Has 'Veronica Mars' Ushered in a New Era of Movie Development?

Veronica Mars Cast - H 2013
Patrick Ecclesine/The CW

Veronica Mars Cast - H 2013

In the wake of the cult show's record-breaking movie campaign, Hollywood wonders whether its path to a greenlight can be replicated.

Are we in a post-Veronica Mars Kickstarter era?

Three days into its campaign, The CW drama-turned-movie has shattered several crowd-funding records: fastest Kickstarter project to hit $1 million (4 hours, 24 minutes). Highest goal ever set in the 4-year-old website’s history. And 10 hours after its launch on Wednesday morning, the proposed Veronica Mars movie became the fastest project to hit that $2 million mark. As of Thursday night, it had received more than $3.2 million in pledges, with 28 days to go.

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The astounding achievement—especially for a show that averaged just under 2.5 million viewers during its 2004-07 run—has injected new life into the possibility of reviving other cult favorites. But can other shows follow the trail that Veronica Mars has now blazed?

 “When I saw [the campaign] online, I said to my agent immediately, ‘Can we do this with Pushing Daisies or Wonderfalls?’ “ says Bryan Fuller, creator of the the two short-lived fantasy dramedies that aired on ABC and Fox, respectively.  “And he said, ‘Pushing Daisies is going to take a lot more than $2 million to make into a movie.’ “

From Star Trek to Buffy the Vampire Slayer, many of the properties that have attracted the most obsessive fanbases have involved sci-fi and action elements that drive up production cost. By contrast, Veronica Mars was a noir-inflected drama, set in present-day southern California and starring Kristen Bell as a teenage private eye. “Veronica Mars hinges on its charming cast and writing and isn’t as effects-laden and dependent on huge productions,” Fuller says. “You can make a $2 million or $4 million Veronica Mars movie. For something like Pushing Daisies, which is more elaborate visually and also would require extensive prosthetics and those sorts of complicating production elements, it’s a little more daunting.”

Fuller estimates that a film adaptation of his whimsical romance, which starred Lee Pace as a baker who could resurrect the dead and cost $3 million per episode, would require closer to $10 million to pull off, in part because the iconic sets that were struck when the series was cancelled in 2009 would have to be rebuilt. And major studios like Warner Brothers, which owns the rights to both Daisies and Mars, are wary of pouring any more money into prolonging the life of TV shows they view as failed ventures.

“If I had the power and the rights, I would have done it myself already,” says Zachary Levi, star of the spy comedy Chuck, another Warner Bros.-owned series for which fans staged perennial "save our show" campaigns in its five seasons on the bubble at NBC. Levi believes that studios would do well to market revivals of niche properties directly to the fans.

“So much of the budget goes into advertising,” he says. “If we came out with a Chuck movie now, I don't know how many more people who didn't watch Chuck would watch this movie. You don't need to do a theatrical release. You're doing it for the fans. You'd want to do an online release, and if people want to pay extra dollars to get the DVD and Blu-ray, you can make money from those purchases. I would keep overhead as low as possible [with] social marketing.”

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Levi wonders if Warner's unprecedented agreement to let Bell and Veronica Mars creator Rob Thomas attempt to crowd fund its intellectual property has anything to do with the studio's new CEO, former home entertainment president Kevin Tsujihara, and his familiarity with the digital domain. Although Thomas reportedly first approached Warner with the Kickstarter idea over a year ago, long before Tsujihara's promotion was announced in January, it is the digital division that will be handling legal work and distribution of the Mars movie via VOD and other digital platforms, as well as a very limited theatrical run. Insiders say full details on the extent of Warner Bros.' involvement won't be announced until the Kickstarter campaign ends on April 12, although Thomas has said that the studio is also lending its resources to research rewards fulfillment for the T-shirts, DVDs and other items that have been promised to the project's 49,000-plus backers. On Thursday, Thomas announced that the movie, which will be co-produced by series executive producer Joel Silver, would receive a premiere and party in New York City as well as Thomas' hometown of Austin.

The Mars movie project has pushed fan support into uncharted territory. Actual monetary pledges to foot production costs speak more loudly to studios than petition signatures, mail-in campaign stunts and trade-pub advertisements, but John Rogers, co-creator of the independently-financed heist drama Leverage, which concluded five seasons on TNT in December, believes that Mars’ crowd funding success is fascinating but not yet significant. “I don’t like to read big changes off a single incident,” he says, “but I will say this may convince a studio to allow small margin expansions on existing intellectual property…. Rob Thomas is saying, ‘I’ve mitigated the risk and brought in the audience.’ “

The campaign has prompted some criticism that crowd funding a studio-owned project violates Kickstarter’s indie ethos, but on Thursday the website’s official blog congratulated Veronica Mars and its fans, adding that Kickstarter was inspired in part by Fox’s cancellation of Arrested Development in 2006: “As fans of the show we thought Kickstarter could help. [Co-founder Perry Chen] got an introduction to David Cross through a friend and told him about Kickstarter: the fans fund the show directly and Arrested Development keeps going.” Cross was intrigued by the concept and became Kickstarter’s first investor, but said that the entertainment industry was too complex for saving a show like Arrested Development to be feasible.

“At the time, David was right,” wrote Kickstarter co-founder Yancey Strickler. “But seven years later things are changing. Arrested Development is back thanks to Netflix. And yesterday saw the relaunch of Veronica Mars in stunning fashion.”

“We’re in the zeitgeist moment,” says Levi. “Veronica Mars is moving the needle [toward a new development model]. I think it’ll behoove studios to get on this train.”

As for the concern that studios are literally passing the buck to fans, Rogers admits that there is “a mixture of exploitation and empowerment” involved. “But if you’ve never cared about anything that much, you can’t understand it,” he says. “There’s no way you’re paying $75 for a digital download. But I’m getting quality of life enjoyment for the [extra] $65. Why is that radical? You pay for value added all the time. In this case, the value added is that the thing exists.”

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Showrunners of cult shows will be tracking Mars’ progress closely. “Very interested to see how this Veronica Mars kickstarter goes. Could be a model for a Terriers wrap up film,” tweeted veteran TV producer Shawn Ryan of his short-lived FX drama, which has regularly appeared on resurrection wish lists since its cancellation in 2010.

After Pushing Daisies ended Fuller, who has already written the first act of a potential movie adaptation, explored a number of options to continue the universe of the show. The possibility of approaching fans for fundraising had occurred to him only in passing. “I never assumed it was a realistic option until Rob Thomas and Kristen Bell pulled it off,” he says. “It’s going to be easier to get in line behind Veronica Mars. The question is whether that next show is going to be as well-suited to this process. I imagine that it’s quite a bit of legwork and loopholes and legalities to navigate. I have so many questions for Rob Thomas—I sent him an e-mail earlier today.”

Adds Fuller, currently at work on his upcoming NBC horror drama, “If I weren’t in Toronto finishing up on Hannibal, I’d be knocking on doors at Warner Brothers, asking, ‘Is this a viable plan for Pushing Daisies?’ 

Pamela McClintock contributed to this report.