2 Idiots Debate: Veronica Mars and Kickstarter

Did you guys hear that there’s going to be a Veronica Mars movie? Because fans funded it on Kickstarter?

You did? Not news?

OK, well did you hear that two aging blog proprietors got all worked up about it and had an e-mail debate?

I THOUGHT NOT.

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The Dilemma: Rather than hash this out on Twitter, we might as well have a discussion about the Veronica Mars movie and Kickstarter, and our divergent reactions to the pledge drive to fund the movie.

I don’t want this to be a debate about the quality of Veronica Mars as a TV show, and I’m assuming you don’t have much interest in that either. Your vitriolic reaction seemed more about the Kickstarter drive itself than that VM isn’t worthy of a movie (an opinion you may very well hold, but which is beside the point.)

I’ve seen writers I like a lot complain about this new development (here and here), and as much as I like Gabe Delahaye and Richard Lawson, their responses seem a little hysterical. Most of the negative reaction seems to be based on one of these conceits:

  • You’re basically donating money to Warner Brothers! They’re a huge conglomerate and can afford to fund their own movies!
  • This is a slippery slope that starts with fans funding beloved dreamlike cult projects and ends with studios holding us hostage for any movie we want to see
  • This isn’t charity! You’re not doing good for the world!

I think we can dismiss that last bullet point out of hand. Nobody ever claimed this was a charitable cause. You’re paying money to get a movie made. Pretty simple. If you choose, you can pay no money and hope the movie gets made anyway. No problem!

It does make me a little queasy that I’m handing money over to the movie studio behind forthcoming classics like The Hangover Part III and 300: Rise of an Empire, but ultimately, I don’t think a Veronica Mars movie would have ever been made without this innovative solution. I trust that Rob Thomas has been trying every avenue for years with no luck, and this is his (and our) last shot for a VM movie to exist.

I am fascinated by the impact this will have going forward. I can see the potential for abuse, but I think it’s more likely than not that publicly funded entertainment will put more power into the hands of fans than they currently have. Entertainment and sports fans are currently almost completely powerless in their transactions with the things they love. They (we) are passive and impotent, waiting around in the hope that something good is around the corner. Want to by season tickets? Buy this multi-thousand-dollar personal seat license first! Love this TV show? It’s going to be cancelled regardless of how passionate you are about it. Kickstarter and its ilk give the fans some agency. Sure, we’re still putting money in rich people’s pockets, but we’re doing it on our terms without a gun to our heads.

This is like the flipside of what Radiohead tried with In Rainbows, but instead of a social experiment to see how many assholes would enter in $0.00, Kickstarter campaigns are going to see how devoted fans are to their pet projects, and how many of them are willing to put their money where their mouth is.

To me, it comes down to this: am I willing to pay $35 for a Veronica Mars movie to exist, and to own a copy of that movie? Yes, I am. I would have done the same for the forthcoming new Arrested Development season, and I would blindly, stupidly do the same for a new Twin Peaks movie that serves as a sequel rather than a prequel. I wouldn’t make a habit of paying more than market value to own a new album, film, whatever, but that’s only because I can’t afford it.

David Simon Cowell: I don’t think I’ve seen a group of people make such a collectively retarded decision since the heyday of Capri pants (OK, I don’t actually know what Capri pants are, but I’ve heard of people making fun of them on Sex and the City.)

Since you bought in, I need to take a moment and start looking for new friends.  And none of my objections are about Veronica Mars itself… I never watched it but believe it’s good and loved Party Down.  If this was a Freaks & Geeks movie, I’d feel the same.

To take your argument summation:

1) No, I don’t think there’s a anti-charitable aspect to this.  At worst, it’s a co-opting of a system meant to funnel money to small fish by big fish.  But that happens whenever a system like that is successful.  That said, is there a selfish aspect to this on the contributors end?  Yes, but we’ll get to that later.

