Veronica Mars, Kickstarter, &c.

Posted: March 14, 2013 in Braak, crotchety ranting
Tags: , , ,

I was going to write a big screed about this Veronica Mars kickstarter project, and about how ultimately destructive it is for people to base their cultural identity on products provided from an utterly amoral (all corporations are by their nature fundamentally amoral) industry that actually literally is not capable of caring less about them (the market dynamic of “paying for product” means that a corporation is going to care exactly as much about you as your money is representative of a share of their income, that is what “free market” is — if you can spend ten dollars on a movie, then Warner Brothers cares ten dollars about you; if their global revenue for a movie is three hundred million dollars, then they care one thirty-millionth about you).  Then I decided NOT to write about it, because I actually don’t even care about 1) Veronica Mars or 2) people who like Veronica Mars.  Nothing against you/those guys, it’s just that “the creation of Veronica Mars projects” is not a field of human endeavour that I happen to be interested in.

Making art is a field that I’m interested in, though, so maybe I should talk about this.

Principally, obviously, there’s nothing wrong with this.  Rob Thomas and Kristen Bell want to make a movie from a TV show that they made before, and Warner Brothers doesn’t want to pay for it, so Thomas and Bell figure they’ll get the fans to pay for it and then, hey!, Veronica Mars movie.  Great, awesome guys.

But also this is terrible.  Let’s think about this for a second.  In the first place, WB is basically offering what?  Not production costs, but marketing and distribution costs, right?  That’s what they’re willing to pay for.  And why does the movie need to be marketed?  There are 40,000 backers at this point (two days in, good job!  I am not trying to disparage that!), let’s assume that by the end of the month there will be 100,000 backers (just a number, don’t worry).  Well, those 100,000 people already know about the movie, and they probably told everyone else about the movie, and they’re going to watch it on DVD and Netflix and maybe they’ll just rent out a bar and have screening parties for it and it will be great. 

So, what is the marketing and distribution cost for?  It’s so the movie will make a lot of money, which Warner Brothers’ will get to keep.  Oh, I know what you’re thinking — once WB realizes that literally A HUNDRED THOUSAND PEOPLE want to see Veronica Mars, of course they’re going to start making more movies themselves, right?  I mean, what if each of those hundred thousand people represented FIVE people who didn’t contribute but might go see the movie anyway?  That’s FIVE MILLION DOL– er.  That’s not really very much.  Well, let’s assume that each of those 100k people actually represent ten people…hm, ten million dollars still isn’t that much.  Okay, well, figure by the end of the month there will be a million contributers, and each of them represents twenty people who will go to see the movie, and then BAM.  200 million dollar box office, congratulations!

The WB is sure to start making more Veronica Mars movies, right?  That they’ll pay for themselves?  I mean, why wouldn’t they, now that they know a million people will pay to make the movie for them?

I am just trying to imagine a Warners’ Exec’s thinking about this.  “So, you guys will raise money, and make the movie for free, and then we’ll pay to market it and just…keep all the extra money?  ::shifty eyes:: What’s your angle son?  What are you trying to play here?”

Whatever.  Here’s the thing:  there’s no need to use Kickstarter to shield Warner Bros. from risk.  They have the money, they could make this movie if they wanted to.  They DON’T want to, though, and the reason for that is that usually movies are INVESTMENTS, in which people put money in, and expect to get money back out.  The difference between an investor and a donor –to Warners — is that an investor expects to be paid for his capital, and a donor is a sap.  I know, I know, who cares, right?  You just want to see a Veronica Mars movie, and you’re willing to pay forty bucks to see it happen, good.  Good for you, that’s as reasonable a thing to spend your money on as any other dumb thing that people spend money on.  That’s fine. 

And honestly, who decides what they want based on the economics of the studio system, anyway?  Who makes this decision caring more about the WB’s model for investment and capital-generation than they do about wanting to see a Veronica Mars movie?  It’s not like you can do both, and if you have to pick, your choices are either stick with the studio system, in which investors put money in with the expectation of getting money back (and thus, you only get to see the movies that other people want), OR you get the movie that you want, and the WB execs laugh all the way to the bank.  (WB execs do not go to the bank, they have special banks that come to them every morning to fill their money-showers with fresh, crisp, hundred-dollar bills.)

Or, actually, wait.  Wait, hang on a second.  What if you could do it a different way?  I mean, Kickstarter doesn’t let you set up donations as SHARES, so that people who give you money can expect to get paid back, or receive ownership in the product like that, it’s against the rules.  Against the rules of Kickstarter, though, not, like, against the law, or against the rules of human decency or anything like that.  Couldn’t you, instead of just asking for money and offering walk on parts or t-shirts or something like that, just sell shares of the final product?

