Friday, March 15, 2013

Mars Attacks!

In case you haven't heard, we fans of the late, lamented TV show Veronica Mars have a lot to celebrate this week. In less than 1 day a Kickstarter campaign to fund a movie based on the show (something fans have been clamoring for since the show's cancellation 7 years ago) raised $2 million. As of this writing, they're still not 3 days into their 30-day fundraising drive and they're already approaching $3.3 million.

If you have never watched Veronica Mars, I implore you to do so. It is one of the smartest, most ambitious shows that has been on network TV in the last decade. Take a gander at the Season 1 trailer. It's got the noir-ish feel that permeated every scene of the show for its entire run:

It was unapologetically dark (who opens a series pilot with the lead character getting raped?), hauntingly funny and devilishly clever. Veronica Mars was a natural evolution of female heroine from Joss Whedon's Buffy. It had the same quality of writing, probably a touch better acting and much more mainstream appeal.

Back in 2007 I was one of the people who bought Mars Bars from the UK and had them shipped to the CW in a loosely-organized campaign to try and convince the network to renew the show. Looking back, I see it now as a harbinger of what's happening today. If several thousand of us back then were willing to shell out for a few candy bars to pay for our show, then what's going on now, with the internet as our tool, makes perfect sense. The only question that people should be asking, really, is "What took us so long?"

As thrilled as I am with this development, and as excited as all of the talk about how this could very well change the dynamics between fan bases and studios who own the rights to the universes and characters that we tend to obsess over, this week's events have given me a bit of pause.

The biggest issue that I have with the Veronica Mars campaign is that in the future I could easily see movie studios holding some of their properties hostage to campaigns like this one. They could, in effect, transfer the cost of production onto a fan base by refusing to make a movie unless they pay up, and then reap all of the rewards of the ticket sales if fundraising goals are met and the movie is made. Sure, the "investors" in the campaign get the cultural artifact that they want, but they end up having to pay for it twice.

The natural counter to that, however (this is where I argue with myself), is that if the "rewards" for lower-tier investment levels are digital downloads, DVDs or the like, then essentially fans are simply pre-purchasing things that they'd probably buy anyway, thereby voting with their dollars for something tangible.

On the other hand (man, I'm really argumentative today!)... When people, in effect, "pre-purchase" DVDs and digital downloads, they're really only shifting the distributors' post-theater revenue stream to the pre-production stage. In that scenario the studios are robbing Peter to pay Paul. They get to cash in immediately on the intellectual property instead of waiting for months and months for the production and distribution process to play out. And I fear what any entertainment executive will do when given the chance to lock in profits now by essentially eliminating all risk from the production proposition.

Clearly this does not end the tug of war between corporate producers and consumers, but it does shift the battle into a different arena, and, hopefully, we fans are at a bit less of a disadvantage here.