Per usual, my response to what is unquestionably a watershed moment in convergence-era fan culture is one of ambivalence. I’m talking, of course, about the Veronica Mars Kickstarter. I am a huge fan of the show, and my initial response was every fan’s response (namely, to immediately pull out the credit card to make it happen, and then sit back and gape as it did). But what I really want is a Kickstarter to get Rob Thomas his IP back from Warner Bros. Realistic? Absolutely not. But the idea of introducing, much less contributing, to a model of fan-ancing studio films has left me conflicted, particularly as it relates to broader trends in promotional fan labor. And that’s not even getting into the logistics and economics of the Kickstarter rewards….
Over coffee yesterday morning, Luke was less conflicted. Far from it, he made a fairly impassioned and compelling argument about why the Veronica Mars Kickstarter sets a dangerous precedent. My response, per usual, was “You should blog it out.” And, faster than you can say “Boom goes the dynamite,” he did.
First of all, let me state in no uncertain terms that this has nothing to do with Veronica Mars specifically as a property, or Rob Thomas & Co as people, or the show’s devoted fandom. I have only seen a handful of episodes, but I liked what I saw and by all accounts it was a great show and should have gone longer than it did.
I believe that the creation and subsequent success of the Veronica Mars Movie Kickstarter represents a troubling landmark in the emergent history of crowdfunding. This campaign has stepped boldly over a line that established content creators have been edging towards on Kickstarter for some time, and I predict it will end up being a tipping point that leads to transformative changes in the way that crowdfunding platforms are regulated in the future. They will have to be. Under current rules, it is possible for media entities to exploit their fan bases in a way that is pernicious and ultimately unsustainable.
At first blush, it’s hard to see the problem, because no individual party is acting out of anything but genuine enthusiasm. The show’s creators want to make the show, so they ask. Fans want to see the show, so they respond overwhelmingly positively. The studio sees everyone’s puppy eyes, and finally says “Oh, alllll right,” like a parent who’s just been harangued into a trip for ice cream by his kids. According to these stats compiled by Myles McNutt, the average donation on the VM kickstarted is a bit over $50, give or take. What’s $50 to resurrect your favorite show for one more glorious ride? Certainly there are properties close to my heart for which I would consider $50 worth it.
But it’s very important to consider what sort of precedent is being set here. If you force yourself to take a step back, you’ll realize this is a true breach of the traditional producer/consumer divide. If you think about this campaign for what it ultimately is—a large movie studio crowdfunding a movie—questions start to emerge.
The first question might be: couldn’t this have been just a free-to-sign internet petition? The answer you will get is that the studio doesn’t pay attention to that sort of crap. Talk is cheap, they say, which is true. Networks and studios routinely ignore online outcry of fan communities and cancel shows because they simply don’t have enough viewers. Doubtless this is what happened to Veronica Mars when it was canceled in 2007. Rob Thomas obviously still feels jilted by this, and Rob Thomas is a smart, creative guy, so he thinks “I’ll convince the studio by using Kickstarter to make what is effectively a petition that costs money to sign.” It’s an ingenious plan, actually, and sounds reasonable…but it doesn’t work for (at least) two huge reasons:
1) The rabidity of the average fan that donates skews the results. That $3mil and counting isn’t a count of how many people want the movie so much as it is a measure of how desperately the people that want the movie want it. Recall that the average donation across those fans is north of $50. The reason this campaign seems so smashingly successful is that high average (combined with the fact that Thomas probably low-balled on the funding goal). At last count there were ~50K individual donors. If those were a tally on a free web petition, Warner Bros would look at the number, times by $10 or $12 to get a gross of a under a million, and say “not worth the trouble.” And from their perspective, they’d be right! At this point, how many people do you think would realistically go to the Veronica Mars movie that haven’t already donated to this campaign? Keep in mind that it would have to be many times this initial 50,000 to even make a small-budget movie financially successful.
And I just don’t think that’s realistic. I think the studio let Thomas try this out because he’s passionate and they’re clueless, but what happens in a month, when they’re suddenly holding $4 million of our money, and Rob writes a script that budgets out to $6 mil? Or $12 mil? Do they pony up the rest? Do they delay the shoot and insist on rewrites? Do they scrap it all and give the money back?
