Kickstarting Veronica Mars: A Conversation About the Future of Television (Part Three)

Henry Jenkins:

Suzanne, I share some of your concerns about the ways that fan power is being evaluated here primarily in terms of economic capital. Interestingly, the Veronica Mars campaign was preceded by another effort — David Fincher’s effort to raise funds to produce an animated film based on Eric Powell’s cult comic book series, The Goon. This project had set a goal of raising $400,000 in order to fund a story reel as proof of concept for a proposed feature film, and instead, they raised 441,900 from 7,576 backers, which was, as of November, a record-breaker for the micro-funding company, now dramatically surpassed by the Veronica Mars juggernaut. At the time, there was considerable pushback from fans who felt that these funds should be raised by the studio through traditional means rather than tapping the fan network for investments that would be repaid through merchandise but not through either revenue or creative control.  As Cartoon Brew’s Amid Amidi wrote at the time:

“Should the film be made by a corporate film studio, that company just saved themselves half a million dollars on the backs of dedicated animation fans who believe they’re funding an indie project, when in reality they’re funding a mainstream Hollywood feature….while I’m sure Fincher and Blur Studios are well intentioned in their desire to make an animated feature, their approach of mixing their fans’ money with those of media corporations, the latter of whom will receive all the profit from a Goon feature, leads to an uncomfortable situation that is contrary to the entire spirit of Kickstarter. Artists should use the generosity of backers in crowdfunding campaigns to fulfill a creative vision, not to help corporations make money, as The Goon Kickstarter is currently set up to do.”

These are, to my eyes, legitimate concerns in both of these case but these projects also potentially represent a transitional point in the degree of creative control which cult producers may yield in this still emerging system. Neither The Goon or Veronica Mars were likely to be produced in the absence of a strong show of audience support; both fall into an awkward category of production that is neither fully mainstream nor fully independent. They are both genre series that gain strong support from a substantial niche that is too small to move the levers to greenlight a project under traditional industry logics. Yet, this is why the recent developments seem to me to be game-changers, both in terms of the ways they strengthen the hands of creative producers and of the ways they allow fans to exert a greater influence on production decisions.

I see this as especially true when coupled with the new systems for content production and distribution we are seeing emerging in recent months via the web. We have talked so far about Netflix funding both original programming (House of Cards) and rescuing orphaned cult series (Arrested Development).  Hulu has also announced similar plans and is already importing imaginative content from Canada, Australia, and the United Kingdom as exclusives for their subscribers. YouTube has recently developed a system for funding content production. And Amazon has announced that they will be presenting fans with a range of pilots later this year, both comedy and children’s series, and asking consumers to weigh in on which ones should be put into full production.

These alternative arrangements offer much to program producers, starting with the fact that with the exception of Amazon where they are introducing content to consumers at an earlier point in the negotiation process, they seem to be making upfront commitments for entire seasons of programs, allowing them to exert creative integrity over entire story arcs, rather than subjecting them to the uncertainties of the ratings, where they might well get cut off after the first few episodes, never resolving any of the enigmas they have set into play. One can be successful in these platforms with a much lower viewership than network television, creating a space for programs that can command a strong niche of intense support, as opposed to the diffused viewership that gets rewarded on the major networks. These programs can have a more unique perspective because they are never designed to appeal to everyone.  Some producers may be much better served in this context: this may no longer be right for Joss Whedon who is turning down Star Wars to keep working with Marvel, but it would certainly be true for someone like Bryan Fuller, who is already revisiting Pushing Daisies and Wonderfalls in the wake of the Veronica Mars news.

The example of The Goon above is an interesting one in this context, since The Goon is a creator-owned comic book series, that has been successfully sustained since 2002. In comics, a creator’s rights movement in the 1990s helped pave the way for more sustainable models of content creation: creators now have multiple options for publishing their own work, with or without the challenges of self-distribution. We are seeing some top talents move project by project between the mainstream publishers to self-publishing models and now, through Kickstarter, crowdsourcing models. Kickstarter now ranks just below DC and Marvel as the number three source of comics funding in the United States. And even artists who work with the majors have somewhat greater creative control than before and have been able to cut better deals as a result of the option of going independent.

The space of indie comics, as opposed to underground and alternative comics, has long been smart and original genre content — pushing comics beyond the superhero genre that dominates DC and Marvel, but also having broader appeal than the more experimental space represented by alternative comics. This seems like the niche that is apt to be filled in this new world of crowd-funding and web distribution that is taking shape week by week before our eyes right now. In such a world, there might not be a need for Rob Thomas to depend upon Warner Brothers to distribute his content, or perhaps, there might be a chance for him to retain more of the IP rights going into his negotiations so that there are more options for series which gain a hardcore audience that is too small to sustain broadcast. Netflix’s decision to release all of the episodes at once, allowing for binge viewing, also seems to point towards this kind of program production — i.e., allowing for more intricately woven stories, which reward this kind of intense viewer commitment.

Such arrangements would help get us out of the paradoxes of these current cases, where producers are appealing for fan support, but ultimately have to work within a system which gives most of the rewards to the same studios who have always controlled production decisions. Clearly, what we need is a creator rights movement for television, which learns as much as it can from the creator rights movement in comics, which is still struggling to fully achieve its goals.

Of course, the costs of television production dwarf those of comics production, meaning that it is unlikely to see fan-support television be fully realized in the short term. Veronica Mars may work as an early example because it is going to be a lot less expensive to produce than some of the cult science fiction or fantasy series that have been mentioned alongside it this week. But, part of what’s interesting to me is that Veronica Mars has a fandom that I would describe as mid-level intensity: there are shows out there with much more dedicated and active fan bases. And so, if they can raise the funds, there is apt to be many other series which could, in theory, command this same level of support.