2) On a personal level, I’m just amazed by what suckers the “smartest consumers in history” on the Internet are (and I guess I mean you in this instance… sorry).  This was absolutely nothing more than a brilliant marketing campaign.  The idea that Rob Thomas couldn’t have found $2 million from Netflix or some hedge fund managers who wanted a chance to try to bang Kristen Bell is beyond ridiculous.  To go back to my favorite subject, Beasts of the Southern Wild cost $2 million, and that had less built-in money-making ability than this.

But either Rob Thomas and Kristen Bell didn’t want to work that hard while pretending to be “struggling against the system”, or Warner Bros. saw an smart opportunity to have a viral marketing campaign to push more Veronica Mars DVDs out the door.  I’m guessing both.

3) Of course, the only thing that “matters” here, besides a reminder that P.T. Barnum’s maxim is alive and well in the digital age, is what’s to come.  This will not end well.

Two things are inevitable.  Fans will be asked to pay for things before they actually exist (the “it’s the same as a movie ticket” argument is false.  With a movie ticket, you have the ability to educate yourself.  There were plenty of movies I was psyched about when they were announced that I never saw because of horrible reviews or word-of-mouth).  And studios will require that fans spend a certain level of money before moving forward on a whole host of stuff, and also using it as an excuse not to.  Logically, only pre-existing properties will benefit, and something that moves Hollywood even further from generating original material isn’t a good thing.  I mean, one of the things Deadline has following this route is a Men Of A Certain Age movie.  How can you feel good about that?

Basically, Veronica Mars fans are not very good at navigating the Prisoner’s Dilemma.

But, what irked me about it more than anything was the way it illustrated the worst parts of Internet fandom.  Part of that is its breathless self-importance.  What we’re talking about here is the modern equivalent of L.A. Law: The Movie or Return To Mayberry.  It’s what would have in the past been a TV movie reunion.  Maybe it’ll satisfy the fans, probably it’ll be disappointing.  But what it isn’t is a “change in the paradigm” or a “blow against the system” or a “step toward democracy in entertainment” (and I know you didn’t say any of those things yourself).

And part of it is the absolute ability to let anything fucking die.  Another thing that was mentioned over and over was another Serenity movie (again, not by Joss Whedon, but by the Interweb).  The amount of energy spent lamenting/fighting to restart shows in the Internet is beyond ridiculous.  Spoiler Alert: It’s not going to add to your enjoyment of that thing one iota.

Basically it’s that bratiness that I referred to in our other conversation, conflating quantity with quality and stomping your feet for what you want.  And that it corresponds almost entirely to a certain socio-economic/racial/education-level group known for its inability to handle any disappointment just increases my ire.

And, to head off your objections a bit, the reason that the people making the racket raises my ire is this: they’re the ruling class but act like they’re being oppressed by the system.  Veronica Mars was cancelled either because it was too smart, or because Warner Bros. discounts how many people like them there are in the world.  “Too smart” is obviously just an indirect way to call the working class and minorities dumb.  And Warner Bros. is strongly focused on getting to people like them (which is why they came up with this marketing campaign to begin with).  The people who run Warner Bros. are them.  The shows that are most clammered for are those aimed at the people who control the means of production, which is why they get so much of a chance in the first place.  The only reason Dan Harmon got three seasons of Community in the first place was because of his target audience, the same target audience who screams about how they’re not respected.

Really, it’s the same disconnect that the older part of the same demographic (white, college-educated, top 20%-ish (over 90K household, btw)) has when they complain that Obama and the government is screwing them, when of course Obama and the government does everything they can to help them short of what will cause an actual revolution.  And their children and grandchildren roll their eyes and call them nuts and go on the Internet and apply the same logic to Pop Culture.

The Dilemma: Your morphing into a modern-day Che Guevera is nearly complete. Turning the Veronica Mars movie Kickstarter campaign into anti- rich white people screed is impressive work, even for you.

The next logical step for you is to defend Two and a Half Men, and Whitney, and Grown Ups 2 as the shit we should be watching because that’s what the working class demands.

