A long time ago we used to be friends, but then you went away for 6 years so we gave you nearly $6 million to come back. Or at least that’s the story for Veronica Mars and its fans, specifically the over 91,000 of them who donated $5.7 million to Kickstarter last year to finance a feature-length film revisiting Veronica (Kristen Bell) and her wacky band of allies and frenemies in Neptune, California. Now, the movie is done and due out next month on the one-year (plus one day) anniversary of the start of the Kickstarter project. There’s only one problem: it’s only playing in 270 theaters. Well, that’s a tall glass of suck, except have you heard of this thing called video-on-demand?
“Veronica Mars will be released by Warner Bros. in about 270 theaters on March 14, the same day that it is available to buy or rent online. It will mark the first time one of Hollywood’s six major studios has distributed a movie in theaters and for home viewing at the same time in the U.S.”
Take a moment to do your happy dance. We won’t judge – we’re doing it, too. We remember how awesome Veronica Mars was:
So, you know when you search through Vudu, iTunes, Amazon Video, or maybe even just the On-Demand section from your cable provider and find those films you can either buy or rent while they’re still in theaters only to discover you’ve never heard of any of them? That’s because until now they’ve all been cheap indies which are barely playing in any theaters at all, often because they’re not that good (e.g., Hell Baby, Ass Backwards, Rapture Palooza). Theaters generally don’t care about those movies. For higher profile releases, however, they fight the studios tooth and nail to secure exclusive exhibition windows (usually 3 months) which prohibits a film from being sold on home video so as not to cannibalize its own box office. Due to its Kickstarter notoriety, Veronica Mars is a now relatively high profile movie. So, why are the theaters letting WB do this?
Again, from WSJ:
“The studio is paying AMC Entertainment Holdings Inc., the nation’s second-largest chain, to rent 260 screens across the country (the other 10 playing the film are independently owned). Because Warner is renting the theaters, AMC doesn’t consider it to be a violation of its standard 90-day window policy. Typically theater operators and studios split revenue from ticket sales. For Veronica Mars, AMC will sell the tickets as usual, but Warner will pocket the box office sales.”
With such little financial incentive for AMC, that does beg the question of how long they will continue renting out their screens for Veronica Mars beyond its first week. According to AMC’s vice president of special and alternative content:
“On projects like this where we know we have a partner with the resources to promote the film and an easily targetable audience, we will rent theaters out. The duration of the rentals will depend on how well the movie initially does.”
It’s unknown how much Warner Bros. is spending to rent out the AMC screens, but it usually costs between $5,000 and $20,000 a week to rent a single screen. Even then, Warner Bros. financial investment in the project is minimal. They kicked in less than a million of Veronica Mars‘ eventual $6 million production budget, and are not producing any TV spots or paying for billboards, instead advertising the film exclusively online and in AMC theaters. Their goal is purely and simply to get Veronica Mars fans out to see the movie, confirmed by the vice president of distribution of Warner who told WSJ, “[The fans] can make it successful for us. If we extend beyond that, it’ll be gravy.”
That might seem disappointing because surely they should be trying harder to make this a breakthrough success, right? Well, let’s do the math: if all 91,585 fans who invested in Veronica Mars through Kickstarter buy one ticket per person on opening weekend at the current average ticket price of $8.35 that equates to less than $1 million in box office gross. Granted, that’s still only a fraction of the Veronica Mars Marshmallows (what the fans call themselves) since the show averaged 2.5 million viewers per episode across its 3 seasons, and there’s no telling how many fans have found the show in the interim through DVD, Amazon Prime, or alarmingly insistent friends (that’s how I was initiated into the race of Marshmallows).
Film adaptations of cult TV shows are risky propositions, artistically and financially. Some go straight to video (Dead Like Me: Life After Death) whereas others play to mostly empty theaters for a handful of weeks before disappearing to home video (Strangers with Candy: The Movie). Even Joss Whedon’s Serenity, despite being a kick-ass movie, lost money at the box office. The only thing unique about Veronica Mars is its funding mechanism and method of release. Otherwise, it faces all the same challenges as those films, just with way more scrutiny. There are TV shows which become huge hits at the box office, like Sex and the City and (for some reason) The Inbetweeners Movie, which was seen by practically everyone in the UK in the 2011 while still mostly unseen and unknown in the US. WB is instead keeping expectations very low, taking the opportunity to experiment with a novel (for them) method of distribution. In fact, Warners’ chief digital officer told WSJ “Warner has looked at other properties from its television and film library to see if they could qualify for the same treatment of a low-budget movie that can be released simultaneously in theaters and online.” For those keeping score, among the cult TV shows fans are desperate to see revived Chuck and Pushing Daisies are both WB properties.
Since figures for video on demand sales are notoriously harder to come by than box office gross we may not initially know how well WB’s experiment paid off. We do know that after showing the film to test screening audiences they added in a narrated prologue to help broaden the film’s appeal to the uninitiated meaning you need not have seen the show to enjoy the film. However, it’s clear the Marshmallows are the target audience. The jury is still out on whether or not this movie will even be any good, but come March 14th we won’t have to wait to find out. At least the trailer doesn’t disappoint: