My visit to USC earlier this month for a work-in-progress talk on my manuscript sparked a couple of conversations. One with M2E head Christopher Smith about the state of web television, and another with Henry Jenkins on the broader implications of the Veronica Mars Kickstarter campaign.
The Veronica Mars campaign surprised me, but mainly because it happend so fast. By the time it arrived on my news feed it was within $500,000 of its $2 million goal.
I wasn’t surprised crowdfunding was being used to resuscitate an old show. I’m actually surprised it took this long. While tracking crowdfunding in the web series market, I’ve noticed how running a successful campaign has become almost a prerequisite for success, a way to prove to agents, audiences, networks and other producers that your pitch, episode, or season is valuable. Producers, who’ve raised millions through Kickstarter before Thomas even thought to consider it, have been translating that value (cultural, economic) into sponsorships and development deals. It made sense for undervalued corporate franchises, whose IP has lost its luster, to channel the grassroots and prove their value.
In the first part, Henry contextualizes the Veronica Mars campaign, reminding us fans have had dreams of this before online crowdfunding. I chime in with the brief history of crowdfunding in the web series market, whose most notable innovator might be Felicia Day:
In my years researching the “web series” or independent television market I’ve seen crowdfunding take a central place in show development (so much so I’ve tried to track it on my site). Series that built communities of fans early and quickly inevitably turned to crowdfunding. Soon shows targeting all sorts of groups dissatisfied with legacy television used sites like Kickstarter and Indiegogo to keep indie brands alive. Lesbian web series Anyone But Me raised over $30,000 for its third and final season; The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl ($56,000, nearly twice the ask) for its second; The Outs (over $20,000, many times the ask), a gay-led show, did it in two rounds; last year brought Black & Sexy’s The Couple ($32,000) and Latino-focused show East WillyB ($51,000), not to mention the prodigious work of Freddie Wong, whose canny, Asian-American-led Video Game High School has crowdfunded over $1 million to date (season 1, season 2).
For independent producers, crowdfunding rewards creators with a clear pitch to specific communities, who are in turn rewarded with a show conglomerates might be reluctant to green light. Of course, this kind of value is hard to sustain in our media landscape, and the fact that Veronica Marsraised several times more than most projects before it in 24 hours speaks to the kinds of value conglomerates are able to generate when they have already invested in marketing properties.
The second part looks more closely at the consequences of crowdfunding for fans and transmedia storytelling. Next Henry and I take a closer look at the politics of independent production in this new marketplace. I remind everyone that, since the debate over Veronica Mars‘ campaign hinges on Warner Bros.’ participation, any way forward starts with the studios:
It sounds like we’ve zeroed in on a couple key tensions. One pits creative control for producers and satisfaction for fans against the profit-focused motives of the conglomerates. Another pits their impulse to mainstream against the increasing popularity of indie and digital production, from television to comics.
We can’t resolve these tensions here, but I’ll give it a go! To start, some context. And the most important context is the financial health of the studios and distributors. As Mauricio said, it is hard to be a studio, and media executives have always worked in tense environments permeated with fear.
But the truth is the studios are richer now than they’ve been in a decade (after the heyday of the 1990s). Movies are still popular. People watch almost as television as they ever have, albeit across more devices and technologies. Media stocks have joined the broader market rally after lows in late 2008 and early 2009. From that low, Viacom, Comcast and Lions Gate stocks have quadrupled. News. Corp has quintupled. Time Warner and Disney’s have tripled. There are lot of reasons for this, but the underlying factor is there is much more power in distribution these days. Since there are so many niche markets, distributors with resources can grab our attention. Everyone knows when the next Star Wars is due.
…Clearly fans and producers know what’s going on. They know, instinctually, studio money is being funneled to bigger and bigger “mainstream” products, as companies reach for market share amidst the tidal wave of digital production.
In today’s final installment, Suzanne and Mauricio take on the issues of creative agency and intellectual property (for producers) alongside fan agency and feelings of ownership over media texts, with some interesting context about Brazil’s TV industry, whose cable companies the government is mandating invest in original content.
Here is Suzanne, parsing through Rob Thomas’ statement that he wants to give fans what they want since they made the project happen:
It’s the “give them the stuff that I think they want” that troubles the notion that story emerges the clear “winner” in this particular case. Whether Thomas is justifiably hedging his bets in response to the intense scrutiny that has accompanied the campaign’s success (“If the movie ultimately sucks, don’t blame me, my vision was hindered by fan service…after all, they paid for it…”) is beside the point. To return to the first tension AJ identified, fan “satisfaction” is clearly the central concern here, but it’s ultimately framed as a potential detriment to Thomas’ creative control. There is something empowering about the fact that, in Maurício’s terms, we can now frame fans as studios. But what I think might be getting lost here is the fact that fans are independent creators too, and it’s often their dissatisfaction with a story, or the industrial structures and strictures that limit it, that drives their textual production.
Head over to Confessions of an Aca-Fan for the full exchange.