Unless you’ve been living in a far-flung locale off the grid, it would be hard to miss the hullabaloo about the Veronica Mars movie, which debuted in limited release and video-on-demand on March 14. Whether you’re on Team Reboot or Team I-DON’T-CARE-PLEASE-SHUT-UP-ALREADY, there is no denying that the record-breaking fan-funding that breathed life back into a show cancelled seven years ago is a big deal. Never before has the Big Hollywood Movie Machine had its soft underbelly so exposed to the elements of change. And that’s great news for breaking barriers for non-white-male filmmakers and the feminists who want to see more representation of women, people of color, LGBT individuals, and any other demographic typically white-washed out of the movie frame.
Full disclosure: I should admit up front that I am a fan of the Veronica Mars television show and contributed to the Kickstarter fund. But setting aside any love or hate for the franchise, the really exciting news about creator Rob Thomas’ successful campaign was that it worked. In an era of bigger-is-bigger entertainment in which movies boast nine-figure budgets, Veronica Mars’ $5.7 million crowd-funded budget seems almost anemic. And it makes the franchise’s opening weekend take of $2 million in just 291 theaters (and that’s not including digital download figures) all the more impressive. To put that in perspective, last year’s Man of Steel had a budget of $225 million and its domestic gross was just $291 million (world-wide gross was nearly $688 million). These days any movie — especially a big-budget movie — that does not at least double its budget is considered a flop by studios. (See The Lone Ranger‘s paltry $89 million domestic gross and $259.9 million world-wide gross, compared to its bloated $275 million budget.) Sure, Veronica Mars is no El Mariachi, made on an unheard of $7,000 budget, self-funded by filmmaker Robert Rodriguez (and grossing $2 million) or Kevin Smith’s famous win with the $27,000 budget of Clerks, which made $3 million — but it’s still pretty damn good.
And Hollywood is warily paying attention:
The Mars movie project has pushed fan support into uncharted territory. Actual monetary pledges to foot production costs speak more loudly to studios than petition signatures, mail-in campaign stunts and trade-pub advertisements, but John Rogers, co-creator of the independently-financed heist drama Leverage, which concluded five seasons on TNT in December, believes that Mars’ crowd funding success is fascinating but not yet significant. “I don’t like to read big changes off a single incident,” he says, “but I will say this may convince a studio to allow small margin expansions on existing intellectual property…. Rob Thomas is saying, ‘I’ve mitigated the risk and brought in the audience.’ “
In terms of the Big Hollywood Movie Machine, the one glaring issue with the potential for a democratization of film-making in which smaller, independent movies that would otherwise never see the light of the movie theater get made — Zach Braff’s new movie was funded in similar record-breaking time — but the Old Guard is scrambling to keep up with the appetite of an audience embracing the digital age. Fans and backers temporarily broke Warner Brother’s digital downloading platform with their enthusiasm on release day — exposing the very real chasm between how people like their media delivered and how capable old-school companies are at keeping up. (They should have taken note of the exact same problem one week earlier when HBO Go broke down from so many fans trying to watch the True Detective finale.)
Of course, no one is suggesting that tent pole blockbusters are going anywhere. The Hunger Games: Catching Fire ($391 million US – $409 million in North America), Frozen ($248 million), or The Heat ($160 million) — all of which are 2013 movies that not only pass the Bechdel test, but contribute to a host of films released last year that, taken together, surpass movies that didn’t pass Bechdel by a margin of $1.56 billion. (That’s billion, with a “B.”) Indeed, if the top-grossing films of 2013 tell us anything it is that audiences will not only watch female-led films, but they will flock to them. (And incidentally, the majority of movie tickets are purchased by women.) But even as movies like Hunger Games: Catching Fire have gone on to become the top grossing film of 2013 and one of the top 10 grossing action films of all time, movies about strong women (action or otherwise) are still struggling to be made. Look at how long we’ve been waiting for Wonder Woman.
This is why the success of Kickstarter campaigns — led by Thomas’ Veronica Mars movie — is all the more important. In a time when the Women’s Media Center (PDF) finds that of the top 100 films of 2012 only 28.4 percent of speaking parts are female, new financing avenues, new methods of release, and new benchmarks for financial success in the market have great potential. Just look at Kristen Bell, an executive producer on Mars. She was as much a part of the success of the crowd-funding campaign as Thomas was as a writer and director. For whatever criticisms the movie itself might be getting — it’s too much for the fans or it’s not feminist enough — this is an independent movie with women calling the shots behind the scenes and in front of the camera. In a time in which that is still startlingly rare — women accounted for only 16 percent of all directors, writers, executive producers, cinematographers, and editors in the 250 top-grossing films of 2013 — just getting a movie like Veronica Mars on the screen is revolutionary.
Whether you are a fan of Veronica Mars or not, there is a potential represented by the movie’s crowd-funding and ultimate release. Here’s hoping some amazing movies come to life because of it.