Exclusive: ‘Veronica Mars’ creator Rob Thomas on the Kickstarter movie campaign

The “Veronica Mars” movie Kickstarter campaign was an instant, runaway success, raising the $2 million minimum to make the movie in under 12 hours, with the total continuing to climb. (It passed $3 million earlier this evening.) But the process to get to this point took much longer for the show’s creator, Rob Thomas. He had all but given up on getting a “Veronica” movie made, even cheaply – “Warner Bros. is typically in the business of making big-budget movies,” he explains. “‘Small’ for them is a $30 million movie, and I understand why the ‘Veronica Mars’ movie didn’t fit into that paradigm” – until his friend, Cotton Mather lead singer Robert Harrison, suggested he try Kickstarter.

That was more than a year ago, and Thomas came very very close to convincing Warner Bros. to give him permission to try it at the time, in hopes they would film during Kristen Bell’s hiatus after the first season of “House of Lies.” But studio executives backed off, preferring to have their attorneys go over the possibilities with a fine-toothed comb to ensure they weren’t exposing themselves to legal action by teaming with Kickstarter.

Finally, though, approval came, and then the money started to flow in, and the movie has already been greenlit by Warner Bros. The only questions now are how big the budget will be – keeping in mind that a percentage of the Kickstarter funding will go towards providing the posters, t-shirts, DVDs and other prizes that fans bid on – how many actors will be available to film in between when Bell is recovered from having her baby and when she has to report to work for “House of Lies” season 3, and other matters of scope. 

I spoke with Thomas this afternoon about where the project stands now, what value there will be in fans continuing to donate, his response to criticism that fans shouldn’t have to be giving money to a big conglomerate like Warner Bros., and more.

How were you feeling Wednesday morning as you were waiting for the campaign to begin? What were your expectations for how successful it might be, and how long it would take to hit the target goal?

Rob Thomas: I have been stupidly optimistic. I have been preaching with such fervor about how big this is going to be. In talking to (fellow “Veronica Mars” producer) Joel Silver, who said, ‘Maybe we can put together a couple of million to make it; we won’t have to get fans online.’ I said, ‘It’s more than the money, it’s being out of the box. It’s the promotion that will come with it.’ I had this vision that people would really respond. Dan (Etheridge), my producing partner and I, were fantasizing that on Thursday, every writer/producer in town is going to be going to studios and going, ‘Why aren’t we doing this?’ It would be at least a mini-revolution. I was full of all this optimistic fervor about it. And then on Tuesday afternoon, Kristen and I released those little teasing tweets, and here’s the thing: there were probably a couple of hundred retweets, and probably some people were excited, but it was so much more tepid than I thought it was going to be that I went into a spiral. It was sort of unraveling me. I thought, ‘Oh, shit. If there’s even a whiff of a Veronica Mars movie, it’ll light up like a pinball. She has a million followers. It shouldn’t be 200 people that are RT’ing, it should be a couple thousand.’ So on Wednesday morning, I went from this crazy optimism to suddenly, incredibly concerned.

But even at my most wildly optimistic, I did not think we’d make 2 million in day one. There was no world for that. In my mind, I was thinking, ‘Oh, if if we could do 5 million, that would be great,’ but I thought even with that total, a good first week would would be a million and a half or 2 million. I was certainly hoping for more than our Kickstarter goal, and optimistic about it. But it still blew my mind, watching that total go up and up yesterday. There was nothing like it. I was on an endorphin high. My attention span was not longer than 4 seconds. Every tweet that was coming at me, every email, every phone call, watching that total go up, it’s the most mesmerized I’ve ever been by a computer screen. And there was a documentary film crew, making a film about the making of this movie and the campaign, in my face for 8 hours yesterday. So on top of that, I was also hyper-self-aware. It was one of the freakier days of my life.

When you started out on this project, the assumption was that Warner Bros. would not kick in any money for production, and that you would have to make it work on whatever you raised from Kickstarter. Has that changed at all, given the success and all the attention the campaign has received?

