It's 2 p.m. on Saturday afternoon at SXSW, and a long line of over a thousand of people—most of whom, presumably, self-describe as "Marshmallows"—are getting soggy in the drizzling Austin rain. The people at the front of that line have been there for hours already, to ensure that they'll get access to the 3 p.m. world premiere of Veronica Mars, the beloved but short-lived television series that became a crowdfunding case study, raising almost $6 million on Kickstarter, and drawing the attention of not just everyone in Hollywood, but the wider business world, all paying attention to see if the idea of this sort of project—the crowdfunded, low-budget studio picture that caters to the passion of its fans and creators—is viable or not.
Veronica Mars creator/director and co-writer, Rob Thomas, is about to watch the movie with a full audience for the first time, and if he's nervous, he needn't be—by the time the screening's over, it's clear that the film has delighted the assembled Marshmallows. When he and the cast—almost all of whom made the trip to Austin for the event—take the stage for a brief Q&A after the film is over, they are greeted by the crowd as liberators.
"The feedback that I got at SXSW—and then at the Kickstarter screening—has been really positive," Thomas says a few days later. "It's been very heartening, so I hope that continues. It's funny, because I've largely talked to this very self-select group of people who paid a thousand dollars for tickets to the premiere and the afterparty, and it'll be interesting when I start speaking to more of the $25 and $35 backers, and see if they feel similarly, because I want to get the whole cross-section" (Thomas talks more about the Kickstarter process here).
Appealing to that cross-section is Thomas's main goal, to hear him tell it, and he's crafted his entire film to give the people who actually put their money on the line for him to make the movie the Veronica Mars that they want. In order to deliver that experience, though, he had to make a few key creative decisions—and leave some paths untaken.
"Over the years, I've had a few different plots in mind, if we ever got to do the Veronica Mars movie, and some of them just went away over time," Thomas explains. "Veronica (and Kristen Bell) got older and so suddenly the college spring break version of Veronica Mars made less sense—she was no longer in her college years."
After the show's season-three cancellation, Thomas and Bell made their first attempt save it by re-conceiving the show as the story of a slightly older Veronica Mars as an FBI agent; they shot a 12-minute pilot that presented the character in that context, which the network declined to pick up. That concept lingered with Thomas, though, until the Kickstarter campaign took shape.
"The big way the Kickstarter campaign influenced the creative decisions on the Veronica Mars movie would be that, for a long time I was thinking of finding Veronica as a young FBI agent and playing her sort of as a sort of young Clarice Starling character," Thomas explains. "I was thinking that even in the year leading up to the Kickstarter campaign—and then it occurred to me that, given that the movie was financed by the fans, that it really should be more of a 'give the people what they want' version of the movie. In the FBI scenario I couldn't figure a way that I could gracefully roll in all the fan favorite characters who've been in the show over time."
A Veronica-in-the-FBI film might have had room for, say, her troubled relationship with on-again/off-again boyfriend Logan Echols (played by Jason Dohring), but Thomas wanted to deliver the characters that the backers wanted to see.
"I couldn't think of an FBI case that would let me use Wallace, and Mac, and Dick Casablancas. I wanted to do a version that would enable me to take the show back to Neptune, and let the fans see the people that they fell in love with over three seasons of the show," Thomas says.
As it is, the movie picks up 10 years after the events of show's last episode, with Veronica up for a job at a big law firm and being plunged into a new mystery.
The chance to revisit the old characters was exciting, but the thrill of seeing them together again can quickly be eclipsed if the entire movie is a redundant nostalgia trip.
To mitigate those concerns, Thomas looked for a story that he could tell that would be appealing to everyone. "The emotional through-line of the movie was one that I felt like I could bank on," he says. "I honestly wasn't sure how some things would work in the movie, or how they would play with fans—fans have a lot of different desires for Veronica's love life, for example, and I knew I couldn't please everyone on that front."
While the number of fans who prefer nice-guy Piz (played by Chris Lowell) to the "lives ruined, bloodshed, epic" love story she shares with Logan seems limited (if an informal survey of Twitter hashtags #TeamPiz and #TeamLogan is any indication), Thomas also knew that the core of this world was in Veronica's relationship with her dad, her fictional hometown of Neptune, California, and her compulsive desire to solve mysteries.
"The one thing I felt confident about was Veronica's journey. As the movie begins, we find her having escaped Neptune as she always promised that she would, and she gave up being a PI because it wasn't healthy, because she didn't necessarily like what it did to her, and because in her final act as a PI, she had cost her father a respectable career," Thomas explains. "I was really interested in the idea of, 'Just when she thinks she's out, they pull her back in.' I figured that as long as I really serviced that idea, I felt like I could make the bulk of the Veronica Mars fans happy, and that most of the rest of the stuff would be like dessert. You get to see one little scene with Vice Principal Clemmons, or pop in on Dick Casablancas to get a couple of his Dick Casablancas jokes—that would be the tinsel on the tree. But the tree, Veronica's journey, I felt like the majority of Veronica Mars fans will respond to that story."
In addition to the Veronica Mars movie, Thomas has created two books starring the character, the first of which is due out a few weeks after the film's release. He's also worked on a web series about the film starring the show's break-out character, Dick Casablancas (played by Ryan Hansen).
"The people at Warner Brothers Digital fell in love with Ryan Hansen," he says. "Really, to know the guy is to love him. He's such a charming, good guy. So the people at Warner Brothers came to me and said, 'We've got to do something that is Dick-centric,' and so the idea we had would be to play this web series starring Hansen, playing a version of himself who is obsessed with getting a Dick Casablancas spin-off off the ground."
The books, meanwhile, are conceived by Thomas and written with novelist Jennifer Graham. Regardless of the future of Veronica Mars as a film entity—though it's certainly possible a Veronica Mars 2 may be in the offing, if the film makes money—her adventures in the books will help shape the character's existence.
"I've worked very hard on plotting the books, and I want them to fit into the Veronica Mars universe," Thomas says. "These aren't going to be sort of books that exist in some sort of parallel universe that don't affect what's going on with Veronica. I'm being careful to write these chronologically, as though this is what's happening to Veronica. And if we are so lucky that we ever get to do more Veronica Mars, either we could use these as jumping-off points for movies or the things that happen in them will be reflected in the next time we see Veronica Mars onscreen."
Ultimately, Thomas has taken his witty cult UPN/CW series from the mid-'00s and, with the help of passionate fans (and their PayPal accounts), turned it into a multi-platform media world, complete with meta-narratives on the web in which the actors play versions of themselves who share the fan obsession with expanding Thomas's creation. It's not a bad haul for a concept that, as recently as a year ago, was long dead.
Still, Thomas is less concerned with the Veronica Mars empire expanding, or with feeling the pressure to make this type of film succeed financially, or carrying water for a new crowdfunding model than he is in ensuring that the Marshmallows get exactly what they paid for.
"I feel so much more pressure for Veronica Mars fans liking the movie than I do about being the torch-bearer for this new fundraising method," he says. "It would just be a bonus for me if we were able to create a world in which more $5 to $10 million dollar movies are made—but before that happens, I just want Veronica Mars fans to be happy with this movie."