Exactly a year ago today, I wrote a piece about the experience of the Veronica Mars Kickstarter where I explored the meanings of “following” a Kickstarter campaign as it reaches its goal, arguing for that twelve-hour period as a key space of meaning for fans of the franchise. I framed that experience as the queue for an amusement park ride, but the metaphor had one problem: in this context, what constitutes the ride?
“As with some theme park rides, the line between the queue and the ride will be blurry in this case: does the ride begin when the Kickstarter reaches its goal? Or when the film is released next year? Or when the film goes into production this summer (since viewers were supporting not the project being released but rather the project existing at all)?”
Around the same time, I was invited by Bertha Chin and Bethan Jones to participate in a dialogue regarding the Veronica Mars Kickstarter, crowdfunding, and fan labor for Transformative Works and Cultures. Within that conversation, which took place in the weeks following the campaign’s success, fellow panelist Luke Pebler rightfully highlights the way uncertainty framed any and all conversation surrounding the Kickstarter around that time.
“A recurrent theme in these discussions seems to be, how will it all look once it’s over and the thing kickstarted is complete and released? Will backers ultimately be happy? Will producers be happy? Will it all have been worth it? It’s going to be an excruciatingly long wait to find out, in many cases.”
Ignoring for a moment the subtle irony that we had to wait almost as long for our conversation to be published as Veronica Mars fans had to wait for an entire movie to be funded, produced, and distributed (and Transformative Works and Cultures is fast by academic standards, and should be lauded for its belief in open access publication so I can link non-scholars reading this post to the conversation in question), the uncertainty evident in both my and Luke’s commentary has been the greatest takeaway from the Veronica Mars Kickstarter experience. Until the film was released yesterday, the Kickstarter existed in this state of receptive limbo, and even after the film’s release the questions of value and fan agency discussed in our conversation remain fluid as Warner Bros. struggles to manage digital distribution controversy.
Throughout the film’s production, the Veronica Mars team—led in the digital space by associate producer Ivan Askwith—worked to make the idea of the Veronica Mars movie a tangible reality for its backers. Through behind-the-scenes photos, updates about the ongoing post-production process, or exclusive clips or trailers, the campaign offered backers reassurance that what they paid for actually existed; without wanting to reduce the nuanced work done by Askwith and director/producer Rob Thomas, it reaffirmed for me that the ride wouldn’t begin until the movie was released, with everything else amounting to Thomas, Askwith, and the film’s cast popping up on video screens to assure us that our time and money spent to get in line for the Veronica Mars ride was worth something.
On a personal level, I enjoyed my time in the queue: I admittedly never logged into the behind-the-scenes backer-exclusive website, but I enjoyed seeing the consistent updates—yesterday’s release date marked the 89th since the campaign began—and feeling tied to its development. Like any successful queue, it also shaped my experience with the ride itself, in that the Veronica Mars movie feels like a satisfying conclusion to the Kickstarter process. It doesn’t necessarily register as a film that could stand alone outside of that process, often working too hard to appeal to fan nostalgia at the expense of its storytelling, but the nature of the campaign’s consistent emphasis on fan agency makes the fan service more palatable.
Yet, to speak to Luke’s point, the film’s release didn’t resolve every uncertainty about the campaign. Warner Bros.’ insistence on using the Warner Bros.-owned Flixster as the form of online distribution created significant controversy, both because Flixster suffered from significant technical problems during the film’s release and because—more importantly—nothing in the queue had prepared backers for this result. In a process that had consistently emphasized the agency of fans, the Flixster decision—likely mandated by Warner Bros. as a way to help promote/support the struggling Ultraviolet digital distribution platform underlying Flixster—took that agency away. Fans debated the semantics of “digital download” vs. “digital version,” returning to their experience in the queue and measuring their experience on the ride itself relative to both that experience and the financial commitment they made to get into the queue in the first place.
How did this bumpy ride contribute to their reception of the film? It’s possible many who struggled with the digital download still enjoyed the film either once they were able to stream/download the film or when they chose to see it in theaters (an option not available to all backers given its limited release, particularly internationally), and Warner Bros.’ commitment to serving those who suffered technical difficulties will be helpful. But for many, the “reception” of the film will continue until they receive other Kickstarter rewards promised to them (like the DVD/Blu-ray tentatively scheduled for release in March), or when they see how the franchise’s broader reboot (which also includes a new set of novels) treats the characters relative to their expectations. And although Thomas has said Warner Bros. has a clear threshold at which a sequel would be considered, that very much depends on metrics of box office success (which we can access) and digital/retail sales (which, relatively speaking, we cannot).
In a Kickstarter oral history, Thomas, Askwith, the show’s cast, and a group of fans/backers tell what is framed as “a fan history” of Veronica Mars. It reaches back to the series’ premiere to tell the story of fans who never stopped trying, who were in the metaphorical queue for the Veronica Mars movie from the moment the series was canceled, and works to frame the Kickstarter as the resolution to their story. And yet not every backer of the Kickstarter was a hardcore fan active in efforts to save the show previously, which makes it difficult to generalize about the the overall reception to the Kickstarter experience. As someone who loved the show but never engaged with its fandom on any level deeper than reading and/or writing reviews, my perspective—including my definitions of value, tied to any and all discussion of Kickstarter—is different from the fans Kickstarter focuses on. This is not to say that I am dissatisfied with the Veronica Mars movie, or that they are too easily satisfied by it, but rather that we cannot generalize about the Kickstarter’s success among its 91,585 backers.
I feel confident that the Veronica Mars Kickstarter will go down as a “success” on a general level within popular discourse. The film was released in just over a year, in more theaters than expected and with what at least based on early reports is some solid theatrical numbers. Despite issues with Flixster, the various Kickstarter rewards were generally sent out in an efficient fashion, without any widespread delays that would have affected all users—although I’ve heard some anecdotal reports of sizing issues with t-shirts—and have plagued other Kickstarters (like The Lizzie Bennet Diaries, which is now over eight months behind schedule distributing the DVDs that were the central draw of the Kickstarter campaign). The production worked to consistently keep backers involved in the process, delivered on most if not all of the promises made, and eventually delivered a film that one could objectively describe as “crowd-pleasing.” While its breakout success at the fundraising stage ensured that we would be talking about “The Veronica Mars Kickstarter Case Study” in classrooms and popular discourse for years to come, the remainder of the process ensured that case study would be seen by those within the industry as a viable model for large-scale crowdfunding.
However, what happens next is crucial to the legacy of the Veronica Mars Kickstarter. Would Warner Bros. go back to fans for more money in an effort to fund future projects in the Veronica Mars universe, rather than allowing the initial demonstration of support to fuel a broader franchise reboot? Will other studios look to crowdfunding as a way to build initial interest in a project, further fueling justified concerns regarding the corporate invasion of crowdfunding efforts that have been at least partially vindicated by Warner Bros.’ Flixster power play? And what individual experiences will those 91,585 backers take from their time in the queue and their time on the ride that will frame their next crowdfunding contribution (or lack thereof)?
A year ago, we spoke with uncertainty because it was unclear what backers—and observers—were about to experience. A year later, we have a better understanding of what it means to Kickstart a reboot of a canceled television series through a traditional studio, but the broader implications of the event remain fluid, with the questions raised at the beginning of the process only growing more complicated as the process unfolded. As a fan, I enjoyed the Veronica Mars movie, am content with my investment, and will be happy to revisit this universe in future contexts enabled by the film’s success should they emerge; as a scholar, I continue to consider this a fascinating and ongoing case study of crowdfunding practices, within which the Veronica Mars Kickstarter remains just one ride within an increasingly sprawling amusement park.