Why Filmmakers Need To Stop Freaking Out About The Veronica Mars Movie

On all sides of life, people often make the decision — however consciously — to ignore certain parts of reality, in order to better serve their anger and provide themselves with fuel for rationalizing their fears. This statement can be applied broadly to huge swaths of our population at the moment, unfortunately, but for today I want to focus a particular discussion, that starts from this place, on myself and my fellow band of merry misfits. All of this comes with the caveat that I’ve Been There.

So.

Dear Other Filmmakers:

Please do not freak out (or stop freaking out) about the existence/success of The Veronica Mars Movie on Kickstarter. You’re making yourselves, and our profession, look bad. I will explain.

– The Furious Romantic

First, before I say anything else about the subject, I want to make it clear that I understand your frustration and your reservations. It’s hard, seeing people you perceive as “already successful” leveraging an innovative new platform to accomplish something that, on the surface of things, they “should have done” within the parameters that are already established for all other “already successful” people who want to make movies, especially those that include studio involvement. Add to this, the uncomfortable fact that can’t be argued with at the end of the day — that, in this case, a film is being funded By The People despite the fact that it will continue to be owned by The Man (a major studio), in perpetuity, and that all profits (except perhaps for some backend points and typical union contract revenue-sharing that will go to the filmmakers and talent) will also go to said studio  — and you have more than a few good reasons for being upset. The Furious Romantic will never tell you not to be upset by a perceived injustice. Feel your feelings, angry people, but them come back to the ground and…stop freaking out.

I will leave the task of providing a measured, reasonable perspective on this topic to Scott Beggs at Film School Rejects, who succinctly stated almost all of the same “defenses” of the project that I poured into a Facebook conversation yesterday. Here are his main talking points, copied verbatim, for the sake of argument:

  1.  Veronica Mars is an ultra rare phenomenon. It’s a cult television show whose passionate fans persisted despite low ratings. They’ve called out for its return for years, and its creator has had countless phone calls and meetings trying to make something happen again. With Arrested Development taken care of by Netflix, you can count on one hand the properties that match Mars on these fronts, and even though studios are taking notice this morning, it’s highly unlikely that there’ll be a massive flood of studio projects hitting Kickstarter tomorrow.
  2. Even if there are, even if we reach a point where studios are collectively putting up dozens of big movies on Kickstarter, the market will absolutely take care of itself. There will be a bigger backlash against the practice if it gets out of hand, and if there isn’t, who is any single person to tell fans what they should give their money to? If someone has waited a decade for a new Firefly series, isn’t $35 for a t-shirt and digital download a steal at twice the price?
  3. It’s also pretty ridiculous to think that Veronica Mars‘ success is taking away anything demonstrable from any of the indie projects on the site. No one was on the cusp of donating $10 to a promising video artist’s stop-motion project when their Twitter feed lit up with the news.
  4. And, if anything, there’s a higher probability that the high profile and larger buzz brought more attention to what Kickstarter is doing, which is a win for everyone.
  5. Speaking of which, it’s a good time to remember that Kickstarter is a rising tide that lifts all boats. It’s not like the service has been fundamentally altered simply because a giant company discovered a use for it. They’re not making it exclusive to studio use or anything.
  6. Oh, and if you’re still concerned about how the fabric of indie filmmaking has been altered here, you certainly don’t have to donate anything.

Item 1 summarizes the main point of all this (which many other reasonable people have noted as well). If you asked 100 Veronica Mars fans if they wanted this movie, 120 would say yes. Because this is 2013, and in the time you took to answer the question 20 of those fans turned their friends/partners/spouses/etc. onto Veronica Mars on Netflix streaming. Because it’s a good television show that “died” young. That HAS to be the very first takeaway from this debate. A film will now exist that people wanted but that otherwise would not be getting if not for this Kickstarter campaign.

Item 2 looks at The Worse Case Scenario and confirms the likely truth: It won’t be that bad.

