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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