Rob Thomas: Warner Bros. has not promised us any amount of money. There is a chance where, if we needed something, and there wasn’t enough money in the budget, like one more actor deal, they’ve talked like they’re a partner, and (said) ‘We’ll make sure we’ll make a terrific movie.’ But there’s absolutely no doubt that the more money we make, the bigger and better movie it’s going to be. I just don’t think they would have let us make a cheap movie. I stop and think that if we had just made $2 million, after we paid for t-shirts and processing, it would have been a $1.4 million movie. That would’ve been really hard, and a really scaled-down movie. I don’t think we’re going to be in that position. Warner Bros., they’re certainly handling all the other big ticket expensive items, like distribution and promotion. So they’re pulling their share.

It sounds like you’ve made the calculations about how much it will cost to provide people with the t-shirts, the DVDs, etc., that they’ve paid for with their Kickstarter bids. I’ve seen some blog posts suggesting that that’s often a very big challenge for a large-scale, successful Kickstarter campaign. How on top of this are you guys? How prepared are you to make sure everyone gets what they paid for?

Rob Thomas: This is one of the ways that we are working hand-in-hand with Warner Bros. They are tracking costs on this, they’re dealing with fulfillment centers. I’m so happy that I am not having to track the profit margin of t-shirts. I get these things on reports: “At this price point, this is what we’ll spend on fulfillment, and this is how much we’ll actually make.” But fortunately, there are Warner Bros. project people who are helping us out with that.

Let’s talk about $2 million vs. $5 million vs. however high it goes. You’re still making money, but the pace has slowed since you hit the initial goal. How would you pitch it to people to encourage them to keep donating? What would be different about the movie you can make if the campaign were to end this second, as opposed to if it gets significantly higher over the remaining 29 days?

Rob Thomas: Here’s one example: There’s going to be a big high school reunion set piece in the middle of the movie. In my perfect version, there is a brawl that takes place there. A brawl is an expensive thing to shoot. That’s days of shooting. I shot a fight sequence in season 3 of the show, where Veronica was in a dorm room with the rapist. That sequence was 27 shots. One page took us an entire day of shooting. If the funding were to stop now, I promise you that that high school reunion will be “Terse words are exchanged.” It will be an argument between Veronica and others. And that’s fine. In some ways, that’s the bread and butter of “Veronica Mars.” We can make that work. But it would be more fun, it would feel more like a movie than a TV show, if we could have something bigger and cooler than that.

And what was the budget for an episode of the show?

Rob Thomas: It was $1.8 million. 

So now that you’re at about $2.7 million as we discuss this, what’s your dream goal for the campaign?

Rob Thomas: It’s one of those questions where I think, ‘Only an asshole would answer that question.’ But I’ll be an asshole anyway! In my mind, I think that at $5 million, I start feeling like that’s the tipping point. And I’m not even basing that on what I think the budget of the movie could or should be, but on what my expectations and hopes were for the amount of money we could raise on Kickstarter. We put a bigger dent in that than I could have hoped for in the last two days. We’ll certainly spend that money. We’ll find cool stuff to do if we go over it.

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 aksing for this money to make our movie, we’re selling you a product. Think of us as a store, not a charity. And I think it’s very above-board, what we’re doing here. It’s one of my hopes for why I think it can keep going, is that if you look on that website, you think, ‘Hey, t-shirt and a movie and a DVD and a script for $50, I’m in.’ Hey, I would sign up for the “Deadwood” version of this.

A lot of people are very excited about this, but others have been critical of it. They’re asking what business Warner Bros. has asking fans to give them money to make a movie, and saying that Kickstarter was meant for independent projects for people who don’t already have means or access. 

