'Veronica Mars' online campaign passes $2 million: What's Hollywood thinking?

'Veronica Mars' fans have contributed more than $2 million online in two days in hopes of turning the defunct TV show into a film. The campaign upends Hollywood's business-as-usual model.

By , Staff writer

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    Executive producer Rob Thomas (l.) answers questions about the upcoming season of 'Veronica Mars' as actress Kristen Bell looks on during The CW's Television Critics Association press conference in Pasadena, Calif., in this 2006 photo. Thomas and stars of the TV show have launched an online fundraising campaign for a big-screen version.
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The ground moved in Neptune, Calif., this week.

If you missed it, well, that’s understandable. Neptune, after all, is a fictional city, home to wily teen sleuth Veronica Mars, star of the TV show by the same name. The series was canceled in 2007 after only three seasons, though it had a devoted fan base.

Now, that loyal following has broken online fundraising records – raking in more than $1 million on the online funding site Kickstarter in just four hours and 24 minutes – for a proposed movie version of the TV show. The month-long campaign began Wednesday, and as of early Thursday it had surpassed its $2 million goal – and counting.

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It is a watershed moment in the rapidly-evolving world of funding for new media, as the business model for Hollywood is starting to show signs of catching up with the fragmentation that “defines the media marketplace,” says Robert Thompson, founder of the Bleier Center of Television and Popular culture at Syracuse University in New York.

“You can make a decent feature film for $4 million,” he says.

The idea was cooked up by the series' creator, Rob Thomas, and the actress who played Veronica, Kristen Bell. Warner Bros., which still owns the rights to the show, reportedly agreed to kick in marketing and distribution costs if the team could meet its mark.

At a time when the power of the Internet is constantly being leveraged in new ways, the fundraising drive points to new ways of getting a movie going “rather than the old days of pitch meeting after pitch meeting to three or four people in conference room after conference room,” says Scott Kurnit, founder of About.com, in an e-mail.

“This is a big deal,” he says.

One example is not enough to make predictions about an entire industry, but it points to how the Internet can open a window on what goes into making a movie, says Paul Booth, a media professor at DePaul University in Chicago, who specializes in studying cult texts and audiences.

“This is a really interesting example of subverting the traditional Hollywood system and providing information about what is traditionally a very shadowy world of funding for movie projects,” he says.

With this project, various levels of giving get donors different benefits, such as a digital copy of the shooting script or T-shirts. One lucky donor who shelled out $10,000 has already landed the perk of a speaking part in the final film.

This granular level of involvement also provides built-in marketing. Such an intense level of buy-in before a project has even begun filming is important given the lack of guarantees in the movie business – even for films with a cult following.

The followup to one of TV’s hottest cult hits, “Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me,” was booed at Cannes and took in just over $4 million at the box office, though it cost $10 million. Even the "X-Files" series, arguably one of the most passionately followed TV series ever, was not a sure thing. The 2008 film, “X Files: I Want to Believe,” cost an estimated $30 million and brought in just under $21 million in receipts.

Economically, it makes perfect sense to try to look for alternative sources of funding, says David Fiorenza, an economist at Villanova University in Philadelphia, via e-mail. The downside, he adds, “is not meeting your goal and the project not completed.”

Beyond the funding issues, the quick response to the Veronica Mars appeal shows that cancelled shows can have staying power through the Internet – getting a second life on streaming services such as Netflix.

“A television studio executive should think a lot less about second-run syndicating show and a lot more about streaming a show,” says Michael Levin, assistant marketing professor at Otterbein University in Westerville, Ohio, in an e-mail. “I seriously doubt Veronica Mars would have attracted so many new fans to the show through [traditional] second-run syndication.”

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