The "Veronica Mars" movie is a reality thanks to an unprecedented Kickstarter fundraising campaign, and the show's creator Rob Thomas was on hand at the recent ATX Television Festival (alongside star Chris Lowell) to discuss how the crowd-funded movie came together, despite the odds.
While Thomas reiterated much of the information we've already heard about the "Veronica Mars" movie -- which raised almost $6 million via Kickstarter in April -- Thomas' panel did offer fascinating insight into the unfamiliar process of producing a crowd-sourced film. Read on for Thomas' thoughts on satisfying fans who also have a financial stake in the project, how actors' availability affected the script and the latest on that "Party Down" movie. (Questions have been edited and condensed for clarity.)
Will the movie be restricted by traditional studio rules in terms of deals and distribution?
I actually don't know how it's going to be distributed yet. I can tell you that at the beginning, in all the talks, there was no guarantee that there'd be a theatrical release of the movie. Nobody had any idea how we'd do on Kickstarter, what the buzz would be like. But right before we launched, they made a decision at Warner Bros. .... You make different deals if you're planning on a theatrical release of the movie, and it started feeling like, "No, we think it's going to happen. We think it's going to make [money]." So all the deals did include theatrical release. But at the time, I think people were talking in terms of 200 or 300 screens -- a very limited release. There's no guarantee -- if the movie doesn't turn out great, that may be where we are. But there's now been talk about many wider release scenarios.
Are the expectations different and is there added pressure because more of the public is invested in the outcome?
Yes and no. I'm certainly feeling a ton of pressure ... We are a guinea pig for this financing model. We have a lot of people's attention. So far, so good, but if you judge the Kickstarter process and how things have gone -- we're gonna get to shoot the movie, we're getting the cast that we want, we're getting to spend real money on it -- I think it all goes out the window if we don't stick the landing. If it's not a quality movie at the end of the day, if somehow we don't get t-shirts out in a timely fashion, and people catch us using a signing machine for all those signed posters ... then we'll be some sort of weird footnote, the punchline of a joke.
When we launched, I thought there was a chance of humiliation. We had been talking about it for a year and a half ... I'd spent a great deal of time feeling like the Pied Piper on this mission, really being in salesman mode, convincing executives at the studio that this could be big, that there is a groundswell there, that we will do alright ...
Kristen [Bell, who plays Veronica Mars] and I decided the night before we launched, we were gonna send these mysterious tweets to each other and say, "Hey, everyone! Stay tuned for some news tomorrow!" Kristen Bell has a million followers so I thought, "Once we send these mysterious tweets to each other, it will erupt! It will be like a bonfire on the internet!" And on the eve of doing all this, having spent a year and a half of my life trying to get this going, we tweeted each other and it barely caused a ripple. There were maybe a couple hundred tweets that I saw, but it was not close to what I was expecting.
We were launching the next day and I went from having an absurd level of confidence to thinking, "Oh my God. Kristen and I have been listening to the same 20 fans for the last seven years and we're gonna look silly asking for 2 million dollars." There have been projects that made more than that, but no one had asked for that much. Had we launched and raised $35,000, it would've looked silly. I am very conscious of [the pressure] ... It would be nice if it ended up making money rather than losing money.
How close did you come to making the movie before, that prevented you from giving up all hope?
Joel [Silver] had an overall deal and a certain ability to make movies at a certain dollar amount, and we thought we could get the "Veronica Mars" movie made for a dollar amount deal. And so, I came in with a pitch for the movie: At that point, around the time, Veronica would've been graduating from Princeton, so it was centered on a Neptune-y spring break. Joel, given the size of the movie, wanted a very commercial movie, and so I came in with a pitch and then Warner Bros. decided to do a running marketing test survey of "Veronica Mars" awareness, and we did not score high enough on that test, so it fizzled there.
I hit a low point then ... I remember reading a headline -- yes, I Google Alert myself, and I find out a lot about the other Rob Thomas [of the rock band Matchbox Twenty] -- but one of the headlines I read was like, "Would Rob Thomas please shut up about the 'Veronica Mars' movie?" ... I felt like I spent half the time trying to stoke interest and keep it alive, and the other half trying to tamp it down because I didn't think it was going to happen and didn't want to raise anyone's hopes for it. The thing with the Kickstarter campaign that I knew was that it was going to give some sense of completion or finality -- but had the Kickstarter drive failed, it would've been put to bed. That would've been the end of it. It never would've happened after that, and at least I could sleep soundly knowing that I'd had my best shot and it wasn't meant to be -- and now, I'm already outlining movie six. [Laughs.]