Rob Thomas: We don’t have the means or the access to get the money any other way either. I’ve tried for a very long time to get “Veronica Mars” made by traditional means. Like those indie filmmakers, I also couldn’t get this financed through traditional channels. If I could have, I would have. I certainly tried very hard to do that. Like them, I am searching out an alternative method to getting my movie made. And I think the way to look at it is, all Warner Bros. is doing is pre-selling the product. I realize that people have an emotional reaction to “Veronica Mars,” and one I’m grateful for, but we’re trying to give good value for the money. We’re asking you to pre-buy the products to prove to the studio that there can be money made. If they sold you the t-shirt and download later, they’re making profit then. No one cares that they’re making profit then. This just ensures the interest level. And I think “Veronica Mars” fans have proved there’s enough interest to make this size of a movie viable for them.

For tens of thousands of people who care about this project, you’ve already sold them a copy of the movie, in one format or another. How much concern is there for you, or for Warner Bros., that by the time the Kickstarter campaign is over, everyone who’s interested in seeing the movie will have already paid for a version of it?

Rob Thomas: I think the hope – and I don’t want to say there’s not concern on that – is that these “Veronica Mars” fans are still going to enjoy, if it’s playing in their area, going to the movie theater and watching it with a crowd. Things that I’m a big fan of, I enjoy that experience, and we think that a lot of people, even if they pre-paid for a digital download of the movie, we hope they are still going to want to go to a theater and see it. But more to the point, it’s okay if, to a degree, that’s the case, and I’m sure it will be to some degree. I hope it’s small. The upside and the way I view it – and the way that, to a degree, Warner Bros. views it – is all we’ve done is sold it to you before we made it. We’re okay with that.

Is the entirety of the Kickstarter money going to production and to fulfillment? If the campaign gets high enough, is there a chance any of it would be left over?

Rob Thomas: No. Kickstarter money will not exist beyond the cost of the movie.

All of your high-end rewards – the speaking role, naming a character, the private screening in your hometown – were already snapped up. I know you’ve said you want to add more of those, but how quickly will that happen?

Rob Thomas: I think it’s going to happen fairly quickly. There are certain things we want to open up today, or else tomorrow.  (NOTE: After we spoke, the campaign announced additional premiere events in New York and Austin, as well as more spots for background extras.) We know we need to get some more higher-end items in there. Although from the beginning, we’ve structured it with the belief that the bread and butter of the campaign will live and die at the $35 and $50 level. Those are the price points that the bulk of the backers will pledge at. That has proved pretty true, I think. Those other ideas are fun, and they keep people talking, but I don’t think that’s where the bulk of our money If you did a diagram of where our money is coming from, it’s in those $35 and $50 tiers, and the rest are fun. That $10,000 for that speaking role is a drop in the bucket, but it’s been fun and there have been so many references to it in the press about the campaign.

Have you read the interview with the guy who bought the speaking role?

Rob Thomas: I did! It’s so intriguing that he’s not even a big “Veronica Mars” fan, but just a fan of Kickstarter in general.

Well, how much do you think you’re benefiting from people like that – from being the first show to try this at this level? What percentage of the donors would you guess are “Veronica Mars” fans, as opposed to people who either like the idea of the campaign or want this to succeed so their favorite show can try it?

Rob Thomas: I would be willing to be that it’s a tiny fraction of people that are donating to the “Veronica Mars” campaign because they hope their favorite show will also (be Kickstartered). There may be a few, but I don’t think that’s a big percentage.

Now that you know the film is going to happen, and that the budget won’t be the absolute minimum, how much do you know about who will be in it? How much of the band can you put back together?

Rob Thomas: Our desire is to get the (whole) band back together. We built it around the 10-year high school reunion so that it would be convenient, and I think that’s something that fans are yearning for. And also, this is a good gap. A lot of our people work largely in television, and we are firmly in network hiatus season. We’ll probably be wrapping just as shows are going back to work, which was very intentional as well. We think we’re going to be pretty successful.

If it’s the high school reunion, does that mean no Piz and no Parker?

Rob Thomas: No, actually, in the outline – and (the script’s) not written – they both appear. That’s no guarantee that they will. We don’t have those actors in contracts, but I hope for both of them to be in there. In the outline, they both appear.