Who knows? Which brings me to…
2) If the studio is unable to take our word when we sign a petition, then why are we sending them money blindly and taking their word for it? The money generated from this kickstarter is going into Warner Brothers’ bank account. Says it right there on the page’s FAQ. Let that sink in for a second. I know you love your books/movies/comics/TV/games. They’re your favorite way to have fun and pass your spare time. They may be the most important thing in your life. But making movies is the studios’ job. That’s a big difference. They’re large, for-profit companies with access to vast capital. On a certain level the studio’s raison d’etre to bear financial risk, to float millions of dollars of this year’s box office money to make next year’s movies. The reason they’ve merged with larger and larger parent corps over the years is that it makes their risk easier to spread around a bigger balance sheet.
So, remind me why I need to give them starter cash up front, no strings attached? Kickstarter has grown and thrived without needing to impose much regulation due to the noble intentions and honest dealings of most of its users. Sadly, however, the honor system doesn’t scale. As it stands right now, celebrities can make vague claims about how much they miss an old job and how much fun it would be to reunite, and then as a fan, I’m being asked to toss my money into a dark pit and then cross my fingers that I’m going to get something in a year (or more, all delivery dates “estimated”). We fans have committed $3mil and counting. We’re headed towards the territory where Thomas hasn’t even defined what the funds will be used for. (“We’ll figure out something cool,” he insists.) The faith-based dynamic of crowdfunding simply breaks when faced with something as tangled and unpredictable as studio feature film production. Based on my reading of his plan, Mr. Thomas is extremely (read: foolishly) optimistic about his movie’s chances of progressing smoothly through funding, writing, and production for release in Spring 2014. One year. That’s unbelievably fast by studio standards. Studios plan their releases long in advance in order to marshal their marketing forces efficiently. If, as Rob hopes, this Kickstarter convinces WB that a feature is worth their time, it’s going to take significantly longer than the stated year.
Now, surely, if it takes two years instead of one, that won’t kill anyone, right? You’ll get the t-shirt and ninety minutes of orgasmic fan service you hoped for in the end, and that’ll make it all worth it. But, again, in the meantime, WB is sitting on your $50 investment. And they are basically not accountable to you in any way during that period. If they screw it up somehow, what recourse do you have? Class-action lawsuit? Boycott all WB properties forever? Good luck.
Small independent artists are accountable on Kickstarter because they can’t afford to alienate their fan base. What does Warner care about whether Veronica Mars fans are happy anymore? The show’s been off the air for years. The disconnection between the project that is being sold and the entity selling it is the key here. All the details of this campaign smell of the studio. The donation premiums are all pretty boiler-plate studio swag (and not deliverable until 2014 or later, natch). Your backer’s day-of-release digital copy? Not a convenient, DRM-less file, but a license code for Flixter, the WB-backed online movie site.
I’ve never used Flixter, but I’m guessing it’s not DRM-free.
Compare this campaign to what I consider to be a much more equitable arrangement between a famous content creator and its fan base: Radiohead’s “In Rainbows” record. Radiohead just made an album, then gave it away. You could take it for free, or pay what you wanted. That’s a spectacularly customer-centric way to run things, but moreover it’s a good deal for everyone involved. Most people paid at least a little, which is a little more than they would have had they just pirated the album. The fans know their money is going straight to the artist, so they’re more likely to pony up something, even if it’s just a few bucks. Louis CK is another great example. When he sold his comedy tour video he’d self-produced, he made it super-easy on the end user. He scraped the initial investment together himself, then reaped a huge benefit in terms of both money and reputation. I was delighted to Paypal him $5 to get his high-quality, easy-to-use, no DRM Quicktime file. It felt like a utopian future. It was like torrenting, only legal!
Artists going this route acknowledge that there is a necessary divide between creators and consumers. As chummy as everyone can be on Twitter these days, the fact remains that successful artists have power over their audiences. That is a great power, and it comes with an accordingly great responsibility: you shouldn’t use your influence to bum money from them as if they were personal friends or family members, especially in an uncapped environment such as Kickstarter. (The fact that you can raise more money than you set out to initially is my single biggest qualm with the platform.) I’m not a particularly big fan of Radiohead’s, but what they did (and others have done) represented a risk, and I applaud them for taking it. There were certainly guaranteed-money ways they could have spent the time in which they created “In Rainbows.” They didn’t try to outsource the cost of something they wanted to make; they just went ahead and made it.