One of the biggest recent takeaways I’ve gotten in listening to the Scriptnotes podcast by John August and Craig Mazin, is that there’s a disconnect within the film industry that has perhaps “always been there” but is right now worse than ever before. In John’s expert opinion (paraphrasing) studios are not investing enough in Research and Development these days. Which is to say, they aren’t taking enough smart, calculated risks, by developing fresh material or identifying material that people want, choosing instead to play it safe, and/or play to the mean rather than risk too much of a loss on their investment. The result has been too many movies that are too mediocre, amidst a smattering of successful tent pole blockbusters from known commodities (big name writers and/or directors), and too few dollars and hours spent vetting and developing projects that people might want to see but studios are afraid to make. Craig, similarly (I hope I’m remembering this right, or he might get mad), has reflected on the increasing difficulty of getting projects made in the Hollywood low-budget range that I am going to inexpertly determine (or inaccurately remember) lands between $15 million and $35 million. Again, studios aren’t rolling the dice on slates of projects at this budget level. They’d rather just be certain that known commodities (adaptations and other properties with built-in brand recognition) can be made to deliver a substantial ROI if enough money is spent making those commodities into something big and broad and loud and then marketing them like crazy. On top of all this, the small independent labels that knew how to make and market films at the budget level of The Veronica Mars Movie…are mostly all gone, having been swallowed up by DVD shrinking revenues, the recession, deliberate contraction, etc.

So, my further question, reflecting on the second item on Scott’s list, is: Why should we be mad that a studio is not saying no to allowing a $2 million movie with a rabid, yearning fan base to get made? When they weren’t going to do it before — because it’s not big enough of an establish commodity?

Well, there are a few reasons, which need to be discussed before we move on to the rest of the reasons why overall, I think this development is good for all of us. They revolve around the budget. John August confirmed on Twitter last night that he and Mazin will be discussing this situation on Scriptnotes next week. I figured as much. I have some ideas about what I think/hope they’re going to talk about (aforementioned issues of R&D, smaller budget studio productions, etc.). One of the things I’m wondering is how they’re going to react…not to the existence of the Kickstarter campaign itself, or even the studio’s involvement in the whole affair, but the budget. The question of budget, in the case of this project, brings up a couple of concerns that I think need to be vetted before filmmakers decide if We Should Be Angry.

I’ve already established that I believe it’s a legitimate concern, upon first glance, to worry about what a studio-backed film, financed by an audience that assumes “all the risk” might mean for the industry. However, again, most of these fears aren’t (entirely) founded. Apart from the fact that all of the success of the Veronica Mars Kickstarter campaign depends on that audience’s existence in the first place (Rob Thomas and Kristen bell aren’t crowd-raising $2 million for a movie without their track record and their prior-work already behind them), it seems a lot of people “in the industry” are failing to take a step back and look at this from the top level.

Here’s how I see it, as a filmmaker. Excuse the reductiveness of what’s about to follow. But…okay. I want to make a film. I have a script, and I know I have the expertise and the ability and the work ethic to pull it off (these are important points, remember them for later). To make the film, though, I need money. I need money because a film is a product, that takes time and money to craft, and, related to that, I need money to pay people because making film is also a job. So there’s (basically) two ways to go. Some entity (a studio) can give me money in exchange for the right to recoup that investment and a return (otherwise they are not going to give me money) by distributing the film to as large an audience as possible, or I figure out how to get the money myself and then hope to sell the right to distribute my film to a widespread audience to another entity (let’s say a studio, again, to keep it simple). In each way, ideally, everyone gets what they want. I make my film, my audience gets to see a film they like, the studio gets money. Everyone’s happy.

