The Veronica Mars Kickstarter Problem, and Ours

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.

20 comments

  1. Kristen says:

    What a party pooper you are.lol I just donated 50 and while I agree that is crazy when I get no profit the pure joy the actors in this series have given me is worth the money.

    The video on the kickstarter sight shows that Kristen Bell, Ron Thomas and the rest of the cast at least cares enough to try reward us true fans and that is good enough for me.

  2. DarthRachel says:

    thanks for doing the work for a nice estimate on the costs involved and all the invisible work it takes to fulfill all these donation incentives. great article.

  3. Steve says:

    I view a donation in this case as a vote telling Warner Bros that I would come out and support entertainment of a certain quality. I didn’t donate, though, because I just don’t want more stuff. I’m trying to cut out the clutter and think it’d be great if I could donate and check a box saying "I don’t want your trinkets, but here’s a few bucks anyway."

    • admin says:

      "I view a donation in this case as a vote telling Warner Bros that I would come out and support entertainment of a certain quality."

      Great point, Steve. Thanks!

      • Sarah says:

        I’ve only donated to two Kickstarters, but both had the option of "just have my $$, please don’t send me the rewards". Assuming this one had that option also?

    • bbb says:

      You *can* donate without getting stuff. Click on "Back this Project", enter whatever amount you want to donate, then select "No reward".

      • Steve says:

        Thanks, this is good to know, and I was totally going to do this until my fiancee told me that she would wear a Veronica Mars shirt.

  4. Leigh Scott says:

    Of course, in business terms if the rewards cost even 10-15% of the budget, that’s a far cry from the cost of borrowing the budget to make the film or the downside of having investors. Plus, there is a big difference between an hour of network television and an independent film. The television show budgets probably start with $500,000 eaten up by overhead and built in studio costs. A truly independent production wouldn’t have those. But let’s be honest. This is a clever marketing ploy and a way for the studio to mitigate their risk and get a ton of free publicity. This doesn’t mark the beginning of a new business model or the future of crowd sourcing film projects, but the end. Like everything else "indie" the big guys will eventually step in and take it over. It will last only as long as the consumers can’t see through the Matrix and realize that it’s not about the fans and the little guys with the dreams, but the same studio guys who’ve been trying to sell them junk for years. Remember when myspace was a great place to find new, unsigned bands?

    • admin says:

      "But let’s be honest. This is a clever marketing ploy and a way for the studio to mitigate their risk and get a ton of free publicity. This doesn’t mark the beginning of a new business model or the future of crowd sourcing film projects, but the end."

      Yes, this. I disagree about Kickstarter as MySpace, though; it’s too diversified, with not enough profit potential. (Unless you’re talking about the KS founders, who are gonna be very, very rich when they sell the joint.) Really, they’re different missions. The whole reason many of the professional artists there are actually on KS is to NOT work with the studio guys — to get work made at a comfortable level of accountability without giving everything to some pimp.

      I dunno if it’s ultimately sustainable with stuff like this and Amanda Palmer tied in (to say nothing of the projects that never deliver), but I’ve talked to those KS guys a bit and they take the impact of these giant projects pretty seriously. At the end of the day, this is really about their money.

  5. Ron says:

    Another aspect of this Kickstarter blowup to consider is the ton of free publicity for Veronica Mars that has been generated in the broader media. I see stories about VM and Kickstarter all over the place. I didn’t watch VM on TV, but now I can order it on Netflix (surprisingly, and maybe this will now change), VM is currently available on Netflix only on disc, no streaming. Further, once the movie is made, there’s an instant word of mouth campaign from 44,000 Kickstarter investors, saying, "Hey, go see the movie I invested in!" Not to mention the online marketing campaign and Facebook page Likes that will build up in the weeks before the theatrical and VOD premieres.

  6. jon doeringer says:

    I enjoyed your article. It gives a different perspective of crowd-sourcing and promises. Kinda like when states offer so much for a new factory to come to town they never recoup any money from the company.
    Dax and Kristen made ‘hit and run’ on the cheap, for a million (2?), by not paying for permits and locations. They used their own vehicles – even KB’s Prius. The actor’s pay may have been deferred? Their biggest expense was music. $500k.
    If this is shot as an independent film, they could do it cheaply. I hope they put the money where the heart of VM lies – in characters and story-telling.
    (and make 8 2hr movies, released one a month. Best season EVER!)

  7. Zach Hunchar says:

    It’s very unlikely that it will stay in the hands of the actors/directorwriter. At the end of the day, the project is still owned by Warner Bros and I’m pretty sure that their lawyers, insurance underwriters, and bond company are not going to let the project start with this funding. This money will primarily pay for the merchandise. And whatever is leftover will go into promotional things.

    Tshirts will be printed by one of WB’s preferred vendor and they’ll make more than needed to give away at conventions and sell on their website, further driving the costs down. You’re about right on the DVD/BD costs. Fulfillment will be handled by another WB vendor.

    You’re right about the time sink by the talent. Signing that many things won’t be fun but spread out over a couple days and it’s manageable.

    • admin says:

      Duly noted, Zach. I was thinking the same thing about the shirts, though Thomas notes that they’re "limited edition" etc. — unique to the Kickstarter project itself. But to your excellent point about the conventions and website, I wondered how the projected rewards could omit something like Comic-Con this year, or SXSW next year, and what hidden roles those will play in the project overall.

      Insurance, legal etc aside, Warners is almost certainly involved somewhere, somehow behind the scenes. The whole thing is PR. Which is fine! It’s just not a movie.

  8. Fido says:

    If a project needs $2mill to work, gets $2mill but has to put a big chunk aside for overseas reward delivery costs then the project will be in trouble. Shouldn’t there be a way that all those "add $10 for nonUS delivery" donations can NOT be added to the amount donated total. This would mean, when the total does reach $2mill the project people will actually have $2mill to work with.
    (I sure there’s a better way of saying this)

  9. J. P. says:

    A very thorough analysis, but I took it as WB would be dealing with a good deal of the reward fulfillment. According to Thomas, that seems to be the case. http://www.hitfix.com/whats-alan-watching/exclusive-veronica-mars-creator-rob-thomas-on-the-wildly-successful-kickstarter-movie-campaign/2

  10. John says:

    From the title of the article I was expecting to read something more along the lines of Hollywood now asking for the audience to fund films and then pay to see them in theaters. I don’t see how having to deliver 50k t-shirts is really a problem for the Kickstarter donors – so what if they have to wait a couple of extra months? I think the biggest problem with this project is that it’s setting what I see as a very scary precedent. As a worst case scenario, a studio could potentially hold a movie/book/tv show’s fans hostage, so-to-speak, by saying "we’re not going to make this unless you pay us to". We pay them to make it and then pay them to see it? And i know some rewards in the VM project are the film itself, but they’re all above a typical theater ticket or DVD price. I guess if you have a cash cow you might as well milk it, especially if that cow doesn’t realize you’re bending it over and getting a little nookie at the same time.

  11. Samuel Goldwyn: "I never put on a pair of shoes until I’ve worn them at least five years."

  12. Ian Grey says:

    In true internet fashion, everyone’s tearing something apart that hasn’t happened yet with great authority.

    VM is the first time this has happened at this scale with this combination of creative, corporate, celebrity, and populist elements. With all due respect, can’t just deconstruct
    a few elements and call the results a working theory.