I will grant that, on average, it’s probably more expensive/difficult to make a movie than record an album, at least in terms of crew to pay. But that makes accountability on such a venture all the more necessary. It’s important to keep in mind how much money we’re talking here. $2 mil is a very weird sweet spot for Rob to pull out of the air. It’s exceedingly low for a feature film. To produce such a movie would basically mean the cast & crew were all willing to work for union minimum. But if that’s the case—if everyone’s dying to do it and so excited and can’t wait—why can’t the producers raise the funds privately? In this case, it’s because the underlying intellectual property is owned by the Warner Brothers, and therefore any movie that emerges is necessarily a WB studio venture.
Bear in mind that if Rob Thomas owned the IP for Mars, and this was a wholly independent venture, I would be mostly fine with it (though I would still gripe that he should raise the money himself privately). Perhaps TV should or could or someday will operate on a IP-reverts-to-creator system as in some other media. But that’s not the way the system works, and realistically it never will. Television is the wellspring for the studios; it’s the steady income that serves as a backstop for their riskier feature film ventures. TV also provides the bulk of steady employment for studio employees; indeed, I am one of them. I work for a show that is produced on WB lot, so I’m pretty close to all these workings. Perhaps that’s why I’m sensitive to the bigger implications. Setting a precedent wherein studio-owned IP gets seed funding from Joe-Schmoe-fifty-bucks-a-head terrifies me. As it stands, the only way I see this as an ethical gambit is if Thomas uses this outpouring as leverage to get the movie green-lit by the studio…and then gives everyone their money back when he sends them their thank-you gifts.
Reinforcing IP that can be monetized across all media is the M.O. of all studios these days. It’s easier to spread the losses around that way. Theoretically there should be an upside to this. Huge conglomerates ought to be able to take small risks with lower-budget stuff, because they’re so rich they don’t care. What’s $2mil to Time-Warner’s bottom line? But, of course, they don’t. Instead we’re getting the opposite: the studio exploiting a loophole in order to shift (some part of) these risks onto their fans.
You may not care that you’re being exploited. You’ll take any chance you can get to influence what gets made. To which I sigh and wipe a tear from the corner of my eye and say: fine. I realize that nothing I say here will stop anyone from chasing after the chance at more Veronica Mars, or Firefly, or [insert lost cult property here]. So, instead, I thought about what a Kickstarter campaign for a studio property would look like that wouldn’t make me want to vomit. Here’s what I came up with:
Funding goal: $X, where ‘X’ is the total figure at the bottom of a reasonably detailed budget that is published on the Kickstarter site. Not just “Piz is in, he’s really excited to do it!” (Recall that talk is cheap.)
Funding will be capped at x. There are no stretch goals. Should the film run over budget, the producers would have to run a new, separate campaign to raise those funds.
There are two support tiers:
Tier 1- Donate $10. You get:
- A ticket to the movie when it’s released and a digital copy when that’s released
- Your name in a list of crowdfunders in the film’s credits
Tier 2 – Invest $10,000. You get:
- Everything from tier 1
- VIP invite to the movie’s premiere
- Profit participation in the film
Now is this realistic? Of course not. But it’s the way that such a Kickstarter would have to be structured for me to consider taking part in it. No individual within the current system (WB, Thomas, fans) has the impetus to impose any sort of ethics code on the process…unless they are forced to some regulatory body. And when there are millions of dollars changing hands in these campaigns, that body has become absolutely necessary. That’s why I think all this points toward the direction in which crowdfunding platforms must evolve. If movie studios are too dense to realize that it’s not okay to manipulate their customers in order to foist financial risk upon them, then someone in charge needs to remind them.
These are investment markets at the end of the day. They’re markets for something other than just boring money, which is what makes them so cool. You put money in—real money—but the rewards you reap are the good vibes, or exclusive merch, or the knowledge that you helped resurrect Veronica Fucking Mars, your favorite TV badass of all time.
But even if it’s just $5, it is an investment, and as such crowdfunding platforms should be regulated like the investment markets they are. We’ve outgrown the land of handshakes and crossing our fingers that everyone’s going to be honest and accountable. If that wasn’t clear before, this Veronica Mars thing has certainly made it so.