Obviously, things don’t always work out this way. All sorts of factors screw with the balance and/or the successful implementation of this simple formula. A film’s a product, but it’s also a piece of art, and a piece of art that’s uniquely dependent on hoards of people working in imperfect unison towards the impossible goal of achieving a perfect vision that, at the end of the day, exists in some guy or gal’s head (even if others work to stuff toilet paper into that head along the way). Also, the film industry as a whole is in flux. Not only are we navigating the studio-level issues outlined by above, and not only have mid-range “independent” films disappeared, but the true, low-budget independent sphere “tasked” with leading the way in terms of innovative funding strategies in a depressed market…we’re just starting to figure out how things like crowd-funding and audience building work and what these things mean for the future of production and distribution.

At first glance, it’s easy for the independent filmmaker to get pissed off about the success of the Veronica Mars campaign. Here comes a bunch of successful people, and a studio that could come up with $2 million dollars by passing a hat during an executive lunch meeting, and now they’re creeping in on Our Salvation Platform and raising the full coupla mill in one day and THEY’RE GOING TO RUIN EVERYTHING. From the point of view of established working artists, though, this is a different question. I have to prognosticate a little, because I am not established, but…back to the budget issue.

Two million dollars is not a lot of money to make a feature film, especially not of the scope that this film would have to be, at minimum. Thomas has to spend around what he used to spend for two episodes of the show, let’s say, adjusted for inflation. They also no longer have a production office, and would have to set up and staff that. They also have to go at least “a little big” because the movie is always bigger and sleeker than the TV show. Also, fans have been waiting. Expectations are going to be high. No matter where the money comes from, or how quickly it comes together, by my rough estimates, this budget it seems a fairly legitimate minimum amount. This seems like a true independent production. Just because these people used to have a TV show (which was backed by a studio, which isn’t helping with production this time), and just because they’re more successful than most of the rest of us who turn to Kickstarter and other sites, just because they have to go through the studio in some way (because of a prior and valid legal agreement) if they want to make the film at all…doesn’t make this untrue.

I know it’s a lot of money, taken at face value. I know it’s a lot of money to most filmmakers who have turned to crowd-funding. I’m developing my first feature right now, and would love to have a quarter of what the Veronica Mars team raised (I’d take an eighth). But I haven’t earned that amount (not yet), and most likely, unless you’re a slumming showrunner or established industry vet reading this, neither have you.

The last flick I shot (and am still editing) is about 8 mins long, and it cost about $8,000 to make. Except that almost everyone worked for free or for vastly reduced rates (as is often the case), plus we were lucky enough to get some key locations for free, plus now, in post, people continue to work for free. All things told, that film’s end cost should be (I’m spit-balling) about $20,000 to $30,000. Still, we never would have been able to make it without that $8,000 (much of it obtained through crowd-funding), because some costs (food, travel, insurance) can’t be ignored. The feature I’m developing now? Ideally, we’ll be able to get at least a few hundred grand, to make it right. If we have to, we’ll find a way to make it for a fraction of that cost. My point is that I could look at that $2 million dollar amount and get angry. I could get angry that people I perceive as successful and monied (in particular, the studio) have taken money from The People that they should have got from their money trees instead. And I could get angry that they took the platform that was there for me to get money and…oh. They just used it the way it’s meant to be used.

Scott Beggs is right about Item 3 on his list. The success of the Veronica Mars Kickstarter campaign isn’t taking money or anything else away from independents. As he notes in Items 4 and 5, if anything, it’s giving money to us. It’s further legitimizing a growing means of funding films outside of the studio system. Aside from the source of the production money, there’s no difference between The Veronica Mars Movie, and any other independently financed $2 million movie with name talent and pre-arranged distribution. Yes, the difference is that the studio can see a return on an investment we made for them, but this is a special, different situation.

First, it’s different because — to finish off Scott’s list — we could have chosen not to donate. I didn’t, because as much of a fan I am of the show, I’d rather let everyone else pay for it and then catch Veronica once she hits Netflix or iTunes (thanks, suckas). But people donated. In droves. Because they wanted this movie and because they could. And this movie was only going to exist, because the studio was not going to hand the rights back to Thomas, if he and Bell decided to go small with it (including taking pay cuts, probably down to scale) and could prove interest (which they have emphatically done). Lost in all this though, is the symbolism of that sacrifice. What does it mean, in the larger context of the industry?

