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The NYU Cinema Research Institute brings together innovators in film and media finance, production, marketing, and distribution to imagine and realize a new future for artist-entrepreneurs. 


‘Veronica Mars’ Phenomenon

Michael Gottwald, Carl Kriss & Josh Penn

In our recent post “What is grassroots?” we began the larger question that we’ll explore throughout the year: “What kind of grassroots methods work for which kinds of films?” In our second post, we will examine the unexpected success of Veronica Mars Kickstarter campaign, which raised close to four million dollars in less than a week. The film does not seem like a normal candidate for grassroots donations since it was on a network television show owned by a major studio.  However, through effective messaging, the filmmakers were able to set a new fundraising record on Kickstarter. Here is a link to the kickstarter page that is still going strong. Rob Thomas, the creator of the show explains in the Kickstarter page that after meeting with Warner Bros, “Their reaction was, ‘If you can show there’s enough fan interest to warrant a movie, we’re on board.’ So this is it. This is our shot. I believe it's the only one we've got.” With this quote, Thomas is turning his struggle with the studio Warner Bros into a grassroots cause that creates a sense of urgency for fans to contribute to the film. We learned in the last blog post about the important role urgency plays in the film distribution campaigns We Were Here vs. Henry’s Crime.

The Obama campaign in 2008 used a similar tactic to fuel its grassroots campaign by building the narrative that he was a party outsider running against the Washington establishment. This gave Obama’s candidacy a higher purpose, particularly among young, anti-establishment voters, that inspired his supporters to not only vote for Obama but also volunteer.

The question deserves to be asked: what is the equivalency between Kickstarter supporters and the supporter of a political campaign, in this instance? Is it a literal equivalence – ie the donor towards the Veronica Mars campaign is the equivalent of a donor to the Obama campaign? Or rather is it that this Kickstarter campaign has created a moment of “opting in” that the studio needed to see in order to know it could move forward with development? The moment of “opting in” is key on political campaigns because in lieu of the actual vote which comes later, it is a vote of support and of commitment, that can be used to extract valuable information from a supporter (email addresss, contact info) that can be capitalized on for later campaign initiatives. Similarly, by “opting in” to the Veronica Mars campaign, supporters’ contact information will be put on a listserv that the producers & Warner Brothers are sure to use to their advantage during distribution.

However, unlike the Veronica Mars Kickstarter page, many Obama supporters volunteered without the promise of receiving a material reward for their work. Instead, the campaign was able to motivate volunteers by giving them an unprecedented amount of access to the goals and campaign strategy, which made volunteers feel like they were playing an integral part in making history. In short, the Obama campaign inspired millions of people to volunteer by giving them a higher purpose that added meaning to their lives and not by offering a material prize. A lot of people wanted health benefits or an end of war in Iraq for example. People felt they would be getting something for their work, even if it was not as tangible as a t-shirt. The “return on investment” for Veronica Mars supporters is the existence of the tangible film itself, which will be given as a reward to those that give a certain amount of money.

This raises a more troubling element to the Kickstarter phenomenon, as far as how it intermingles with studio-backed projects. Are the fans who are opting in right now paying for the ability to pay again to see the film in a theater when it comes out? Or will they be content with the copy delivered to their (physical or digital) doorstep, and thereby the campaign is a way of “pre-selling” the film to its fans (ie using guaranteed distribution to pay for development).

What’s clear is that the Veronica Mars campaign has been successful because, to a certain extent, it was able to turn a potential film into a movement. This leads to our second question for this blog. How do you make your movie a movement, even if it is not about social issues?


-Carl, Michael and Josh