How was your experience at the beginning of the campaign?
It was one of the crazier months of my life ... I got to study other Kickstarter campaigns and keep an eye on what was succeeding or failing. If you watch our Kickstarter video, we were very bold about saying, "We're gonna be the biggest Kickstarter campaign ever." But as we were filming that, a company went over 3 million on a video game. When I first proposed the campaign, the highest total on Kickstarter ever was $900,000. By the time we got to launch, the highest total was $10 million. We didn't think we were going to get $10 million.
There was a big debate in the room with Warner Bros. about how much we should ask and all sorts of numbers -- anywhere between $1 million and $3 million were bandied about at that time. In my head, I was thinking $5 million was the number that I thought we could do ... I had outlined it, but there were all these fuzzy sections, like, "If we do $2 million, it's this -- it's 8 characters in a room. If we do $5 million, it will be this kind of movie." Because Kristen Bell goes back to work on her Showtime show, there was a very specific window we had to shoot in. I dumbly thought that once the Kickstarter campaign was launched, it would just run itself. But I got 30,000 emails on the first day ...
What was the scriptwriting process like?
I've had a new vision for it. I'd say this is the third thing I've really fleshed out, and the problem is that all the actors keep getting older, so something that made sense four years ago doesn't make as much sense now. I've known how I wanted the movie to end and what Veronica's dilemma is probably for the last year and a half, and that would've existed, I think, in the $2 million version or the $6 million version.
Did the availability of the actors and the budget change the script?
Yeah, how grand we can go on some of these things -- the lower-budget versions would've been very Agatha Christie, "Murder in a Drawing Room" and Veronica [trying] to solve it over the course of a night. As it is, I think we have an ambitious $5-6 million movie that we're doing. It's not going to be "The Hunger Games" -- we do not have $120 million to shoot it, but I'm really excited about the scope. It's probably at the top end of what my expectations would've been. One of the things that I keep noting as we've gone through this [is] if we had just barely got over the hump, there would've been harsh words exchanged at the high school reunion. But if we made more money, there would be a brawl. We got to brawl level, but please don't come in expecting the "Matrix" brawl. It'll be more grappling than artistic ... There are no car chases in it, but I think for the size of the movie, I think it's a pretty ambitious thing. I think it'll feel bigger than the TV series.
Given the fan-funding, how did you walk the line between making the movie you wanted to make and serving the fans and their expectations?
I was very conscious of the fact that it was crowd-funded. The fortunate thing is that I think the movie that the fans want to see is pretty much the movie that I want to make, so those things aren't divergent. In discussing with my agent what way would the 'Veronica Mars' movie get made today at times, one of the things that he suggested that I noodled with was, "Rob, go write this great thriller with a 30-year-old female lead," and he'll pitch it and sell it as that and then in the last line of the pitch, "... And it's Veronica Mars!" And that was the bonus thing, but it would be hard to go in and pitch without thinking, "How do you put Wallace in this version and Weevil and Mac and Piz and Logan?" That would've been a real trick, and I think fans of "Veronica Mars" the series, while they might've been like, "Oh great, there's a 'Veronica Mars' thriller out there," the pleasure zones for us and what I enjoyed about the show would involve bringing back the people that we care about. I think we want to see where they are all these years later.
Have you run into any limitations, given the budget?
"It Never Rains in Southern California" was the final song [of the series] as Veronica walks out into the rain. [The movie] starts with Veronica in New York and she travels back to California and as she arrives, I wanted her to return in the rain as this nod to how the series ended. In this low-budget movie world, my line producer called me yesterday and said, "Rob, I have bad news for you: We're $30,000 over. We've gotta lose the rain." So as you see her land and come out of the Balboa County airport, imagine rain.
How did you approach setting up the movie for returning fans versus reintroducing characters or plotlines for newcomers?
