March 14, 2014

Creator Rob Thomas On Solving the Mystery of Making the 'Veronica Mars' Movie

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.

Please check out the OnStory website and register to let the foundations who support AFF know that you appreciate OnStory episodes and content so they can continue to provide these television episodes and podcasts with screenwriters and directors for our benefit.

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.

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8 Comments

Just saw it. Totally worth it.
I loved the show, and I loved the movie.

March 14, 2014 at 9:51PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Mr.Floppy

love to see the underdog get funding,, not a fan nor do i support greedy people like zach braff or spike lee, but people who are not of the traditional hollywood ecosystem, i support their motives and drive towards making a film

actually i would have liked to see how the movie would have done on the bigscreen for atleast three weeks before going straight to dvd or vod, just to boost kickstarter big screeen funding even more

March 14, 2014 at 10:16PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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JAYE

I went to a certain Russian site that shall remain nameless and the movie was already uploaded and available. I skipped it, since I was one of three hundred million plus that didn't follow it in the first place but it is there. of course, the latest Liam Neeson action flick is there as well. It's been out for two weeks in the US.

March 15, 2014 at 8:49AM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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DLD

Now if we could just get someone to do the same for Firefly....

March 15, 2014 at 11:57AM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Think it's great that they got to make their little TV movie for their fans, I just have no idea why they think anyone else would want to watch it- especially in a cinema.

March 15, 2014 at 12:15PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Keith

The modern low budget film making is less about a wide appeal and more about a wildly enthusiastic and loyal base. A big budget flick, obviously, still has to sell a lot of (20M+) tickets. Something like this may turn profit - even accounting for Hollywood's ... accounting - from a lot less and, if film production is paid for already, it's basically turning profit from day one. According to Wikipedia, the TV show was watched by an average of 2.5M during its three year run. That is low for a network drama but, if they sell 2.5M movie tickets, they'll be raking in dough.

March 15, 2014 at 6:16PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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DLD

Veronica Mars opened with a $2M weekend at 291 theaters (according to Box Office Mojo). Depending on the arrangements, about 85% of that should go to the distributor Warner Brothers, Which portion the producers of the film get is, at this point, unknown.

March 16, 2014 at 4:48PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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DLD

One thing about making a movie that must draw a wide audience (like most Hollywood films) to turn a profit, is that most of the time the script is dumbed down to the lowest common denominator. The monied interests don't want to see a script that takes chances or is somewhat intellectual that an indie film might be able to pull off because it didn't cost as much to make and could make money with fewer ticket sales.

It used to be that Hollywood studios would make quality "popcorn" films and still get butts in the seats (Jaws and Raiders are two of the best examples) but today's teenagers seem to want SPECIAL EFFECTS rather than a movie with a solid screenplay, great acting, and creative editing, lighting, cinematography, etc.

They've been weened on crap and they expect crap.

Thomas seems to have decided to take the indie film approach to wrap up his creation.

March 22, 2014 at 2:13PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Dan H