Veronica Mars lives again: Lessons from a record-breaking Kickstarter campaign

In late 2011, the big story for those fascinated by the Internet’s disruption of traditional Hollywood was Louis CK’s direct-to-fan comedy special. 2013 is young yet, but an early contender for story of the year has to be once-canceled cult series Veronica Mars roaring back to life, thanks to Kickstarter. What have we learned about the project since its launch on Wednesday? And what implications does it have for Kickstarter as well as other canceled shows? Let’s find out.

Warner Bros. (s WB) is super-into this

In a very illuminating interview with HitFix, Veronica Mars creator Rob Thomas addressed a great number of the concerns that have been raised about the campaign.
The whole interview is worth reading, and one of the biggest takeaways is how engaged Warner Bros. is with the project.
Working with Warner Bros. was always going to be necessary for a Veronica Mars movie, as Mars is intellectual property belonging to the studio. But there are other benefits. S.T. VanAirsdale looked at the costs typically associated with a campaign like this — specifically in regards to basic things like manufacturing 40,000 T-shirts:

At the time, the number of backers entitled to Thomas’ limited-edition shirts was 34,000 and change. CustomInk gave me a rough quote for the exact number of shirts I sought: $3.90 each, for a total of $132,600. (“You saved $579,360.00 [81%] with Volume Discount,” the site reassured me.) BlueCotton was cheaper at $3.44 apiece, but it maxed out at 9,999 shirts, meaning some rough multiplication and rougher estimate of $116,960. That’s more than 4% of the total amount raised so far — ostensibly Thomas’ production budget, which also has to cover such actual necessities as crew, equipment, transportation and craft service — just to produce t-shirts.

While these concerns are huge for independent Kickstarter campaigns, one of the many advantages Thomas has is that a team at Warner Bros. is handling the logistics of the campaign as well as the film’s promotion and distribution. The money being raised on Kickstarter is purely for production — this is because, according to Thomas, Warner is treating Mars as an experiment:

I know, on the second part of the question, that Warner Bros. isn’t treating “Veronica Mars” like a one-off. I think they’re treating us like a guinea pig — in the best way. They want to see if this model works, and they made the calculated decision, and for a lot of the reasons you articulated in that story, that we were a good test case for this. We just happened to be the right show at the right time, got to be the first one out of the gate. I think Warner Bros., if it works, they could start doing more of these. And you know that if it works at one studio, that they’re not going to be the only studio in town that will be trying it.

Is Veronica Mars bad for Kickstarter?

The controversy that’s stirred up around Mars on Kickstarter seems to boil down to the following question: When you contribute to a Kickstarter campaign, what role do you play in it? Are you a consumer, paying a certain fee for a certain benefit, whether it be a T-shirt or tickets to a red carpet premiere? Are you a booster, selflessly donating your money to support a project you believe in? Or does your money give you a role akin to a producer of the project?

10 minutes of "Veronica Mars"'s Kickstarter campaign -- specifically, March 13th, 8:49 AM-8:59 AM PST.

10 minutes and $30,000 of “Veronica Mars”‘s Kickstarter campaign — specifically, March 13th, 8:49 AM-8:59 AM PST.

Many who find the Mars Kickstarter campaign troubling are coming at it from that latter perspective, such as paidContent commenter jrhmobile earlier this week:

So, do these investors get points in the movie sales? Or are they just throwing a couple of million bucks at a major studio with no return on their investment?
I’d like to think it’s more than “I funded a movie for Warner Brothers, and all I got was this lousy T-shirt.”

The key word there, potentially, is “lousy.” Thomas explained to HitFix:

The nice thing is that we never wanted to be perceived as a charity. We always imagined that we’re putting up a Kickstarter page, and we’re selling real product at real prices to fans. It’s not like a pledge drive where you pledge 100 dollars and get a 4 dollar tote bag, where it’s done out of the goodness of your heart, and for charity. We wanted to created packages where people look at what they’re getting and think, ‘Wow, I got a script and a digital download and a t-shirt for $35. I would pay that!’ So all those people worrying that we’re aksing for this money to make our movie, we’re selling you a product. Think of us as a store, not a charity.

The other issue being raised is whether success stories like this overshadow independent projects. Kenyatta Cheese, a freelance consultant and co-creator of Know Your Meme, offered the following analysis on Tumblr:

The success of the Marshmallows does nothing for unknown, unconnected creators on Kickstarter unless Kickstarter can get the backers of its high profile projects to discover some of the lesser known but equally intriguing small projects. That sort of thing has to be planned and programmed. It doesn’t just happen through the implementation of a Discover page with a few carousels of local and staff pick recommendations. This happens through building a backer community that celebrates their continued involvement while fostering a culture of discovery. The good news is that if anybody has a head start on figuring this sort of thing out, it’s Kickstarter.

And Kickstarter has numbers which show that blockbusters like Mars help build the Kickstarter ecosystem — bringing in new donors who may go on to fund other projects.
The current largest contributor to the Mars campaign, a guy who pledged $10,000 for a speaking role, is an entrepreneur named Steven Dengler. When interviewed by Entertainment Weekly, Dengler referred to himself as a “small-f fan” of Mars — what he actually is is a fan of Kickstarter projects. He’s funded over 60 of them.


I enjoyed Firefly, don’t get me wrong. But having witnessed the show’s hardcore fanbase overreacting to even the possible hint of new space Western adventures over the past half-dozen years, I’d like to thank Joss Whedon for, within 24 hours of Mars hitting $2 million, telling Buzzfeed that Kickstarter won’t bring back the crew of the Serenity anytime soon:

I’ve said repeatedly that I would love to make another movie with these guys, and that remains the case. It also remains the case that I’m booked up by Marvel for the next three years, and that I haven’t even been able to get Dr. Horrible 2 off the ground because of that. So I don’t even entertain the notion of entertaining the notion of doing this, and won’t. Couple years from now, when Nathan [Fillion]’s no longer [on] Castle and I’m no longer the Tom Hagen of the Marvel Universe and making a giant movie, we might look and see where the market is then. But right now, it’s a complete non-Kickstarter for me.

Hardcore Firefly fans are thus out of luck at present. But other creators are watching Mars with interest. Shawn Ryan, whose offbeat drama Terriers was canceled after one season on FX, Tweeted the below on Wednesday:

And as Thomas told HitFix:

I did get an email from Bryan Fuller earlier today saying, ‘Hey, can you jump on the phone with me at some point? I know you’re busy, but I would love to talk to you about how this thing works.’ And I know it was specifically for Pushing Daisies.

Fuller’s Daisies was canceled by ABC after two seasons — just one of many cult shows that never got the chance to wrap up its many storylines.
I used the word “cult” in this article more than once, but depending on what happens here, that term might become much more apt than before. Because, after all, aren’t cults financially supported by their followers?