Veronica Mars and Big Data

16 03 2013

Last post I talked about how Netflix‘s anytime-anywhere model will inevitably change the way that networks do business in the future — giving viewers a chance to watch as many episodes as they want, when they want to.  Now, if that wasn’t enough, along comes “Veronica Mars” to shake their previously solid ground a bit more.

For those of you who never watched it (and that includes me) “Veronica Mars” was a television series from 2004-2007 starring Kristin Bell and produced by Rob Thomas. According to the ever-reliable Wikipedia, Bell plays Veronica,

a student who progresses from high school to college while moonlighting as a private investigator under the tutelage of her detective father. In each episode, Veronica solves a different stand-alone case while working to solve a more complex mystery.

Smithsonian Mag illustration about Big Data

Okay. I’m probably not the target market for this thing.  But it had its fans.  Not a bazillion of them, but a bunch of them (Thomas estimates about three million).  When Thomas decided to write a feature film based around the series, they got excited.  Not excited enough to convince Warner Bros to fund the film (they had produced the series and, I would assume, controlled the copyright) though. So the movie was never made.

Until this year.

In what I can only assume was a brilliant stroke of marketing savvy, Thomas approached Warners with the proposal that, if he could raise $2,000,000 outside, they would finance the film. But the brilliant stroke here was that he wasn’t planning on getting the money from a financier.  He said he would get the money through Kickstarter — from the very fans who would, therefore, presumably pay money to go see the film in the theaters. (Except for some high-priced donors, most pledgers don’t get a movie ticket. At best, they get a DVD or Blu-Ray, not enough for most fans to stay away from the theater, I’d venture.)

If he could raise enough fan interest to finance the film, would they agree that there was enough fan interest for them to support its release? Here is what he says happened:

I met with the Warner Bros. brass, and they agreed to allow us to take this shot. They were extremely cool about it, as a matter of fact. Their reaction was, if you can show there’s enough fan interest to warrant a movie, we’re on board.

Well, duh.  This is kind of a no-brainer, once you agree to think outside of your normal box.

The story that you’ve heard reported is that they raised the money.  Faster than any project had ever raised money on Kickstarter. In fact, as of today, they’ve raised over 3.4 million.

But the real story isn’t that they raised the money, it’s why Warners agreed to let them make the movie at all.  There are two main reasons, both of which should make for an interesting change in the way the studios do business.

First, the production cost.  They agreed to distribute a movie that was made for about $2,000,000.  Let’s assume that they raise twice that and put most of it towards production (a low-budget production, as far as the film union – IATSE – defines it is under five million dollars).  That is still probably the cheapest film Warners will make all year — unless Superman and The Great Gatsby and Hangover – Part III turn out to be a lot cheaper than I think. Understand, this is not a film like a Sundance movie that they pick up for distribution. This is a film that they already own the rights to.

This is their movie. They couldn’t get it any cheaper. Oh, they’ll probably have to give up some big profit participation points — what we in the business call “Monopoly money.”  And, if Thomas and Warners are smart, the company will cede a crap ton of creative control, and let the creative team make the movie their way.

If all of those things really happen, this is a sea change in the movie financing and distribution game. A major studio producing a movie for practically no money and letting the filmmakers make it for the people who they see as the film’s fans.

And they can do that because of the second reason – the research has already told them that they can probably make money on this.  And that research was called Kickstarter. And here’s where this story overlaps with last week’s story about Netflix.

The New York Times did a piece on how Netflix decided to finance the expensive House of Cards. Because the company delivers its programming through computers, rather than over the air, they have access to loads of data about how we watch our media. They knew that a lot of people liked movies with Kevin Spacey. They knew that a lot of people liked movies directed by David Fincher (even though he didn’t direct all of the episodes, he directed the first two and his name was on every episode in the Netflix pages for the series). They knew that a lot of people liked the British version of the show.

This is what’s called Big Data — making sense of enormous amounts of data. And the sense that Netflix made of it was that an American version of this series starring Kevin Spacey and directed by David Fincher would probably have a built in audience. As the Times put it “the ability to see into the future is the killer app.”

In the case of Veronica Mars, Thomas was able to use a smaller version of this Big Data to make his case to Warners that a successful Kickstarter campaign would increase the likelihood that they could “see into the future” and predict the film’s success.  If the film didn’t have enough supporters to finance their small budget then it was unlikely it would have enough viewers to fill a movie theater.  If they raised the money, it was a good indication to Warners that they could fill theater seats and get some ancillary income in their usual way.

As I said before — well, duh.

It’s a great test case for crowd prognostication (as opposed to crowd financing — this was never really a case of crowd financing). And I am positively agog with the possibilities for the future. What would happened if the script ideas and cast for Jack the Giant Slayer were floated on something similar to Kickstarter?  If they could convince (oh, let’s say) 20,000,000 people to kick in a few bucks they would have proved that there was 400,000,000 dollars of potential box office out there. That would not only give them confidence to move forward, but would also suggest a budget somewhere south of what they did pay for it.

What if television ideas were floated this way?  Would we have fewer turkeys like Pan Am?

I don’t know, but I think that’s it’s an interesting way to help filmmakers — large and small — test out concepts. Not every film or show is going to be able to do this. I can’t imagine what BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD would have done in a system like this. On the other hand, it was made for only two million.

But it is an interesting way to look at the future of programming and arts.  Watch out Neilsen!!


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