SXSW: 'Veronica Mars' Movie Pools Pressure With Opportunity for Rob Thomas

5:30 AM PST 03/07/2014 by Michael O'Connell
Warner Bros. Pictures
Rob Thomas on the set of "Veronica Mars."

The writer-director and star Kristen Bell speak with THR about premiere anxiety, the reality of a follow-up and giving viewers closure either way: "I don't think my feelings are that different from the typical fan out there," says Thomas, "and this gives the fans a sense of completion that the cancellation denied them."

Rob Thomas has carried a torch for Veronica Mars since the UPN-turned-CW drama was canceled after its third season. But his seven-year relay to bring the one-time teenage detective to the big screen is not ending with a victory lap -- at least not yet. The writer-director is too busy juggling a slew of new projects, two of them Mars-related, with the uncharted expectations surrounding the crowd-funded film's release.

"I feel like a guinea pig for this whole new idea of how movies get made," Thomas tells The Hollywood Reporter. "I think people are looking to see what the epilogue is -- like it will all have been for nothing if we don't stick the landing, creatively and commercially."

VIDEO: Watch the First Two Minutes of the 'Veronica Mars' Movie

The jury will soon reach its verdict. The Veronica Mars movie gets its world premiere at South by Southwest, in Thomas' hometown of Austin, before more screenings in New York and Los Angeles kick off a 270-some-theater rollout on March 14. (The film also goes wide online, to rent or to own, the same day.)  It seems like a longtime coming for the 48-year-old screenwriter and star Kristen Bell, but it was less than a year ago that the departed series returned to the pop culture conversation with a landmark Kickstarter campaign that raised $5.7 million in just one month.

Veronica Mars the movie picks up nine years after the events of the series finale. That melancholic and unintentional sendoff, which apparently drove the then-college sleuth (Bell) to move on to lower-stakes extracurriculars, left many a loose end -- not the least of which were rifts between the heroine and her father (Enrico Colantoni) and her love interest (Jason Dohring). One gamble of resuming the narrative in cinemas is having to reconcile the need to appeal to a new audience -- a two-minute intro was added to explain the events of the series -- while satisfying existing fans.

"Kristen and I, when we agreed to do it, we weren't even positive we would get a theatrical release," says Thomas, who explains that plans and expectations shifted throughout the process. "I'm glad we're not starting really tiny, but I would have been terrified if we had a World War Z release with eight people per screen. I feel pretty comfortable. The most pressure that I'm feeling is pleasing, in particular, the 90,000 backers and the Veronica Mars audience. That's at the top of the desire list. But I'm kind of feeling the pressure from all sides."

Those backers, all 91,585 of them, have been treated as something of a referendum on interest in Veronica Mars living on in other ways. Vintage Books signed Thomas for a two-book deal about the character shortly after the film's completion, and the CW recently ordered a web series based on the show -- a spinoff at the same network that originally put it in the ground.

The web series will be more of a spinoff in name than concept. Actor Ryan Hansen, who plays Dick Casablancas in the Mars world and also starred in Thomas' Party Down, will portray a parody of himself trying to cash in on the surge of goodwill for his revived drama. It's one of two projects Thomas has at the CW. He's also prepping to shoot the pilot for comic book adaptation iZombie in Vancouver. "It's like being a lobster in a pot," says Thomas. "I've gotten used to the heat because it's all come at me so slowly."

STORY: 'Veronica Mars' Kickstarter Backers Start Cashing in on $5.7 Million Pledge

Most non-Mars activity comes to a pause this weekend when Thomas and Bell start a rigorous, if largely guerrilla, campaign to promote Veronica Mars. Bell calls it the biggest press tour she's ever done, largely based on calling in favors for TV appearances and agreeing to interviews whenever feasible.

"I was way more hands-on with this project than any other film besides Hit and Run, which was written and directed by husband [Dax Shepard]," Bell tells THR. The Veronica Mars movie, as much a passion project for her as it is for Thomas, also marks the 33-year-old actress' first executive producer credit. "I always humbly bow to Rob's advice. He knows more than me. He's smarter than me. He's prettier than me. He's been a wonderful guiding force as to how we got the movie made, and he let me fill in a few blanks."

The auspices of the Kickstarter's immediate success have had both Bell and Thomas talking sequel since day one. And that, as well as more from the initial book and web deals, now relies on the movie's financial success. Backers, many of them getting copies as part of their payday, and new fans still need to pay to fill seats so producer and distributor Warner Bros. doesn't take a loss on renting out all those theaters for the film's unconventional release.

"I would love it if we had our own little movie franchise, and every couple years we got to do one, like a miniature Sherlock Holmes or James Bond, putting this girl in these different scenarios -- only ours you can make for $10 million instead of $100 million," says Thomas. Still, he asserts that this could just as easily double as closure: "I don't think there's a world where I would have made the Veronica Mars art house film that pleased no one -- but knowing that we were crowd-funded, there is an element of the movie that's giving the people what they want. I don't think my feelings are that different from the typical fan out there, and this gives the fans a sense of completion that the cancellation denied them."

Bell, who admittedly bore less stress than her collaborator, is much more excitable on the topic of continuing -- even though she has a regular gig on House of Lies, regular film work and has become something of a household name since Veronica Mars served as her breakout role back in 2004. "We'll do Veronica Mars until she's solving crimes in her senior citizens home, and there's already a proven demographic," she says. "Look how long Murder She Wrote was on the air. Angela Lansbury wasn't exactly getting viewers because she was in a bikini."

But how confident is she they'll feel the same way after opening weekend? "You can say, 'Pretty optimistic,' " she said with a huge smile across her face.

Email: Michael.OConnell@THR.com; Twitter: @MikeyLikesTV

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