First off, I truly believe that a Veronica Mars movie never would have happened without Kickstarter. Making a movie out of an established TV series is a completely different animal than making an original independent film like Beasts of the Southern Wild, and to believe they’re playing by the same rules is foolish. Could they have bought some equipment and filmed on the cheap? Maybe, maybe not depending on rights issues, but that’s also a completely unrealistic scenario. I’ve followed the drive to get this movie made reasonably closely over the years, and no one’s pulling a fast one here. It has nothing to do with Rob Thomas not trying hard enough. That’s cynical to the point that I can’t believe you actually believe it yourself.

But then again, your rage toward devoted fans of cult entertainment borders on the pathological, as shown by your anti-Community fans rant from earlier this year. It’s OK to love a TV show enough to want more of it…it really is. Yet it’s entirely possible to hope for a Veronica Mars movie or a Serenity sequel and still maintain perspective on the world and the society in which we live. Wishing for a fourth season of Arrested Development doesn’t automatically mean you’re an elitist, entitled fuck who can’t accept no for an answer and oppresses the proletariat in your spare time.

It’s also dangerous for you to so easily dismiss the idea that smart entertainment is both rare and valuable. Just because college educated people like something doesn’t mean it doesn’t deserve a place at the table. The United States is so violently anti-intellectual that the more reasonably intelligent programming we can get and keep on the air, the better (and again, this isn’t necessarily meant to apply to Veronica Mars, which was pretty smart but was still a show about a high school P.I. solving crimes like Encyclopedia Brown.), even if their fans annoy you with write-in campaigns and angry message board comments.

And as I mentioned earlier, your slippery slope fears are hysterical (in the overreacting sense, not in the hilarious sense). There is at least as much potential for good from this trend as there is for ill, and if we ever get to the point that fans are getting price-gouged for routine albums and movies that would have happened anyway, I’ll eat my words and re-evaluate. There are some pretty smart, pretty evil people working at big studios. If the potential existed for them to use Kickstarter to grope more money from audiences, they would have turned to that well already.

David Simon Cowell: Oh, I can turn anything into an anti-rich white people screed… you should have heard me at Pinkberry earlier today.

Instead of going back and forth on stuff we’ll never agree on (for the record, I do really think: a.) this was absolutely a cynical move by Rob Thomas, Kristen Bell, Warner Bros., et al; b.) society would be better off if we all shared a few 2 1/2 Mens or Veronica Mars or anything at all as cultural common ground; c.) all this will ultimately do is cause even more of a focus on remakes/retreads/reboots at the expense of original material, which is fucking depressing), I’m more interested in the idea that, everything else aside, you truly believe that making a movie of an old TV show is in any way worthwhile.  When has one ever been good?  When has a TV show ever come back from the grave and produced something of a quality close to the original?  The only possible examples I can think of are Family Guy and Star Trek, if you happen to be into those shows. What makes you value the idea of a Veronica Mars movie at the equivalent of three Drives or Djangos or Almost Fami?

As I was taking the bus today (which is what Men of the People do), I passed a billboard for an upcoming Foreigner concert.  And I immediately thought of the Veronica Mars thing, for two reasons.  First, that most people who contributed yesterday would immediately get snarky and superior about the fact that Foreigner was still touring, and how sad were the people that were still paying to see them, and how they have to remember to sing Urgent (ironically of course) at their next Karaoke night.  And second, I kind of agree with them and Veronica Mars is the same exact fucking thing.

I mean, I’m not unaware that I’m a member of the group of Internet denizens that drive me so crazy (income aside, which is more from life choices good and/or bad, not lack of opportunity).  I may fall on the other side of the majority on many issues, but I’m white (sob), college-educated, and tend to like self-referential, snarky, etc., etc.  So I understand being bummed out when something you connect with disappears, and I loved Harmon’s Community, and I probably would have liked Veronica Mars.  I think 2 1/2 Men is retarded, and would 80s song ironically if I did karaoke.  What I don’t think that it’s because I like “smart” things, or that most people just “don’t get it”, which is absolutely the attitude of the people that are being represented by the Veronica Mars Kickstarter for purposes of this conversation.

