The Veronica Mars Kickstarter Isn't Charity, It's An Omen

Noah J. Nelson (@noahjnelson)

To say that the arrival-- and swift success-- of Rob Thomas' Kickstarter campaign for a film based on his television show Veronica Mars has been controversial is putting it mildly.

Nearly every issue that people have with crowdfunding in general and Kickstarter in particular has come to the fore in the past few days. In the piece that follows, I'm going to attempt to take on these concerns point by point. I've been a booster of crowdfunding since 2010, and believe that it is a critical part of a new infrastructure model that is emerging across multiple industries.

What energizes me the most, however, is how this model can change the entertainment industry.
Of particular concern to me was an article posted yesterday by Richard Lawson of the Atlantic Wire. Mr. Lawson, I believe, has some outdated ideas about what crowdfunding is. He comes to this debate seeing Kickstarter as a charity platform, and this viewpoint colors his whole argument.

Rather than merely dismissing his concerns with some snark, as is the usual way of the Internet, this piece is my humble attempt to address them in a logical fashion.

I've also had the opportunity to debate this issue online with many people I respect who hold differing views on who Kickstarter is for. They hold that the incursion of the studio system into the crowdfunding space is an ill omen. I will address those concerns, which Mr. Lawson shares, as well.

Let's start with an initial examination of the Veronica Mars project's studio heritage. First, Mr. Lawson:

"In Veronica Mars's case, they're asking you to pay for what will ultimately be a studio movie. This is not some independent film..."

There is a difference between a studio financed and a studio distributed production. This is a misconception so common it is taken as a given. The indie film market is largely predicated on the idea that independently produced films will be picked up by a distributor at a festival like Sundance. The initial risk is taken on by the independent producers and their financial backers. Often their greatest hope is that a big studio's indie division will come along and give their film theatrical distribution with all the bells, whistles, print and advertising this involves.

After all, few filmmakers make their work intending to hide the finish product on a shelf.

There are two major difference between what we think of as an "indie" movie and the Veronica Mars film here.

The first is that Veronica Mars is a Warner Bros. property. Mr. Thomas sold the rights long ago. Without their consent this film could not be made and legally distributed. This leads to the second: Warners has agreed to distribute the film. Which they would be insane not to since it is their property.

However, like an indie film, this is a property that the studio had no interest in taking a financial risk on. That Mr. Thomas was able to get the studio to agree to take a film proposal directly to what was anecdotally understood to be a large fan base is a bit of a coup. After all, there are fans who want a Veronica Mars movie, and a creative team that wants one. The only thing standing in their way was the rights holder.

While Mr. Thomas has at the least a distribution agreement, the production company he sets up to make this project is semi-autonomous. More akin to the kind of production status that Quentin Tarantino has than either a pure DIY or pure studio film.

Mr. Lawson takes issue with the value that backers get from contributing to the project. He holds that the "aside from some assorted rewards that only get good in the really high donation brackets," there is a poor value proposition.

I'm going to dispute this on two fronts.

First: the notion that these are donations. This is a term I se linked to crowdfunding all the time. Donation implies charity, this premise is directly referenced in the headline for Mr. Lawson's piece.

While there are crowdfunding sites that allow for charity fundraising Kickstarter is not, in fact, one of them. Kickstarter requires that a project has a tangible product, be that an e-ink watch, a feature film, a video game, or a season of a web series. They are focused on the idea of making it easier to undertake creative endeavors. (IndieGoGo, however, allows for both general fundraising and direct charity cases.)

Since the products of these projects are usually cultural artifacts that the backers get to enjoy, this is far from charity. One could argue that it is a luxury, that this is all some kind of elaborate potlatch. That is a discussion for a different day. (Spoiler Alert: I'm going to argue it isn't, or that at the very least there's nothing wrong with a good, old fashioned potlatch.)

The other way in which this needs to be disputed is the assertion that the "rewards... only get good in the really high donation brackets". Value being in the eye of the beholder, I nevertheless feel secure in observing the following:

The lowest reward tier for Veronica Mars is $10. This will grant the backer a PDF of the film's script on the day of its theatrical release. The monetary value of a PDF of a film script could be debated all day. However, if Mr. Lawson is willing to accept that cultural products are allowed to have cash value, and that an artist-- for lack of a better term-- is allowed to price their work as they see fit then $10 is by definition a reasonable amount. Even if it is not what myself or Mr. Lawson would pay. As I write this 7027 people believe that the reward-- as well as the opportunity to see a film which otherwise would not get made-- is worth $10.

