Veronica Mars

Those of us who write about movies are well known for our use of hyperbole, so I’ll phrase the next sentence very carefully: Last night Veronica Mars changed the film industry.

In just over 11 hours the proposed movie generated $2million of ‘donations’ on Kickstarter, which puts it squarely in the ‘record breaking’ territory. More to the point, as it crossed the threshold somewhere in the region of 32,000 people had stumped up real money to see the much anticipated movie become a reality.

I’ve written about crowd funding before, and while I won’t focus on the ethics of it here for fear of ending up in an impossible to win argument, I will state for the record that I’m at best deeply suspicious of crowd funding in any form. To me it feels a little bit seedy.

But the interesting thing about this Veronica Mars escapade is that it’s not really crowd funding. Not in the same way that some film school grad begging for a hundred grand to make their passion project is. This is much more akin to what’s known in the industry as a pre-sale.

When an independent production company makes a movie, one of the ways they generate funding is to sell rights to distributors before the cameras roll. Although it’s rare that any money will change hands up front, the distributor will offer what’s known as a ‘minimum guarantee’: the minimum amount of money they agree to pay the production company after distributing their movie. This is then used by the production company as leverage to get up front equity from investors.

While the distribution company agrees to a pre-sale because it allows them to buy something of perceived value at a discount rate, people who have funded the Veronica Mars movie have in general, paid over the odds for their ‘reward’. Indeed the minimum amount anyone could pay for the right to download the movie is $35, between two to three times the price of an average digital download. And it’s only available to people in the US. If you’re not within Uncle Sam’s borders you get nada.

But the basic principle is the same. Proof to potential investors that the film is going to make money. And because it’s impossible to get a legally binding agreement with every potential viewer that they’re going to see the movie, Rob Thomas and Warner Bros have got some cold hard cash up front. Interestingly well over 10,000 of those people who have handed cash over – at 1:10 am GMT, a total of 10,814 – had given over money without any promise of a screening. If they want to see the movie when it comes out, they’ll have to pay like everyone else.

It’s safe to assume Warner Bros are going to throw some more money at the project. $2 million, while perfectly adequate to make a movie, is still tight in Hollywood terms. Realistically Veronica Mars is going to cost at least twice that, if not three or four times. But after today’s showing it’s still a relatively safe bet.

That’s what’s really interesting about this whole exercise. And what’s really game changing about it. For the first time ever, a Hollywood studio has gone to fans and asked them to prove they’ll see a movie by putting their money where their mouths are. The result, I suspect, is better than anyone could ever have anticipated. But it’s definitely just let a genie out of a bottle.

Of course, it’s not happened without criticism. The Kickstarter platform, with its inherent focus on getting funding for niche projects probably isn’t suitable for something like this. It would have been far more appropriate had WB just set up a ticket pre-sale store on its own website, but I suspect it would also have been less effective. This time.

My guess would be long term, and rest assured, there will be a long term, this will end up as something very different from crowd funding, at least in terms of branding, but from here it will grow. As of today studios have a proven way of testing audience interest in a property while simultaneously reducing their own financial exposure. Expect them to take full advantage of that.

In the short term, we’ll likely see lots of favourite old TV shows, as well as well-known directors with passion projects, to start crawling out of the woodwork and into studio execs offices, ready to mimic what we’ve just seen. It’s a brave new world, and I suspect that means we’ll be seeing a lot of old faces. Longer term it may be that it democratises the process of film development somewhat.

I suspect we’ll see a future where a studio will present an audience with several possible movies, and have them buy tickets and other perks to ‘vote’ on which ones get made. And actually I don’t think that’s a bad thing. After all, we’re always moaning that Hollywood never takes risks, and never gives us what we want. Now they can do both.