Plus, I don’t think that the stuff that tends to be embraced/deified by the Internet is the smart entertainment.  It’s the self-conscious, self-reverential, “ironic” stuff, which again I like some of… really, it’s putting a premium on clever and calling it smart.  For example, Parks & Rec is far smarter than Community, but Community was more clever, so that’s what the Internet got all up in arms about when it was threatened.

The Dilemma: I think you’re lashing out at Veronica Mars fans needlessly. That fan base, as I understand it, doesn’t think the show was too smart for TV (though I’m sure if you scour blog comments and message boards you’ll find that here and there about any cancelled show). I remember hearing that particular cry much more about Arrested Development (and Community). Rather, I think Veronica Mars fans could never quite understand why the show wasn’t more successful — other than being on the WB. It was a high school show starring pretty people, featuring episodic and season-long mysteries, with the love triangles that the kids seem to like so much. And it managed to be funny and dramatic in nearly equal parts. The crazy success on Kickstarter isn’t an avalanche of “I Told You Sos” to the dummies, but a particularly loyal and devoted group of fans feeling like they’re being rewarded for their patience (even if they’re the ones paying money).

It’s also ironic that this conversation centers around Veronica Mars, because when that show was at its best, class warfare and the inequality of the upper and lower/middle classes were huge themes that shaded much of what went on. So for it now to be held as an example of snarky, white douchebags getting their bratty way (the same people that served as the villains on the series) is an odd coincidence, to say the least.

And I hold out hope for a VM movie just as I do for the new Arrested Development season. Even though I know there’s a great chance I’ll be disappointed by both, I enjoy clinging to the hope that I might not be, and that some of the old magic will be recaptured. It worked for Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, although not in the way that anyone expected. It’s the same reason I kept buying R.E.M. albums right up to the bitter end, and the same reason I paid money to see Jane’s Addiction in concert last year. Old and/or long-inactive doesn’t always equal bad. Usually, but not always.

David Simon Cowell: I’m not really upset with Veronica Mars fans, just with the ones who made the decision to contribute.

You still haven’t answered the economic part of the equation, i.e. why it is worthwhile to essentially pay $35 for a digital download of a non-existent film, when you wouldn’t do that for a new Tarantino or whoever movie that you evidence of being good.  That to me is one of the more confounding things about this.  Since almost everybody has a finite amount of money, and since most Americans spend what they earn, there is a trade-off people decided to make, to take discretionary income that would have gone elsewhere and put it toward this.  And, while I know that it wasn’t going to fund 10 other Kickstarter projects from starving artists, it still makes no sense to me.  I suspect that it has nothing to do with wanting the movie to be made, but instead with publicly joining the Veronica Mars tribe.

You and I have had a longstanding disagreement on this front, with my refusal to spend more than $50 on a concert ticket (although that has risen… I really should be pegging it yearly to inflation).  Basically, my theory is that once a band rises to a certain level of ticket price, they’re usually running on the fumes of nostalgia, and that I’d rather see five up-and-coming bands at the Empty Bottle than one shadow-of-their-former-self band at Rosemont Horizon (All-State Never! Horizon Forever!)  Plus, I also had first-hand knowledge of who would be the crowd at those arena shows, and how much it would take away my enjoyment of the whole thing.  I also have always been a firm believer on pulling the plug on following a band once they drop for a couple of albums in a row, while you’ll keep fucking their corpse until the undertaker pulls you off.

To bring it back to television, I always think of Freaks & Geeks.  When it was ignored/canceled, I was super bummed.  If there was an Internet, I probably would have bitched and signed a petition (in fact, I think I did sign one to have it released on DVD, although that’s obviously a different thing).  But looking back, I have no sadness that it was only one season.  It was this great self-contained novel, and wasn’t going to get any better or mean any more to me.  Compare that with Friday Night Lights, which I couldn’t wish more was cancelled after one season.  It’s not that everything after that wasn’t good (some of it was very good), but it wasn’t at the same level and left me without the same feeling I had after Season One.  (You could obviously also use the short British Office and the long U.S. for a similiar argument).

I just looked at Kickstarter… it’s now at 3.1 million.  Would you at least concede that contributing at this point (when the movie is already happening) is a sign of insanity, or at confirmation that the reason people are contributing has nothing to do with “I just want the movie to be made” and more to do with “I’m part of the group! I have the T-Shirt!”

