Veronica Mars: Can a crowdfunded film ever be good?

Once your audience are also your investors, can you ever do anything innovative or surprising?

The trailer for the Veronica Mars film has been released, and it’s alarming.

The trailer is mostly exposition, with the occasional snappy one-liner thrown in, and is exactly what you would expect – this looks just like the hit TV series, but in movie-trailer form. And that’s what worries me.

Nine months ago, the Veronica Mars movie caused an internet sensation when its Kickstarter broke all kinds of records and raised $5.7m, almost three times its initial target. “Marshmallows” – the name by which Veronica Mars fans refer to themselves – rallied in their thousands, with the final number of backers exceeding 90,000. Its fans gave a cancelled TV show a second lease of life on the big screen, and the cast and writers another chance at doing something great with well-loved characters. What could be better, or more heartwarming?

But crowdfunding is a two-way street, and a rush of goodwill can just as quickly transform into torrents of abuse, as Kickstarter-veteran Amanda Palmer famously discovered. Your fans give you money directly, but you are also directly beholden to them, locked into an artist-audience relationship unlike anything that has existed before.

This is why the Veronica Mars trailer worries me. Admittedly the trailer is only a brief glimpse, but it looks an awful lot like series creator Rob Thomas has made precisely the film that his fans/investors would want – a longer version of a Veronica Mars episode with as many of the original cast as he could assemble and plenty of wink-wink references to previous in jokes. When the people who have paid for the film are also your audience, you lose the latitude to innovate and surprise. Two roles that used to be distinct – investor and consumer – are now one, and as such the way the filmmakers can work is altered and limited, if they are to avoid a fan backlash and get funded a second time.

As Archie Bland has suggested in reference to Sherlock and Doctor Who, the “tyranny of the super fan” is materially altering the way popular series are made:

It didn’t used to be this way. But as franchises proliferate, the creators have discovered their devoted fans are so expert – and so bankable – that the concerns of the casual viewer can be dispensed with altogether. Indeed, there is a variety of fandom that spits on this complaint, and on any sort of criticism at all. The mark of a devotee is uncritical studiousness, and a moralistic pleasure in the idea that the joy to be derived from a story is in direct correlation to the work you are willing to put in.

There are other potential problems too. As Bim Adewunmi noted for the NS last year, ideas which don’t have a large fandom and thus a ready-made audience are likely to struggle in this new system:

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.

Does it matter, though, if television and films become more and more insular, as long as their particular audiences are enjoying them? On the evidence so far, it does: it's hard to see how catering only to preferences of devoted fans is going to result in a better story.

 

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman. She writes a weekly podcast column.

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Women on the edge: new films Jackie and Christine are character studies of haunted women

With their claustrophobic close-ups and desolate wide shots, both films are stunning portraits of life on the brink.

Jacqueline Kennedy and Christine Chubbuck may not have had much in common in real life – the former briefly the US first lady, the latter a put-upon television news reporter in the early 1970s in Sarasota, Florida – but two new films named after them are cut resolutely from the same cloth. Jackie and Christine are character studies of haunted women in which the claustrophobic close-up and the desolate wide shot are the predominant forms of address.

Both films hinge on fatal gunshots to the head and both seek to express cinematically a state of mind that is internal: grief and loss in Jackie, which is set mainly in the hours and days after the assassination of President John F Kennedy; depression and paranoia in Christine. In this area, they rely heavily not only on hypnotically controlled performances from their lead actors but on music that describes the psychological contours of distress.

Even before we see anything in Jackie, we hear plunging chords like a string section falling down a lift shaft. This is the unmistakable work of the abrasive art rocker Mica Levi. Her score in Jackie closes in on the ears just as the tight compositions by the cinematographer Stéphane Fontaine exclude the majority of the outside world. The Chilean director Pablo Larraín knows a thing or two about sustaining intensity, as viewers of his earlier work, including his Pinochet-era trilogy (Tony Manero, Post Mortem and No), will attest. Though this is his first English-language film, there is no hint of any softening. The picture will frustrate anyone hoping for a panoramic historical drama, with Larraín and the screenwriter Noah Oppenheim irising intently in on Jackie, played with brittle calm by Natalie Portman, and finding the nation’s woes reflected in her face.

Bit-players come and go as the film jumbles up the past and present, the personal and political. A journalist (Billy Crudup), nameless but based on Theodore White, arrives to interview the widow. Her social secretary, Nancy Tuckerman (Greta Gerwig), urges her on with cheerleading smiles during the shooting of a stiff promotional film intended to present her warmly to the public. Her brother-in-law Bobby (Peter Sarsgaard) hovers anxiously nearby as she negotiates the chasm between private grief and public composure. For all the bustle around her, the film insists on Jackie’s aloneness and Portman gives a performance in which there is as much tantalisingly concealed as fearlessly exposed.

A different sort of unravelling occurs in Christine. Antonio Campos’s film begins by showing Christine Chubbuck (Rebecca Hall) seated next to a large box marked “fragile” as she interviews on camera an empty chair in which she imagines Richard Nixon to be sitting. She asks of the invisible president: “Is it paranoia if everyone is indeed coming after you?” It’s a good question and one that she doesn’t have the self-awareness to ask herself. Pressured by her editor to chase juicy stories, she goes to sleep each night with a police scanner blaring in her ears. She pleads with a local cop for stories about the darker side of Sarasota, scarcely comprehending that the real darkness lies primarily within her.

For all the shots of TV monitors displaying multiple images of Christine in this beige 1970s hell, the film doesn’t blame the sensationalist nature of the media for her fractured state. Nor does it attribute her downfall entirely to the era’s sexism. Yet both of those things exacerbated problems that Chubbuck already had. She is rigid and off-putting, all severe straight lines, from her haircut and eyebrows to the crossed arms and tight, unsmiling lips that make it difficult for anyone to get close to her. That the film does break through is down to Hall, who illuminates the pain that Christine can’t express, and to the score by Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans. It’s perky enough on the surface but there are cellos sawing away sadly underneath. If you listen hard enough, they’re crying: “Help.” 

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era