The blog of Michael DiBiasio: Writer and Filmmaker
On all sides of life, people often make the decision — however consciously — to ignore certain parts of reality, in order to better serve their anger and provide themselves with fuel for rationalizing their fears. This statement can be applied broadly to huge swaths of our population at the moment, unfortunately, but for today I want to focus a particular discussion, that starts from this place, on myself and my fellow band of merry misfits. All of this comes with the caveat that I’ve Been There.
Dear Other Filmmakers:
Please do not freak out (or stop freaking out) about the existence/success of The Veronica Mars Movie on Kickstarter. You’re making yourselves, and our profession, look bad. I will explain.
- The Furious Romantic
First, before I say anything else about the subject, I want to make it clear that I understand your frustration and your reservations. It’s hard, seeing people you perceive as “already successful” leveraging an innovative new platform to accomplish something that, on the surface of things, they “should have done” within the parameters that are already established for all other “already successful” people who want to make movies, especially those that include studio involvement. Add to this, the uncomfortable fact that can’t be argued with at the end of the day — that, in this case, a film is being funded By The People despite the fact that it will continue to be owned by The Man (a major studio), in perpetuity, and that all profits (except perhaps for some backend points and typical union contract revenue-sharing that will go to the filmmakers and talent) will also go to said studio — and you have more than a few good reasons for being upset. The Furious Romantic will never tell you not to be upset by a perceived injustice. Feel your feelings, angry people, but them come back to the ground and…stop freaking out.
I will leave the task of providing a measured, reasonable perspective on this topic to Scott Beggs at Film School Rejects, who succinctly stated almost all of the same “defenses” of the project that I poured into a Facebook conversation yesterday. Here are his main talking points, copied verbatim, for the sake of argument:
Item 1 summarizes the main point of all this (which many other reasonable people have noted as well). If you asked 100 Veronica Mars fans if they wanted this movie, 120 would say yes. Because this is 2013, and in the time you took to answer the question 20 of those fans turned their friends/partners/spouses/etc. onto Veronica Mars on Netflix streaming. Because it’s a good television show that “died” young. That HAS to be the very first takeaway from this debate. A film will now exist that people wanted but that otherwise would not be getting if not for this Kickstarter campaign.
Item 2 looks at The Worse Case Scenario and confirms the likely truth: It won’t be that bad.
One of the biggest recent takeaways I’ve gotten in listening to the Scriptnotes podcast by John August and Craig Mazin, is that there’s a disconnect within the film industry that has perhaps “always been there” but is right now worse than ever before. In John’s expert opinion (paraphrasing) studios are not investing enough in Research and Development these days. Which is to say, they aren’t taking enough smart, calculated risks, by developing fresh material or identifying material that people want, choosing instead to play it safe, and/or play to the mean rather than risk too much of a loss on their investment. The result has been too many movies that are too mediocre, amidst a smattering of successful tent pole blockbusters from known commodities (big name writers and/or directors), and too few dollars and hours spent vetting and developing projects that people might want to see but studios are afraid to make. Craig, similarly (I hope I’m remembering this right, or he might get mad), has reflected on the increasing difficulty of getting projects made in the Hollywood low-budget range that I am going to inexpertly determine (or inaccurately remember) lands between $15 million and $35 million. Again, studios aren’t rolling the dice on slates of projects at this budget level. They’d rather just be certain that known commodities (adaptations and other properties with built-in brand recognition) can be made to deliver a substantial ROI if enough money is spent making those commodities into something big and broad and loud and then marketing them like crazy. On top of all this, the small independent labels that knew how to make and market films at the budget level of The Veronica Mars Movie…are mostly all gone, having been swallowed up by DVD shrinking revenues, the recession, deliberate contraction, etc.
So, my further question, reflecting on the second item on Scott’s list, is: Why should we be mad that a studio is not saying no to allowing a $2 million movie with a rabid, yearning fan base to get made? When they weren’t going to do it before — because it’s not big enough of an establish commodity?
