Here's a bold new concept for all those niche TV shows out there, hanging on for dear life with a small-but-rabid fan base: Get canceled.
Hey, it worked for “Veronica Mars.” In 2007, the teen noir drama was scrapped by the CW after three critically acclaimed yet low-rated seasons. And boy is that paying off now. After seven years of angry viewers persistently beating the drum for a movie sequel to their beloved series (which starred Kristen Bell as a teenage private detective) a big-screen film version opens in theaters on Friday, thanks to a revolutionary Kickstarter campaign that raised millions of dollars, all donated by fans.
So was this all a long con to get a movie on the big screen? Not so much — on the day of the film's premiere at the South by Southwest festival in Austin, Texas, creator Rob Thomas was still in disbelief that the journey played out the way it did.
“It's strange how much momentum there was being off the air for seven years,” mused Thomas by phone from Austin, his hometown. “We were never on the cover of magazines when we were on the air . . . seven years later, we're on the cover of Entertainment Weekly. It made my head spin.”
Though Thomas wasn't sure it would ever happen, in order to really sell the idea to Warner Bros., he felt he had to show “wild optimism” for the project, suppressing any doubts. After all, he had been in regular contact with Bell since the show went off the air, as they brainstormed ideas on how to get the characters back on screen. They missed filming the show and had a hunch — and Twitter feeds full of people confirming — that viewers missed watching it.
Last spring, Warner Bros. agreed that if Thomas could raise $2 million through crowd-funding site Kickstarter in one month, they would kick in the rest for a film budget. The Internet went crazy, and the campaign reached its goal in 10 hours, going on to raise nearly $6 million. Fast forward to a year later and Thomas is set to walk the red carpet with his cast, including Bell, Enrico Colantoni, Jason Dohring, Chris Lowell, Tina Majorino and many others thrilled to reprise their roles.
What is it about the show that sent fans into such a frenzy? The series followed Veronica, a high school student in Neptune, Calif., after the small beach town was rocked by the murder of her best friend, Lilly. Veronica's father, the sheriff, accused Lilly's father (the most powerful man in town) of killing his own daughter; that theory proved untrue, and her dad was run out of office, making Veronica a pariah at school. The act of grieving Lilly's death sent Veronica into the seedy world of private investigation, as she joined her dad's new P.I. office and tried to solve the murder.
The show was a cut above other fast-paced teen dramas and Veronica was a unique character — sharp, witty and with a steely exterior that masked her own vulnerability after dealing with tragedy. Thomas theorizes that's what helped set the series apart and why people connected with it so deeply, especially as Veronica simultaneously navigated the treacherous waters of high school. Calling Bell's lead character “the perfect marriage of an actor and a role,” Thomas said that he thinks viewers responded to her charisma and attitude, similar the reaction to female heroes in shows like “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and “Alias.”
“Veronica's power, if anything, was being the smartest person in the room,” Thomas said. “That's what I think people really responded to.” Thomas, a former high school teacher, also tapped into the psychological minefield of adolescence, especially for an outsider. “High school kids tend to be the most self-conscious people on the planet,” he said. “Her superpower is not caring about them. She's so far beyond it and won't let people define the way she feels about herself.”
Thomas himself can relate to being on the outside. Growing up he was “a middle-class kid going to a rich high school.” His father was a vice principal in a wealthy Austin suburb; as the child of a faculty member, Thomas was allowed to attend the school, even though his family couldn't afford to live in the area. He drew on those topics when he pitched the series and coupled them with ideas about teens in the age of information overload; he also set the series in a fictional beach town in which class warfare raged between the ritzy billionaires and blue-collar residents who populated the area. Combining those themes made for rich subject matter and the show quickly became a cult favorite.
Unfortunately, that cult viewership wasn't enough to sustain on broadcast TV, especially for the fledgling UPN/WB-turned-CW network. Thomas had ideas for a fourth season; he thought the third season (when Veronica went off to college, newly confident in the way you can only be after escaping high school) was missing the idea of Veronica as an underdog. He's thrilled to bring her back to the big screen in such a way, even if some of the attention is focused on the movie's financing and not its plot.
The controversy over using Kickstarter seemed to reach a peak when, shortly after Thomas's success, Zach Braff started a campaign for a sequel to his hit “Garden State,” done so he could have complete control over the film. People were upset that an actor worth millions was turning to fans for their hard-earned money when they wouldn't see a dime in return.
Thomas has some thoughts on this, but he's fairly even-keeled. “Every Kickstarter is driven by its own thing,” he said. “I have no issues with Zach Braff raising money on Kickstarter. Everyone who gave money to his Kickstarter knows he's a rich Hollywood actor and could get financing for his movie. What he wanted was to cast who he wanted — and extra money would allow him to do that.”
“The people who were complaining — I think the easy thing to do is not give money. . . . Each [campaign] should be judged on their own merit,” he added.
The bigger takeaway from the “Veronica Mars” saga is that it helped change the democracy about how movies get made: These days, if you have an idea and a passionate fan base, it's possible to make something happen.
Currently, all eyes are on the box office — along with Amazon and iTunes and on-demand cable systems — which will also offer the movie on opening day. Will the legion of fans who tweeted at Thomas about the series turn out in droves? Will it be enough?
No matter what happens, Thomas is nearly in denial that it all worked out. He recalls the “intense, out-of-body” experience on the day the Kickstarter campaign launched last April, when he sat glued to his computer as a documentary crew filmed his reaction (for a short feature that will be available with the purchase of the movie).
When funding hit the $1 million mark in just four hours, shattering Kickstarter records, he had an “absolute, out-of-my-skull joyous feeling”; by the time it hit $2 million later that day, he was emotionally drained and so mentally exhausted that he almost had to summon the rest of his joy for the cameras.
“I was a spent man by that point,” Thomas said. “But still so deliriously happy.”