So do you basically have plans for every significant character, if in theory you can get them? Or does it become unwieldy at a certain point?

Rob Thomas: Or if they didn’t die. Ryan Devlin, who played our rapist in season 3, is one of my favorite actors, but I don’t think I could explain away how he got out of prison. Though Ryan did send me an entire pitch from his dad on how he got out on good behavior.

Frankly, I want to see Corny in the show, I want to see Madison Sinclair in the show. There was a real internal debate, for me, about what kind of movie I wanted to make. Just by way of example, I really enjoyed “Side Effects,” and that sort of noir thriller that I could see Kristen Bell as Veronica Mars in something like that. I liked the plotting of that movie. I had some desire, as a filmmaker, to take Veronica in a slightly new direction and do something adventurous with her. Or, there’s the “give the people what they want” version. And I think partly because it’s crowd-sourced, I’m going with the “give the people what they want” version. It’s going to be Veronica being Veronica, and the characters you know and love. Certainly, I think I can make a fun, great movie out of that, and I’m excited about that, but it was a creative debate I had with myself, and I finally made the decision that I’m happy with it, to go with, “Let’s not piss people off who all donated. Let’s give them the stuff that I think that they want in the movie.”

And I take it that in this version of things, Veronica never went into the FBI?

Rob Thomas: That’s correct.

So you just view that as something you pitched the CW to keep the show on the air?

Rob Thomas: Right. That exists in an alternative universe.

Getting back to the idea of other producers going to their studios to see if they can’t try this, what have you heard in the last 36 hours from colleagues in the business about this? And how much do you think the instant success of this will influence another studio’s willingness to follow in your footsteps?

Rob Thomas: I did get an email from Bryan Fuller earlier today saying, ‘Hey, can you jump on the phone with me at some point? I know you’re busy, but I would love to talk to you about how this thing works.’ And I know it was specifically for “Pushing Daisies.” I heard that, and of course I saw your retweet of the Shawn Ryan thing.

I know, on the second part of the question, that Warner Bros. isn’t treating “Veronica Mars” like a one-off. I think they’re treating us like a guinea pig – in the best way. They want to see if this model works, and they made the calculated decision, and for a lot of the reasons you articulated in that story, that we were a good test case for this. We just happened to be the right show at the right time, got to be the first one out of the gate. I think Warner Bros., if t works, it works, and they could start doing more of these. And you know that if it works at one studio, that they’re not going to be the only studio in town that will be trying it.

It took more than a year to finally put this together. Do you think that whoever tries it next – whether at Warner Bros. or with another studio – will have an easier time getting it approved?

Rob Thomas: Oh, absolutely. But the year that it went dormant is the best thing that could’ve happened. Because in these last few months where we thought, ‘It’s going to happen, it’s going to happen,’ I would say I’ve been on the phone for hundreds of hours, sent thousands of emails. We had our ducks in a row this year that we would not have last year. Those rewards were vetted like the State of the Union Address. That rewards package went through 40 drafts. It got to the point where I couldn’t even look at it. It was just like a gray, blank piece of paper. I stared at it like no other script that I have seen in my life. Everybody needed a crack at it, just like the State of the Union: Defense wants to look at it, Interior. Everyone had to sign off on it, and had comments. Had we launched last year, I think we would have been flying blind, and it would’ve been a disaster. When I first had the idea, I brought that in, wanting an answer right away, because of Kristen’s schedule, and I think they needed to get their ducks in a row, as well.

I think what they’re doing is brave, and I know there are some voices out there being critical of them. But who doesn’t want to see more movies in this price range? These movies have been dying over the last several years. So many fewer that land in this $4 or $5 million price range; this may be a way we get to see more. I think it takes a brave executive to say, “Hey, let’s try a new business model.” And trust me: they know, they’ve geared themselves up for potential criticism, but I think they’re doing something great for movie fans.

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at sepinwall@hitfix.com