Next up is the $25 level. Which throws in a T-shirt. A quick application of grade school arithmetic confirms that this T-shirt is priced at $15, shipping and handling included, when the value of the PDF is accepted at $10. That is rather inexpensive for a T-shirt, speaking in retail terms, in this day and age. If I was a Veronica Mars fan I'd be ecstatic to get such a reasonably priced item. (Flash Fact: I've never seen a single episode of Veronica Mars, and thus don't need a T-shirt.)

Finally for our consideration there is the $35 level, which adds in "a digital version of the movie within a few days of the movie's theatrical debut". This is not a rental, but a purchase. While it is not a day and date VOD release it is still set in terms of both price and timing closer to that standard than that of a DVD/Blu-Ray release.

Mr. Lawson also attempts to evoke the specter of Amanda Palmer-- hero to the crowdfunding set and boogeyman to those who believe that... actually I'm not too sure what they believe. Perhaps that there are rules to the creation of cultural artifacts that somehow need to be adhered to in order for said artifacts to have any legitimacy.

Many, like Mr. Lawson, appear to be angry that Ms. Palmer has financed her work by simply asking for support from her fans.

"I can't help but feel that Kickstarter campaigns for stuff like this, that is stuff people are having no trouble selling elsewhere, are a bit gauche. Plus it's too easy."

Once again Mr. Lawson is viewing crowdfunding through the lens of charity. This is misguided. Let us also point out that for many artists who are not supported by established institutions--- and I will acknowledge that Mr. Thomas benefits from the knowledge that his film will have distribution, something many filmmakers would debase themselves for-- the costs involved in making and distributing the artifacts do not go down just because they have already completed the "sale" to their audience. To actually turn a profit on a crowdfunding project is a real trick.

Take the example of Harebrained Schemes, the developers of Shadowrun Returns. In fact, their project is almost perfectly analogous to Mr. Thomas'. Shadowrun is an intellectual property whose creator Jordan Weisman sold to Microsoft years ago, only to see the IP gather dust on the shelves. Wanting to make a spiritual successor to an earlier version of the game, Weisman licensed the property back from Microsoft and took to Kickstarter to raise funds.

Now, almost a year into development, Weisman is on record saying that his company has sunk "every penny and more" that they raised into the game. Weisman is not the only Kickstarter user who sinks funds beyond the campaign into their project. Whether Shadowrun Returns can turn a profit has yet to be seen. They will need to attract an audience larger than the early adopters.

Does this mean that the project backers will go without rewards? While this is technically a possibility-- anyone can take the money and run-- this is unlikely. Weisman wants to be in the business of making games, indeed he's dedicated his life to it. Burning his audience would be professional suicide. I believe that Shadowrun Returns will ship, even if it bankrupts Harebrained Schemes.

Mr. Lawson takes umbrage at the very idea of successful creators using the crowdfunding model.

"I guess my ire is really directed at the famous and semi-famous people who, rather than hustle around town drumming up the money from proper backers and investors and then hoping money from their fans will roll in, just make some cutesy video instead and figure their work done."

Here is my major issues with Mr. Lawson's worldview. He is not alone in appearing to prefer that artists to seek their patronage from established institutions instead of appealing directly to their fans. Which in my eyes is illogical. What does it matter if patronage is sought from a few rich individuals, corporations, and institutions or from the masses? Does the problem lay with the gross wealth inequity in our society? Wouldn't moving the locus of economic activity away from the few towards the many help balance that equation?

To my eyes the ability of a large pool of people of modest means to fund creative work that was previously only the purview of the very wealthy is an unequivocal good. Why should anyone waste their time trying to convince a bunch of wealthy financiers that they deserve support if they can just cut out the middlemen?

But all this talk of money is gauche.

"Another part of my revulsion is, yes, likely to do with the simple fact that art-related Kickstarter campaigns strip away the pretense that art and commerce aren't inextricably linked. ... Crassly bringing money into the conversation sullies everything."

Mr. Lawson goes on to state that he knows part of his "distaste is silly". Many people are made uncomfortable when discussing art and commerce. I hold, however, that by making this process more transparent crowdfunding can only lead to a greater appreciation of the final project.

