Kickstarted: Veronica Mars Comes Back To Life
Fans of the cult "teen noir" show Veronica Mars, which was created by Austinite Rob Thomas, raised more than $5.7 million to revive it as a feature film.
Just before 10 p.m. on a recent Friday night in Austin, hundreds of people crowded around picnic tables in the beer garden of the Dog and Duck Pub, staring and screaming at an iPad held up by a slightly tipsy man in semi-rimless glasses and a green plaid shirt.
The man was Rob Thomas, creator of the “teen noir” television show Veronica Mars, which last aired in 2007, and he was counting down the final seconds of a Kickstarter campaign to bring back Veronica as a movie.
When the “Veronica Mars Movie Project” launched on March 13, Thomas needed to raise at least $2 million in thirty days. It hit that figure in less than twelve hours, breaking several of the crowdfunding site’s records—fastest to $1 million, fastest to $2 million, fastest to its minimum goal. By the campaign’s end, it also smashed the mark for most supporters, with 91,585 people giving a total of $5,702,153—a dollar amount that was itself the third-highest in Kickstarter history. That prompted the giddy people at the Dog and Duck to start a cheer—“We’re number three! We’re number three!”—that Thomas happily joined in on.
“I’m so overwhelmed and overjoyed by the reaction to this. It has been, first, the most exhausting month of my life, and the best month,” Thomas, who also wrote the film’s script during that thirty-day period, told the crowd. “Not to discount the birth of our children, honey,” he added, gesturing in the general direction of his wife, Katie.
A former Austin and San Marcos musician who is sometimes confused with Rob Thomas of Matchbox 20 (especially on Twitter), Thomas was also a TCU football player (he eventually gave up the pads and tranferred to UT), high school teacher and young adult novelist before becoming a TV writer. After spending many years in California, he moved back to Austin, in part because he didn’t want his children to grow up in Hollywood (he once lived right next door to Britney Spears).
Originally, he’d only planned to gather friends and family at the Dog and Duck, mostly to provide a little action for the documentary video crew shooting “making-of” footage for the movie’s inevitable DVD. “All we have is you staring at a computer,” the director had complained.
So Thomas approached his old friend Hunter Darby, who manages the Dog and Duck and also plays in several Austin bands (the Wannabes, the Service Industry, the Diamond Smugglers) whose music had been featured on Veronica. Even after mentioning the night on the Kickstarter site, Thomas didn’t think there’d be more than forty or fifty people, and asked Darby to reserve only three picnic tables.
Then, more than 500 supporters said they’d come, prompting the pub to put out port-a-potties, hire an off-duty sheriff’s deputy and stock two outdoor tailgate tents with beer. Those were dubbed “Veronica Bars,” which also became the evening’s Twitter hashtag.
Summarized by Joy Press of the Village Voice as “a fusion of Chinatown and Heathers,” Veronica Mars starred Kristen Bell as the title character, the teenage daughter of a working-class private eye in wealthy, corrupt Neptune, California, who, like her father, also sleuthed. It was a direct descendant of both Nancy Drew and Buffy the Vampire Slayer (Buffy creator Joss Whedon even had a cameo on the show), only darker—the pilot episode flashes back to Veronica being roofied and raped. Television may still be in what the critic Alan Sepinwall calls a “new golden age,” with shows like Breaking Bad and Mad Men, but female leads remain in short supply.
Even so, until last month Veronica Mars was just another canceled cult show, one its fans still pined for but the average TV viewer never watched, similar to Whedon’s Firefly or Mitchell Hurwitz’s Arrested Development. Now, all three of those shows have made comebacks, a direct result of the TV-on-DVD and online-streaming era, in which nothing ever really goes away. Firefly spawned a 2005 movie, Serenity, while Netflix has produced a fourth season of Arrested Development that will become available May.
But Veronica Mars is the first fan-financed, crowdsourced movie adaptation of a shuttered show, an apotheosis of the Internet and social media era. Thomas personally greeted every person at the Dog and Duck who stood in line to meet him. It was kind of like the wedding scene in Good Fellas, except the envelopes of cash were all delivered quietly and virtually by Amazon, which processes Kickstarter’s payments.
“I’m enjoying it too much, which I know is slowing down the line,” Thomas apologized.
But the fans weren’t only there to see Thomas, nor did they expect Bell, who had a baby on March 28, to be in Austin (though male lead Jason Dohring made a Bieberesque surprise appearance).
“Oh no,” said Stacey Aversing, a 34-year-old military contractor procurement employee who travelled seven hours from Louisiana. “I love Rob. But the fans are what made this project happen. The fans are people that love the same thing I do.”
Aversing’s kindred spirits included Dawn Radcliff, 37, a stay-at-home mom who missed a family camping trip—at her husband’s insistence—to be there; Sarah Rutledge, 42, an Apple employee who got visible goosebumps telling me about her favorite creepy scene involving Dohring’s character; and Angela Nardecchia, a 38-year-old PhD student in counseling psychology at Texas Women’s University, who is particularly drawn to the show’s portrayal of “socioeconomic status, the power differential, gender, and ethnicity.”
