We used to be friends: The Veronica Mars Kickstarter backlash

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.
Written by Josh Taylor, Contributor

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.

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