I’m glad Rob Thomas will be able to afford the really good stripper to do blow off of and cackle, though.

I just read his Wikipedia page.  The thing that made me happiest was that he already tried to reboot something, turning Jeremy Piven’s Cupid into Bobby Carnivale’s Cupid 11 years later.  And that he wrote Drive Me Crazy, by far my favorite Adrian Grenier movie (at least until the Entourage movie… where do I contribute to that?)

And, oh yeah, Marshmallows.  Just fucking – MARSHMALLOWS????!?!!!????

You can imagine my level of ire whenever I come across somebody saying/writing that.  I killed five grade school students yesterday just because of that.  The blood is on your hands, Kristen Bell.

The Dilemma: Never heard “Marshmallows” before, but I’m getting a T-shirt made as we speak.

In the interest of full disclosure, when I threw down my credit card, the Kickstarter tally was at $11,000 and I was 50/50 as to whether it would hit the $2 million goal. If I came upon it now, then no, I wouldn’t chip in, with the movie already a lock to be made. But I don’t think it’s indefensible to do so, to throw $10 down at this point to feel like you’re a part of the whole thing. I don’t have a problem with that. But like I said at the beginning, for me it’s a straight up value proposition — to me, getting to see this movie is worth $35. I don’t buy a lot of movie tickets these days, so that seems like an affordable price to me for a movie I’ve long wanted to happen.

I would probably pay that or more for any number of films or albums or concerts, if I could afford it and saw the value in doing so. If I thought there was a chance a new Tarantino movie wouldn’t be made, and $35 would help (however slightly) get it made, and I’d get a copy of it, then sure. I’m in. If I weren’t already a Netflix subscriber, I’d subscribe just for the new Arrested Development season. I’d pay $50 or more to get to see R.E.M. play one last time, knowing it was the last time.

I don’t understand the appeal of setting such stringent rules for yourself when it comes to entertainment — the $50 ticket thing, the abandoning bands at the first sign of distress thing. What’s the point? I’ve had some amazing concert experiences at some pretty steep ticket prices (including Springsteen at Wrigley Field just this past year). If you can afford it — and that’s obviously a big if — why deprive yourself of something you might love? And as for sticking with a band or TV show for too long…what’s the worst that can happen? You waste 40 minutes of your life on an album you’ll never hear again. But there’s always the chance that it might be really good. I could have easily given up on FNL after season two, but because I didn’t, I saw some wonderful moments and storylines in seasons three, four and five. I got to see Riggins and Billy toast to “Texas Forever” shortly before we faded to black. I guess I don’t have the same need you do for something to remain perfect and youthful forever. I can live with the cracks and the breakdowns if some good stuff comes along with that. And even if it doesn’t, some things were so good in their first incarnation that it’s worth it to me to stick with them.

Interesting interview with Rob Thomas by Sepinwall today. A lot of what he says supports my theory of how this came to be, unless you think he’s a remorseless liar, which I’m guessing you do. And there are some good behind-the-scenes details.

But one thing he said definitely caught my attention:

There was a real internal debate, for me, about what kind of movie I wanted to make. Just by way of example, I really enjoyed “Side Effects,” and that sort of noir thriller that I could see Kristen Bell as Veronica Mars in something like that. I liked the plotting of that movie. I had some desire, as a filmmaker, to take Veronica in a slightly new direction and do something adventurous with her. Or, there’s the “give the people what they want” version. And I think partly because it’s crowd-sourced, I’m going with the “give the people what they want” version. It’s going to be Veronica being Veronica, and the characters you know and love. Certainly, I think I can make a fun, great movie out of that, and I’m excited about that, but it was a creative debate I had with myself, and I finally made the decision that I’m happy with it, to go with, “Let’s not piss people off who all donated. Let’s give them the stuff that I think that they want in the movie.”

Kinda concerning.

David Simon Cowell: I couldn’t hope more that the T-shirt says “I’m A MARShmellow!”