This is where I am curious to hear how the conversation plays out in next week’s Scriptnotes. August and Mazin always provide a thoughtful perspective to the business side of the industry. A lot of times, because they’re smart and experienced and open, their insights expand beyond the scope of the writer’s sole perspective. I’d like to hear what they think about the studio’s involvement in this affair, and what the success of the Veronica Mars campaign may or may not mean for the studio system and the industry as a whole. Beyond that, I’d like to hear their perspective on the budget, and whether or not this development is another bad sign in terms of shrinking budgets and tougher environments for getting things made (and in terms of artists getting their fair share of wages and/or revenue). Specifically, is it worrisome that a studio is going to potentially profit from a project where the budget is being artificially depressed by “necessity” in the first place (because of their refusal to invest their own millions and/or hand over the rights), and then replaced by the donations of Regular Citizens, who won’t see any return other than the joy of seeing the film they wanted made? Or does it not matter, because of the unique case of this particular project, and because, in donating, we (you) accepted the terms of the arrangement? Are we being played, on the consumer side? Are we playing ourselves, on the filmmaker side?

Here’s what I think, for what it’s worth:

  1. I think the issue of the studio benefiting from the return on The People’s Investment, in this case, is okay. First, I think it’s okay because they are going to allow the film to happen, whereas they weren’t before. Call me an idealist, but that looks more like a shaft of light to me than a warning shot. I think The People’s ROI, in this case, is the life of the film. Further, while I would have handled it a bit differently (tilting the exchange more favorably towards the consumer), most people who donated to the Veronica Mars campaign had the option of choosing to receive a copy of the movie. That’s product for your money, which you would have handed over anyway if the studio had financed it. Supposing, on the basis of Thomas’s track record, that there won’t be a huge quality loss in moving from the TV series to the film, when all is said and done, the barter exchange that usually occurs when a film is made and distributed remains intact in this case, even if parts of the process were reshuffled. On the side of the producers, I would have included a way to view the film at any/all price points. On the consumer side, since they didn’t — I would have only donated at a level where I could make that happen.
  2. I think this can be looked at in another way. I think this shows studios, in some small way, that The People Mean Business. Regardless of what you think about the rest of the situation, a film that was clamored for was finally offered, and we showed we wanted it and had the power to get it. That can be thrilling and a good sign, if you allow yourself to look at it that way (at least initially).
  3. Most important, out of everything, this provides a mass-incentive to push for equity crowd-funding. Basically, what this means is, if you’re upset about the studio-ROI issue with this project, aim that ire where it belongs: in the face of legislators who aren’t prioritizing equity crowd-funding laws that would allow The People to invest in a movie, and see ROI from that investment  through an equity stake if there are returns. I’m not completely read-up on this yet, but I learned what I learned from Michael Barnard’s excellent (and exhaustive) post on this and other funding topics.
  4. Studios will not begin pushing investment risk on consumers in any major or significant way because of this project. First, again, $2 million dollars is lunch-time pass-the-hat change to them. While we in the independent sphere or in the outer circles of the industry obsess over What It All Means, they’re shrugging and saying, “Hmmph. I guess we’ll keep an eye on that,” while stroking their evil cat and drinking caviar martinis. Which, to me, is a good thing. A better thing than no thing. Because they weren’t keeping an eye on that before. Assuming we stay vigilant in terms of our concerns, and/or continue to support innovation and legislation that’s fairer for artists and consumers, perhaps something like this could help hasten a return, if not to that $15-35 million “small budget” range of films…something that’s close enough for now (and better than nothing). Further, those same lessons being learned, and those same protections being assumed, maybe it’s a new way for studios (if they notice the shaft of light and are willing to invest in at least the cost of a hammer to make the hole a bit bigger) to return to a place where they do more Research and Development. Finally, studios depend on their large, high-risk investments. It’s the source of much of their leverage in the industry. Apart from the fact that Kickstarter campaigns won’t work for many other studio-owned properties, because the budgets for those properties would be too large to crowd-fund without equity investments added to the equation. It’s just not going to happen.