Well, there are a few reasons, which need to be discussed before we move on to the rest of the reasons why overall, I think this development is good for all of us. They revolve around the budget. John August confirmed on Twitter last night that he and Mazin will be discussing this situation on Scriptnotes next week. I figured as much. I have some ideas about what I think/hope they’re going to talk about (aforementioned issues of R&D, smaller budget studio productions, etc.). One of the things I’m wondering is how they’re going to react…not to the existence of the Kickstarter campaign itself, or even the studio’s involvement in the whole affair, but the budget. The question of budget, in the case of this project, brings up a couple of concerns that I think need to be vetted before filmmakers decide if We Should Be Angry.
I’ve already established that I believe it’s a legitimate concern, upon first glance, to worry about what a studio-backed film, financed by an audience that assumes “all the risk” might mean for the industry. However, again, most of these fears aren’t (entirely) founded. Apart from the fact that all of the success of the Veronica Mars Kickstarter campaign depends on that audience’s existence in the first place (Rob Thomas and Kristen bell aren’t crowd-raising $2 million for a movie without their track record and their prior-work already behind them), it seems a lot of people “in the industry” are failing to take a step back and look at this from the top level.
Here’s how I see it, as a filmmaker. Excuse the reductiveness of what’s about to follow. But…okay. I want to make a film. I have a script, and I know I have the expertise and the ability and the work ethic to pull it off (these are important points, remember them for later). To make the film, though, I need money. I need money because a film is a product, that takes time and money to craft, and, related to that, I need money to pay people because making film is also a job. So there’s (basically) two ways to go. Some entity (a studio) can give me money in exchange for the right to recoup that investment and a return (otherwise they are not going to give me money) by distributing the film to as large an audience as possible, or I figure out how to get the money myself and then hope to sell the right to distribute my film to a widespread audience to another entity (let’s say a studio, again, to keep it simple). In each way, ideally, everyone gets what they want. I make my film, my audience gets to see a film they like, the studio gets money. Everyone’s happy.
Obviously, things don’t always work out this way. All sorts of factors screw with the balance and/or the successful implementation of this simple formula. A film’s a product, but it’s also a piece of art, and a piece of art that’s uniquely dependent on hoards of people working in imperfect unison towards the impossible goal of achieving a perfect vision that, at the end of the day, exists in some guy or gal’s head (even if others work to stuff toilet paper into that head along the way). Also, the film industry as a whole is in flux. Not only are we navigating the studio-level issues outlined by above, and not only have mid-range “independent” films disappeared, but the true, low-budget independent sphere “tasked” with leading the way in terms of innovative funding strategies in a depressed market…we’re just starting to figure out how things like crowd-funding and audience building work and what these things mean for the future of production and distribution.
At first glance, it’s easy for the independent filmmaker to get pissed off about the success of the Veronica Mars campaign. Here comes a bunch of successful people, and a studio that could come up with $2 million dollars by passing a hat during an executive lunch meeting, and now they’re creeping in on Our Salvation Platform and raising the full coupla mill in one day and THEY’RE GOING TO RUIN EVERYTHING. From the point of view of established working artists, though, this is a different question. I have to prognosticate a little, because I am not established, but…back to the budget issue.
Two million dollars is not a lot of money to make a feature film, especially not of the scope that this film would have to be, at minimum. Thomas has to spend around what he used to spend for two episodes of the show, let’s say, adjusted for inflation. They also no longer have a production office, and would have to set up and staff that. They also have to go at least “a little big” because the movie is always bigger and sleeker than the TV show. Also, fans have been waiting. Expectations are going to be high. No matter where the money comes from, or how quickly it comes together, by my rough estimates, this budget it seems a fairly legitimate minimum amount. This seems like a true independent production. Just because these people used to have a TV show (which was backed by a studio, which isn’t helping with production this time), and just because they’re more successful than most of the rest of us who turn to Kickstarter and other sites, just because they have to go through the studio in some way (because of a prior and valid legal agreement) if they want to make the film at all…doesn’t make this untrue.
I know it’s a lot of money, taken at face value. I know it’s a lot of money to most filmmakers who have turned to crowd-funding. I’m developing my first feature right now, and would love to have a quarter of what the Veronica Mars team raised (I’d take an eighth). But I haven’t earned that amount (not yet), and most likely, unless you’re a slumming showrunner or established industry vet reading this, neither have you.