The reality is that in a capitalist-mode of production, fans are always going to be read first and foremost through an economic lens. The old model saw us primarily as a commodity — eyeballs — that could be sold to advertisers. More recently, Web 2.0 has treated us primary as a source of creative labor — for which we are never directly compensated. And now, this model treats us as investors, who may gain some greater creative control as a consequence of advancing gifted producers money they need to get their dream projects into production. For me, the key thing is that the relationship here needs to be transparent: fans need to understand what is being offered and what role they can or will play in the process. In most cases, fans are not seeking to take creative control away from the producers whose work they admire, but they do hope to prevent series from being “retooled” in order to broaden their support, often at the expense of cutting out elements that drew fans to the program in the first place.

Aymar Jean “AJ” Christian

Whew, this is enthralling!

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, ViacomComcastand 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.

Studios seek market share to keep stocks afloat, and that’s why they’ve been spending hundreds of millions marketing new film franchises. And now web networks are taking a cue, hence Netflix outspending legacy TV with House of Cards. These investments in franchises pay off. They are rich, even as they underfund niche markets (Viacom cable channels Logo and BET, for just one example, are criminally under-resourced, with some shows actually written by freelancers!).

Which brings us to our conundrum, and the tensions above: 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.

As Derek Johnson argues in his new book, we have to view bottom-up dynamics in the context of the growth of franchising, the studio’s (logical) way of responding to complex market dynamics. As Suzanne rightly noted, crowdsourced projects really are a message to distributors from fans and producers to studios that they’ve gone too far, channeling investments in IP higher and higher. Why, even with the lowered production costs of digital, have mid-range projects dried up? As Rob Thomas has noted, the $2-$20 million film is struggling, but there’s no reason it should be. Veronica Mars is an important reminder, if an ambivalent one, since Thomas also noted they need Warner Bros. to work out gifts.

In this environment, mainstream distributors are both essential and inadequate. Focusing on the breadth and depth of bottom-up efforts at value creation points the way to reform: producers and fans are already leading, but they can only go so far on their own. Their efforts, niche-driven, are largely unseen, because they are sporadic. Individual scholars and journalists are aware of the robust growth in indie production in gaming, comics, film, music, television (web series), radio (podcasting) and publishing (blogging to e-books). These are all markets dominated by conglomerates, in various ways, and yet we rarely talk about them in conversation (Henry’s work a significant exception).

Which is why it’s good we’re having this conversation! Can we imagine a different system than what we have now? I think we can. And it starts with independents.

Why, for instance, don’t studios have internal mechanisms for nurturing franchises from the ground up? Studying web series has shown me how we can think of TV development differently: certain niches can nurture small but passionate fan bases for budgets well under the cost of marketing Avatar or ambitious series that flop like Terra Nova or Smash. And it’s not just in low-fi comedy; special effects heavy series like Video Game High School indicate there’s a lot of value yet to be mined. The indie comics Henry mentioned are an excellent source.

All of this activity can be streamlined and aggregated. The studios could market one less blockbuster a year and incubate dozens upon dozens of projects, with enough to support union (read: trained, skilled) labor from the oversupply of art/film-school graduates. They don’t do this because they have to report quarterly to shareholders, so they think short-term. It takes years to grow such projects, but the pay-off could be huge. Projects that prove successful at a smaller scale could argue for more resources and broaden narratives with fans in conversation. “Bombing” rates could go down.

Conglomerates do support small-scale projects, but not consistently. Veronica Mars is only a higher-profile example;The Goon is another. Of the web series I’ve tracked that have been picked up for television – like super-grassroots YouTube series Fred and The Annoying Orange, which spent years cultivating millions of fans – most are successful enough to go beyond one season. Now cable networks are looking to artier showrunners like Abbi Jacobson and Ilana Glazer, creators of the brilliant sketch series Broad City that Comedy Central just picked up to series (with a little help from Amy Poehler, no stranger to YouTube). I’m running a series of essays on “Indie TV Innovation” on my blog next month, with contributions from Jane Espenson (Husbands), Glazer and a dozen others, to show how there’s a lot of value being generated in these spaces at very low-cost.

The problem is these examples are scattered and dispersed. The effect of studio neglect is we get a small number of outrageous case studies like Veronica Mars that present ethical conundrums because there aren’t structures in place. Under-investment also means, even if projects can generate fans, they often do so at lesser quality, which perpetuates the myth that indie projects are artistically impoverished.

We are indeed in a capitalist mode of production that privileges conglomerates and publicly-traded companies, and the culture in Washington suggests that won’t change anytime soon, which is fine. But the takeaway from Veronica Mars et al. should be a call for distributors to: invest in the growing segment of smaller and mid-range projects, hand over intellectual property and creative control (something web series creators like Felicia Day have been fiercely advocating for years) and nurture more fan-driven projects before producers face the crowds. They have the money. It’s better for business, for workers and the culture at large.

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.

Suzanne Scott is a Mellon Digital Scholarship Postdoctoral Fellow in the Center for Digital Learning + Research at Occidental College.  Her work on fandom within convergence culture, transmedia storytelling, and fanboy auteurism has been published in the anthologies Cylons in AmericaThe Participatory Cultures Handbook, and A Companion to Media Authorship, and the journal Transformative Works and Cultures.  She blogs at Revenge of the Fans and tweets @iheartfatapollo.
Mauricio Mota is one the founders of The Alchemists, Entertainment Group responsible for building original transmedia narratives and content for studios, publishing companies, fans and brands. Some of their clients include Coca-Cola, Petrobras, TV Globo, CW, Elle Magazine, NFL, Nextel and the Brazilian Ministry of Education. He was responsible for bringing the concept of transmedia storytelling to Brazil and implemented the Transmedia Communication Department for Globo Television (4th largest network in the world).