We used to be friends: The Veronica Mars Kickstarter backlash

We used to be friends: The Veronica Mars Kickstarter backlash

Summary: The controversy over Warner Bros' handling of the distribution of the Veronica Mars movie to Kickstarter backers should provide some handy lessons for anyone attempting to follow in Veronica's footsteps.

TOPICS: Start-Ups

A long time ago, we funded a Kickstarter. Just over a year, to be exact. Veronica Mars creator Rob Thomas decided in 2013 that he would use Kickstarter to get what the film studios had for so long denied to offer him: Funding for a movie.

(Image: Screenshot by Josh Taylor/ZDNet)

It was easily one of the most successful crowdfunding schemes last year, with 91,585 backers putting in for a total of $5.7 million.

As a disclaimer, I'll say upfront that I'd been a fan of the exceedingly charming, witty, and intelligent noir teen detective show 10 years ago, and was dying to see Veronica make it to the big screen. So I, like many others, invested $50 on the promise that we would get a digital download of the film within a few days of the release.

One of the most appealing aspects to the investment was that it was all on the premise that the studio, Warner Bros, had no interest in funding the project, and it was the fans who were bringing Veronica back.

It was a way of showing that if there is enough interest in a project, fans can and do invest in content that they think is worthwhile. It is in contradiction to the hysterical claims from content lobby groups that people just want everything for free.

It was all going well for almost a year, and then, last week, we were told that Australian backers would get a copy of the film before it hit Friday in the US. What a novelty! A worldwide release on the same day at the same time. For an Australian who is routinely screwed over by distribution windows and getting shows and films later than the US, this was perfect.

But as it ticked over to Friday, and backers began getting their download codes, that's where it all fell apart.

As the creators would later say, initially all that was promised for backers, buried in the FAQ, was that they would have access to a digital copy of the film through Flixster, Warner Bros' online film platform.

To get to that first, people would have to sign up for both UltraViolet, the digital locker website, and Flixster. Then, if they wanted to download it for offline viewing, they would need to install the Flixster app either to their PC or Mac (sucks to be Linux), or get the mobile app.

It wouldn't play on TV, or through Apple TV, unless you had another, separate app to Flixster.

Backers who wanted to give the finger to Warner Bros for rejecting Veronica Mars for all those years suddenly found that they were being locked into Warner Bros' own platform just to be able to watch it in standard definition, with no HD option.

At the same time, fans who didn't back the Kickstarter could go out and purchase the HD version of the film through Amazon or iTunes.

The reaction from the backers was strong, and instantaneous. Across Twitter, Facebook, and the Kickstarter page, they let it be known that they were less than pleased.

Many said they would never again invest in such a project, and some said they had resorted to torrenting the film just to be able to watch something they wanted in the format they desired.

The creators said that Flixster was the only way Warner Bros could release it to all backers in all countries at the same time, but that didn't make any sense, given it was available on other platforms.

The smart, and I would have though logical, thing to do would have been to offer the Flixster copy as a backup, and let people in countries with access to iTunes/Amazon choose those instead.

To their credit, the creators heard the complaints from the backers and are now offering a $10 direct refund, or a refund of the full purchase price for backers mailing in receipts for purchases from Amazon or iTunes.

"If you paid for a copy of the movie a year ago, we don't want you to have less choice and freedom than people who decide to buy it today. And we definitely don't want you to end up paying twice just to see the movie on your preferred service," Thomas said in an update to backers over the weekend.

But should it have come to that?

From the outside, it appears as though Warner Bros, on the back of the success of the Kickstarter, decided to reassert its control of the Veronica Mars franchise from the fans, and seek to regain control of the distribution model.

The old-world content model butted heads with the digital world of crowdfunding. A project that challenged the notion that films need the backing of big studios to succeed ultimately succumbed to the whim of the big studio.

For anyone else planning on following in Thomas' footsteps and using Kickstarter to fund their project, the takeaway from this is that you need to be very upfront and clear with backers about how they will receive a copy of your product. And keep listening to them and adjust your plan as required.

