When I was writing Textual Poachers in the late 1980s, I stumbled across a fascinating scheme being floated by fans of George R.R. Martin’s fantasy series, Beauty and the Beast, a series with a very committed audience, but one that was small enough that the program was always in danger of being canceled. The fans were suggesting a plan where fans would pay into a fund that would cover the cost of the series production and then would received VHS tapes of episodes once they had been made. The fans rightly recognized that the Nielsen Ratings measured the scope of viewership but not its intensity, and that the scale of success demanded to stay on network television was considerably lower than what would be required to cover the costs of production. At the time, such plans were unlikely to succeed, given the nature of the media environment: they really did not have a robust method for collecting funds from dedicated fans, the producers would not have had a viable business model for proceeding under this unstable system, and the distribution of episodes via VHS was going to be clunky at best.
We flash forward two decades and recent events suggests we have moved dramatically closer to making such a scenario possible. First, we have seen Netflix become a producer and distributor of original television content — programs that look and feel like network television (actually like HBO or AMC programming) but which are distributed digitally without ever being broadcast. Netflix’s first venture in this direction was House of Cards, which seems to have attracted a very solid audience, and their second will be the relaunch of Arrested Development, a fan favorite series that Netflix has brought back after several years in limbo. We are seeing similar moves by Hulu and YouTube, both of which would like to get into the business of producing and distributing web-based television content.
And, then, we have seen Kickstarter emerge as a platform that, with the example of Veronica Mars, has demonstrated the possibilities of fan support pushing a once canceled program back into production — in this case for the big screen. And for the Veronica Mars scheme to work, we have to assume there were behind the scenes discussions between Rob Thomas and Warner Brothers (which still owns the rights to Veronica Mars) that would allow them some basis of proceeding. We now are hearing that a range of other producers and show-runners are starting to explore whether they might deploy similar tactics to gain a second chance for their passion projects.
This week, I have gathered together three friends, who bring different kinds of expertise to thinking about the short term and long term implications of these developments.
Aymar Jean “AJ” Christian:
It’s been fascinating to see relationships between producers, fans and distributors reconfigured in digital marketplaces!
About a year before Kickstarter launched, I was drawn into the world of crowdfunding through Felicia Day. Day was a working actress with credits on shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer when she decided she wasn’t ever going to get a leading role and showrunner status unless she did it herself. Intermittently unemployed as so many workers in Hollywood are, she wrote a pilot for The Guild, about a group of gamers, based on her experience playing World of Warcraft in between gigs. She and a skeleton crew produced most of the first season on a dime and then came to place a lot of indie producers find themselves: without funds to continue. But those few episodes had built a fan base, and, through a Paypal link on the show’s active website, she raised thousands to kick-start the rest. That early fan interest shocked the industry, distributors came calling, and The Guild found distribution through Microsoft, who was/is trying to build an entertainment platform outside of television. Day is now a huge source of inspiration within and outside the web television industry and a key brand ambassador for MSN.
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 Butraised 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).
Raising money not only gave them funds to survive, and extra opportunities for press and marketing, they also let creators build a database of their strongest fans and supporters, who would then proselytize the show on social networks. This sometimes led to distribution and development deals with both online and on-air networks.
In short, crowdfunding causes us to rethink relationships in media industries, and think very specifically about the kinds of value producers and fans generate from television, as a number of scholars are exploring, from Jason Mittell, to Michael Newman, to your work in Spreadable Media. 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.
Aymar Jean “AJ” Christian is an assistant professor of communication in the Media, Technology and Society program at Northwestern University. His manuscript, tentatively titled Off the Line, Independent Television and the Transformation of Creative Economy, explores the politics and value of the web series market. He edits a personal blog, Televisual, has been published in the academic journals Continuum, Transformative Works and Cultures, First Monday and Cinema Journal, and in the popular press in Slate, Indiewire, The Wall Street Journal and The Root, among others. For more information, visit his site.