Yeah, that was one of the things that caught my attention too.  It basically points to something that I’ve been thinking about during this whole thing, which is: Of all the art/entertainment forms, movies are the most beholden to somebody because of their cost and the process of making them.  Usually it’s a movie studio looking to maximize their profit, or sometimes it’s a somewhat altruistic rich person looking to be a Medici.  This makes it the most rabid group of fans.  Is that better or worse, or pretty much exactly the same?

Obviously, I don’t think Rob Thomas is an evil genius twirling his moustache.  I suspected, and this interview pretty much confirms, that he’s just another Pop Culture egotistical self-promoter, a Donald Trump for the indie set.  His suggestion that those who donated should still go buy a ticket to “see it with a group” is some bold shit (and if you do that, our love affair is over, so if you’re looking for a way out…)  Some other things that caught my eye:

“In talking to (fellow “Veronica Mars” producer) Joel Silver, who said, ‘Maybe we can put together a couple of million to make it; we won’t have to get fans online.’ I said, ‘It’s more than the money, it’s being out of the box. It’s the promotion that will come with it.'”

Which has pretty much been my point all along… that this was a marketing/PR stunt more than a necessary way to get this movie made.  And, Joel Silver is one of the producers of this scrappy start-up?!?

This is one of the ways that we are working hand-in-hand with Warner Bros. They are tracking costs on this, they’re dealing with fulfillment centers. I’m so happy that I am not having to track the profit margin of t-shirts. I get these things on reports: “At this price point, this is what we’ll spend on fulfillment, and this is how much we’ll actually make.” But fortunately, there are Warner Bros. project people who are helping us out with that.”

&

“I know, on the second part of the question, that Warner Bros. isn’t treating “Veronica Mars” like a one-off. I think they’re treating us like a guinea pig — in the best way. They want to see if this model works, and they made the calculated decision, and for a lot of the reasons you articulated in that story, that we were a good test case for this. We just happened to be the right show at the right time, got to be the first one out of the gate. I think Warner Bros., if t works, it works, and they could start doing more of these. And you know that if it works at one studio, that they’re not going to be the only studio in town that will be trying it.”

But pay no attention to the man behind the curtain… this is all about us scrappy band of dreamers trying to make our little movie!

-“I think what they’re doing is brave, and I know there are some voices out there being critical of them. But who doesn’t want to see more movies in this price range? These movies have been dying over the last several years. So many fewer that land in this $4 or $5 million price range; this may be a way we get to see more. I think it takes a brave executive to say, “Hey, let’s try a new business model.” And trust me: they know, they’ve geared themselves up for potential criticism, but I think they’re doing something great for movie fans.”

This to me is the most delusional part of the pro-Veronica Mars argument (and I think the use of “they” is pretty telling).  This isn’t help make low budget movies possible, at least those that aren’t based on some pre-existing property.  I don’t really see how bringing TV movies into the theatre is a blow for independent cinema.  As a movie fan, I say, stop it, you’re hurting us.

The Dilemma: While I won’t deny that there’s a promotional advantage to what Thomas & co. did with Kickstarter, that doesn’t mean that the movie could have happened through conventional channels. If you really think that Warner Bros. (or anyone else) was all set to green light a VM movie, then decided to try to bilk fans out of a few extra dollars, then you’re looking too hard for a strawman villain.

And if you think that a studio throwing a million or two towards some old TV shows is going to somehow rob you of true independent cinema, then you’re paranoid. Beasts of the Southern Wild isn’t not getting made because of the Veronica Mars movie. I’ll certainly grant that this Kickstarter model is likely to be used for pre-existing intellectual properties, or at least established name talent getting projects they like funded (I could certainly see someone like David Lynch using Kickstarter to make a film based on a new, independent concept, for example.) But this isn’t robbing Peter to pay Paul. At worst, this is servicing limited fan bases in a somewhat corporate-friendly, no-risk way. And at best, this might allow a few great things to exist that otherwise wouldn’t have existed. You’re looking for evil where there is none.

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Filed under David Simon Cowell, Film Has AIDS, Television Has AIDS, The Dilemma

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