AFF Interview – Rob Thomas – Veronica Mars
After years of being off the air, creator Rob Thomas was able to revive “Veronica Mars” by using a Kickstarter campaign. Through fan contributions, the film raised $5.7 million dollars and is due out sometime next year. Also the creator of the TV show “Party Down,” I spoke to Rob at Austin Film Festival about Kickstarter campaign, the process in creating the movie, and the heartbreaking NBA Finals.
What is it like to be the first person to be able to revive a series that had been cancelled via fan crowdsourcing on Kickstarter?
Being the first out of the box was the thing I kept pitching as the most important aspect. I felt like there was potential there and “Veronica Mars” felt like the right thing for the moment. We were a cult show, so there were people who were big fans of it, and yet we weren’t huge enough to warrant a movie on our own. But we weren’t so small that we couldn’t attract enough attention. We were a project that Warner Bros. had flirted with doing a movie about and through their sophisticated market testing decided there wasn’t a big enough audience, which is understandable since Warner Bros. typically does baseline $30-million movies and up. So I understand why they didn’t think “Veronica Mars” was worth that sort of investment. So we were left in this limbo of not being able to do the movie as an indie because Warner Bros. owns the title, even though I created the show. When you create a show for a studio, they own that title. I had exhausted all other avenues, trying to figure out a way to sell them on this idea and yet every interview I did, whenever I met people who knew me as a writer, they always asked, “Will there be a Veronica Mars movie?” In Season 3, it ends in an uncomfortable place. It’s not a happy ending, which I think left fans wanting some clarity on where Veronica landed. It was such a long journey. It took a year and a half from the time I approached [Warner Bros.] to the day we got to hit “launch” on the Kickstarter page. One thing I’ll say about it is I felt like at that point, one way or another, the question would be answered. Will there be a “Veronica Mars” movie or will there not? If the Kickstarter had failed, people would have seen that we took our shot and it didn’t warrant it and I could be free of it. I don’t mean that as though it’s some albatross that I’ve been carrying around. I’m proud of it. But I would see headlines of articles on the web saying, “Will Rob Thomas shut up about the Veronica Mars movie?” There were times when I tried to promote the idea because I wanted the fans to be vested. Then years later I was so pessimistic about the chances of there being a movie I really tried to tone it down.
One thing I was kind of surprised with was the negativity about making the movie, whether funded by a studio or by a crowdsourced project. Some even said, “’Veronica Mars’ had its shot. It was on for three seasons and that’s the end.” Were you surprised at all with that kind of negativity?
I think I was surprised about the opposite. I think we got off pretty easy. I read a ton of the press and I would say four out of five were positive and there would be the one that would be critical. For Warner Bros., it may have been the prime reason they were reluctant to do it. They were worried that it could be perceived as a huge entertainment conglomerate going to fans to fund their movie. They wanted to very careful about how we did it. The people at Kickstarter were also very nervous about taking hits for getting into business with what is a studio property. So everyone was very conscious of it. For a few reasons, I think the press was mostly positive. I think the perception, when you think of Kickstarter, is that people are asking for money, almost like a pledge drive. They are counting on charity. It’s like a local band going to their fanbase to record an album. We were very conscious of trying to make the reward system where it was something that was good value for the dollar. The bulk of the money that came in was at the $35 and $50 dollar reward levels which would get people a t-shirt, a digital download of the movie, a copy of the script, and for the $50 level you’d get a copy of the DVD. The press got a bit more negative with what came after us. Let’s say the “Veronica Mars” movie did really well and Warner Bros. was willing to make another one and they were willing to finance it completely on their own. I would still be tempted to do the Kickstarter drive again and put the goal amount at $1 because I think the people who did it the first time have liked the experience. They like getting the updates. If the movie is good, at the end, I hope people think it was worth it. There would not be a “Veronica Mars” movie without the Kickstarter drive. I think the most important element may have been the free advertising. Before Kickstarter one out of 50 people might have heard of [“Veronica Mars”]. Now, it’s the weirdest thing. I get recognized. The brand awareness of this as a product, whether people know the show or are fans, is so much higher than it’s ever been. We may have raised $5.7 million online but I bet we got $20 million worth of marketing. When I was trying to sell Warner Bros. on the concept I said we have to be the first one out because the first one out will get all this heat. I was worried someone else was going to do this. Eventually we got the “yes.” I’ve read people whose commentary has been like, “How easy it is now [to make a movie]? You just put a Kickstarter page and you can raise money” as though it’s a bad thing. I think previously, movies got made when they got Robert Pattinson to say “yes” to a movie. Is that the better system? [Kickstarter] brings a certain democracy. Fans can decide what gets made.
