—a $4 million movie?—than having made a $30-million one." The bar is lower and, Thomas says, that makes huge difference for how the project’s success is perceived in Hollywood.
"People who think Warner Bros. is getting the movie for free are wrong," attests Thomas, who first outlines the costs the studio will pay out in manufacturing and fulfilling all those promised T-shirts and DVDs. "We’re at $3.5 million now but people can’t think that we have a $3.5 million budget. We have probably 70% of that once you fulfill all the items." It might sound far-fetched, but there are currently more than 50,000 donors.
He goes on to explain that if the donations had halted at $2 million, Warner Bros. would have kicked in money for the budget since that would have been too little to make the quality of the movie comparable to that of the TV series. "We’re now getting into the range where we may have the movie fully financed ourselves," he says. But that still doesn’t mean it’s enough. "If it ended today, we would film in Baton Rouge. I have nothing against Baton Rouge—I live in Texas—but I know what it will be like in July in Baton Rouge. And our show is supposed to be set in Southern California. I want it to look like Southern California. I want to be able to go wide on my shots and use the locations. There’s still plenty we’re fighting for." Which leads to another point lost in the backlash: Many of the people who stand to benefit from the creation of this film are not deep-pocketed corporate types; they’re hard-working craftspeople, the Teamsters responsible for making a movie. They’re the people who suffer when film production dips, as it has in recent years. They’re also the people who will have a job for a few months, thanks to the dedication of Thomas and the donations of tens of thousands of fans.
They embarked on the campaign only once they knew when they would shoot it. "We have a very specific window," Thomas says. "We’re shooting mid-June to mid-July—it’s when Kristen has a window of availability—and right before network television series start shooting again so people on TV shows can do it." (Our fingers are crossed that New Girl's Max Greenfield will be on board.)
The Kickstarter campaign is all about pre-selling the movie so that Warner Bros. is sure the studio has a sound investment. The fact is that even $30 million movies rarely get made today. Hollywood studios have turned into risk-averse operations. If an idea isn’t based on a proven product—a best-selling book series, a video game, or the sequels that those adaptations spawn—a studio isn’t likely to make it. And Warner Bros. is perhaps the worst offender. This is the studio behind the Harry Potter and Batman series. Virtually nothing in Hollywood is being made in what used to be the relatively modest midrange of $30 to $50 million. It’s either microbudget movies, like Paranormal Activity, or bloated behemoths, like John Carter.
"First of all, I’m sympathetic to that [criticism] and I understand it," Thomas says. "I was a filmmaker who could not get my film made through normal channels; isn’t Kickstarter a place for me as well? I will say Veronica Mars is bringing more people to Kickstarter than just about any other projects. Some Kickstarter projects have made more money than us but all the press has gotten more eyes on the Kickstarter website and that’s better for everyone; that’s better for the guy making a $40,000 documentary. You want the awareness of Kickstarter to become broad and universal, and I like to think we’re bringing fresh eyes to the website."
"We’re doing our best to answer every email," says Thomas, who has left that task mostly in the hands of his able assistant, Alex Mercer. "He’s been going until 3 in the morning sorting through 50,000 messages on the Kickstarter page." Thomas figures 40,000 of those are "Hey, this is great!" messages. The remaining 10K? A fair number of press requests; emails from actors who had been on the show wondering if they’ll get to be in the movie; and many, many emails are stumpers—complicated questions that arise from the campaign, such as ones asking if donations are cumulative: "If I donated $100 already but I decide to donate another $100, will I get the $200 bonus, or just two $100 bonuses?"
"We’re doing our best," he says. "I don’t know if I can guarantee that we can answer every question. It’s one person [his assistant], and it’s a crazy job."
After Veronica Mars ended, Thomas made another series that drew a cult following: Party Down on Starz. A movie of that is in the works, but Thomas does not anticipate the need for a Kickstarter campaign. "We’re down a road, a traditional road, on Party Down," he says. "We’re working with an Indie production company with a good track record. If that were to fall apart at some point, could we imagine a Kickstarter campaign? I could. But we’re already in progress with a company we respect. Hopefully you’ll see an indie Party Down movie in the next year or two."
If that’s the case, then Thomas stands to become the poster child for a new paradigm of movies made from short-lived cult TV series.