There were also five women from Portland, Oregon, having a bachelorette party—Emily Cable, 29, gave the Kickstarter $50 and had each of her four friends, including bride-to-be Molly Cooney-Mesker, get started on the series DVDs and pledge $1 each so they could go.
“It’s been a Veronica Mars marathon,” said Cooney-Mesker.
“We figured we’d be yelling at each other in a loud bar anyway, so it might as well be for a purpose,” said Cable.
And then there was the man who played possum with Thomas to begin their conversation. “What’s the furthest anyone you’ve talked to has traveled?” he asked, knowing full well he was going to win—he and his wife had come from Arizona (they didn’t want to see their names in print because she called in sick to work around Fort Stockton).
“PHOENIX!?” Thomas exclaimed.
“Thirteen hours. After I got done working ten hours,” the man said. “Do you know how big Texas is?”
Sarah Garvey, a 23-year-old artist, said her own high school experience at Plano West felt similar to Veronica’s. “I went to a wealthy high school like Veronica and I showed up in my beater car. It was embarassing, but you learned to be yourself through that kind of stuff. So it was nice to have a show at the time I was in high school with a character that I felt was more like me.”
Garvey watches the entire series on DVD multiple times a year (“I actually just finished doing that again, in preparation”) and gave $150 to the Kickstarter, which earned her a “reserved seat at a special fan event” during San Diego’s July Comic Con. She’ll still have to come up with a plane ticket, which is probably why her husband wouldn’t let her raise the stakes to $450 for the VIP Comic Con package.
“He draws the line for nerdiness at $150,” Garvey said.
After Veronica went off the air, Thomas co-created the Starz comedy Party Down (another short-lived cult favorite), and he was the original writer on the CW’s 90210. He also unsuccessfully remade his own show, Cupid (which had originally aired on ABC in 1998 with Jeremy Piven). Since moving back to Texas, he has shot a Fox pilot (not once, but twice) with Rob Corddry and Kevin Hart that didn’t get to air, and currently has two other projects in development: a potential HBO show with Ira Glass of the NPR show “This American Life” and a USA pilot called Blanco County with Dripping Springs-based novelist Ben Rehder. The latter will be Thomas’s third attempt to do a series without having to commute to California, as he surely will for the Veronica Mars movie (the show was set and shot near San Diego).
“The cool thing, is that when I pitch shows set in Austin, I generally get a favorable reaction,” Thomas said. “That wouldn’t be true of many cities. People know there are good crews here. People have a generally favorable reaction to Austin. It’s a modern Southern city with a hipness factor. I’ll say that I’ve succeeded when I’ve got a production shooting here. I wouldn’t have moved back here, otherwise.”
But he also never let go of Veronica, deliberately choosing, as he told one fan at the Dog and Duck, not give its final season any resolution. “If you cancel us, I want it to be hard,” he recalled saying to CW Network executives when they gave him the heads-up.
Thomas got the idea for the Kickstarter from Cotton Mather, another Austin band he’d featured on Veronica Mars. In 2011, they’d raised $17,107 to reissue their 1998 album KonTiki. But Thomas had a bit more red tape to snip than the average indie-rock band before he could launch his project. It took more than a year to clear everything with Warner Bros., which produced and owns Veronica Mars. Thomas likened the process to getting the State of the Union speech vetted. “There were probably forty drafts of our Kickstarter web page,” he said.
But because the movie is already a “go” project, his creative ideas aren’t being second-guessed by development executives. “There’s none of the usual, “we don’t feel like the hero is sympathetic here” notes that drive writers nuts,” he said. Instead, he deals with production executives, whose concerns are more practical: how many profanities might cost the film a PG-13 rating, or the expense of a scene as written (“you’re not really going to want to shoot that on a boat out on the water, are you?,” Thomas paraphrases).
Critics have said the Veronica Mars Kickstarter campaign sets a precedent where studios and networks will begin to lean on fans to bankroll movies, but Thomas said that Warner Bros. is still giving him both cash and infrastructure (lawyers, marketing, soundtrack clearances). “It’s far from free. They’re spending a lot of money on what is, for them, a very small film.”
Journalists have also speculated that the Kickstarter could both hurt smaller creators (who could be overshadowed by big-name, studio-connected projects) and open doors for other dream cult shows. Mere hours into the Veronica Mars Kickstarter, The Shield creator Shawn Ryan tweeted that it “could be a model” for his ill-fated but beloved 2010 FX show Terriers.
“Everyone is talking about it, but no one is quite sure what this means, yet,” Thomas said. “I’m curious to see what will happen when a name actor, director or writer tries to launch something that doesn’t already have a pre-existing audience.”
Two answers to that question are now out there. On April 24, actor, writer and director Zach Braff (Scrubs, Garden State) launched a Kickstarter that met its $2 million goal in three days (slow poke!). But a Kickstarter by actress Melissa Joan Hart (who coincidentally, starred in a film Thomas wrote, 1999’s Drive Me Crazy), which has the same financial goal, raised less than $50,000 between April 11 and April 29.
“I think Veronica Mars may be more exception than new rule,” said Thomas. “It was the right size movie and the right size cult audience.”