  5. From the indie perspective, I think Scott Beggs is right. The Mars project not only brings more eyeballs to Kickstarter (which helps us), it brings added legitimacy to the site and to crowd-funding as well. At the end of the day, all of these campaigns come down to the same thing: audience size and content. But bringing a studio into the equation makes things more interesting. They can learn from us, and we can sure learn from them. Again, I don’t expect studios to rush to the crowd-funding table, but neither should we pretend there isn’t something to be gained from cooperating with studios, especially in terms of distribution. It has to be done carefully, to protect the films, but doesn’t something like this give us more credibility in that area? Doesn’t it open up the possibility that, down the line, we might gain some of the leverage we lost, from situations like this? Wouldn’t things seem more balanced if The Veronica Mars Movie succeeds, Thomas and Bell come up with another idea in a few years, and they return to Kickstarter for another $1 million and the full rights to distribute the film, to leverage as they please? What possibilities does that open up? What happens after that project? Does an impressed studio begin warming up again, to the idea of giving someone like Thomas $15 million, for a chance to “do it the old fashioned way”?
  6. The Veronica Mars campaign erred in a few significant, but (obviously) not damning ways. First, they could/should have paid more attention to the issue of the studio’s involvement. I don’t pretend to know the details of why they came to which decisions and how, in terms of engineering the campaign, but two “errors” stand out for me. I would have made it more of a straight shot in terms of “donate and you get the movie.” This treats the transaction more like the pre-sale that it is, and it’s what Rebecca and I did/are doing for our crowd-funded short (every donation, from $5 and up, gets you preview access to the flick before anyone else). In the defense of the producers, they’re not distributors, and aren’t used to being distributors, and…further…the scale of the endeavor complicates things quite a bit. Still, I think a standalone DVD reward at the price point of a DVD, and a standalone digital download reward at the price point of a digital download — would have been a better idea. I guess they can still do this. Additionally, I think more transparency about their budget, and/or more information on the story of their budget, would have helped. Not that the vocal minority of detractors on Twitter or Facebook is anything to worry about in this case, but people would have less to complain or worry about if more information were available (even via a link buried somewhere on the campaign page) on why some of the talent (Kristen Bell) isn’t executive producing (I’m not judging) and just how much of that budget represents minimums that professionals are taking for a chance to make something they believe in and that The People want.

Lastly — and then, I swear, I’m done — I think a lot of the criticism and anger is coming from the usual place: outright jealousy and bitterness. This happened. It might happen again. Get over it. Focus on the good. Take note of the bad, and do something about it if it’s so important to you and such a threat to the industry and your present or future place within it. Stop complaining. Get to work making movies. If you’re an indie, or simply on the outside looking in, make a $5,000 film and make it look like a $10,000 film, by pursuing the task with ingenuity, hard work, and patience. Crowd-fund if you need or want to, but work at it, and do not waste time comparing yourself to a team of people who worked successfully together for years building a product that spawned a passionate fan base. If you have a film with a bigger budget that you want to make, try to make it if that’s what you feel you need to do. But if you can’t, make a smaller one first. Do it again and again, if you’re serious. If you aren’t serious, stop trying to bring down people who are trying to make things happen. Stop poisoning the discourse.

Take it from a former Angry Person, and a fan of Veronica Mars. Again, as many others have said — it’s good that this movie exists now. This wouldn’t have happened a few years ago. Whatever you think about the situation, start from there. Change is rising. It’s a good thing.

michaeldibiasio

Writer and Filmmaker

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