For a movie spun-off from a cult TV show that lasted only three seasons, and got steadily less critically-acclaimed as those seasons progressed, the fanfare around Veronica Mars the past year has been unlikely: big feature stories in major magazines (including Texas Monthly), the attention of the entire film industry, and the possibility of a new paradigm for funding small-budget studio pictures (and a subsequent debate about the ethics of that funding option).
Much of the reason Veronica Mars has attracted so much attention, of course, is because director and co-writer Rob Thomas funded the film on Kickstarter (and subsequently raised millions from the show’s devoted fans), and if he’s successful with this production, there’s a strong possibility that other shelved properties might get run up the crowdfunding flagpole to see who salutes with their PayPal accounts. But none of that mattered on Saturday at 3pm, as a lengthy line of Mars fanatics wrapped around Eighth Street, down Brazos, and back up again, outside the Paramount Theater in Austin, for the film’s world premiere at SXSW.
Veronica Mars wasn’t necessarily the festival’s hottest ticket—opening night film Chef attracted a longer line—which makes a certain degree of sense. The Paramount Theater holds 1,200 people, and the film, which opens in wide release on Friday, March 14, doesn’t hold the broadest appeal. It’s low on star power (Kristen Bell, who plays the titular hero, notwithstanding) and it’s based on a long-ago canceled show that aired on UPN and the CW. The eyes of the film industry will be on Veronica Mars when box office totals come in, but—if both the wild applause every time another familiar face from the TV show appeared onscreen and the smattering of unoccupied seats in the furthest reaches of the upper balcony are any indication—Saturday’s screening was for maybe 1,100 fanatics.
But those fanatics were thrilled, and for good reason. Veronica Mars faces a series of unprecedented challenges, with a high degree of difficulty. Failed TV shows revived as movies through fan support, from Star Trek to Serenity, often feel as though their creators are beholden to those fans, but Mars actually is beholden to them in very real ways: Those fans actually paid to have the movie made. When your audience is also your investor, how do you give them exactly what they want, while also managing to avoid overdoing it on the fan-service that turns the idea of revisiting beloved characters into a saccharine tour through stories those fans only thought they wanted? And, even if you do strike that balance, how do you also make it accessible to people who weren’t among the roughly 2.5 million who actually watched the show when it was on the air?
The answer, for Thomas, is to incorporate as many of the familiar faces as possible, albeit many of them in brief appearances, as Veronica Mars—no longer a teen detective—assembles the pieces of the mystery that brought her from her new life in New York back to her hometown of Neptune, California. Then, to avoid treating the film as an extended run through Veronica’s high school yearbook, it also features a handful of ringers from hipper television circles (Martin Starr, Gabby Hoffman, Justin Long) as characters neither old fans nor new have met before, but whose lives are entwined with those of Mars and her former classmates.
It’s a combination that works by leveling the playing field in important ways, putting both audiences on equal footing. Neptune High was a big school, after all, and it’s possible we just never saw Martin Starr’s “Cobb” in the adventures captured on television. Expanding that world was a smart move, and box office observers will be eager to determine whether or not it’s enough to attract the new audience that Veronica Mars almost certainly needs in order to succeed.
But when it comes to succeeding with the fans, that part isn’t really in question. People who waited in the ever-increasing Saturday SXSW rain for a movie that would be in theaters and on VOD in less than a week are not people who are going to be disappointed by a movie that gives them the story that so many of them wanted, and by the time Mars, Bell, and the rest of the cast (nine of whom, in total, were in attendance) walked onto the Paramount stage for a brief Q&A, they were essentially taking a victory lap. Bell gushed about Thomas’ dialogue; Enrico Colantoni, who plays Mars’ supportive father, said something paternal about Bell and was greeted by a sea of “awww”s; questions from the audience frequently trended toward the “you’re great, how did you get to be so great?” variety. It was a happy ending for a thousand or so people who love the show, and what was clearly a fun moment for the cast—many of whom have struggled to find regular work since the series’ end—to enjoy in front of a warm SXSW crowd.
The rest of the questions about Veronica Mars will be answered in the coming weeks—but for a few hours in Austin during SXSW, they got to bask in a job well done.(Image via the Veronica Mars Movie official Facebook page.)