Warner Bros. has been great ... If you write a movie or a TV show through normal channels, you are dealing with creative executives who have a lot of thoughts on your script, and you are arriving at a movie at the end of the day that has had a lot of input from a studio or a network. The nice thing about doing it this way and coming into it with several million dollars of our own ... they have not been heavy-handed. In fact, they've barely given me any creative thoughts, but one of them is how much we attempt to catch-up non-"Veronica Mars" viewers ... but they want me to give more information and I want to give less.
I want to uncomplicate it for people who are coming to it fresh. There's a scene at the top of the movie that very quickly catches people up to speed with it. All I think is important for a new viewer to know is that Veronica spent her teenage years, oddly, working as a private detective, but that she hasn't done that since we last saw her. So you all know, she has not worked a case since you last saw her at the end of Season 3. So I plan to give a very minimalist explanation so that no one feels like we're missing mythology or we're missing backstory. There are certainly easter eggs for people who know the show, but I want to uncomplicate it for new viewers -- there's no Lily Kane mythology, there's no bus crash mythology. I want to keep it clean: She worked as a PI as a teenager, she put that away and is now leading an adult life as we find her.
How did it feel to revisit the characters when you were finally able to write the script?
It was a joy. It's the most I've enjoyed writing something. So much of what I do ... is coming up with new characters and trying to invent voices for them, and to have people fully fleshed out in my head and to know who can say what in the scene and who these characters are ... I love it. After not being able to write them for seven years, it was fun.
Season 3 was very different from the first two years; how much of that was due to the network and outside input?
People are eager to blame the structural difference on network notes. The truth is, we knew we were in a "fight for your life" scenario. We knew the potential for us to get cancelled was high and that we weren't doing the numbers we needed to do to stay on the air. So the decision to break it up into three shorter mysteries ... I supported that idea. There was an element of it that I really liked because they were all done in packages. Our first mystery, we got to air nine or 10 episodes in a row, uninterrupted, not showing reruns, and I liked that notion of getting to tell them all in a row. The feeling that we had with "Veronica Mars" that may have proven to not be true, but that we wanted to explore was, are people shying away from the show because they feel like if they miss one or two, they're so far behind the curve on that 22-episode mystery, we aren't inviting in new viewers? The notion of "Let's break it up and have shorter mysteries. Let's try Veronica in college ... maybe people would be more attracted to a college show. It will bring in viewers ... " -- we were willing to try anything. We were fighting for our existence, so we were trying things to get a Season 4. Clearly, it didn't work; but that was why. It wasn't the network demanding something -- it was everyone together thinking, "What can we do to try and bring in more people to the show?"
How will Veronica's voiceover play into the movie, and will we see many familiar faces return?
I have a very specific strategy on the voiceover in the movie. There is a "Godfather III" element to this: "No matter how much I think I'm out, they pull me back in," and Veronica as a non-PI, she doesn't use voiceover -- it's only when she picks that mantle back up. So we do not open with voiceover -- I will tell you that. We have a bunch of cast deals done, but we're trying to parse them out now that we have them. They've all come together in the last week, but we want to give everyone their own moment, so you will be getting a lot of notices over the next nine to 10 days about cast members. (So far, in addition to Bell, Jason Dohring, Chris Lowell, Percy Daggs III, Francis Capra, Christine Lakin, Daran Norris, Amanda Noret, Sam Huntington and Enrico Colantoni have been confirmed to return.)
What's the status of the "Party Down" movie?
It's still in the works; we still are hopeful that it could come together. We are down a path on a "Party Down" movie -- John Enbom is working on a script for it, we've broken out the movie -- we've gone down a traditional path on that. "Party Down" is an interesting case ... With the Kickstarter campaign, I've been answering all these questions about what it means: Does it mean a new way to finance movies and will this become commonplace? It don't think it will. I think the Kickstarter model worked for us because of a very specific set of circumstances: having a cult following, having a movie that could be made at a reasonable price point. I think it would be tough for a space show to be done via Kickstarter -- it would be tough to raise that sort of money. The thing about "Party Down" is that it would be a perfect Kickstarter model; it's a movie that we could make at a reasonable budget, it does have a cult following, but we're long down a path going through traditional means of making an indie movie and we're hopeful that that will happen.
The "Veronica Mars" movie is set to debut in early 2014.