'Veronica Mars' and Kickstarter: Is this the future of movie financing?

Now that the big-screen version of Veronica Mars has finally come out, and has turned out to be a breezy, pulpy, enjoyable, disposable entertainment (Veronica attempts to solve the murder of a famous rock star in Amy Winehouse makeup…whom she happened to go to high school with! Look, it’s Dax Shepard dancing!). And now that the film has proved, for the first time, that a movie funded by crowdsourcing (in this case, via Kickstarter) can readily make its money back — and perhaps even do better than that — one could, I suppose, choose to be cynical by viewing the entire phemonenon of the Veronica Mars movie, from the very concept of making it to the let-a-thousand-handouts-bloom financing to the opening weekend, as the triumph of a closed, hermetic fan-based system. You could see it as the ultimate (trivial) example of a movie that exists solely to reflect the adoration of its fans right back at them.

The numbers, when you think about it, tell a tidy story. It was a year ago this week, on March 13, 2013, that Rob Thomas, the creator of the original TV series, kicked off his fabled Kickstarter campaign, and within just 12 hours, fans of the show had ponied up $1.2 million to help fund the Veronica Mars movie that they’d been panting, for years, to see. Compare that to the film’s opening-day grosses: On Friday, it made…almost exactly the same amount of money! A little over $1 million. It’s almost too perfect, yet not really so farfetched, to imagine that it was, in fact, that exact set of super-fans who turned out to see the movie on its opening day. Last year, the total fan-based haul for the Veronica Mars budget (after 30 days) ended up being $5.7 million, which set a new record for Kickstarter. (Warner Bros., after greenlighting the film, threw in added money to complete the budget.) And given the film’s $2 million take for the weekend, when its run in theaters is finally over, how much do you guess it will have made? I would wager somewhere in the neighborhood of…$5.7 million. (That doesn’t count VOD, of course, but we won’t know those numbers, since they aren’t released.) A small handful of the Kickstarter contributors threw in bigger chunks of cash, a few into the thousands, winning elite privileges in the process (the right to appear as an extra in the high-school reunion scene, the right to name a character in the film, etc.). But on average, the contributors each gave away closer to around $10, roughly the price of a movie ticket.

So what we have here is a movie that didn’t exist until a bunch of people who wanted it to exist said, “I’ll pay the price of a movie ticket to make it exist,” and then the movie became a reality, and each of those people, in essence, paid for another ticket to see it. This reminds me of the sort of enthusiasm you can feel in the wild cheers — and passionate financial contributions — of those who support third-party presidential candidates. They have to work harder, and pool their money, or their candidate wouldn’t even exist. But what they’ve financed is a candidate who preaches to the choir — i.e., to them — and to no one else. Even if the Veronica Mars movie is viewed as a small-scale success, a lot of observers may be tempted to say: So what? Or maybe: What’s next — the movie version of Chuck or House? The My So-Called Life reunion movie? If Kickstarter turns out to be a way for cult TV shows to return from the dead, it won’t take long for even fans to begin seeing how hard it is — and what a basic waste of time — to attempt to bring the past into the present.

The real value of the Veronica Mars movie, however, is that it proved, without a lot of fuss, that even a preciously overfetishized fan-driven pipe dream of a movie, rooted in a get-a-life obsessiveness about what made the original show “great” in the first place, can be done. The movie worked: on its own lightly diverting terms, as a tale that took the perky detective who looked like Marcia Brady in black leather and talked like Sam Spade crossed with Buffy and nudged her into a comely and confident adulthood; and as a small-scale commercial success — an indie movie, essentially, backed by a studio, all centered around the fan niche that made it possible. Everything considered, not a bad prototype for how to get a modestly budgeted movie made and into theaters. Last year, when the most high-profile Kickstarter movie to date was the Paul Schrader/Lindsay Lohan sleaze noir The Canyons (a movie that didn’t deserve the brickbats it got, but that didn’t perform at the box office either), the notion of financing a film out of tiny anonymous contributions looked like it might result in tiny, anonymous movies. The (modest) success of Veronica Mars this weekend puts the lie to that. Now, theoretically, the floodgates will be open. So what should — and can — happen?

