Hi everyone, I’m looking forward to this conversation. I’ve been attempting to work through my ambivalent response to the Veronica Mars kickstarter for the past few days, particularly where it bumps up against my unadulterated fannish glee that Netflix Saved Our Bluths. Two of my favorite cult TV series are being revived. It should feel like a win-win, but I can’t shake this sense that the Veronica Mars Kickstarter (or fan-ancing generally) sets a problematic precedent for what constitutes fan “participation.” Or, to AJ’s point, my concern doesn’t stem from the kinds of value producers and fans generate from television, or even the value that fans are generating from this kickstarter campaign, but how producers are increasingly and strategically generating value from fans.
My work broadly engages with industry-fan relationships within convergence culture, and how those relationships are gendered. In particular, I’m interested in which types of fans and modes of fannish engagement are valued, normalized, or incorporated, and which remain marginalized or are subject to containment. I’ve written in the past about how industrial efforts to engage fan culture often function as re-gifting economies, or planned communities that strive to “repackage fan culture, masking something old as something new, something unwanted (or unwieldy) as something desirable (or controllable, or profitable).” I’ve also blogged about the problematic legitimization discourses that surround industrial efforts to co-opt fan practices and retain ownership over fan texts. Many, myself included, are inclined to view the Veronica Mars Kickstarter as a prime example of fan empowerment (or, in Henry’s terms, as a techno-realization of a longstanding fannish frustration with audience measurement metrics, and a desire to revive media properties that were cut down in their prime). But, I still worry about what it means to discursively celebrate fans’ power in purely economic terms.
I’m a frequent donor to Kickstarter campaigns, especially those like Womanthology or Tropes Vs. Women in Video Games that are attempting to make a transformative intervention into media industries and fannish subcultures that can be unwelcoming to women. I’m also all for using Kickstarter to launch creator-owned projects. For example, I get why Batgirl writer Gail Simone, who was recently fired and rehired by DC Comics after a massive pushback from fans, would want to kickstart a graphic novel where she’ll have full control over the creative direction and, more importantly, the intellectual property rights. I’ll probably pull the trigger and donate to the Veronica Mars movie before the days tick down to zero…or, let’s be realistic, probably before the end of this conversation. But it’s not because I want a t-shirt, or a digital download of the finished product from Flixter, Warner Bros.’ proprietary video platform. What I want is information, however filtered through Warner Bros. publicity brass that it might be, about how this grand experiment is playing out, and to see if fans are addressed primarily as partners, or promotional agents.
As AJ rightly notes above, crowdfunding may not be the great equalizer, but it is a vital emergent tool that allows minority voices and audiences that are too often underrepresented by media industries to carve out a space to be heard. The figures that you’re tracking on your blog are vitally important. They aren’t just dollars, they’re pointed messages sent to media industries by media audiences. Can we view the massive success of the Veronica Mars Kickstarter as a call to television executives that there’s a market to be tapped for programs with compelling, complex young female protagonists? Hopefully. Would I feel better if Rob Thomas had Kickstarted an original web series, where the profits would be funneled into developing the next Veronica Mars, rather than into Warner Bros.’ coffers? Absolutely. It’s the slippage between crowdsourcing and outsourcing financial risk here that I find troubling.
Ok, here comes the black sheep-capitalist storyteller from Brazil
I was born – literally – at the intersection between Academia, Commerce, Storytelling and Marxism. While my parents were academics and Marxists during the 70-80′s, my mom was a fiction writer trying to figure out how to keep working, teaching, studying, paying bills and finally get picked by a publisher to bring her words to the world. The funny thing of that intersection is that till I was 8 I thought one of my grandfathers was Karl Marx – because of a picture my parents had in the home office. But actually my grandfather was considered the Latin-American Shakespeare.
That mix of backgrounds, struggles and opportunities trained my eyes and perceptions (with some scars and learnings) to always pay deep attention to the relationship between Creators (Storytellers), Distributors (Storysellers) and Readers (Story…buyers?) and to keep on the pace around one of the most fascinating dynamics ever. In the past, the roles were so clear, the imposed status quo was so comfortable/a given and people in general were just having fun with their stories that the Veronica Mars/House of Cards models were impossible to imagine.
