Of all the prizes offered to donors of "Veronica Mars" — everything from a digital copy of the script for $10 to a walk-on cameo for $10,000 — the most taxing was autographing the cast-signed posters promised to more than 5,000 backers. It took several hand-cramping days and constant shuttling of boxes from one signee to the next.
"We've got our own poster handler who is in charge of getting them to us and getting them signed," Thomas said in a recent interview. "It's required, like, its own department."
But, he adds, "This movie would not exist if we had not gone down this path."
It's been a year since Thomas sent shockwaves through the movie industry by turning to the crowd-funding site Kickstarter to help finance a movie based on his cultishly adored but short-lived high-school detective series. On Friday, the movie hits theaters and video-on-demand. As the first high-profile celebrity project to drum up money on Kickstarter, "Veronica Mars" is a trailblazer, albeit one with a cloudy legacy.
Thomas has already been followed by projects by Zach Braff (to fund his second directorial effort) and Spike Lee (to raise cash for his latest "joint"). The land rush into a new avenue of funding (a major struggle for most filmmakers) has raised questions about the ethics of fan-based financing. (Contributors pay for different levels of rewards, but don't share in profits.)
"Veronica Mars" may have introduced a democratic spirit to a green-lighting process usually controlled by film executives, but it has also opened a Pandora's box where, critics say, established insiders can take advantage of their loyal followings.
"It's a brilliant idea that's gotten out of hand," ''House of Cards" producer Dana Brunetti recently said at a SXSW panel discussion. "It's wrong when people like Zach Braff or Spike Lee use that same service to fund their films when they already have access. I think it overshadows and takes away from the little guys who actually need the funding."
Thomas says he'd rather not be considered a poster boy for Kickstarter. "Every project has its own separate concerns," he says. Instead, he believes the choice is up to consumers.
"If it bothers you that Zach Braff probably has a lot of money from 'Scrubs,'" says Thomas, "then don't give to it."
Before "Veronica Mars" found 91,585 backers who pledged about $5.7 million (far surpassing the $2 million Thomas sought), it was essentially doomed. The Warner Bros. Television-produced series was canceled in 2007 after three seasons on UPN and CW.
Yet fans of the show — which Thomas pitched as "teen noir" — loved its sharp banter and the dark atmosphere of a corrupt California town, the fictional Neptune. As the witty, street-smart title character, Kristen Bell (whose fame has since grown and who now stars on Showtime's "House of Lies") followed the strong female protagonists of shows like "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" and "Alias."
Thomas, whose other shows include the similarly cult favorite "Party Down," was only able to lobby Warner Bros. to make a "Veronica Mars" movie if he proved the fervent fan base. Though a grassroots triumph, "Veronica Mars" has behind it one of the largest, most powerful movie studios on the planet, which easily could have bankrolled the film if it wanted to.
If legitimate rewards hadn't been offered for donors, Thomas says: "That would have smelled. That would have felt icky."
Like its unique development, the release of "Veronica Mars" will also be unusual. It will be the first studio movie to break the standard 90-day window between theatrical opening and DVD or digital release. To avoid agreements with theater chains (which fiercely guard their first window), Warner Bros. is renting out from AMC Theaters most of the 270 screens the film will play on.
Executives for Warner Bros. declined to comment for this article.
The film, which has already found warm reviews, will likely please fans of "Veronica Mars." It takes place 10 years after the TV series, with Veronica, now an up-and-coming attorney, lured back to Neptune when her old flame Logan (Jason Dohring) is framed for a murder. Fans will quickly recognize the familiar snappy rhythm: A police officer warns Veronica, "When you mess with the bull ...," and she interjects, "You get the clichés?"
"After all this rigmarole and all this publicity, if the movie isn't successful financially, then we are the guinea pig that failed," says Thomas. "It will be such a better ending to the story if it were successful and this was a harbinger of things to come."
The film culminates a whirlwind year for Thomas, one effectively spent in a digital fish bowl, surrounded by thousands of collaborators. Kickstarter backers populate scenes as extras.
The $10,000 contributor, 45-year-old Canadian entrepreneur and currency exchange site XE.com co-founder Steven Dengler, ended up playing not a waiter (as the reward had advertised), but introducing a viral video with James Franco, who also makes a cameo.
"I didn't back the project to get the part," says Dengler, a "Veronica Mars" fan and avid Kickstarter supporter, speaking by phone from Toronto. "I backed the project because I liked the project and because it really felt to me like a sea-change moment."
"I'm a fan that they let in."