Who sees more: those who are confronted with a piece of work without context, or those who are initiated into the subtleties involved in its creation? Both are valid experiences, and can be equally thrilling. However, it is the student of the process who is able to derive more from a given work.

Let us return, finally, to the studio issue. It is where Mr. Lawson ends his case, and where some in the crowdfunding world are made uncomfortable by a studio-held property using Kickstarter. Mr. Lawson sums this issue up quite nicely.

"[When] it's used to pay production costs for a Warner Bros. movie, the system seems abused."

There is actually a lot to unpack here. The major concern-- and it is one that I still share somewhat-- is that if studio projects begin using Kickstarter they will crowd out smaller projects. This itself splits into two issues.

One is studio use of the crowdfunding model, and the other is the studio use of Kickstarter. It is possible to use the crowdfunding model without using a dedicated crowdfunding site. We've seen this with the online retailer Everlane using the model on its own to gauge support for a move into the Canadian market.

We've also seen computer game veteran Chris Roberts take a hybrid approach: he ran a campaign on his own site and a Kickstarter campaign for his game Star Citizen. He double dipped, and it worked spectacularly.

Yet there is a fear that large projects will eclipse smaller ones on Kickstarter. I used to worry about this all the time. How can anyone find a small project if all people are talking about is a handful of really popular works? The answer is to have more eyeballs inside the crowdfunding ecosystem.

Not everyone who backs projects on Kickstarter has the mindset of an angel investor, but those who do generate notifications that other members of their social circle on the site see. I've learned of the existence of hundreds of projects because of the efforts of a group of friends I can count on one hand.

Drawing more people into the Kickstarter environment can only strengthen this effect. While we do not--yet-- have any numbers regarding how many people are backing a project on Kickstarter for the first time thanks to Mr. Thomas, it is easy to imagine that some percentage have never even been on the site before.

As a platform, across multiple verticals, the appearance is that Kickstarter already has a bias towards established creators. Amanda Palmer, Jordan Wiseman, Seth Godin and the like achieve rampant success because they have reputations to draw on. Unknowns already struggle to have their projects noticed. Creating better systems of discovery is the current issue for nearly everyone online, no matter their final objective.

While Kickstarter is the most well known crowdfunding site it may be only a step in the evolution of this process. Sites that are dedicated to a single vertical are beginning to arise. Take Seed & Spark for example. This site is dedicated to film and video projects. They go beyond the cash-only model by setting up a film with a kind of "wedding registry". Filmmakers can meet their campaign requirements by deducting in-kind donations. This more closely matches the DIY indie film model. We could see younger filmmakers flock their or to similar sites that cater to their needs.

Let me close by stating this: crowdfunding remains in its infancy. This past week, while reporting on the indie game scene in Austin, I was guided by my editors to take time to explain to the national radio audience what crowdfunding and Kickstarter was. This shocked me somewhat, as the site has been around for almost four years now and featured in more publications and programs than I can count.

Yet there are people who are only getting the message that this kind of thing is possible right now. This is model subverts the studio/patronage model. It devalues what studios and other gatekeepers can offer to artists. Yes, Warners gets to take no risk on this project. Which is something they were already doing by not making a Veronica Mars movie.

The objection seems to be that Warners doesn't deserve to profit from this process. That somehow the studios must be punished for their years of opacity and sluggishness. If, however, the cost for the studios taking this kind of money is to see their old model erode that much faster it is a trade-off I am willing to accept.

Beyond that Warners in particular has jumped in is fascinating to me. They have the reputation of being the most director driven studio in the business. Their willingness to play in this format may be a bellwether of more experimentation. There is a path here where bold directors engage fans directly, begin projects, and get studio support only after the fact. See Mortal Kombat: Legacy-- also a Warners property-- for an example of this in action.

I can see a future where the studios do use some variation on this model. Pre-sales of movies much in the same way that the video game market is driven by early orders. This could free up capital to take smaller risks, something that Warners appears to be doing after a multi-million dollar investment in the YouTube based Maker Studios and the productions of Mortal Kombat: Legacy and H+: The Digital Series.

A future where the entertainment industry takes the working methods of the tech industry-- small agile teams that iterate on ideas-- to heart.

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