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Today We Talk About Kickstarter

Gabe Delahaye | March 13, 2013 - 2:00 pm

By now you have probably heard that a Veronica Mars movie is probably in the works, as long as some unusual conditions are met, namely as long as they can raise money on Kickstarter, after which the studio will complete the rest of the budget. From Entertainment Weekly:

Today, Thomas and Bell are launching a Kickstarter campaign to raise funds for a low-budget Mars movie that would be shot this summer. The goal: $2 million in 30 days. If they reach it, Warner Bros. Digital Distribution has agreed to put the movie into production and pick up the tab for marketing, promotion, and distribution. (The film would be released in the first quarter of 2014 for a limited-time theatrical run, before moving to VOD, iTunes, and other digital platforms.) If they don’t reach the goal: No movie.

Whether you’re a fan of the show or not, you can understand how this is welcome news to people who are, and why they would be more than willing to shell out a few pesos (hahahahahah, who even WRITES this website?!) to see the project come to life. (And for those willing to shell out more than a few pesos, there are some classic Kickstarter-brand prize packs including a speaking role in the movie for a donation of $10,000.) The campaign was announced this morning, with a month left to raise 2,000,000 dollars, and as of this writing, they have already raised over 760,000. Piece of cake. (There’s probably a fun, kicky Veronica Mars reference I could make there, like, “easier than Logan’s sandwich,” and the fans are like “oh mg LOL, right?” but I’ve never actually seen the show.) All of this represents a new and interesting experiment in The Way We Make Movies Now, but before the Veronica Mars fans start popping the champagne (or whatever they would drink on the show: spoiled milk? Alien Nation style?) we should talk about it, because I think it’s a little problematic!

In retrospect, it’s funny how mad I got last summer when Charlie Kaufman and Dan Harmon announced their Kickstarter project. I mean, I was/still am mad about it: these are two highly successful dudes who could single-handedly pull together $200,000 by making a couple phone calls, who have earned that success through the very same Hollywood system that they were pretending to suddenly stand against, and here they were asking their fans, many of whom do not have that much money, to provide funding for a project that they would then have to pay more money to actually see later, and acting like this was a treat for the fans. Look: it’s a free world, man. Let’s all live our lives. If you want to give money to Dan Harmon and Charlie Kaufman knock yourself out! It is your money! But I found the whole thing to be a tad disingenuous. You’re more then welcome to go begging in the street, but please don’t pretend like the act of begging is doing the passersby a favor.

Again, that is silly, considering that now you have a straight-up MOVIE STUDIO asking people to pre-pay for the movie. Unusual! But perhaps this is the new landscape. And there is something appealing about it, right? Who wouldn’t kick in 10 dollars to see something they really want to see that they wouldn’t get to see otherwise? And OK, as weird as it is, I think there can be something psychologically appealing about these donations. It’s participatory, and everyone likes to participate. Now it’s like YOU are the mogul for two seconds. Tuck your thumbs into your vest, fat cat, and light your big cigar with another 10 dollars, who cares, you’re a 10 dollarnaire. Admittedly, you have no real ownership stake in the process, and there will be no return on your investment. But hey: Veronica Mars, right?!

Here is where I think things get tricky: most of Hollywood movies these days are already trending towards instantaneous name recognition, which is how you end up with people regularly complaining that everything is a superhero or a dystopian child slaughter gameshow. Independent cinema continues to get marginalized as small movie theaters go extinct and the megaplexes need to put butts in seats. (A quick note: I have barely any idea what I am talking about, just in terms of actual economic trends or how the world works. Don’t get me wrong, I think I’m for sure right, and I am not trying to discredit my own opinion. I’m just saying, the minute you start throwing actual numbers at me is the minute I throw my computer in the bathtub. This is what we in law call The Blogger’s Defense.) Last year, the Disney corporation released John Carter in the hopes that it would launch a new franchise, but it was widely considered to be an historic failure, one of the great flops of our time. Do you know how much money this late night monologue punchline of a movie made worldwide? More than $282,000,000. AN ABSOLUTE DISASTER, I AM SURE. So you see the scale that we are facing.

This also starts to give you a sense of how cynical this experiment actually is. Warner Bros. will fund the rest of the movie if normal people cough up $2,000,000? OK, but $2,000,000 is literally what they spend on bottled water every three months. It’s nothing to these guys. Either make the movie or don’t, that’s not my problem. But don’t pretend that an inconsequential budgetary line item was the only thing getting in the way. As Wallace Fennel would say, “Oh please!”

So then what is actually going on? Well, maybe the studio just wants to make absolutely sure that the audience is there so that when they do finally put in their financial stake, they know where they stand in terms of getting a return on their investment. (A return on an investment that is not available to the people making the initial investment.) Sure. Look, it’s a business. You can never get mad about it being a business because it was always a business. (And for anyone who thinks that pop culture has gotten cynical and is no longer about the art, uh, guess what, it was always cynical and art never had nothing to do with it.) But so, OK, they want to make sure they know who/what they’re getting into bed with so that they know for sure that they are going to come dollar signs. (Sorry. But showbusiness is gross! That’s not my fault, I didn’t invent that part of it!) If you’re a Veronica Mars fan and this is how you get a Veronica Mars movie, it might seem like an imperfect relationship but one that ends correctly*. Here’s why this sucks:

A LOT OF TIMES WE DON’T KNOW WHAT WE WANT UNTIL WE SEE IT.

If you think that Hollywood is overly reliant on pre-established franchises now, wait until they start second guessing even this system. The end result is going to be heavily focus grouped broad-based crowd pleasers with a pre-approved track record. Gone are the surprises. Gone are the things we as an audience didn’t know existed until we loved them. Look, I’m being a little dramatic. But the idea that we should all vote on what we want from a limited selection of options before we are even provided with an even more limited selection of options based on the ones we pre-voted from, the world is going to become a very small, very un-exciting place. The Internet, I guess, is where you find the most unexpected things these days, but the Internet doesn’t have the budget to make the kinds of things we are talking about. There’s basic cable. That’s pretty good! But not everything has to be a six season TV show. (Does it?! Wait, does it?!) Movies, at least for now, are still movies. And one of the best things about a movie can be going into it without even knowing what it’s about, and discovering new actors and characters and everything. It would be cool if that didn’t disappear.

In conclusion: I’m not saying not to donate to Veronica Mars. Donate if you want to donate. But just know that this is not actual charity, and it’s maybe not even that good of an idea. (Ugh, so in conclusion, “maybe”? TL;DR!)

*There is one way in which this entire thing is promising, though, which is that Hollywood studios are notoriously tight-fisted about their property copyrights, and sometimes once they decide not to go through with a certain project, even the creators of the project are stuck because the studio owns the rights. At least in that sense, this is good.