Never mind Veronica Mars – let’s kickstart Dawson's Creek onto the silver screen

A plea to fans to fund a project turning cancelled TV show Veronica Mars into a movie raised $2.5m in 48 hours. While this could very well be the future of how we consume television, Bim Adewunmi isn’t sure why fans, rather than studios, should bear all t

 

Even now, there are still the smouldering embers of excitement all across the social media platforms I use. Fandoms in the age of the internet tend to be a noisy, garrulous lot and one in particular is losing its collective shit. Because Veronica Mars – one of the most beloved cult shows of the 2000s – is to make a comeback on the big screen. The show’s creator and its star, Rob Thomas and Kristen Bell respectively, launched a Kickstarter campaign (more usually the preserve of smaller independent internet-only web series like the The Mis-Adventures of Awkward Black Girl or UK-based Brothers With No Game) to raise $2m over 30 days. It raised $2.5m in 12 hours. According to Thomas and Bell, if the film goes into production, then studio Warner Brothers will help with distribution. The film should land in early 2014. Modern filmmaking, eh? God bless the internet.

 I didn’t watch Veronica Mars first time around. I was at university for one thing, but more importantly I was still really into Gilmore Girls, and I had no extra time to devote to another perky young American, no matter how excellent her surname. (2004 also brought Desperate Housewives and The X-Factor, so, you know, a few turds came with the punchbowl.) Thanks to a period of under-employment a few years back, I’ve rectified the error to a degree, catching stray episodes on daytime television. Tiny slightly hokey details aside – the show is set in a town called Neptune, for example – it’s a good show, and as teen private investigator Veronica, Kristen Bell is a case of perfect casting ably assisted by very good writing. Fans of symmetry will be pleased to know the show’s first season was nominated for Best Network Television Series at the Saturn Awards. On the small screen, and in the hands of Rob Thomas (who went on to co-create and co-write the superlatively good Party Down), it was excellent. But how will it fare at the cinema?

 There are two distinct camps when it comes to making the leap from small screen to silver. A cursory glance at a small sample suggests there is usually no middle ground in this arena: they are either good or astonishingly terrible. Pop quiz: what do The Avengers, Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Thunderbirds and On The Buses have in common? Their big screen adventures ended in ignominy and disappointment. On the flip side, consider South Park, The Muppet Show (several times), Firefly and um, Jackass. Pretty great, right? Right. It is a fine art, transferring stories and back-stories that often took years to craft and get right onto a big screen in one 90-minutes-to-two-hours chunk. Sure, you bring along an already dedicated audience (Veronica Mars fans more than most: one guy paid $10,000 into the Kickstarter for the chance to speak in the film), but you also carry with you exceptionally raised expectations. It’s easy to fall short.

Musician Amanda Palmer gave a rapturously-received TED talk in February called ‘the art of asking’. In 2012, Palmer raised $1.2m on Kickstarter after initially asking for $100,000 to support her new album and tour. Later, she would advertise for musicians to come and play for free on the tour; the criticism was almost unanimous. There were questions raised about the accountability of Kickstarter (which had raised almost $350m as at August last year). Quieter voices are also left asking if this is the wave of the future – will we, as consumers be doing this more and more? In a short piece at IndieWire, Bryce J Renninger says we can expect to see more studios using this system, and hinges his way of thinking on a few potent reasons: free publicity, upfront funds, data collection and reduced responsibility on putting out a quality product. Already, showrunners of two American TV series, Terriers  and Men Of A Certain Age have floated the idea of doing similar for their cancelled shows.

What does it all mean for the way we consume television? Clearly, a good swathe of the pop culture-consuming audience has no problem giving cash to projects they love – it’s in our nature to love irrationally, after all. But is the Kickstarter method the way to do it?  For sure, Veronica Mars' superfans didn't need much persuading to pony up some spare cash for the show they once loved. Will this method work for unknown, unbeloved new ideas struggling to stand out in the Hollywood landscape? Put it this way - would you lay down £25 if you read the synopsis for recent Hollywood megahit Argo on a Kickstarter page? I loved Argo, but I can't honestly say that I would have. And for that matter, precisely how many films can you comfortably make for $2.5m these days? That's budget filmmaking on a scale that we don't see too much of, even in our recession-hit times. And anyway, fan or no, isn't it just a tad cheeky that we are subsidising big-time studio Warner Bros? Perhaps it's churlish of me to feel this way.

Of course, if this turns out to be the beginning of a Brave New Vanguard of crowd-funded Hollywood entertainment, may I suggest one little-known and only modestly influential TV show ripe for big screen glory? Dawson's Creek, m'lud. All that angst, nicely matured via a bankruptcy (Dawson), an affair (Pacey, obvs), an unexpected windfall plus the re-appearance of an exciting ex (Joey, of course) and a new and noble quest for equal marriage (Jack, campaigning alongside his adopted daughter, whose mother Jen, died in the show finale). Listen, Kevin Williamson - call me. We can knock this script out in three months.

