Exactly one year and a day since launching the Kickstarter campaign that raised $2 million in twelve hours and ultimately raised over $5.7 million in 30 days, the Veronica Mars movie hits the big screen day-and-date with its VOD digital distribution. While Veronica Mars changed who uses Kickstarter to fund films and introduced many new people to the crowdfunding platform, series creator and film writer/director Rob Thomas explains that this movie simply would not have happened without the crowdfunding support of its ardent fans. Now with the film's release, OnStory TV from Austin Film Festival provides an in-depth interview with Thomas to learn how he, Kristen Bell, and their collaborators solved the mystery of how to make the Veronica Mars movie.
The Austin Film Festival & Conference has made available a very special edition of OnStory TV with Veronica Mars series creator and film writer/director Rob Thomas along with actor Chris Lowell, interviewed by Ben Blacker of The Nerdist Writers Panel. We unfortunately can't embed the video here, but you can check it out here.
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If you don't have time to check out the whole OnStory episode, here are the three keys that unlock the mystery of how they brought Veronica Mars to the big screen (and many more smaller screens).
Know Your Audience
After three seasons (two years on UPN, then the third on the CW after the merger with the WB), Veronica Mars went off the air. Creator Rob Thomas was told by CW executives that the series may not be renewed, so he may want to wrap up loose ends. Instead, Thomas did the opposite, leaving story threads undone so it would be difficult for executives to cancel the show. Nevertheless, Thomas couldn't forestall the inevitable.
Thomas believed that dedicated Veronica Mars fans still wanted more. Did they ever. Together with series star Kristen Bell, Thomas shattered previous Kickstarter film records with the Veronica Mars movie campaign, hitting their initial $2 million goal in 12 hours, and ultimately raising $5.7 million from 91,585 fans. Not only did it mean they would make a Veronica Mars movie, they changed how filmmakers perceived Kickstarter as a financing platform. While the amount of money raised made a lot of headlines, Thomas points out that the publicity generated for the modestly budgeted film was perhaps even more valuable.
Now that the film has been funded by the fans, Thomas has to find the balance between writing for the fans and writing for a wider audience. As he discusses in the OnStory episode, comments from initial test screening were very positive, but many focused on the introduction of the movie. For fans of the series, they complained that the 2-3 minute intro was unnecessary, while newcomers appreciated the prologue to get up to speed. Thomas needs to strike just the right balance in the opening to appease the fans while making the story accessible to their friends and dates who may be new to the Veronica Mars universe.
Because the film was fan funded via Kickstarter, the audience is in the movie. The best anecdotes Thomas and actor Chris Lowell (Piz) tell from the shoot involve the days when Kickstarter backers were on-set as extras. On the second viewing of the film, Thomas encourages fans to check out the background action in the high school reunion scene and other large crowd scenes to see some outstanding performances. Lowell also acknowledges the gratitude that the cast felt on set everyday, knowing that these backers had given them their jobs to reprise their roles from the series. These stories emphasize how crowdfunding really connects the backers with the filmmakers in ways that go well beyond the film itself. If the film is successful, Thomas has entertained the idea of using Kickstarter again simply to keep that community together for a future production.
Know Your Characters
Although the characters have aged several years since Veronica Mars went off the air, Thomas explains that he didn’t have to change much in how the characters speak and act because he always wrote them wise beyond their years in the TV series. Thomas even admits that the show Friday Night Lights approached him to write some episodes, and despite loving the series, he had to decline because that series was so good at writing natural dialogue for teenagers while his dialogue was always stylized and much more mature than the characters’ ages.
More importantly, Thomas knew that fans would want to see all of their favorite characters. The natural set piece to bring everyone back together, including the high school principal, would be a ten-year reunion. Kickstarter backers not only made this possible with the money they contributed, but also as background extras for this key set piece.
Know Your Market
Warner Bros. owns Veronica Mars, so Thomas couldn’t shop the movie around to other studios. While the series has a dedicated fan base, Thomas acknowledges that Warner Bros. makes big budget films and his project didn’t warrant the budget that Warner Bros. invests in its films. He describes Kickstarter as the Hail Mary pass to bring Veronica Mars back.
Instead of pursuing a traditional wide theatrical release, Warner Bros. decided to do a day-and-date limited theatrical release combined with digital distribution (streaming rentals and buy-to-own digital downloads) through several outlets including Amazon Instant Video, iTunes, Best Buy Cinema Now, Xbox, Vudu, Flixster and Sony Entertainment Network. This is unprecedented for a major studio's distribution company.
Major theatre chains won’t screen films that go day-and-date to VOD, so the major studios haven’t pursued this model. This is why when smaller distributors like IFC Films, Magnolia Pictures or Drafthouse Films release films day-and-date or even to VOD before the theatrical window, those films are limited to independent theatres -- many of which are the last remaining single screen theatres, which also means theatrical bookings that sometimes only last two to three days over a weekend.
So how is Warner Bros. releasing Veronica Mars on 270 AMC Theatres screens, the second largest theatre chain in the United States? Warner Bros. is renting the screens from AMC (a.k.a. “four-walling”), which means the studio will keep all of the box office revenue from the screenings since it is paying for the use of the screens. AMC can claim they are not violating their policy of not screening day-and-date VOD films because this is a rental agreement with Warner Bros., not the traditional box office split model. Four-walling can cost between $5,000 to $20,000 a week, but no specific figures have been reported for the Veronica Mars deal between Warner Bros. and AMC. The film will also play on a few independent theatre screens, but will mostly generate business from its digital distribution. Warner Bros. is only marketing the movie online and in AMC theatres with the belief that the existing fan base and the publicity from the Kickstarter campaign will drive the revenue for the film.
You can check out the first 8 minutes of the Veronica Mars movie on Fandango, and if the movie isn't playing on a screen in your town, you can rent or buy it online to watch on the screen of your choice.
Do you think Veronica Mars will push more studios to explore day-and-date theatrical and VOD releases? How do you think this current release will impact the relationship between distributors and theatre owners? Share your thoughts with us in the comments.