Veronica Mars, or How Big Business Discovered Kickstarter
Remember Veronica Mars? Don't feel bad if you can't. It was a very short-lived television series about a student who moonlights as a private detective, and its ratings were so low that chances are you never caught an episode.
But a few people apparently did. Rob Thomas, who created the series, took a movie version to Warner Brothers, who ultimately turned it down. So Thomas brought the project to Kickstarter and raised the $2 million goal within half a day. The tally is almost $3.6 million at this point with 26 days of fundraising to go.
Hooray for living out an entrepreneur's dream, right? Not so fast. This project has one major difference from all the other movies that have sought help from the masses. It comes with major backing from... Warner Brothers. Right, the same studio that turned it down. And that's the problem.
Invasion of the Big Brands?
The Veronica Mars movie project has just made clear to big corporations that they can use Kickstarter to their own ends, which may squeeze out a lot of the opportunity for true start-up ideas. Without some big interference from Kickstarter's management, we've seen the beginning of the little guy's dream turning into a nightmare.
Kickstarter is a financial tool that has always had its quirks and challenges since its launch in 2009. It's a great mechanism to raise money if you're already plugged into an audience, market niche, or fan base that might be willing to take a flier on an appealing idea. Without having a connection with people, you're handicapped because there are a lot of projects listed on Kickstarter, and getting attention isn't easy.
Even with a fan base in place, you also need solid, effective, and stylish marketing. The whole trick of Kickstarter is to catch the attention and fancy of enough people who can donate a little bit each that, together, totals the amount of capital you need for your project.
This isn't to knock Thomas. If you want to do a movie, you need money. But even more, you need distribution to help be sure that people will know about the film and see it. Thomas badly wanted to do this project, he couldn't get a green light from Warner, but he also needed a major studio for ultimate success.
But the participation of any large, savvy, and already well-funded business poisons the water. There are only so many projects most people will fund. But how do you get their attention when you have to compete with a large organization that has the resources to extensively market? Remember, even a low-budget movie in Hollywood runs into the tens of millions of dollars. Producers and businesspeople will take the money, but it isn't a make-or-break type of fundraising for them.
Competing for Buzz
Instead, the large business will use Kickstarter for another benefit it can provide: buzz. The platform is about connecting with fans. The money is almost secondary, a way to reach consumers and build awareness and support. Using Kickstarter for Veronica Mars was likely a way to test the waters and prove that an audience existed. (One paid more than $10,000 to play a waiter in one scene of the movie.)
Owners of big brands can get the attention of people who feel some affiliation. But as they grab attention, they pull it away from others. And because donations are part and parcel of showing support, that marketing push will drain money from entrepreneurs who may have far fewer options for success.
Big business may be able to walk into Kickstarter either directly or through surrogates, but it's a shame because this has the potential to tank what has increasingly been a great tool for the little outsiders with big dreams.
ERIK SHERMAN | Columnist
Erik Sherman's work has appeared in such publications as The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times Magazine, and Fortune. He also blogs for CBS MoneyWatch.