On Wednesday my Twitter feed was divided between news of the new Pope, and the ever-increasings donations to the Veronica Mars kickstarter. Twitter being Twitter, this did lead to some crossover.
But it also led to some fascinating articles and op-eds on the nature of the VM Kickstarter and whether this was really a new business model for financing films, a(nother) case of media conglomerates exploiting their fans or a case for re-examining fan agency through fan investment in texts. (While I don’t really want to discuss it here because it’s a little bit off-topic, I also read a fascinating X-Files News article on what the VM Kickstarter might mean for X-Files fans. I would highly recommend reading this.)
So there are a lot of interesting and timely debates and questions being raised as a result of the VM Kickstarter. Fan labour and exploitation is something that I’ve become really interested in, though, and it’s this I want to think about some more in this post. Richard Lawson, writing in The Atlantic Wire seems to be a good place to start. He writes:
In Veronica Mars’s case, they’re asking you to pay for what will ultimately be a studio movie. This is not some independent film, financed on credit cards and bake sales. Nor is this an investment that anyone who donates will ever see a return on; essentially you’ll be a pro bono producer. There’s even a joke in the campaign’s introductory video about giving donors an associate producer credit, the joke being that the title is itself a joke. Aside from some assorted rewards that only get good in the really high donation brackets, the only thing you get in return for your investment is the movie, which (depending on the size of your investment) you’ll have to pay for anyway.
Lawson’s complaint is a common one in the articles I’ve read. It’s not just that the risk and reward seem reversed, with all the risk — i.e., the initial investment — falling on the fans, and all the reward going to Warner Bros, but that it’s Warner Bros. who are set to benefit instead of an indie producer. What Lawson, and Linda Holmes, Tim Goodman and Chadwick Matlin don’t seem to realise though, is that fans always (though not only) get a movie in return for their investment, and always fund studios’ other films. Tweeting about the Kickstarter, Jason Mittell said
The nice thing is that we never wanted to be perceived as a charity. We always imagined that we’re putting up a Kickstarter page, and we’re selling real product at real prices to fans. It’s not like a pledge drive where you pledge 100 dollars and get a 4 dollar tote bag, where it’s done out of the goodness of your heart, and for charity. We wanted to created packages where people look at what they’re getting and think, ‘Wow, I got a script and a digital download and a t-shirt for $35. I would pay that!’ So all those people worrying that we’re aksing for this money to make our movie, we’re selling you a product. Think of us as a store, not a charity. And I think it’s very above-board, what we’re doing here. It’s one of my hopes for why I think it can keep going, is that if you look on that website, you think, ‘Hey, t-shirt and a movie and a DVD and a script for $50, I’m in.’ Hey, I would sign up for the “Deadwood” version of this.
Is there really a difference between fans paying to see a film in a cinema once it’s been released, and paying a portion of the cost for that movie to be produced? At least some of the cost of movie tickets goes to funding future films – some of which fans may not want to see. As Willa Paskin writes, “We’ve been funding Warner Bros.’ projects without getting a payout long before Veronica Mars. At least I want to see a Veronica Mars movie — I can’t say the same about the next Hobbit.” And donating towards the funding of a film instead of buying a ticket after its release also raises interesting about the extent to which the film will be moulded by what fans want. In his Hitfix interview, Rob Thomas talks about the kind of film he wants to make. He says
There was a real internal debate, for me, about what kind of movie I wanted to make. Just by way of example, I really enjoyed “Side Effects,” and that sort of noir thriller that I could see Kristen Bell as Veronica Mars in something like that. I liked the plotting of that movie. I had some desire, as a filmmaker, to take Veronica in a slightly new direction and do something adventurous with her. Or, there’s the “give the people what they want” version. And I think partly because it’s crowd-sourced, I’m going with the “give the people what they want” version. It’s going to be Veronica being Veronica, and the characters you know and love […] but it was a creative debate I had with myself, and I finally made the decision that I’m happy with it, to go with, “Let’s not piss people off who all donated. Let’s give them the stuff that I think that they want in the movie.”
Of course, there is always a danger in taking a creator’s statement at face value, but in a situation like this where fans are investing in a film before its production, how and if fans should have a say in what film they get is a very real question. Fan investment in a text, as any scholar of fandom – or any member of fandom – knows can be deep and complex. Fan fiction is often used to “repair the damage done in a system where contemporary myths are owned by corporations instead of owned by folk”, and when that damage is done in a text which a fan has paid to help produce I would suggest that tensions would run even higher. It’s impossible to know what will happen in this situation until the film has been produced and is in the cinemas, but it’s something I will be watching closely.
The other thing that has interested me in this debate, and which ties in to criticisms of large corporations requesting money on Kickstarter, is that of fan agency. Bertha Chin, in her On/Off Screen blog writes
Frustratingly, fan agency always gets left out in arguments which purports concern that fans are being duped by studios and networks. Perhaps, rather than assuming that fans are being duped into donating towards a studio film, thought should be given to implications the success of this campaign might bring to Hollywood’s system; or more importantly, the power fans can wield if they decide a Veronica Mars movie is deserving to be made.
Fans as cultural dupes is a rhetoric well-known by fan studies academic, as is its opposite – the overly-celebratory view of fandom. But in this case I would agree that fans are well aware that they are donating to a large studio – the difference is that it doesn’t matter. The investment is in the text, not the studio. Being a member of The X-Files fandom and having spent the last five years involved in fan campaigns to get a third film greenlit, I’m well aware of the power networks have to approve or reject a project. If Fox agreed that 1013 could run a Kickstarter to gauge the level of interest in a third X-Files movie I would be donating in a heartbeat – not because I’ve been duped by the studio into shelling out my hard-earned cash while they sit there and reap the rewards, but because I love the series and I want to see it on the big screen again. The additional rewards, like those offered in the VM Kickstarter, are nice incentives to donate more money (and of course that merchandise would serve to reinforce my (sub)cultural capital as a Phile), but the primary objective for me as a fan is to get the film made. It’s no different to me seeing I Want To Believe in the cinema nine times because I wanted increase the amount it made at the Box Office to ensure a third film.
The final thing I wanted to think about, which is on a bit of a tangent to everything else I’ve said, but is going here because I can’t fit it in elsewhere, is the response from the guy who donated $10,000 to the Kickstarter and got a speaking part in the film. Entertainment Weekly reported that Steven Dengler is a wealthy entrepreneur who co-founded XE.com as well as being an active philanthropist who has backed many projects on Kickstarter, including videogames and an engineering set designed for girls. In an interview with EW, Dengler said
What I love about Kickstarter is it really is empowering the artists, the people who create content, to go directly to the fan base and say, ‘Look, let’s skip this baloney [the old-fashioned method of finding financiers who may demand creative control in exchange for funds]. “Let’s just make it and not involve this crazy stupid layer of people who think they know what you want.
This quote makes me think of Myles McNutt’s article on the VM Kickstarter as a social experience in which latent fan cultures were awakened, mobilized, and monetized in real time. In all the debates that have taken place over the exploitation of fans in this model of film financing, the position of people like Dengler’s has been ignored. This is, in many ways, understandable – how many people are likely to contribute money to something they aren’t a fan of, or are a casual fan of, especially when it’s thousands of dollars? But to me it raises different questions around exploitation and agency: To what extent can it be exploitation in the way it’s been discussed if the contributor isn’t a fan of the text? How do we account for non-fan donations? Is agency considered differently when it’s not a fan of the text contributing? These perhaps aren’t particularly well-formed questions, but they’re the ones that came to me and I’d be interested in any thoughts.