For consumers, the lesson is that for all the lofty ideals of crowdfunding, the existing complicated old business models can still ultimately throw its weight around. At least for the time being.

I remain hopeful that this controversy won't overshadow the sheer miracle of getting the film off the ground in the first place after failing to get funding for so long, or take away from the fact that the film is a perfect ending, or potentially continuation, for the series.

Except for all that unusually blatant Samsung product placement.

Topic: Start-Ups


Armed with a degree in Computer Science and a Masters in Journalism, Josh keeps a close eye on the telecommunications industry, the National Broadband Network, and all the goings on in government IT.

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  • Headline: 99.5% of VM Backers happy!

    This is such a non-story and every time it is repeated the supposed crisis gets bigger and bigger.

    Where's the math? There are about 60,000 people eligible for download. 1% of the people having problems means that there would have to be 600 unhappy people posting and there aren't.

    There are a couple of people completely opposed to DRM management who are posting over and over again and a healthy handful of folks having real problems who are getting solutions as this moves along.

    And that's it.

    Reporting the story of general happiness though doesn't get clicks, does it?

    I wish one reporter would actually do the math though, seriously. Write the click bait headline and then include the actual math in story.
    • What actual math?

      There were a few happy campers, yes, but the overwhelming response to Flixster was negative.
      Josh Taylor
      • math..

        It would take 600 people complaining to be even 1% of the 60,000 people eligible to download. There aren't 600 individuals complaining, but if there were, it would still be 99% of the people not complaining.

        I do agree that choosing Flixster as a platform instead of the familiar Amazon or iTunes was dumb. It created unnecessary bad press because even though it took me less than five minutes to redeem my code, add Flixster to my Roku and boot up the film, I spent 10 minutes before that whining that I didn't want to use Flixster.

        It irks me though to see all the headlines pumping out focusing on the technical problems of a relatively small percent of backers vs the miracle of nearly uniform backer satisfaction with the actual movie they backed. I am sure there are backers who aren't thrilled with the movie but I haven't run into them yet.

        That's kinda miraculous, don't you think? I stubbornly enjoyed the Arrested Development Netflix season but I was in a minority of fans on that one.
        • Erm

          "Relatively small percentage of backers" remains to be seen. You can't conclude that because people are not voicing public disapproval of Flixster that they're not complaining via email etc.

          We will have to wait and see how it all pans out.

          And as I said in my second last paragraph:

          "I remain hopeful that this controversy won't overshadow the sheer miracle of getting the film off the ground in the first place after failing to get funding for so long, or take away from the fact that the film is a perfect ending, or potentially continuation, for the series."
          Josh Taylor
          • Fair enough....

            but with a BS in a math related field and a masters in journalism, you know that the headline kerfuffle du jour isn't numerically or statistically honest.

            The more interesting story is how the internet amplifies the voices of a small number of people to let them take over the headlines. What are the lengths that a project should to to make sure absolutely nobody complains about absolutely anything so there's no fodder for bad press? The answer is probably: pretty far.

            It's a weird, snow globe kinda world we are all living in right now.
          • I didn't mention maths at all in the article

            It was you who brought it up. The fact that the creators reacted to the backlash makes it significant.
            Josh Taylor
    • Hmmm....

      All I had known about Veronica Mars was that it was a cute, inoffensive show I saw only a couple of bits of way back when, that there was a very successful Kickstarter campaign for it, and that it's now playing in a few AMC theaters in the Boston area. I wasn't aware of any real controversy until I read the above article, and sniffed this first comment as sounding very much like that from a paid troll (one of the skills you develop visiting ZDNet's comments sections.)

      So I thought to poke about the good ol' Internet to see what I can see. It didn't exactly take long to see a lot of unhappy Kickstarter campers all over the place, including on the project's Kickstarter page, expressing much dissatisfaction with how poorly the distribution was handled, and how shabbily the backers were treated. And that the comment here very much echoed that of rather obvious studio-backed trolls trying to justify or rationalize Warner's idiotic and cynically self-serving decision on pretty much all discussion threads, including even that on a tech site. Tsk, tsk....
      • Please send the check to....