Sure, I mean, you’d need pretty specific, clear contracts about what you were offering and what your investors could expect, and you’d have to establish an auditing process in case of fraud or &c., and those things would be a hassle, but it’s not like they’re impossible.  You’d just have to actually do them.  And once you put them in place, they’d be in place, it’s not like you’d have to think up a new share contract every time.  And you could take some sensible precautions, like limiting the number of shares that you want to sell, and limiting the number that people could buy, putting a cap (or strictly delimiting) the value of the shares.  (In the case of Veronica Mars, I guess, what are we looking at?  $2 million dollars at five dollars a share, right?  With the average person buying fifty shares.  That’s 400,000 shares, &c. so forth.  So, let’s cut a deal with the WB, in which they front marketing and distribution costs, and are entitled to 20% of the box, so they’ve got a vested interest in selling tickets, the remainder of the next is divided among the shareholders)

(Obviously, this would be hard for Veronica Mars specifically, since why would the WB do that?  The whole thing they like about this project is that they don’t risk anything on the production end and are entitled to ALL the profits, and if you want to do it your way, fuck you, WB owns it.  So, maybe it works better for independent projects.)

In fact, maybe one day you can build a whole database of projects that people can buy shares in, filmmakers put their stuff up and, SIMILAR TO (but not the same as) Kickstarter, if they don’t get their goal, then they give all the money back.  But if they do make it, they make the movie, and the people who bought the shares will have regular and immediate access to shooting schedules and budget documents &c., just so there’s transparency.

I mean, we talk about how Kickstarter is great because it gives us a sense of ownership over the projects that we donate to, but obviously the SENSE of ownership is all it gives.  It’s really just a kind of boosterism (which is fine, and worth it for a lot of projects where we’re not looking at exceptionally high profit margins), but the thing about movies is that movies are a multi-billion dollar business.  The movie industry doesn’t NEED boosters, it doesn’t need donations, it just needs someone else to start taking control of which movies get made, and which don’t.  And if you want to do that, your choices are:  be very rich, OR be poor, but get a lot of poor people on your side.

  1. Jeff Holland says:

    “that’s as reasonable a thing to spend your money on as any other dumb thing that people spend money on” is exactly how I convinced myself to give money to this thing.

  2. braak says:

    This also suggests the possibility of fundamentally reimagining how we handle movie distribution, too. I mean, big old fat movie theaters made sense in the 30s, when a “movie” was a fifty-pound can of film strip, but after you’ve made a movie, actually distributing it in the 21st century is essentially trivial.

    So, why couldn’t a bar, for example, or a church or a community center, license a new release for a day, or two days, for a couple grand? Why couldn’t you establish a network of small venues that pay a subscription fee to a service that picks up independent films and just sends them a new one every month?

    I don’t know why I want to turn every wealth-generating industry into a profit-sharing collective enterprise. Maybe I just think that everything would be better that way.

  3. Jeff Holland says:

    Actually THAT was when I decided to give money, when they offered a digital copy at a certain donation level. Because apparently my only hang-up was “Ehh, a movie in February? But I don’t WANT to go outside.”

    Kevin Murphy (MST3K’s Tom Servo) wrote a great book about going to different locales to see a movie every day for a year, and there was one chapter where he just went to a bar that hosted screening nights, and it sounded like The Greatest Idea Man Had Ever Conceived.

  4. mormolyke says:

    But isn’t the movie industry notorious for creative accounting whereby, no matter how much a movie actually makes, there’s no profit on the books? I mean, this is why 999 times out of 1,000 … or maybe 9,999 out of 10,000, deferred pay for actors working on film projects is code for working for free. So even if you were to set up a system whereby investors would supposedly receive a share of profits, there’s no guarantee that the movie-makers wouldn’t come up with a bunch of expenses — or add massive new features to the project that eat up all those extra profits — to save them the bother of ever paying anyone back, ever. I mean, that’s pretty standard practice for a lot of these things, right?

  5. mormolyke says:

    Anyway, if I have read you correctly, what you’re proposing sounds a bit like Kiva. Except that you couldn’t specifically use Kiva like that because it is for helping actually poor people.

  6. mormolyke says:

    Also also, are you saying that the people who, for example, donate money to orchestras and art museums and become members of public radio might also consider asking for a share of the profits generated by those institutions? Because that’s how I’ve always seen kickstarter. It’s a patronage system. You donate because you want things to exist, not because you want things to earn you some money; the latter attitude is how the movie industry ended up in such a dull state in the first place. The fact that major orchestras and art museums actually have quite a lot of money in the scheme of things does not deter anyone from becoming a member patron, nor does it encourage people to start demanding a cut.

