The news yesterday that Warner Brothers had given Rob Thomas, the television writer who created Veronica Mars (he’s also an extremely strong young adult novelist whose work is well worth a look), permission to crowdfund a movie continuation of the show, was met with some disgruntlement that viewers were being asked to be the investors in a corporate product from which they’d recognize no profits, and, at the point of this writing $2.761 million in donations, more than enough to get the movie made. Willa Paskin is obviously correct that consumers’ ticket dollars already fund the production of movies. But in between her argument and the view of critics of the project lies an important point: if consumers are going to get asked like investors by mainstream media companies, they should think about what they want out of the bargain other than the simple creation fo the product.
The idea that investors deserve something more than the existence of whatever product or movie or show they’re funded is embedded in Kickstarter’s rewards system. If you give at different levels, you might get a t-shirt, tickets to a premiere party, or even an opportunity to name a character or appear in a film or game. Those rewards tend to be set by the people who are proposing the project, based on what they think they can manageably offer (though a considerable portion of crowd-funded projects ship their core products late, and some developers are running into problems when demand or unexpected costs for rewards means higher burdens for delivery than they expected). Where consumer choice enters into the process is the selection of the reward level, rather than the offerings themselves.
One thing that’s striking about the Veronica Mars Kickstarter is that you have to give at least $35, more than four times the cost of the average American movie ticket in 2012, to get a digital download of the movie. You have to give $750 to get a ticket to the premiere of the film in Los Angeles. If the Kickstarter was really inverting the process by which ticket sales fund the production of movies, going from taking the profits from one project and plowing them into the creation of another, to letting people put that ticket money up in advance, then the campaign would have to get tickets or downloads to all of its donors. It would be a method that would be fair to fans, who after all, want to see the thing they’re funding, and it might make a lot of sense for both the studios and for third-party retailers like Fandango. Nothing sells tickets like advance buzz, and getting people to commit to see the movie in advance is probably a good way to get them to bring their friends along as well. And while tickets and downloads require initial coordination with Fandango or iTunes, they’re less costly and work-intensive than say, printing and mailing t-shirts.
That’s a small example of the sorts of material things that fans could and should express that they want out of projects like this. But there are a lot of other ways to think about these kinds of investment opportunities. I might have been more excited, for example, to invest in buying back the rights to create new work in the Veronica Mars universe for Rob Thomas, if Warner Brothers could have been persuaded to sell it. I’d love to see a block of fan investors who prioritize projects that commit to work with union crews and pay actors union wages.
And I’ve written about this before, but I’d frankly love to see fans move beyond investing in single projects. Given all the discussion we have about the whiteness of movies and television, and, as Ta-Nehisi Coates and I have written, the lack of black investors who are willing and able to lose money financing projects, I’d be excited to see a crowd-funded film investment fund that only backs projects by creators of color or featuring non-white actors, perhaps that’s structured as a non-profit*. Ditto for an investment fund that could back projects by women. There’s nothing wrong with passionate attachment to single franchises, or single creators, but those aren’t the only ways that fans think about popular culture. And limiting our demonstrations of investment power to single artists or single projects ultimately limits our reach, and our ability to affect the culture. I don’t think fans are ever going to put together Megan Ellison money, for example. But I think ordinary viewers, over time, and perhaps through subscription, could put together enough to fund a series of projects that would be good enough to attract notice at places like Sundance and SXSW.
All of these approaches mean thinking through an awful lot of logistics and organizational questions. But those are all much less difficult to do than that getting fans to think of themselves not as supplicants but as an economic force. It’s easy to feel disempowered in the face of show cancellations and fired showrunners and huge delays in movie adaptations. But at a moment of extraordinary chaos in the television industry, and of new and emerging distribution models in both movies and television, this is the perfect moment for viewers with money to spend to assert ourselves, and not just to buy a speaking part in a Veronica Mars movie.
I should note have no objection to the idea of fans making money off such funds. I just think that a non-profit structure might help alleviate expectations for first-time investors, given the number of film and television projects that end up generating losses.