Veronica Mars, crowdfunding, and funding genre movies

Feature Simon Brew 14 Mar 2013 - 06:14

Could the successful crowdfunding campaign for Veronica Mars be a watershed moment for movie financing?

One of the tricks that Paramount Pictures really got the hang of in the 1990s especially was targeting the modestly priced thriller. At a point when studios were looking at expensive blockbuster after expensive blockbuster, Paramount was actively targeting mid-range, less costly material. Hence, it got solid hits with the likes of Kiss The Girls, Double Jeopardy, and an assortment of films that may not have set the box office alight, but still contributed decent profits to the firm's Excel spreadsheet.

Fast forward to now, and arguably Paramount's most profitable franchise is the Paranormal Activity one. The last film may have suffered at the box office compared to its predecessors, but it was so cheap to make, the easiest decision Paramount made all last year was to greenlight another. Paranormal Activity 5 arrives in October. To paraphrase Dead Poets Society, don't worry if you don't like it, you'll get another one next year.

Paranormal Activity stands out in the modern era because it's so cheap, and yet so successful. And it comes at a time when studios are increasingly reticent to spend on a movie, if the most they have to look forward to is a $50m box office take. We've seen Disney in the past few months abandon its planned 3D re-release of The Little Mermaid, for instance, because that's about the most money it was likely to pull in. It would have made a profit, just a not a big enough profit to justify cranking up the modern day cinema release machinery.

That's because the problem with all of this is that the only films that are consistently bubbling up in the studio system are projects with an eye on a $100m take at least, or awards contenders. Or, if they can hit the sweet spot, both. There are occasional exceptions to this of course, but it's still left a series of smaller, less expensive projects struggling to get made. Studios release fewer and fewer films in the modern era - in the early 90s, Disney was releasing a new movie pretty much every week - and they're reserving those key release slots for big hitters.

Conversely, the number of films released on a weekly basis in the UK alone is usually in double figures. Granted, some are using a brief theatrical window to effectively act as publicity for the DVD and Blu-ray, and the majority get nothing close to a wide release. But the system is basically supporting the very big films, and the very small ones.

Rob Thomas, then, got stuck somewhere in-between. The creator of Veronica Mars had been trying to persuade Warner Bros to stump up for a movie version of the TV show, following time being called on it after season three. Warner Bros saw it as too big a risk. Sure, it might not have been the most expensive movie on its slate, but when you factor in the costs of distribution and marketing, it was a bigger gamble than it may have first appeared. Hence, Warner Bros declined to push ahead.

Rob Thomas though, as you more than likely know, had one more card up his sleeve. Freely admitting that this was his last roll of the dice to bring Veronica Mars to the big screen, Thomas launched a Kickstarter campaign, to use crowdfunding from fans to get the money he needed. In movie terms, he wasn't asking much: his target was $2m. At the time of writing, in less than a day, he's broken that goal. Nearly 40,000 people have put their money where their proverbial mouth is, and Thomas has his modest budget. And a bit more on top.

Straight away, we should note that there's an argument here, that asks why the movie fan at the end of it all should be paying for well-off people to make a film? There's something to that, of course, but then Veronica Mars is a slightly different example. Thomas notes that every penny is going towards the funding of the film, and looking at the rewards he's been set out, what he's effectively asking people to do is pre-order the film. Those who fund the film to the tune of $35 or more will get a copy of it within days of the film's theatrical debut (sadly, that's a reward only open to US residents). It's arguably pre-ordering, rather than paying for Thomas, Kristen Bell et al to have a jolly on our dollar.

It's hard not to see that this is some kind of future for such projects. For those of us online arguing that we want The X-Files 3 or Dredd 2, are we willing to put our hands in our pockets in advance, and pay for them?

The answer, for now, is yes. And that potentially changes the funding mechanic forever for such niche, genre movies. All of a sudden, it's been proven that crowdfunding can finance not just the very small projects, but an admittedly cheap major motion picture. Just how much crowdfunding can raise towards a movie we suspect we'll find out in the near future: could the system support getting a $10m feature funded, we wonder? $20m, even? We're jumping ahead, but you can bet that there are some people in nice suits in Hollywood asking questions like that this morning.

Kickstarter, we should note, isn't the perfect system, and the onus will be very much on Rob Thomas and his team to deliver, not least if those 40,000 people are to have the confidence to back further projects. Furthermore, the idea behind crowdfunding is arguably to fund projects that aren't as high profile as this one. But then, what people do with their money is ultimately up to them. We're keen to see a Veronica Mars movie, so we backed the project. We're proud to do so, too.

There are still significant challenges ahead, of course. Just because Veronica Mars is funded, it doesn't mean that it's going to get a theatrical slot (although we'd wager that Warner Bros, off the back of the groundswell of support the movie has picked up in less than a day, will give it a try). Furthermore, many of those who backed the film will already have a copy coming to them, so will they fork out to see it in cinemas, knowing that they can legally watch it at time within days of the movie's release? Given that they are arguably the core audience, it's going to be interesting to see what happens when the film is ultimately let out into the world. Veronica Mars could still use solid box office, not least to try and get Warner Bros to fund Veronica Mars 2.

Also, what happens if the film makes a mighty profit? Should it turn into a $100-200m blockbuster, will those who invested in the project get some form of return? There's obviously no onus on Rob Thomas to do that, but for crowdfunding of this ilk to move forward, it'd be interesting to see someone build that in. That's not what the people who have donated have done it for, of course. But it's still a question worth considering for the long term.

