In just five days, Rob Thomas convinced 55,500 people to donate $3.6 million to his Kickstarter campaign for a Veronica Mars movie, based on his cult TV series about a teenage private eye that ran for three seasons before it was canceled in 2007. Bloomberg Businessweek caught up with Thomas to discuss Veronica Mars, how to make a low-budget film, and what it’s like to ask people for money on the Internet.
I had no idea that I knew so many people who liked Veronica Mars. The fan base seems to have grown since it went off the air.
It’s hard to tell. I hear more about it than I did a few years ago, that’s for sure. But technology has changed so much that I don’t know if there really is more interest, or if the volume of that interest has been turned up because of Twitter. Before Twitter or Facebook (FB), all the fandom that I knew about was anecdotal. Now it’s in your face.
You’d tried to get this movie green-lit in the past. Why didn’t it work?
Warner Brothers (TWX) owns Veronica Mars, so I couldn’t go out and sell the movie around town. It was either going to be a Warner Brothers movie or it wasn’t going to exist. At one point a couple years ago, Joel Silver, who is my partner on the project and who knows much more about getting big studio movies made, said ‘Hey Rob, I think there’s a window of opportunity. We convinced Warner Brothers do a study on name recognition with a Veronica Mars movie, so come in here with a pitch.” Unfortunately, it didn’t work out. But had it worked out, we would’ve been on the bottom-rung budget of a studio movie, which is about $30 million. Frankly, I was nervous about doing a film that expensive because it would’ve been very challenging to recoup that. I was much more comfortable with a budget of $4 million or something. With that, I know we can be profitable.
Can you even make a movie on such a small budget?
Last year Kristen Bell [who plays the character Veronica Mars] and her husband Dax [Shepard] did Hit and Run. When we talked about the budget price point she said, “We made that for $2 million. And it even had car chases!” So we’re going to try to put bit of that production’s spirit to it. Kristen and I are working at bargain rates. I’m directing and writing this for the guild minimum. We’re trying to keep costs as low as possible and we’re just betting on success.
What do you think of the criticism that Warner Brothers is using the public to fund its own project?
Here’s the thing: it would be unseemly of us or of Warner Brothers if they were holding Veronica Mars hostage. But this movie wouldn’t have happened any other way. For $35, you get a t-shirt, a download of the movie, and a copy of the script. That’s a good deal. My wife just got accepted to graduate school at University Texas and I tried to buy her a UT sweatshirt the other week as a sort of “Congratulations, you’re back in college!” present. I couldn’t find it on its own for less than $35. It seems like a fair price.
The other criticism I hear is that Kickstarter should be about independent filmmakers and we’re somehow spoiling the purity of Kickstarter. I’d say that this project has brought more eyes onto Kickstarter. More people’s moms now know what it is. Hopefully that will translate into letting indie filmmakers use it to fund projects.
You’ve been trying to revive this show for six years. Why didn’t you give up?
When I was a high school teacher living in Texas, I’d go see a movie or watch a TV show and when it was bad, I’d be so mystified. There’s so much talent involved in any one production and there are so many gatekeepers—from editors to directors to studio executives—that I’d wonder, how did something so bad end up on the air? Now that I’m working in the business and I see how it all works, I’m amazed whenever anything can make it on the air without getting spoiled. For us, Veronica Mars was that unspoiled thing. It turned out right. But then we were canceled mid-stream. At the end of season three, the executives told me, ‘This season finale might be your last show ever, so if you want to wrap things up nicely, do it now.” I didn’t want to make it easy for them to cancel us, so I left it unfinished on purpose. For six years, it’s been the one thing I’ve wanted to get back to.
What have you learned from all of this?
I’ve never tried to raise money on the Internet before. I always just wanted to write and maybe direct. I’m really only interested in that. And yet the business that I’m in has forced me into being a salesman—that’s last thing that 17-year-old me would imagine I’d end up being. I’m uncomfortable trying to sell anything, but that’s what you’re doing every time you walk into a pitch. Kickstarter is a tremendous tool for making that process easier. Thanks to this campaign, I’m going to get to write and direct the thing I care most about creatively in my career. It’s well worth the effort. I still can’t believe people entered their credit-card numbers on the Internet to fund this thing.