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Veronica Mars: how crowdfunding could change Hollywood

by Imogen , March 20, 20131 Comment


The unthinkable has happened. Veronica Mars: The Movie is a go. Though movie rumours have been rampant since the series ended six years ago, the possibility was remote. Warner Brothers, the studio that owns the rights to the series, couldn’t see an audience, and there was the pesky issue of financing its budget.

None of these roadblocks have gone away. The show’s creator just managed to come up with a viable solution – crowdfunding.

Last week, said creator (Rob Thomas) and Veronica Mars herself (Kristen Bell) launched an ambitious appeal via crowdfunding site Kickstarter. If fans could raise $2 million in 30 days, they would commence production on a low budget Veronica Mars film. Any extra cash would go into their ‘car crash and nudity fund.’

In 4 hours, they broke Kickstarter records by raising $1.3 million. In less than 12 hours, they had exceeded their target. The donations are still rolling in.

This reaction isn’t unprecedented. After Nathan Fillion jokingly said he would revive Firefly if he won the lottery, fans started their own crowdfunding campaign, raising a whopping $1 million before he had to tell them to shut it down.

However, successfully crowdfunding something of this magnitude is a radical concept, and it has interesting implications for future Hollywood projects. Though Veronica Mars isn’t the first TV show to be resurrected following its cancellation — Family Guy and Futurama were both rebooted after impressive DVD sales, and cult hits Firefly and Dead Like Me earned movie follow ups because of fans’ lobbying — those projects were resurrected at the discretion of the studios involved. They were taking a financial risk, in the hopes the outcome would be profitable. This is a fan-funded passion project, and though Warner Brothers had to give the greenlight, they won’t be wringing their hands over box office receipts because they are essentially making this movie for free.

Creatively, the possibilities are exciting. Studio executives are notorious for interfering and ordering abrupt shifts in storytelling to make shows more palatable. Instead of relying on studios that restrict their freedom, impeding character growth, shortchanging story arcs and dumbing down dialogue, writers and directors using this method could maintain uncompromising creative control.

In 2008, Joss Whedon (nerd God), the creator behind dramas like Buffy and Firefly, decided to self-fund an internet musical. Though he had to work with a limited budget and actors willing to put in their time for next to nothing, he was at the behest of no one. As he put it:

‘Freedom is glorious. And the fact is, I’ve had very good relationships with studios, and I’ve worked with a lot of smart executives. But there is a difference when you can just go ahead and do something.’

The end result — an artist-owned and artist-controlled project — was a victory for all involved. Whedon had the freedom to subvert genre expectations, creating a hybrid superhero film/tragedy/comedy/musical/romance — and audiences loved it. The original distribution site crashed due to demand, iTunes sales went crazy, and Whedon was able to release a soundtrack and DVD with the profits.

Crowdfunding could open a lot of doors for new niche, genre-focused shows like Buffy, Lost or The X-Files, and old shows that failed to find their footing with mainstream audiences, like Pushing Daisies and the aforementioned Firefly. Given the option, fans could opt to fund any television series or a low budget film, provided there is a means of distribution.

Obviously, there are limitations. Veronica Mars was never a particularly expensive television show to produce. It was effective due to its high school noir atmosphere and complex plots, not its spectacular action sequences. Crowdfunding large-scale films with high end special effects would be unrealistic. Thomas had to negotiate with Warner Brothers to use the characters they own, so if the studio had been unwilling to make this deal, the entire project would be dead in the water. And Veronica Mars has a large and existing fan base. Asking members of the public to contribute to an unknown new project — or an old project with limited appeal — could prove problematic.

Still, it will be interesting to see if this is the start of a whole new business model when it comes to getting film and television projects off the ground — a model based on quality and audience engagement rather than ratings success. Though there are critics who argue that the Veronica Mars campaign is exploiting fans, these naysayers are missing a crucial point. Fans participate in fandom campaigns for the sheer joy of collaboration. They don’t expect a return on their investment in the traditional sense. They want to see the project succeed for one simple reason — because it will give them the movie they’ve always wanted.


Emily Tatti is a Melbourne-based writer, editor and TV addict. She tweets sporadically @narrativekind.

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