LOS ANGELES – Hardly a week after Cyrus and Ina Chung had moved to Providence, R.I., to start new jobs, this married couple stood here in a parking lot, dressed in formal clothes with the Southern California sun bearing down on them in late June, having paid a total of $3,000 for the privilege of being extras in the “Veronica Mars” movie.
Cyrus Chung, a lawyer and devoted viewer of the cult television series of the same name, which starred Kristen Bell as a sarcastic teenage detective, still recalled the day that previous March when Bell and Rob Thomas, the “Veronica Mars” creator, announced that they were seeking donations to raise the film’s budget on Kickstarter, the online crowdfunding site.
After discovering that many tantalizing rewards promised to top donors had already been claimed, Chung moved quickly when two nonspeaking background roles became available.
“I think this is the most excited I’ve ever seen him,” Ina Chung said on the set. “Even more than our wedding.”
Now, nearly a year after some 91,000 donors contributed about $5.7 million to revive “Veronica Mars” after it was canceled in 2007, and months after a whirlwind 24-day film shoot, this much-discussed movie was released Friday in theaters and via video on demand.
After one of the first celebrity Kickstarter campaigns, the arrival of the “Veronica Mars” movie raises mysteries that even its titular crime solver – now a law school graduate who is drawn into a murder case in her hometown – would find challenging.
What would success look like for “Veronica Mars”? Will it set off a stampede of studios reviving dormant franchises in crowdfunded projects, or was it a one-time phenomenon? Will it even work as a movie, and will anyone other than its most obsessive fans want to see it?
“This is new to me,” Thomas said from his trailer that morning, “and a lot of it is outside my comfort zone.”
When CW canceled “Veronica Mars” after its third season, Thomas said, he intentionally gave the series an unsatisfying resolution, hoping the network might pause before pulling the plug.
“They told me at the time, ‘Hey, there’s a chance you won’t be back, if you want to tie things up nicely,’ ” recalled Thomas, a former college football player. “And my view was, ‘No, I don’t want to make it easy for you to cancel us.’ ”
For the next five years, Thomas, whose other shows have included short-lived cult hits like “Party Down,” said he could not complete an interview without being asked when the show – which had never drawn much more than 3 million viewers an episode – would be turned into a movie.
While Warner Bros., which owns “Veronica Mars,” was willing to consider a direct-to-video sequel, Thomas said he had no interest in such a project, and the studio’s marketing surveys, he said, did not show enough nationwide familiarity with the property to warrant a multimillion-dollar investment for a proper feature film.
“At that time, I thought we were dead,” he said.
That changed as Thomas took note of websites like Kickstarter, which held the potential to convert the fervent enthusiasm of a modest audience into needed dollars for a lower-budget movie. To that point, the site was a launching pad for offbeat inventions and grass-roots efforts – Thomas had used it to give money to the indie rock band Cotton Mather for an album rerelease – and a route to Hollywood, rather than a mechanism Hollywood could make use of.
But in 2012, when Thomas and Bell were preparing to post an online video that would announce this fundraising drive, Thomas said, Warner Bros. denied them permission to do so.
“It was as hopeless as I’ve ever felt,” said Thomas, who considered releasing the video anyway, then thought better of it.
What he said was as important as the money that could be generated was “the heat that comes by being the first one out of the gate,” which would make a “Veronica Mars” film “the ‘Blair Witch Project’ of crowdfunded movies.”
“It petrified me for a year,” Thomas said. “I kept thinking, ‘I’m going to wake up tomorrow and someone else is going to be doing this.’”
Thomas Gewecke, the chief digital officer at Warner Bros. Entertainment, said in an interview that this was not a false start on the part of the studio.
Gewecke said Warner Bros. wanted the Kickstarter campaign “to be as successful as it could possibly be,” and “wanted to make sure it was set up to have the maximum chance of success.”
“Rob and Kristen had a very well-developed, clearly articulated vision,” he said. “Their relationship with the fans was strong, and the fan base was incredibly passionate.”
When Thomas and Bell’s pitch went live last year, with a goal of garnering $2 million in a month, it hit that target in less than 12 hours and went on to nearly triple that in 30 days. (Prizes and incentives offered to donors, like autographed posters and voice-mail messages from Bell, surely helped, as did a tidal wave of news media coverage.)
Bell said there was something special about the Veronica Mars character, who is sharp-tongued and unconcerned about fitting in with the in-crowd, that longtime fans would want to support.
“Rob wrote Veronica as this queen of the disenfranchised,” Bell said. “All these people who were affected by Veronica, who say, ‘This got me through high school,’ were able to say: ‘I now have a job. I can give you 10 bucks.’”
Many of the several dozen backers on the “Veronica Mars” set in June seemed to agree with Bell’s assessment, though they had paid upward of $2,500 to play additional guests at the character’s high school reunion.
These donors, mostly in their 20s and 30s, had watched the series in its original run or discovered it on video, and spoke of their eagerness to see the story continue. They understood that they were not investors in the movie and would not receive any potential profits, and that their contributions only covered part of its budget.
(Warner Bros., which is paying for fulfillment costs like the delivery of “Veronica Mars” DVDs and T-shirts, declined to say how much more it had chipped in.)
Steven Dengler, a Toronto entrepreneur and a founder of the currency website xe.com, said he gave $10,000 to “Veronica Mars” because it had made Kickstarter “a benchmark, opened it up to a wider audience and made it a household term.”
The financial success of the “Veronica Mars” campaign opened the floodgates on the celebrity sales pitches and vanity projects that have become ubiquitous on the site: a movie directed by Zach Braff that received additional funding from an independent studio even though it met its $2 million target; a proposed romantic comedy from Melissa Joan Hart that failed to reach its $2 million goal. But Dengler said Kickstarter users could tell which proposals were fully thought out and worthy of their donations.