This past Friday marked the final day that fans could donate money to the 'Veronica Mars' movie's 'Kickstarter' campaign. Created with the original hope of raising two million dollars, the venture was an unqualified success, blasting past its funding goal in less than a day. With the final total sitting at over 5.7 million dollars, I'd say it's only a matter of time before we get another campaign of this type for a cult show that was canceled too soon.
So...this got me thinking about whether this possible new trend of crowd-funded TV revivals was really the good thing most seem to think it is, or really just the latest way for entertainment corporations to put one over on consumers. Presented below are what I believe to be the primary pros and cons.
'Backers' receive some pretty cool prizes:
The primary reward system for Kickstarter contributors is the selection of "perks" offered by the filmmakers and cast. For instance, for only $10, Veronica Mars backers are set to receive a copy of the shooting script, and regular behind-the-scenes updates during production. Those who pledged $25 get the previous prize, plus an exclusive t-shirt. $35 earns you a digital copy of the film, delivered near the general release date, plus the previous prizes. The gifts keep piling up as you go up the ladder, including DVDs, posters, autographed photos, personalized voicemail messages, etc.
While those trinkets may look paltry to non-fans, we're talking about plenty of limited edition exclusive items that (presumably) will never be sold to the general public. Fans of cult TV series live for this stuff, it's why we go to conventions like Comic-Con year after year in droves. One could argue that some of the rewards are highly overpriced, but fans were more than willing to pay, and they get to make a movie they want to see happen on top of it.
Fans can prove to studios that cult properties are worth saving:
Last month, I wrote up a list of 10 shows that I would personally love to see brought back via Kickstarter. I bring that up not only to include a cheap plug to a previous article, but because it leads me into my next point. The majority of the shows I covered in that piece aren't just abandoned properties. The creators and cast of programs such as Millennium, Pushing Daisies, Quantum Leap, etc. have long expressed desire to bring closure to fans via follow-up movies, but find themselves stymied by the fact that the studios who own the shows see no profit potential in the idea.
I'd wager that before last month, Veronica Mars was one of those properties that the studio had zero interest in resurrecting. Now, Warner Bros. is completely on-board to pay for the marketing and distribution costs for the VM film, which isn't cheap. In fact, marketing and distribution costs for films often end up higher than the production budget itself. This is no small thing. If this trend continues, other monolithic studios like Sony, Paramount, Disney, etc. may begin to see the money-making potential in older shows with unresolved plot elements. After all, if fans are willing to pay 5.7 million to fund Veronica's movie, how much will they spend on buying a copy?
Let's face it, there is probably no other avenue to get follow-ups to these shows made:
This pro kind of extends off of the last one, but I thought it deserved its own mention. 9 times out of 10, shows are canceled for a reason. If it's a show with a cult fanbase, it was most likely axed due to low ratings, and thus low ad revenue for the network it aired on. Quantum Leap was canceled nearly every year it was on the air, only to receive a stay of execution for another season. Millennium barely got a third season. Pushing Daisies only came back because the writers' strike interrupted production of season one. The same goes for Terminator: TSCC.
Entertainment is (above all things) a business. The studios have no reason to believe that a follow-up movie to a canceled TV series will bring them a tidy profit, and therefore they have no reason to risk the money it would cost to pay for production. Without fans being willing to put their money where their fandoms are, a company like WB wouldn't have been willing to fund a Veronica Mars movie in a million years. Does a show like Reaper, The 4400, Jericho or American Gothic stand any better chance of getting a non-Kickstarter funded revival? I highly doubt it.
What was Kickstarter invented for again?
While Kickstarter is indeed a private, for-profit company, that doesn't change the original idea behind the service. Kickstarter is primarily a way for independently made creative projects (whether they be film, TV, music, books, games, or any other form of art) to get noticed and thus get funded. It's certainly true that far from every project actually meets its funding goal, but that doesn't change the fact plenty of worthwhile endeavors have used Kickstarter to become a reality.
If the Veronica Mars model catches on, Kickstarter could easily become inundated with this style of quasi-Hollywood backed projects. Fans may love getting more of their favorite show, but what about all the creators that don't have a studio handling half of their costs? What will happen to all the interesting ideas that don't get funded due to all the cash being put toward known properties? I can't imagine they're very likely to come to fruition.
Studios have nothing to lose, and everything to gain:
One fact sometimes gets lost in the collective fan squeal over the possibilities of Kickstarter bringing back their favorite shows, that being that giant mega-corporations like Warner, Sony, and Paramount stand to make dump trucks full of money, while essentially risking nothing. As mentioned above, this is what makes the proposition so tempting for the studios, but the other side of that coin is that fans are essentially coming out on the losing end.
When a person or group invests in the production of a film or TV program, and that property then makes a profit, the first people that get paid are those that supplied capital. They don't always get back everything they put in, but most people aren't willing to invest thousands of dollars of their personal wealth with no expectation of reward. Nearly 100,000 (presumably) normal folks essentially wrote the producers of Veronica Mars and Warner Bros. a no strings attached check for 5.7 million dollars, and all most will get back is a t-shirt or DVD. Is that really fair? That's a judgment that each "backer" will have to make, but it's definitely an arguable drawback of the Kickstarter model being used by studios.
If the fans can fund one, why not fund them all?
Nowadays, the only films "guaranteed" to make money at the box office are superhero films, sequels or prequels to established series, or summer blockbuster action/adventure pictures. We all know this. While the occasional critical darling does well due to Oscar buzz, the yearly box office top 10 is dominated by films like The Avengers, The Dark Knight Rises, and and The Hunger Games. Studios have no problem pumping hundreds of millions of dollars into these projects, because they are all but certain to make it all back and then some.
That said, if Kickstarter takes off, what's stopping Hollywood from funding every non-blockbuster that way, or at least the films that don't have prestigious stars or directors? The smaller budgeted films that are today produced by FOX Searchlight, Paramount Vantage, and Sony Picture Classics for limited theatrical distribution may soon be farmed out to Kickstarter. After all, why should the studios pay for the production themselves when they can raise five million dollars via a social media push? The funds raised may not cover all the costs involved with production, but an easy few million is nothing the studios wouldn't salivate over.
So...where do you stand? Will the Kickstarter model take off for studio properties? Are you troubled by the ethical implications raised by that prospect?