The last flick I shot (and am still editing) is about 8 mins long, and it cost about $8,000 to make. Except that almost everyone worked for free or for vastly reduced rates (as is often the case), plus we were lucky enough to get some key locations for free, plus now, in post, people continue to work for free. All things told, that film’s end cost should be (I’m spit-balling) about $20,000 to $30,000. Still, we never would have been able to make it without that $8,000 (much of it obtained through crowd-funding), because some costs (food, travel, insurance) can’t be ignored. The feature I’m developing now? Ideally, we’ll be able to get at least a few hundred grand, to make it right. If we have to, we’ll find a way to make it for a fraction of that cost. My point is that I could look at that $2 million dollar amount and get angry. I could get angry that people I perceive as successful and monied (in particular, the studio) have taken money from The People that they should have got from their money trees instead. And I could get angry that they took the platform that was there for me to get money and…oh. They just used it the way it’s meant to be used.
Scott Beggs is right about Item 3 on his list. The success of the Veronica Mars Kickstarter campaign isn’t taking money or anything else away from independents. As he notes in Items 4 and 5, if anything, it’s giving money to us. It’s further legitimizing a growing means of funding films outside of the studio system. Aside from the source of the production money, there’s no difference between The Veronica Mars Movie, and any other independently financed $2 million movie with name talent and pre-arranged distribution. Yes, the difference is that the studio can see a return on an investment we made for them, but this is a special, different situation.
First, it’s different because — to finish off Scott’s list — we could have chosen not to donate. I didn’t, because as much of a fan I am of the show, I’d rather let everyone else pay for it and then catch Veronica once she hits Netflix or iTunes (thanks, suckas). But people donated. In droves. Because they wanted this movie and because they could. And this movie was only going to exist, because the studio was not going to hand the rights back to Thomas, if he and Bell decided to go small with it (including taking pay cuts, probably down to scale) and could prove interest (which they have emphatically done). Lost in all this though, is the symbolism of that sacrifice. What does it mean, in the larger context of the industry?
This is where I am curious to hear how the conversation plays out in next week’s Scriptnotes. August and Mazin always provide a thoughtful perspective to the business side of the industry. A lot of times, because they’re smart and experienced and open, their insights expand beyond the scope of the writer’s sole perspective. I’d like to hear what they think about the studio’s involvement in this affair, and what the success of the Veronica Mars campaign may or may not mean for the studio system and the industry as a whole. Beyond that, I’d like to hear their perspective on the budget, and whether or not this development is another bad sign in terms of shrinking budgets and tougher environments for getting things made (and in terms of artists getting their fair share of wages and/or revenue). Specifically, is it worrisome that a studio is going to potentially profit from a project where the budget is being artificially depressed by “necessity” in the first place (because of their refusal to invest their own millions and/or hand over the rights), and then replaced by the donations of Regular Citizens, who won’t see any return other than the joy of seeing the film they wanted made? Or does it not matter, because of the unique case of this particular project, and because, in donating, we (you) accepted the terms of the arrangement? Are we being played, on the consumer side? Are we playing ourselves, on the filmmaker side?
Here’s what I think, for what it’s worth:
Lastly — and then, I swear, I’m done — I think a lot of the criticism and anger is coming from the usual place: outright jealousy and bitterness. This happened. It might happen again. Get over it. Focus on the good. Take note of the bad, and do something about it if it’s so important to you and such a threat to the industry and your present or future place within it. Stop complaining. Get to work making movies. If you’re an indie, or simply on the outside looking in, make a $5,000 film and make it look like a $10,000 film, by pursuing the task with ingenuity, hard work, and patience. Crowd-fund if you need or want to, but work at it, and do not waste time comparing yourself to a team of people who worked successfully together for years building a product that spawned a passionate fan base. If you have a film with a bigger budget that you want to make, try to make it if that’s what you feel you need to do. But if you can’t, make a smaller one first. Do it again and again, if you’re serious. If you aren’t serious, stop trying to bring down people who are trying to make things happen. Stop poisoning the discourse.
Take it from a former Angry Person, and a fan of Veronica Mars. Again, as many others have said — it’s good that this movie exists now. This wouldn’t have happened a few years ago. Whatever you think about the situation, start from there. Change is rising. It’s a good thing.