I’ll say it: the Veronica Mars Movie isn’t very good. But it is revolutionary is many positive respects. How can a mediocre film be a force for good in Hollywood?
“Tragedy blows through your life like a tornado, uprooting everything. Creating chaos. You wait for the dust to settle and then you choose. You can live in the wreckage and pretend it’s still the mansion you remember. Or you can crawl from the rubble and slowly rebuild.”
Veronica Mars was a cult TV show that ran three seasons from 2004 to 2007. Take equal parts of Nancy Drew, a Raymond Chandler noir mystery and The O.C., and you get Veronica Mars’s uniquely dark, acerbic, witty, Californian teen investigation romp. The series was excellent, but was cancelled because of low viewer numbers.
On Metacritic, Veronica Mars scores an average of 61%. However, the user scores tell a different story.
Now, after seven years in obscurity, Veronica Mars is back with no less than a feature length film. The film itself is objectively quite average, and it gets a lot of things wrong, at least from a traditional point of view. It is inaccessible to newcomers, too many characters are included purely for fan service (Ryan Hanson’s Dick Casablancas is criminally underused), the mystery at the centre of the plot is too shallow and too light on action, and the film’s shoestring budget shows badly.
This is reflected in the film’s metascore. On Metacritic, Veronica Mars scores an average of 61%. However, the user scores tell a different story. On IMDB, the user score is 78%, while on Metacritic the user score is 88%.
Why the big difference between the critics’ scores and the users’ scores? I think the user scores are inflated (justly or unjustly) because of the unique way the film was funded, made and distributed.
Veronica Mars, the TV show, was cancelled for a reason. It didn’t make the producers or the networks enough money. On that basis, they were unlikely to ever get studio backing to fund a fourth series, let alone a feature film. So in 2012, the show’s creator and star, Rob Thomas and Kristen Bell, started a Kickstarter campaign to fund a film. The campaign was extraordinarily successful, raising $5.7 million and smashing the $2 million goal. The fans wanted to see more Veronica Mars, and when the studios wouldn’t fund it for them they funded it themselves.
There was no requirement to target as wide an audience as possible
Funded in this way, the film’s creators were freed from many of the usual pressures of making a studio-funded film. Perhaps most importantly, there was no requirement to target as wide an audience as possible. This allowed the creators to do something very unusual: to give the existing fans exactly what they wanted. This is stranger than it sounds. Consider the following:
- There were no new characters added to appeal to new demographics.
- There was no attempt to build a lucrative new franchise.
- There was no spectacle out-of-character for the Veronica Mars universe.
All these things are most unusual for film adaptations, whether of TV shows, comics or novels. What the creators made was essentially a 100-minute episode of the TV show.
This was a truly modern distribution model fit for the digital age.
Traditionally, films are distributed in a model where different media and regions are targeted in phases, on the assumption that this will maximise revenue. A film will go exclusively to cinemas first, then to retail sales (eg. on Blu-Ray and DVD), then to pay-per-view (eg. iTunes and Sky Movies) and then to TV and subscription streaming services (eg. Netflix). Veronica Mars did none of this.
The Veronica Mars Movie was released simultaneously in cinemas and online. It was available to rent or buy on several streaming and download services, including iTunes and Flixter. Fans were able to watch the film however they wanted, whether in the cinema, at home or even on the go, straight away. This was a truly modern distribution model fit for the digital age. In the same way that Veronica habitually showed up the adults around her as slow-witted and behind-the-times, the distribution of the Veronica Mars Movie has shone a light on the dinosaurs dressed as executive producers in Hollywood and shown them how things should be done today.
Here was a film that looked as though it gave a damn about its audience and not only about the bottom line.
And so we return to those user scores. 78% on IMDB and 88% on Metacritic. Seventeen and 27 percentage points respectively above the critical average. Here was a film uniquely funded by fans, made for fans, and distributed to fans everywhere. Here was a film that looked as though it gave a damn about its audience and not only about the bottom line. And the fans have, by and large, loved it for that.
Veronica Mars has used a revolutionary business model. The fans have rewarded the creators with a lot of goodwill, first expressed in Kickstarter pledges and now in user reviews. The remaining question is how much money it will make for the creators and for Warner Bros. Although the $2 million it made in cinemas on its opening weekend apparently leaves some way to go before the film breaks even, revenue from online distribution has not been disclosed, so we will have to wait before judging Veronica Mars a success or a failure.
The Veronica Mars Movie raises a sly middle finger in the direction of the establishment.
If it is a failure, crowd-funding will likely be the preserve of indie/arthouse films that don’t expect to turn a profit. But if it is a success (and I hope that it will be), it could signal that it’s time for change in Hollywood: time to respect the audience, give them what they want and allow them to access films in the way that’s most convenient for them.
The Veronica Mars Movie raises a sly middle finger in the direction of the establishment. The Veronica we know and love wouldn’t have it any other way. But Veronica Mars never shied away from the reality that not every underdog story has a happy ending. For the sake of film and of forward-looking audiences everywhere, let’s hope this one does.