However, make no mistake: the funding of the Veronica Mars project is both exciting, and hopefully something of a watershed moment.

Not since Kevin Smith challenged the distribution model for movies with his release of Red State the other year though has it felt like something substantive's come along to challenge the status quo. After all, every movie is seemingly a big gamble now, with even the most economical negative cost generally dwarfed by the time promotion and distribution is factored in. What this model allows movie fans to do is basically pre-order a film, and show those concerned that not only do people want to see the project in question, but that they're willing to pay for it now.

And when you think of all the potential film projects that have failed to get off the ground because of financiers being unwilling to take the risk, you can't help but hope that some of those get a fresh chance, as a result of what's happened with Veronica Mars.

For now, though, the pressure is on the shoulders of Rob Thomas. If this is truly to be a catalyst for some sort of change, Veronica Mars: The Movie needs to succeed, and it needs to hit its planned 2014 release successfully. We're crossing everything that it does, and in the meantime, expect a slew of higher profile crowdfunding campaigns to be launched. Because it might just be that something has changed here, and changed for the better...

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Disqus - noscript

ATTN: X-Files 3 makers. My $35 is ready.

Quantum Leap and Classic Battlestar Gallatica!!!!! i have been saying for a long time give fans that are passionate about something enough like Firefly watch out we will raise money to make movies i even said BBC should have done this for the 50th Anniversary of Doctor Who the fans are going to get screwed on this because they want to play it Cheap real Shame we should have had something every month the whole year......

Duncan Jones retweeted somebody's observation that while this is pretty cool, just means studios might start expecting us to pay before we see the film! Could we just get held to ransom for the films we really want to see?

Join the 'make a DREDD sequel' group on facebook

Would happily contribute to a Dredd sequel!!

Heck if Joss fancied a Dollhouse season 3 or a 90 minute special count me in for that too.

FAO: Mr Garland, Travis, Urban and Ms Thirlby, you also have my cash!

if it makes big money, one would hope that would go toward the next film

It may be a watershed moment but if you ask me for the completely wrong reason. This after all, is a studio film. Strip away the hyperbole, the rabid fans (of which I count myself as one) and in essence all people have done is mitigate the risk for Warner Bros. who'll still pocket the profits I suspect no matter how much money it makes at the box office.

The problem is that the industry has stopped taking risks. As the piece so rightfully points out movies are more expensive than ever to make and so many, if not all have to be a relatively safe bet in terms of financial terms at least. To change that we need filmmakers who believe so much in their projects that they'll make it no matter what. The Rian Johnsons and Kevin Smiths of this world.

My problem with this is that if the pitch was genuinely good then surely someone would have picked it up. After all this is a show that pulled in nearly 3million viewers at its height, you don't need a KickStarter campaign to prove there's interest there.

Also if Thomas and Bell really believed in the project why didn't they stump up the cash themselves to make it? Even without a cinematic release you imagine that the fans would have found the film and lined their pockets in the process.

My worry is that this takes away the risk that drives film makers to make a better movie. Either working for themselves or as part of the studio, if there's no incentive to make a film that audiences want to see (after all 40,000 have already paid over the odds to see the movie and not even on the big screen) then it will change the traditional relationship between movie makers and cinemagoers (i.e. they make a good movie, we pay to watch it and vice versa)

My final worry is what WB's bean counters are thinking this morning. They already play off of our nostalgia and passions using the seemingly never-ending production line of cynical re-boots and straight to DVD sequels that mine existing franchises for one final drop of profit. now what's to stop them doing it at every opportunity?

You want to see a Knight Rider movie, cough up $2million, how about a Thundercats film? Go raise $5million. They can now effectively hold us to ransom for the films we want to watch, all the while taking almost no risk so that even if the film sullies our sepia tinged memories they don't lose any money.

Shouldn't it be the other way round? Shouldn't they and indeed the film-makers be working their ass' off to entertain us.

Phew that was long I'll go away now...

Got one show for you! FireFly
Browncoats Unit! :D

re: "Should it turn into a $100-200m blockbuster, will those who invested in
the project get some form of return? There's obviously no onus on Rob
Thomas to do that, but for crowdfunding of this ilk to move forward,
it'd be interesting to see someone build that in."

The idea has been around for many years, I suspect they would have liked to let people invest in the project rather than just e.g. buy DVDs in advance. The problem is that it isn't legal. Big companies don't like competition from innovative new companies. They restrict who (and how many) can invest in new companies, if they wish to be "public" they require such massive paperwork like a huge public company on a stock exchange that it isn't possible to do. Hollywood types who can grab media exposure (unlike most entrepreneurs who seek funding) need to help campaign to get these restrictions overturned. I suspect these restrictions exist in the UK and most other places as well.

You had one. It was called Serenity. It failed. Deal with it

If i could afford it, Id happily fund the entire Dredd sequel my self, sadly i cant, so i wont, but id happily kick in a few quid to get the ball rolling.

Anyone saying the Kristen Bell or Rob Thomas should fund this themselves are entirely missing the point. No studio is going to fund a vanity project for an actor. As much as Kickstarter is about raising money, it's also about making sure there is an audience. I have no problem with WB making a profit from it. If studios are scared of risk, then this is a great solution. Everyone gets what they want.

Warners funded the development of the property so it's their's to exploit in whatever way they choose.

I'd open my vallett for another season of Daria

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