Revolutions can sneak up on you. Take Veronica Mars, a 2004 TV series on UPN (now the CW) that spawned a cult (I’m a member) and then got dumped after Season Three when the ratings tanked. When we last saw teen sleuth Veronica (a stellar Kristen Bell), whose jones for crime-solving ignited when she was drugged and raped in high school, she was on a precipice, torn between two lovers and an uncertain future.
Series creator Rob Thomas wanted to leave Veronica hanging. He envisioned Veronica Mars coming back as a low-budget movie. Warner Bros., which owned the series, practically yawned in his face. Like F. Murray Abraham’s talent boss in Inside Llewyn Davis, the studio listened and basically said, “I don’t see the money here.”
Old story. But there’s a new twist. Thomas and Bell were fired up by a passionate fan base. They went to Kickstarter, the crowd-funding platform – called “the people’s NEA” by The New York Times – to help bring the project to life for five percent of the take. Warner Bros., through its digital arm, agreed to a theatrical release and ancillary costs if Team Mars could raise $2 million. The team shot a comic pitch at Bell’s home, hit the campaign trail everywhere from Twitter to Comic Con, and offered 32 pledge levels that ranged from $1 to $10,000. Incentives varied from T-shirts, autographed scripts, premiere invites and the top prize, a speaking part, going to Steve Dengler, as a video-show host.
Team Mars hit $2 million in 10 hours, with 91,585 backers finally raising the total to $5.7 million, enough to finance a 23-day shoot with a few action scenes. The fans who proudly wore I SAVED VERONICA MARS stickers were right: They did.
Time out here for a bitch session. When Zach Braff sought Kickstarter financing for Wish I Was Here, and Spike Lee followed with a Kickstarter joint called Da Sweet Blood of Jesus, complaints rose about name filmmakers hustling money from the public when, unlike you and your pal Herbie, they had the clout and the cash to do it themselves. Point taken.
Right now, the question is how did Veronica Mars turn out as a movie? It’s a mixed bag. Too much time wasted on a whodunit that’s more like a who-cares. No matter. Mars fans will have a blast. And those jazzy blues notes that deepened the series resonate onscreen. The Veronica we meet nine years later has camouflaged the emotionally bruised California teen from the fictional town of Neptune. She’s a New York lawyer, wearing her chic suits like armor and settled in with nice guy Piz Piznarski (Chris Lowell).
Naturally, that won’t last. She’s called back to Neptune by Logan Echolls (Jason Dohring), the bad-boy millionaire now implicated in the murder of a pop singer. Can Veronica save her ex-lover? Can a plot be any more predictable?
Here’s the thing: Plot has never been the attraction in Veronica Mars. Veronica can throw a punch or a put-down with the best of them. But it’s how she thinks that draws us in, not her body count. The murders in this femcentric film noir are just a way into exploring character, notably Veronica and her father, Keith (the invaluable Enrico Colantoni), a sheriff-turned-Neptune PI. The same telling detail goes into the movie, with a script by Thomas and Diane Ruggiero that keeps its eye on the broken places in its characters. Hell, Veronica has always called herself a Marshmallow, a term the show’s fans proudly apply to themselves.
How will non-Marshmallows react to the movie? With some confusion, even though a prologue offers helpful clues. As a director, Thomas shows a comic touch that’s still bracing, especially in a high school reunion that turns into a free-for-all uniting most of the TV cast. Look for Ryan Hansen as “sexual sharknado” Dick Casablancas and Krysten Ritter as mean girl Gia Goodman. James Franco is a hoot playing himself as the victim of hidden cameras that show him squeezing painfully into skinny jeans and trying hilariously to come up with words that rhyme with “orange.” But it’s Bell – riding high with the Disney-animated Frozen and Showtime’s carnal-fixated House of Lies – you want to follow anywhere. Bell is irresistible, and she makes us care.
Time will tell if audiences care enough to make something historic out of the Kickstarter launch of Veronica Mars. Even though I’d enjoy seeing Seinfeld on the big screen with Jerry, George, Kramer and Elaine released from prison, the crowdfunding concept should be bigger than reviving favorite TV shows. Thanks to Bell, Thomas and Kickstarter, we’ve discovered new life on Mars. Now who’d risk a buck to fund the most elusive quality in American filmmaking: originality?