Kickstarter didn’t invent crowdfunding for storytelling. Neither did Felicia Day or Joss Whedon. The most efficient systems of crowdfunding for storytelling that I ever seen in my life are the Catholic and the Evangelical Churches. People have been funding saints, bibles, sagas, music concerts, souvenirs or tokens for more than 2000 years. In Brazil, the evangelicals own one of the top three tv channels (where they air religious programs, produced telenovelas and bought series from the US like Veronica Mars). So the whole conversation about “exploring” fandom or using fans to fund a movie owned by a big studio is a little bit strange for me because generally people want to watch and share an experience around a story: be it that story about a guy who could regenerate fast (no, I’m not talking about Wolverine, I’m talking about Jesus), Veronica Mars or about an elite group that uses people’s trust to do whatever they want (I’m talking about House of Cards).
The line between owning something and owing was completely blurred when the Veronica Mars kickstarter campaign started. Many fans donated something because they feel such an emotional connection to that cannon that gave them so many good times that they feel the owe something to it and they want more of the pleasure that story gives — with or without having something material back (a shirt or equity). It is the difference between Profit Sharing and Sharing Collective Value.
The roles are also blurred, thanks G’d — both on Veronica Mars and House of Cards. And today I’m able to fund the stories my company creates from different sources: fans, non-profits, global advertisers, studios, networks or a toy company.
Because the Veronica Mars campaign is like advance money given by fans to the creator that implicitly says: “Hey, here is the money I would already buy for this and that, so now go make that extension so I can have the storytelling experience that no money nor a shirt can give me. Oh, I can also make it with my Mastercard and don’t need to wait for someone to decide to fund it?”. Instead of investing money on the IP after it airs, fans are doing it before.
Everyone, on the House of Cards case, was mesmerized by two things: launching 13 episodes at once on Netflix and the fact that some of the decisions to produce were based on algorithms. In the end of the day, the “series marathon” culture is something that is part of the fabric of pop culture consumption; Kevin Spacey is a great actor and amazing villain; politics brings eyeballs, fans add value whenever they watch something and the British version was already really good. If we build it, they will come. And with David Fincher behind, maybe (just maybe), the execution will be good.
By the way, The funders behind House of Cards are also “outside” the regular model as the Kickstarter examples: Goldman Sachs, WPP Group (one of the largest advertising groups in the world) and AT&T.
Netflix move to offer exclusive content at once was brave and risk taking strategy in a town where networks kill shows on episode 3. VOD changes the importance of focus groups and research to a level that makes me love where all this is going. Because so many amazing pilots or shows would have survived if Netflix, Amazong, Hulu and Kickstarter existed and gave that opportunity to fans, creators and last but not least, studios to make a decision.
Because everybody loves to blame the Studios for Hollywood’s lack of innovation. Being a Studio is HARD. Crowdfunding is also hard. But what happens next is the point I’m trying to make.
The Veronica Mars case will show how sending the gifts and tokens for all the 50k+ backers (including movie sessions into remote cities) is really, really, really hard to accomplish but a Studio knows how to make something like this happen. And before the tomatoes come, the discussion is not if the studios do it well or not, but they make it and they have a system. If fans, indies, academics and writers believe there are improvements to be made, fight for it or kickstart a project and start your own Studio. It is about re-allocation of power and responsibilities and not resetting a whole organism that has brought to the world amazing stories – including Veronica Mars.
The Studios used to have the formula of success. Using Henry’s recent book as a reference, the formula was “If doesn’t get picked by studio it is dead”. Now it probably would be “If doesn’t get picked, lets talk to the fans and other distribution channels” (not so charming as “If it doesn’t spread, it’s dead” but really fascinating).
Now nobody has is total control, decision-making power is more shared. But Studios/Networks still have the most efficient marketing and logistics machine in the world and they deserve their share. Fans and storytellers that know how to build their own micro-networks also deserve a share.
Fans are now Studios. Advertisers are Studios. Amazon is a studio. Netflix too.
So, the roles are not only changing, they are blurred and the winner is the story. Because generally we don’t know what we want until a story is in front of us and we say: I want more of that. And I will pay with my time, my emotions, my network of friends and my money.
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.