What about as far as writing? There was a pretty large gap from when the show ended to when you started writing the script. Was it easy to get back into writing for Veronica?
Yeah, that was really comfortable, though the way I did it was tough because I didn’t start writing the movie until the Kickstarter had launched. We had a concept of both whether we were going to get a yes or no and what size the movie would be. If we had raised $1.5 million it would need to be a murder mystery in a house like anyone else’s indie. I didn’t know the scope until we got into the Kickstarter. Then we went into prep three weeks after the drive ended. So I had to write it very fast. At the end I had it outlined and I realized I may not be done in time so I brought in Diane Ruggiero, who had been one of the writers on the show, and she helped me out with it, which was both great creatively and it saved my ass.
I believe you had two ideas for directions you could go with the movie – the version people are used to and would expect and an ambitious plot with Veronica in the FBI. What led to your decision?
I did toy around with the FBI idea. In Season 3 there’s a whole plotline about her getting an internship at the FBI. When it became apparent that we were going to be cancelled, we went to the CW and said, “What if we reboot the show with Veronica in the FBI?” and they actually gave us the money to shoot a mini-pilot. When we did it we thought, “We’ve done it. We’ve saved the show.” The head of the network went from, “You’re dead” to “Oh my god, this is great.” We even got the bullseye in Entertainment Weekly. But I think the president of the network has a certain amount of control and I think people who do ratings, marketing and publicity have even more and so we did not get picked up. But a lot of people are familiar with that notion of Veronica in the FBI. So when I was coming up with ideas that was one that I strongly considered. I didn’t take it as far as breaking it down and putting an outline down on paper, but there is a vague notion of it.
Would that have meant not bringing back all the other characters?
That’s one of the reasons I decided against it. Having to work in all of those characters started to seem crazy. It started to make me roll my eyes. Particularly in a fan-funded movie, there’s a certain amount of “give the people what they want.” I knew they wanted to see Wallace and Weevil and Mac. To bring those all into an FBI movie felt very tough
Switching gears to “Party Down”…looking back on that show now that we’re a few years removed from it ending, what are your thoughts on it ending and the circumstances involving how it wrapped up?
It was heartbreaking. That show was so much fun to do. The cast was great. Right now I’m doing a movie and I have three pilots in various stages of completion and I’ve had a 16-17 year career and I feel in there I’ve done three things that have been special. It’s so hard to get something good on and something you’re proud of and something where you like going to work each day. “Veronica Mars” and “Party Down” were both those. Starz was so proud of that show even though our ratings were not good. There was no doubt we were coming for Season 2. We were valuable to them because after we started airing, people would develop at Starz. Then they hired a new network president who was not there for the development and didn’t give a shit about it because it wasn’t his. Then they had a big hit with “Spartacus.” I think they were willing to roll with our crappy numbers because they were proud of the show, but when they saw they could get a million people watching Starz with the blood and breasts formula, they decided to go straight down that path so it was heartbreaking. I was working on a project with all my friends and doing a show we were proud of so that was hard.
I know from Twitter that you’re a big Spurs fan. I believe that you had started shooting the “Veronica Mars” movie the nights of those last two NBA Finals games. Were you a good director to be around during that time?
Here’s what happened the night we lost Game 6. I got to see some of the games. They were either on the weekend or there were days we shot early. I didn’t get to see Game 6. I still haven’t seen it. I will never see it.
You don’t want to.
I had it on the GameCast on my phone, so I could see the point totals and between takes I was checking it and checking it. I was all worked up. Then we broke for lunch at 8 p.m. L.A. time. I was walking across the street for lunch and we were up five points with under a minute and I was celebrating. I was so happy; so unbelievably happy. We’re going to win the NBA championship. I couldn’t believe it. And then I sat down. I got my meal and I saw we missed a free throw. Then they hit the three. And I became so panicked and people around the table were sort of laughing about how worked up I was and I couldn’t…I just can’t take that. “Look at Rob, he’s about to freak out!” And so I actually walked away so I wouldn’t have to experience it. Then when Ray Allen hit that three, I saw it come up on my phone. I knew we were going into overtime. I know we’d even have another possession, but I knew the series was over. I was destroyed and I didn’t finish my meal. The whole crew heard me moan, heard me cry out. And I went back up to set and just sat in a room for 45 minutes trying to gather myself. It hurts me now.
I never thought it would get worse than Derek Fisher’s .4 shot, and it did.
The Derek Fisher shot…I was on a cruise. I missed that one as well. I had just asked my now wife to marry me. We’re on a cruise in the Mediterranean and I was getting updates infrequently, so it was a very similar thing. It wasn’t as painful because I wasn’t watching it minute by minute but I heard from my friend and he described it to me. And again, I’m on a cruise, I’m in love and it wrecked me. It wrecked me.
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