Veronica Mars and Exchanges of Value Revisited
Wednesday was one of the more interesting days on Twitter I’ve ever seen, from the snarking about the new Pope (same as the old Pope), to the anger over Google mothballing Reader, to the more local disappointment of Wes Welker signing with the Broncos. But nothing generated more interest, excitement, and conversation amongst the TVitterati in my feed than the Kickstarter for the Veronica Mars movie, which you’ve probably heard raised its goal of $2 million in 12 hours, and now stands at $3.3 million and more than 50,ooo backers (and counting). The tweeting turned into blogging, with pieces that celebrated the phenomenon and its success – my favorites being James Poniewozik’s early piece and Willa Paskin’s defense against the backlash – analyzed the finances of 50k reward packages, and critiqued Kickstarting a global media conglomerate. (And as always, News for TV Majors has curated a great selection of links.)
At first, I thought I didn’t have much more to say beyond what I said in my initial tweets: “I don’t see the downside of using Kickstarter for major studio projects. It helps support Kickstarter, which should help indies as well. As for fans as funders, we’re basically just pre-buying merchandise, DVDs, or experiences. How is that unethical?” I still hold to that basic sentiment, which resonates with this great interview with VM creator Rob Thomas:
The nice thing is that we never wanted to be perceived as a charity. We always imagined that we’re putting up a Kickstarter page, and we’re selling real product at real prices to fans. It’s not like a pledge drive where you pledge 100 dollars and get a 4 dollar tote bag, where it’s done out of the goodness of your heart, and for charity. We wanted to created packages where people look at what they’re getting and think, ‘Wow, I got a script and a digital download and a t-shirt for $35. I would pay that!’ So all those people worrying that we’re asking for this money to make our movie, we’re selling you a product. Think of us as a store, not a charity.
Now I do understand that it gets slippery to use the same site as a “store” for a mass market project like Veronica Mars and a “charity” (or at least non-equity support) for fringe or special-interest projects that would struggle to raise 1/1000 of Thomas’s campaign, and there is a danger of co-opting the site for major projects. But I think there’s greater upside in thinking that many of those 50,000 supporters are new to Kickstarter, and might discover other, more indy projects on the site that interest them as well. Certainly my own experiences with Kickstarter include both established filmmakers (backing Hal Hartley’s newest project Meanwhile) and up-and-comers (like a documentary on the Wisconsin Uprising or my former student’s first feature Manchild), and I feel happy to have both types of project co-existing via the platform.
What inspired me to write this post was remembering the first thing I ever wrote about Veronica Mars – not my analysis of its perfect pilot, but a piece for Flow in 2005 called “Exchanges of Value.” That article was about my experience of watching the first season via BitTorrent, and how such illicit consumption arguably added more value to the franchise than the more conventional way I watched the next two seasons (recorded on my TiVo, skipping ads, and not counting in any metric of viewership). The Flow piece is a snapshot of its time when the industry was just experimenting with monetizing digital downloads (I note at the end that Apple just released a video iPod!), but it also calls attention to an unusual fact: despite being a big fan of the show and calling it one of the last decade’s best series, I have never spent any of my own money on Veronica Mars. I have generated income for the series indirectly: ordering the DVDs for our college library, and regularly teaching the pilot, which inspires many students to keep viewing the series on Netflix or other sources.
So the $50 I spent on Wednesday to get a copy of the film’s script, a digital download in release week, a DVD, and a T-shirt (what a bargain!) was the first time I actually spent money on one of my favorite media texts. So while on the one hand I was pre-buying access to the film, I was also finally paying for the many hours of pleasure that Veronica Mars has given me. This type of serial investment is hard to quantify, as I could have certainly continued to not pay for my enjoyment of the series (and clearly my investment was not what triggered the film’s greenlight), but I felt moved to buy a stake in its continuation in large part because I felt I owed the series something for that past pleasure.
And I am also buying a stake in another form of serial pleasure: “a ticket to the ride” that is Kickstarter, in the words of Ian Bogost:
We’re paying for the sensation of a hypothetical idea, not the experience of a realized product. For the pleasure of desiring it. For the experience of watching it succeed beyond expectations or to fail dramatically. Kickstarter is just another form of entertainment. It’s QVC for the Net set. And just like QVC, the products are usually less appealing than the excitement of learning about them for the first time and getting in early on the sale.
For $50, I’m not only getting all that merchandise, I’m also getting regular emails from Rob Thomas updating me on the project, and a badge of honor for being a member of a growing tribe of supporters. I may have no equity stake in the project, but I do have an emotional one (which is arguably worth more than what my meager funds could purchase in profit sharing). So while I’m giving my money to Warner Bros., I do the same every time I pay my cable bill or buy a ticket to one of their films. But this time I’m getting something more palpable: I’m entering into a commercially-facilitated, serialized one-way relationship with a mass media text and its production crew – which is a pretty good definition of fandom in general.
Filed under: Fandom, Film, Film Industry, New Media, Television, TV Industry, TV Shows, Viewers | 8 Comments
Tags: Kickstarter, Veronica Mars