Kristen Bell as Veronica Mars.

Bim Adewunmi writes about race, feminism and popular culture. Her blog is  yorubagirldancing.com and you can find her on Twitter as @bimadew.

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Social media tome #Republic questions the wisdom of crowds

Cass R Sunstein explores how insulation pushes groups towards more extreme opinions.

Cass Sunstein, one of the leading public intellectuals in the United States and a former Obama administration official, has worried and written for more than 15 years about the effects of the internet and digital communications on democracy. This book, his third on the subject, tackles social media.

The heart of his argument lies in the cumulative, collective effect of what individuals do online. Networking, shopping, dating and activism are all transformed by the engine of opportunity that is the internet. But those new links and choices produce a malign side effect: “filter bubbles”, inside which like-minded people shut themselves off from opinions that might challenge their assumptions. Insulation pushes groups towards more extreme opinions.

Sunstein’s organising principle is the ­difference between consumer and political sovereignty. The former promotes individual choice despite its possible consequences; the latter takes into account the needs of society as a whole. His inspiration is Jane Jacobs, the historian of US cities who celebrated, in poetic language, the benign and enriching effect on democracy of random encounters between citizens on pavements and in parks. How do we now reverse or dilute the polarisation driven by Facebook and Twitter?

The solutions Sunstein proposes for this very difficult problem are oddly tentative: websites stocked with challenging ideas and deliberative debates, voluntary self-regulation and “serendipity buttons”. He rightly stresses transparency: we know far too little about the algorithms that sift news for our attention on the networks. Facebook has talked about trying to show news that is “engaging” and “interesting”, without ever engaging in detailed public discussion of what these words mean. The disclosure requirements for social networks “require consideration”, Sunstein writes, without saying whether Facebook might have to be required legally to explain precisely how it routes news to almost two billion users.

Sunstein’s most interesting arguments are myth-busters. He questions the “wisdom of crowds”, while refraining from pointing out directly that the single strongest argument against this idea is the inequality of opinions. Not all opinions are equally valuable. He warily suggests what only a very few American voices have so far dared to say: that the First Amendment to the constitution, which guarantees a free press, should not be treated – as the courts have recently tended to do – as an equally strong protection for the freedom of all speech.

Sunstein is nostalgic for the media system and regulation of the past. I spent years working for a daily “general-interest” newspaper (the Times) and regret the decline of those outlets as much as he does, yet there is no reversing the technological and economic changes that have undermined them. It might have been a mistake to deregulate television in the United States, and killing the “fairness doctrine” might have had unforeseen effects, but that does not deal with the dilemmas thrown up by WhatsApp or Weibo, the Chinese version of Twitter.

Users of these platforms face the problem of managing abundance. Writers such as Sunstein imply that people who lock themselves in filter bubbles are deplorably unable to break out of their informational isolation. But we all now live in bubbles that we design to make sense of the torrent of information flowing through our phones. Better-designed, heterogeneous bubbles include the unexpected and the challenging.

Yet the problem lies deeper than the quality of your bubble. Polarised societies can no longer agree on how to recognise the truth. Filter bubbles play a part, but so do a preference for emotion over reason, attacks on scientific fact from religion, decades of public emphasis on self-fulfilment, and a belief that political elites are stagnant and corrupt. Like many journalists, Sunstein treats the problem of a malfunctioning communications system as a supply-side matter: the information being generated and distributed ought to be better.

In the case of fake news, that is indisputable. But there is also a demand-side problem, one that hinges on the motives of those consuming information. If, inside their bubbles, people are not curious about alternative opinions, are indifferent to critical thinking and prefer stoking their dislike – of, say, Hillary Clinton – will they have even the slightest interest in venturing outside their comfort zone? Do we have a right to ignore the views of others, or an obligation to square up to them? Millions of Americans believe that one of the most important guarantees in their constitution is the right to be left alone – and that includes being left alone by the New York Times.

Sunstein does not venture far into this territory. He only hints that if we worry about what people know, we must also worry about what kinds of societies we build. Globalisation has reshaped communities, dismantling some and building others online, but the net effect has been to reduce deliberation and increase a tendency to press the “Like” button, or loathe opponents you can’t see or hear. The ability to debate civilly and well may depend on complex social chemistry and many ingredients – elite expertise, education, critical thinking, culture, law – but we need to be thinking about the best recipes. 

George Brock is the author of “Out of Print: Newspapers, Journalism and the Business of News in the Digital Age” (Kogan Page)

#Republic: Divided Democracy in the Age of Social Media
Cass R Sunstein
Princeton University Press, 328pp, £24.95​

George Brock is a former managing editor of The Times who is now head of journalism at City University in London.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

0800 7318496