Veronica Mars and her Marshmallows

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The Veronica Mars television series – a teen noir starring Kristen Bell as a sassy high school sleuth in the fictional town of Neptune, California – was admired by critics for its sharp plots and cracking dialogue. It was especially beloved by its legion of devoted fans, who called themselves ‘Cloud Watchers’ and ‘marshmallows’.

When fans heard that the series was in danger of being axed, they didn’t stand by cranking out increasingly sexy fan fiction (though there’s plenty of that around). They literally took to the streets, launching an awareness campaign in the hopes of boosting the show’s sagging ratings. With $50,000 raised through donations and the sale of Veronica Mars merchandise, they gifted 500 season one DVD box sets to libraries in 50 states and assembled street teams to hand out 30,000 fliers – “Fans of Veronica Mars want you to discover TV’s best kept secret” – on the streets of NY, LA, Philadelphia and Chicago.

Before that, and even more spectacularly, the Cloud Watchers had taken to the skies, hiring a plane to tow an imploring banner across the airspace above the CW network headquarters: “RENEW VERONICA MARS!” The day before their airborne appeal, they sent network executives and decision makers the plane’s flight plan and pairs of binoculars.

Their final, last-ditch effort to save the series was sending 10,000 Mars Bars to CW, but by then it was too late. “I love those people and they have been so good to me,” Rob Thomas, series writer-creator, said at the time, “but it’s not going to happen.”

Veronica Mars was unceremoniously cancelled in 2007. But even with Thomas and Bell pouring their energies elsewhere – Thomas went on to create Party Down, Bell lent her voice to Gossip Girl and the other sister in Disney’s Frozen – the whispered possibility of Veronica Mars’s return continued to linger. Thomas, who had intentionally avoided cleanly tying up all the story’s loose ends in the series finale, hinted regularly that he was pushing for a movie, despite seemingly arriving at dead ends via all the conventional avenues.

It was some time in 2011 that he heard about Kickstarter, a crowdfunding website that was getting creative projects off the ground by connecting artists to eager audiences – more specifically, their wallets.

“A friend of mine raised $10,000 to release an album,” says Thomas. “It was the first time I’d ever seen Kickstarter. I backed project so I could see how it worked. A friend said, ‘You should finance the Veronica Mars movie that way.’ It was said kind of jokingly, but the idea stuck and percolated.

“I started doing the math on the back of a cocktail napkin and read the stats. The average Kickstarter donation was $71. If we could get 30,000 people at $71, or 70,000 people at $30, you know, we could get a couple of million dollars.”

Two million dollars was the figure that Warner Bros decided would indicate “sufficient audience interest” for them to agree to distribute the movie. “At the time, when we first came up with the idea, the biggest Kickstarter project ever got $900,000,” Thomas says. “And so we had to double it to even get into the ballpark of making a movie. So it seemed crazy.”

So crazy it could work, figured Bell. Finally, she says, there was a way of channelling the considerable people power that fans had already displayed.

“It was the perfect way to quantify for Warner Bros what our fan base was like and how rabid they still were,” says Bell, “because I was always convinced that they were passionate and that they wanted this movie. It was the perfect platform to say, ‘Do you guys want a movie?’”

There would be other tangible rewards and deal-sweeteners for donors. For $25, you would receive a limited edition T-shirt, while $200 got you a signed poster. For $500, you could get a 15-second outgoing voicemail message “within the bounds of good taste” recorded by your choice of cast member, and $750 earned you two tickets to the red carpet premiere. For $6,500 – a price point reserved for just three donors – you could name a character.

The Kickstarter for the Veronica Mars Movie Project went live on March 13, 2013, with what was at the time the most ambitious Kickstarter goal ever. As with all projects on the site, if the $2 million target wasn’t reached in 30 days, no funds would be collected.

The personal message from Thomas said it all: “It’s up to you, the fans, now.”

“I was confident we’d make our two million dollar goal,” Bell says – then smiles. “It far exceeded my expectations.”

In fact the project hurtled past its $2 million goal within 12 hours. By the April 13 cut-off date, 91,585 backers had raised $5,702,153. To this day, it is the all-time highest-funded project in the Film category and the third highest funded project in Kickstarter history, with the highest number of backers. It was like the real-world equivalent of reviving Tinkerbell through sheer belief. Not bad for “TV’s best kept secret”. Production commenced just two months later.

The new story (if you’d pledged as little as $10 it would have landed in your inbox a couple of days ago) sees Veronica Mars return to corrupt Neptune, lured away from a promising new job with a New York law firm to come to the aid of her murder suspect ex-lover. Old flames are rekindled, new fires are set ablaze and, in a suitably synchronistic contrivance of Thomas’s plot, Veronica happens to be just in time to be dragged to her ten-year high school reunion.

Bell, who had just given birth to her first child, had her concerns about stepping back into the role after so long. “I was nervous on a whole that I wouldn’t have her as much in my body as I did before,” she says.

But on top of that pressure were the demands of making good on a bunch of generous Kickstarter promises. To begin with, there were some 6,000 film posters to sign and many hours’ worth of personal voicemail and video messages to record. (Jason Dohring, who plays Veronica’s on-again, off-again love interest Logan Echolls, recited ‘Jabberwocky’ for one donor. For another, he delivered a teary monologue while crying, as instructed, “real tears”. “It was way harder than anything I had to do in the movie,” he says.)

For Bell, the most daunting prospect was endless meet-and-greets on set during filming.

“I was worried about my energy levels. But what I didn’t anticipate was how much fun it was to get out of my own bubble and, at my lunchtime, not sit and eat with a bunch of crew members and actors, who I love, but eat with a podiatrist, or a real-life lawyer, or a teacher. They were people I would otherwise have not gotten to meet and it was culturing for me.”

Perhaps the highest honour, and the most fitting symbol of audience involvement, went to the 90+ fans who donated between $2,500 and $8,000: they got to be extras. They were basically hanging out in a fictional world they loved and had helped to reanimate.

According to Thomas, these superfans were only too happy to stick around for the gruelling 11-hour shoots. (One fainting extra was rescued mid-fall by one of several dreamy actors standing by.) They were also uniquely suited to the task of bringing an atmosphere of celebration to the pivotal high school reunion scene. The enthusiasm was genuine.

“They do not underact, I’ll tell you that,” says Thomas, laughing. “They were so alive in their scenes, so eager, so much fun, so energetic. And the actors were better when the Kickstarter backers were around.”

“To have that energy and excitement on set was like a huge champagne burst at the end of the whole experience,” says Bell. “It was just thrilling for everybody. They were thrilled to be part of the scene and we were thrilled to have them there. There was so much happiness on set.”

Having hit cinemas on April 13 – the anniversary of the Kickstarter launch, seven years after Veronica cracked her last case – it remains to be seen if the movie will appeal to the broader public. The film begins with a two-minute recap to bring newcomers up to speed, but it also works as a self-contained whodunit, with a couple of inspired cameos that everyone can enjoy. And the Kickstarter success – itself a captivating underdog story with a satisfying Hollywood ending – will surely prompt non-fans to go see what all the fuss is about.

But the movie is also unashamed to indulge in fan service – featuring cheeky entrances from familiar faces, littered with inside jokes and paced to allow room for squeals of delighted recognition from the diehards. It’s completely understandable, under the circumstances.

“I’m pretty confident that the fans are going to come out happy,” says Thomas. “I’ve been writing for them for a long time. I feel like I know them.”

Bell’s gratitude goes even further. “We fully acknowledge that this movie would not exist without them,” she says. “They are our colleagues, our producers. And our bosses, essentially.”

This feature originally appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald in March 2014.

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