  7. braak says:

    @Mormolyke: Yeah, it IS famous for that, and one of the reasons they’re able to do it is because of how the investment process works, and how investment companies calculate risk and loss. And obviously movies don’t make NO money, otherwise they wouldn’t be able to keep getting investors. But again, part of what you’re going to have to do is establish safeguards. For example, maybe you’d have to put a budget together ahead of time (which included actor’s salaries and which could NOT be in shares — they can buy shares if they want, but they have to be paid in real money) — and then you’d have to resubmit budgets when you went over, and you’d have to guarantee that your net would be calculated with no more than, say, 120% of your anticipated budget. And sure, that would encourage people to inflate their budgets ahead of time, and so as an investor maybe you’d have to think twice about it, but since ALL the budgets would have to be public, you could check them against each other in a pretty useful way (“Wait,” you might say, “why do you have a 50,000 craft services budget when all these other movies with similar crew sizes have 1,000 budgets?”, &c.).

    And, ultimately, if you DID keep doing that, people would stop putting money into it, because no money would be coming back (or else it would just turn into Kickstarter + You Might Make a Couple Bucks, and we’d be basically where we started, anyway).

    Anyway, it is like Kiva, except I think that there’s no interest on Kiva loans, is there?

    I had a similar idea for small towns and municpalities to set up micro-bond markets for small businesses that wanted to open or expand, that was also like Kiva only with a fixed-in-advance repayment schedule.

    I have a lot of ideas that I am probably never going to bother doing.

  8. braak says:

    Also also, are you saying that the people who, for example, donate money to orchestras and art museums and become members of public radio might also consider asking for a share of the profits generated by those institutions?

    Yeah, but those are all not-for-profit institutions. The whole reason you’re allowed to donate to them is because their members are forbidden from fiduciary gain as “owners” of the institution. That is not what the movie industry is! The movie industry is not an art museum, it is a giant engine for making money! So, yes, I think if you’re going to help a giant money-making engine make a giant pile of money, it is pretty reasonable to say, “I deserve a portion of that money,” rather than say, “Well, I essentially paid eighty dollars for a movie ticket because I *really* wanted to see this movie, enjoy swimming in your giant vault of gold coins, Harvey Weinstein.”

    Anyway, I am not saying Kickstarter shouldn’t exist; it is very valuable for some things — as I said, in particular for things that don’t have osbcene profit margins — but using it for THIS seems like a sucker’s bet, when ostensibly we could make something similar that would serve both a similar purpose to Kickstarter, and also not shut people out of the rewards for a billion-dollar industry.

  9. Jefferson Robbins says:

    The thing that gets me about these huge Kickstarter outlays is that so many of them are throwing money at success. Penny Arcade? iPhone docks? Charlie Kaufman? These are all things that are working quite fine without me paying eight thousand dollars to play Dungeons & Dragons with the guys who invented Dickwolves.

  10. braak says:

    That’s actually what pisses me off. I am personally never going to donate to a kickstarter when I am pretty reasonably certain that these guys can make money on their own.

  11. Jefferson Robbins says:

    If Kickstarter did radically break from current modes of production, its moguls might not look so familiar. The site’s biggest smashes, whether Double Fine’s video game or the Veronica Mars movie raising millions as I write, tend to bring numerous existing fans with them. Even when they don’t, a certain Reddit-friendly aesthetic is pervasive. Looking at the top 20 publishing campaigns right now, there are six books of speculative fiction, a graphic novel about Nikola Tesla, a tribute to the early illustrators for Magic: The Gathering (wasn’t taking my allowance during several years of awful tweendom enough?), and something called ME, FAKEGRIMLOCK: THE BOOK OF AWESOME.”

  12. braak says:

    Well, I am also not going to give money to projects that sound like they are dumb.

  13. braak says:

    Hahah, oh, man, I met Amanda Palmer at a party directly after the “asking for unpaid musicians” fiasco (on which MORMOLYKE had a great deal to say, incidentally). It was extremely awkward! Everyone had strong opinions, but I didn’t know enough about what was going on to talk about it, and I was a guest in someone else’s house!

    I just drank a bottle of red wine, instead. When that ran out, I think I drank about a half a box of rose wine.

    At some point that night, I think I got into a heated argument with her drummer about Ayn Rand’s aesthetic theory.

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