Oh, to be Rob Thomas this morning.
Six years after the writer/producer’s cult-darling TV series Veronica Mars was canceled by network executives at the CW, Thomas’ attempt to reboot the series as a feature film has become a historic success at the crowdsourcing website Kickstarter. In just 11 hours on Wednesday, the movie project reached its $2 million funding goal, prompting Thomas and the show’s star Kristen Bell to issue their gratitude on Twitter and Kickstarter. As of 9 a.m. PDT, the Veronica Mars film had pulled in $2,672,000 from just more than 44,000 backers, with 29 days still remaining before the campaign ends.
Now comes the real work. And not the pre-production, either, nor the filmmaking, nor the imminent power struggles at a Warner Bros. front office that has given Thomas its blessing to pass the hat to fans while showing a steadfast aversion to spend any more of its own money on the Veronica Mars property.
Now come the rewards.
Thomas is responsible for delivering not only a movie to his devout Veronica Mars following, but also the tokens customarily promised to Kickstarter backers for their various levels of largesse. At 9 this morning, that meant no fewer than 34,763 limited-edition t-shirts. It meant 17,919 DVDs of the finished film (plus Blu-ray copies for the 7,222 backers who have pledged $100 or more) and 8,092 Veronica Mars movie posters — 2,885 of which must be signed by the film’s cast, as assured by Thomas. At least 967 backers at the $175 and $275 levels will receive the complete Veronica Mars TV series on DVD. The vast majority of these rewards must be designed, manufactured, packaged and shipped new to the organizers, who then must repackage and reship them (within the US only!), after various stages of customization, to their respective backers.
The organizers have also committed to renting five theaters in five different $5,000 backers’ hometowns ("or a town near you") for private screenings that will host up to 50 people apiece. "We’ll do our best to schedule the screening before the theatrical release of the film," Thomas writes on Kickstarter. "Worst case — the first week of the theatrical run." Of course, renting 50 seats in your average multiplex theater for $5,000 during a Hollywood film’s wide release makes less sense than just buying every ticket for the same screening at full price, but whatever. On all of this let’s just give Thomas the benefit of the doubt, because the bottom line is that fans are fans, and the point is that the fans are invested, even at $100/seat. By comparison, for $1,000 plus airfare, you and a friend could attend the actual L.A. premiere and after party.
Looking at the figures and the estimated deadlines for delivery (most are concentrated around Thomas’ projected release date of February/March 2014, an astoundingly tight production schedule even for a film with whole-hearted studio backing), the obvious question is, "How can this be accomplished?"
Sometimes it can’t. Ask anyone who has overseen a wildly successful Kickstarter project about that projects’ rewards, and you’re in for long stories about longer nights of packing CDs, DVDs, books, t-shirts, artwork and countless other tokens and materials promised to backers. Ask the backers themselves, and you’re potentially in for worse: Some of the most famous Kickstarter phenomena are renowned for prolonged delivery delays or sometimes never delivering their rewards at all. I wrote about one of these troubled projects last year for Slate.com: The 2010 project Open Locksport, the brainchild of lockpicking hobbyist-turned-security theoretician Schuyler Towne, raised $87,407 (against a $6,000 goal) to design and produce artisanal lockpicks. Towne spent the money before a single pick was made. Other manufacturing snafus held up blockbusters like the Pebble e-paper watch, which last year raised $10.2 million; as of late February, roughly seven months after expected delivery to backers, 30% of the watches have been produced. In perhaps the most infamous example of Kickstarter dereliction, Animal Collective member Josh Dibb, a.k.a. Deakin, raised almost $26,000 to fund an African journey/musical project/charity endeavor in 2009. It never materialized; Deakin has since updated his backers with an apology, promising rewards at some unspecified future date.
To be clear, I wouldn’t classify Rob Thomas or the Veronica Mars movie with any of these problem projects. I couldn’t do that — the project just launched a day ago, and for all anyone knows, Warner Bros. will make up the difference between Kickstarter funds and actual production and marketing costs for the film. (A single 42-minute episode of Veronica Mars used to clear $2 million.) Nevertheless, that difference will amount to a sum considerably higher than the amount Thomas finally raises on Kickstarter, especially when we take the costs of rewards for 40,000 backers (and counting) into consideration.