The first thing to say is that financing a movie through crowdsourcing is going to look like a triumph of art and democracy the moment that a smart indie director funds a movie in that way and the film turns out to be a creative sensation. And mark my words: That will happen. There have already been a few fine indie films that came to fruition through Kickstarter, like Ira Sach’  intense confessional relationship drama Keep the Lights On (2012). And there had been talk that Richard Linklater, in trying to nail down funding for his 1980-set, first-weekend-of-college, “spiritual sequel” to Dazed and Confused (it has none of the same characters but will echo the earlier film’s rambling seeds-of-Gen-X Altman vibe), might seek out crowdsourcing. Whether or not that winds up happening, it’s a perfect example of what I’m talking about: a movie that might, conceivably, drum up an impressive amount of money given the deep, wide cultural affection for Dazed and Confused and for Linklater in general. I could envision a director like John Waters using crowdsourcing to finance, say, a “spiritual sequel” to Pink Flamingos (why not?), or David Lynch, who’s been such an enthusiastic adapter to cyber-culture, using it to fund…whatever he wanted to do. I could envision Fred Armisen using it to spearhead a movie version of Portlandia — not just a series of sketches, but a true satirical comedy of bohemian delusion. And, of course, there are a couple of prominent filmmakers who already have projects like this in the works. Spike Lee is looking to Kickstarter to fund his African-American vampire movie, which he claims is not a remake of Blacula (I hope that he’s lying), and Zach Braff has already premiered his Kickstarter movie, Wish I Was Here, at Sundance, where it played this past January to enthusiastic audiences and was picked up by Focus Features.

The fact that Braff, the director and star of a widely loved indie romance like Garden State (2004), who hasn’t directed another film in the 10 years since, resorted to this method has raised more than a few hackles and grumbles. Braff, with his clever but at times overly facile and wistful sentimentality, has always had a knack for rubbing certain movie fans the wrong way. Yet the basic argument against a star of his magnitude using Kickstarter represents a more general antipathy toward the notion of wealthy and famous entertainment insiders using a source for funding that was conceived, almost in its essential philosophy, for outsiders: those with no money, no resources, no leverage. This basic resentment comes, as so many things in the Internet age do, with a conspiracy theory attached — the notion that people like Zach Braff are simply looking to fund a movie with anonymous small-time backers whom they won’t ever have to pay back.

To me, though, the idea that famous filmmakers shouldn’t use crowdsourcing is a piece of kneejerk-leftist naïveté. It ignores, first off, the fundamental reality of how challenging it has become to finance small films, even for people who you might think would have the clout to do so. Beyond that, the notion that crowdsourcing as a form of aesthetic democracy-in-action shouldn’t apply to major marquee artists insults what democracy really is. Will they make it harder for the unknown to raise money? I’d argue that the opposite is true: The more powerful an entity like Kickstarter (and other operations like it) becomes, the more it can do to help artists whom few have heard of get their projects off the ground. And the more that name filmmakers turn to it, the more that making a movie in a personal, artisanal way becomes an ideal shared by the anonymous and the famous alike. I had a reasonably good time at the Veronica Mars movie (with some major qualifications), but what I really liked was going into it knowing that, good or bad, Rob Thomas had made the Veronica Mars movie he wanted to make.

Of course, there’s a danger in that as well. I saw Wish I Was Here at Sundance, and even though I was a fan of Garden State, I didn’t really like the new one. The tale of a Los Angeles dad’s crisis that turns into a quest for the “spiritual” (it’s very gauzy, and very L.A.), the movie seemed like it was trying to be older and wiser than Garden State, yet to me it came off as more exhibitionistically navel-gazing. Did the Kickstarter budget allow Braff to run wild with his whims in a way that a studio-mandated budget would not have? I don’t know the answer, but it’s an important question. Maybe Wish I Was Here, financed by a studio, would have been a better movie. (To be fair, a lot of people at Sundance really liked it.) But then, the whole reason that Zach Braff made it with Kickstarter in the first place is that no studio would back it. So maybe it’s a vanity project fueled by the affection for his first movie 10 years ago. Or maybe it’s a film that, good or bad, he needed to make, and so it was his organic journey to do it, and a lot of people — yes, fans — helped him go on that journey. In All the President’s Men, Deep Throat said, “Follow the money,” and when you follow the money in the movie industry, you can end up looking under some pretty slimy rocks. With crowdsourcing, when you follow the money, you wind up looking at a (small) pot of gold that’s been assembled, one coin at time, out of faith. It strikes me that there could be a lot worse sources of art.

So what do you think of crowdsourcing for movies? Is it a flash in the pan, or a hope for the future? And what movies would you like to see Kickstarted?


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