Those corners of the social-media world that weep openly for low-rated television shows and the too-smart-for-Two And A Half Men characters who populate them lit up on Wednesday, when TV producer Rob Thomas and spunky actress Kristen Bell announced that the high school noir they worked on years ago, Veronica Mars, would be coming back as a movie. The catch: In order for this to happen, fans of the show would have to take a break from making GIFs out of their worn-through DVDs and pony up some cash, $2 million in total, via the crowdfunding website Kickstarter.
Veronica Mars aired on UPN (later merged with The WB and rebranded as The CW) in the mid-2000s and it was a thoroughly enjoyable show that I would make an effort to watch every week. The dialogue snapped; the rapport between the actors, particularly the way Kristen Bell’s titular teen private eye pinged off Jason Dohring’s tortured rich boy Logan Echolls, leapt off the screen; the music was just ahead of the curve enough for “music of Veronica Mars” posts to be traffic gold at the music blog I edited back then. (Among the bands I heard on VM first: Phoenix.) It went off the air in 2007 with a bit of a whimper; the network and Thomas had mouthed promises about the show coming back for a fourth season where Mars would potentially work for the FBI, but they never came to fruition.
Still, the cult for the show has grown alongside the instant-nostalgia machine, and the stars involved have encouraged it somewhat; in 2012 Bell told Self, “We’re not going to stop, even if I’m 80 and I’m Veronica Mars in an old folks home, I still think we’ll do [a movie], and I’m game.” Thomas created another cult classic, the cater-waiter comedy Party Down, and cast a smattering of former Mars stars (Ken Marino, who played bumbling PI Vinnie Van Lowe; Ryan Hansen, who played dickish rich boy Dick Casablancas) as regulars; Bell appeared in a recurring role, and Enrico Colantoni, who played Veronica’s detective dad Keith, made an appearance. And the part of the internet that endlessly regurgitates recent pop-cultural history, whether through “remember when” GIFs or mash-ups with other effluvia, has taken to Mars‘s combination of rapidfire wit and eye candy, keeping the show so close to the forefront of the cultural memory that it’s hard to believe six years have elapsed since its finale.
“Warner Bros. still owns Veronica Mars,” Thomas wrote on the project’s Kickstarter page, “and we would need their blessing and cooperation to pull this off. Kristen and I met with the Warner Bros. brass, and they agreed to allow us to take this shot. They were extremely cool about it, as a matter of fact. Their reaction was, if you can show there’s enough fan interest to warrant a movie, we’re on board.” Thomas estimated that 30,000 people would need to donate the average Kickstarter pledge of $71 to make that happen; approximately 80,000 who donated 25 would also do.
“Surely, 80,000 of our three million viewers would find that price-point viable!” Thomas wrote. This sentence shows how this campaign, despite being in service of a quality show that got knocked off the air way too soon, is essentially a “proof of concept” that savvily exploits the divide between notions of “success”: Doing well on the balance sheet of an entertainment conglomerate is a much taller order than seeming like a success on the internet. The reason Veronica Mars got pulled in the end? Ratings: In its three seasons, its best performance was when it was the 11th-least-watched show on television. Part of this can be chalked up to its airing on two networks with dismal numbers, of course, but that only strengthens the show’s cult status. As of this writing, the project has raised $3.1 million and counting; that’s a little more than a dollar per person who actually watched the show when it was on.
The divide between internet success and breaking even on a network has been a pain point for the broadcast networks, which have steadily watched their slice of the pie dwindle over the years. But even those shows that are seen as failures on cable networks would be windfalls in the world of the real-time web measurement site ChartBeat; Enlightened, for example, brought in 300,000 viewers for its season finale last month, and it’s in danger of being canceled, even though having 300,000 simultaneous viewers on a web site would be seen as an unequivocal success. When I interviewed Community writer Maggie Bandur a few weeks back, we got to talking about Twitter, which she eschews in part because social media just isn’t her thing. But she also feels like the platform she reaches on her show (which in its most recent season has had numbers eclipsed by Mars‘s ratings) is, well, enough: “TV audiences are a lot smaller than they used to be—but they’re still millions of people. I work with a lot of people who do a lot of tweeting, and they can’t believe that I’m not into it. I can definitely see the appeal, and it may happen one day, but you know, the funny things I say are heard by three million people!”
Bandur’s comment and the success of the Veronica Mars campaign (and, to a lesser extent, that of major-label-bred, publicity-firm handled, endlesly self-aggrandizing online sensation Amanda Palmer) brings up what I find to be a troubling aspect of the new economy, at least as far as culture is concerned. True, sites like Kickstarter aren’t as cuddly and benevolent as their creators want to make them seem; all those bubble fonts don’t hide the fact that there’s a business with big money lurking underneath. But when it comes to cultural product on a scale like the one offered by Kickstarter, where individual donors and not foundations or corporations can help bring a work to market, personal, evocative relationships between patron, creator, and artwork come into play—and when raising money is paramount, those creators who have already had marketing under their belt will have a natural competitive advantage, and those who have had the muscle of a network (or a pre-Napster-collapse major label) will have one that’s even stronger. (The Mars campaign also has the advantage of being first to market. If delays plague the project, or if people don’t get their t-shirts and Blu-Ray discs, watch out Terriers movie.)
In the wake of people reacting to the Mars campaign with gently skeptical statements about funding art in 2013, Palmer took to Twitter, protesting in all caps that “ANYBODY CAN ASK FOR FUCKING HELP WITH THEIR FUCKING ART. ANYBODY BIG ANYBODY SMALL ANYBODY KNOWN ANYBODY UNKNOWN ANYBODY.” Which is the message of her noxious TED Talk (in which she tells a bunch of highbrows who can drop $7,500 on a conference the heartwarming story of how her music made relegating hosts to their couches OK). And, well, yes, anyone can ask for help. But who actually receives that help? Money is not an infinite resource, and neither is time. What newer culture is being ignored or withering on the underfunded vine as a result of “DIY” projects by known quantities? How different is the up-from-below “new model” from the top-down old one? Times like this make me think that the only true alteration to the already-existing setup is a mirror, and maybe some smoke provided by an all-too-gullible press.