If this was your project, then Kickstarter would expect you to have priced all this out beforehand with surplus backers in mind. I look at things like the t-shirts and extrapolate from there. This morning, I visited two online shirt manufacturers — CustomInk and BlueCotton — to seek quotes for a basic, one-color print tee. At the time, the number of backers entitled to Thomas’ limited-edition shirts was 34,000 and change. CustomInk gave me a rough quote for the exact number of shirts I sought: $3.90 each, for a total of $132,600. ("You saved $579,360.00 [81%] with Volume Discount," the site reassured me.) BlueCotton was cheaper at $3.44 apiece, but it maxed out at 9,999 shirts, meaning some rough multiplication and rougher estimate of $116,960. That’s more than 4% of the total amount raised so far — ostensibly Thomas’ production budget, which also has to cover such actual necessities as crew, equipment, transportation and craft service — just to produce t-shirts.
DVD, Blu-ray and poster manufacturing are anybody’s guess with a studio’s facilities at the ready. If you were pooling estimates on the market, you could expect to pay around $1.50 apiece for manufacturing and packaging 18,000 DVDs. Blu-ray duplication isn’t much more, but packing along with the DVD — as promised to the 7,200 backers who have pledged $100 or more — requires totally different packaging. The total manufacturing cost then rises. Posters should cost around 50 to 60 cents each, not including design. It’s a minor if not negligible expense, particularly when factoring in shipping along with movie DVDs and/or organizing the epic signing binge that Thomas expects to comprise himself and eight cast members led by Bell. It’s worth noting the complete series sets as well, of which it’s worth asking if nearly 1,000 even remain available sealed and ready to ship. If those three-disc sets and their corresponding trays require a new round of manufacturing, then the cost rises still.
I should stress again that these costs do not precisely or perhaps even that closely reflect the actual charges that Thomas and Co. will incur when fulfilling their rewards for the Veronica Mars movie project. They also omit explicit considerations of labor. But with the number of backers growing literally by the minute, the costs will not be lower. And none of it has anything to do with creativity, unless wheedling for manufacturing deals while attempting to turn your suddenly high-profile movie around on a 12-month schedule is creative.
Thomas himself was purposely vague on Wednesday when stipulating his remedies for the project’s "Risks and Challenges," a new Kickstarter requirement resulting in part from such troubled deliveries as the Pebble, Open Locksport and others. "Distribution is always a challenge with low-budget films, but Warner Bros. is going to help us distribute the movie, and try to get it out there as widely as possible," he wrote. "With respect to rewards fulfillment, we will be working with a professional fulfillment partner to get all your DVDs, digital downloads, and other goodies delivered safely and on schedule."
That’s fair. These fulfillment partners are a thing in the Kickstarter ecosystem, and not merely contingent on a Los Angeles Craigslist posting soliciting a certain cult show’s fans to fill boxes, tubes and envelopes to a mix of Dandy Warhols songs. Yet as the tally of money crowdsourced by a creative on behalf of a conglomerate surges toward $3 million, I can say with queasy confidence that stuff will claim more of this film’s budget and its psychic space as a whole than they should — necessarily so, it appears, because of its producer’s oddly endearing sense of entitlement and his studio’s unalloyed fealty to the bottom line.
In this sense, the Veronica Mars movie project stopped very early on being about a movie at all. It instead peers down into the class chasm endemic to modern creative work, from professional writers who will defend not paying other writers to professional musicians who will be shamed into paying other musicians. That the movie seems practically incidental against the scope and scale of "rewards" promised to its legion of patrons suggests all we really need to know about the economy from which it crept — half-alive or half-dead, depending on whom you ask, but utterly unkillable if there’s something, however small, in it for someone.
Oh, to be Rob Thomas and Warner Bros. and Kickstarter and its 44,000 Veronica Mars backers this morning, looking in the mirror and wondering what that something really is.