        Suburban Mom in NJ

        silly you. :) I did laugh though.
        • Actually....

          Trying to laugh off a trolling charge by asking to send the check to Mr. Retired Grampa or Mrs. Suburban Mom and the like is kind of a standard troll response, especially given that your prior comments sound very much like they came from Ms. Marketing Intern.
  • A Couple of Points

    5.7 million is not enough to make a movie, unless all the successful above-the-line talent is taking deferred payment. I don't know if it's enough for guild/union crew. It doesn't cover marketing, which is perhaps the first place WB as US distributor comes in. The Kickstarter was a signal to the studio that it could reduce its risk; it was not an indication that they would put nothing in.

    As it was made available on iTMS last week, I expect that WB was trying to force some interest in UltraViolet, which it owns, in the way the studios divided up over Blu-Ray and HD, signed exclusivity deals and basically lost the window for a new format, as direct download got the thumbs up from consumers. I hope Thomas, Bell, et ux, regret their mistake, and perhaps they were caught between a rock or a hard place as it was either UV or not get funding. Fan driven properties and things that will fail any way seem to be where studios try new (audience-unfriendly) tech or distribution schemes. I live and work on the fringes of the fringes of Hollywood and though the folks are generally smart, they do make the same mistakes again and again. "New" freaks them out.

    Sadly P.T. Barnum never said "Don't get in the way of selling tickets to the people who want to see the show. Take their money and give them what they want." He may have thought it something that didn't need saying. And yet.
  • I don't really understand what the big deal is here...

    "I remain hopeful that this controversy won't overshadow the sheer miracle of getting this project off the ground in the first place..."

    Well, umm. Yes. Exactly.

    It seems to me like the above is getting mired in details when from all the disasters which I've seen that CAN happen with Kickstarter (i.e., it's not just some alternative indie Amazon for cool crap), the follow through of this movie ACTUALLY happening, and the 99 percent circumvention of most Hollywood BS as a result, should be more than sufficient satisfaction to the project.

    So you could have movie with some red tape, or no movie. Nothing is perfect.
  • The industry needs to hear complaints

    For all I hear about there being 'no problem', what I see is Warner Bros. testing how far backers of projects like this can be pushed. The VM movie being one of the first and most successful projects of its kind, I think it is even more important for consumers to stand up and attest that they won't be locked into the traditional, restrictive models of the conglomerates anymore. That's a huge part of what crowdfunding is all about, after all.

    Make no mistake: WB will *take home a profit* thanks to the backers’ initial investment, after years rejecting the project in the faces of a passionate Thomas and Bell. Nor did the studio express any intent to sell the rights to another studio, or that it would be a possibility in the future. Let's face it, the window of time for WB to make a decision was only getting smaller and the cast wasn't getting any younger.

    While we're speculating about 'the math', it should be remembered that the overall percentage of complaints about *any* service usually come from a small number of consumers. Most people simply don't have the energy to complain when they have been wronged, especially if the grievance is relatively small, or if it is complicated. Given the complexity of the behemoth entertainment and tech industries, it'd be no wonder if(!) there were only a small percentage of complaints about an issue as convoluted as media consumption, compared to something straightforward like finding a hair in one's Happy Meal.

    The sad thing is that so many people don't even think about the restrictions Big Entertainment imposes on its customers, because they're already so used to being screwed over. WB would almost certainly *not* have offered refunds to backers in the absence of complaints. Despite the overwhelming success of this project, the studio still chose to have a stab at a restrictive model that has shown over and over to inspire potential paying consumers to take distribution and access into their own hands through piracy. And, no less, they chose to impose these restrictions on the very people who paid for the whole thing to happen.
  • Whenever I see the Ultraviolet sticker on the alleged "combo" packages

    I always interpret that as meaning they cheaped out on iTunes distribution.