The media studies blogosphere blew up March 13-15 over the Kickstarter crowdfunding campaign to produce a movie based on 2004-7 TV show Veronica Mars. I’m a little late to the party because I had a March 18 blog post in the works already, but here I am now, with a hat tip once again to Suzanne Scott, who has a way with naming even in three-sentence blog prefaces and gave me “fan-ancing.”
I am, as many are, troubled by the Veronica Mars Kickstarter campaign. I will also, as many have done, preface the analysis of my concern with a statement that I really like the show. I am late on that as well, having just finished the first season via Netflix, but I get why people are willing to throw money at there being more of it.
The reward on movies has always been privatized—that’s what some people are pointing out as why the Kicksterter campaign is not a problem, as with Jason Mittell’s comment in his post Veronica Mars and Exchanges of Value Revisited that “we’re basically just pre-buying merchandise, DVDs, or experiences. How is that unethical?” However, socializing the risk of producing a large-scale film is new. And it’s symptomatic. And it’s probably not going away.
I’m not the only one to speak the language of risk. Bethan Jones, in her Fan Exploitation, Kickstarter and Veronica Mars, noted that this is a situation where “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.”
Luke Pebler’s post My Gigantic Issue With the Veronica Mars Kickstarter similarly objected to risk being shifted off of industry: “They’re large, for-profit companies with access to vast capital. On a certain level the studio’s raison d’etre is to bear financial risk, to float millions of dollars of this year’s box office money to make next year’s movies.”
But I want to make a larger argument about what the VM Kickstarter gestures toward. The socialization of risk in conjunction with private reward has become increasingly visible after the burst of the housing bubble. While I am not an expert in economics to say when risk actually started to be broadly socialized, the recent economic downturn produced a conversation about it, at least in the circles I run in.
During the bubble, some people made money hand-over-fist doing risky things, and when it fell apart large institutions were dubbed “too big to fail” (and, as petitions from progressive organizations in my inbox have complained recently, “too big to jail”) and bailed out. Now, I understand that just letting the economy implode and not taking action would have been worse, but why not bail out regular people instead? I am not aware of any non-activist conversations about spending the same money at the bottom instead, and I know it would have been a political nonstarter.
So, big financial institutions got bailed out, and that was expensive, and lots of people lost jobs and homes and the tax base shrank, such that the federal government is short on cash (well, shorter than usual since the Bush tax cuts and unfunded wars), which has, predictably, led to calls for cutting spending, by which the financial conservatives mean the social safety net. Bailouts at the top, but austerity at the bottom.
And the VM Kickstarter, as an example where average people are asked to take responsibility to pay for large institutions’ tabs, absolutely participates in this austerity logic of socialized risk and private reward. It is symptomatic of the way we have come to think about financial relationships between regular people and the structures of capital.
Interestingly, it’s also indicative of the logic of financialization. As Pebler points out, “huge conglomerates ought to be able to take small risks with lower-budget stuff, because they’re so rich they don’t care. What’s $2mil to Time-Warner’s bottom line? But, of course, they don’t. Instead we’re getting the opposite: the studio exploiting a loophole in order to shift (some part of) these risks onto their fans.” Why is that? Because no amount of profit is ever enough in a financialized system and any cost that can be cut must be to keep shareholders happy.
And because of the Kickstarter campaign’s participation in the hegemonic economic thinking of the contemporary moment, I think it’s just the tip of the iceberg. I agree with Pebler’s assessment that “this campaign has stepped boldly over a line that established content creators have been edging towards on Kickstarter for some time, and I predict it will end up being a tipping point.”
On the other hand, though I do tend to be pessimistic, there is some tiny chance that this will open up a conversation about how it is we want our media to be produced. Richard Lawson of The Atlantic Wire wrote, “I guess my ire is really directed at the famous and semi-famous people who, rather than hustle around town drumming up the money from proper backers and investors and then hoping money from their fans will roll in, just make some cutesy video instead and figure their work done,” and it got me thinking: Who says that large-scale capital is the only “proper” backing structure for media production? Why can’t regular people become proper backers?
As Mike Monello tweeted:
The potential to cut out the middleman and let fans and creative workers come together to make things they both love is very appealing for everyone (except studios). As Jones notes, “donating towards the funding of a film instead of buying a ticket after its release also raises interesting [questions] about the extent to which the film will be moulded by what fans want,” and I’d wager that hope of having shaping power is part of the motivation for donation.
The problem, of course, is that shifting the definition of proper funding isn’t really what’s on offer here. It is, as Bertha Chin wrote in her The Veronica Mars Movie: crowdfunding – or fan-funding – at its best?, “a studio film that Warner Bros is essentially too cheap to finance.” Or, in Lawson’s lively prose:
What annoys me is that the campaign’s success might embolden other essentially corporate interests to do the same thing. It’s free money and they pocket all the profit! It’s a great arrangement for them, so why wouldn’t they try it? As charming as the Veronica Mars crew is, some darkness lies behind their big idea. Which is why it might ultimately be better if it fails. There, I said it. Corporate opportunism posing as empowerment of the masses is not something we should encourage.
Lawson picks up on several key points: it’s “essentially corporate interests” who are benefiting even though the face of it is the creator (Rob Thomas) and actor (Kristen Bell) we all so love; ultimately, Warner Brothers “pockets all the profits.” So we need to look hard at “corporate opportunism posing as empowerment of the masses.”
This is not, of course, to paint the contributing VM fans as victims. I am sensitive to Chin’s critique that:
Frustratingly, fan agency always gets left out in arguments which purport 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.
Or Joss Whedon, interviewed in Buzzfeed: “people clearly understood what was happening and just wanted to see more of the thing they love. To give them that opportunity doesn’t feel wrong. If it was a truly wrong move, I don’t think it would have worked. I feel like people would have said, ‘Hey, that’s not fair! That doesn’t count!’”
As Mittell points out, “while I’m giving my money to Warner Bros., I do the same every time I pay my cable bill or buy a ticket to one of their films. But this time I’m getting something more palpable: I’m entering into a commercially-facilitated, serialized one-way relationship with a mass media text and its production crew – which is a pretty good definition of fandom in general.”
These folks have a point. We can’t assume fans are blindly throwing money. This does have structural similarities to other forms of fan activity. Fans aren’t duped.
Or, at least, they aren’t uniquely duped. I do think that the pervasiveness of the logic of socialized risk and privatized reward in the world at large has everything to do with why Kickstarting a large corporation’s product makes any sense at all. It’s why fans participate, but it’s also why the people involved with Veronica Mars are doing it. By and large, this is not something anyone is questioning, about any of the things to which it is applied. But we need to look at the Veronica Mars Kickstarter in exactly that context.