When Veronica Mars fans initially rallied in 2007 to keep the teen-noir series on the air, they organized an effort to flood CW executives’ inboxes with petitions and Mars chocolate bars. Campaigns to save beloved but low-rated shows have a long and strangely food-related history. In 2000, acolytes of the seminal coming-of-age comedy/drama Freaks And Geeks shipped peanuts (a legume that was kryptonite to Geeks character Bill Haverchuck) to NBC brass. Devotees of the early 2000s alien-teen drama Roswell flooded The WB with bottles of Tabasco sauce. Fans of the post-apocalyptic drama Jericho organized a massive effort to send tens of thousands of pounds of assorted nuts to CBS. In 2009, Chuck viewers purchased sandwiches from show sponsor Subway en masse.
Being a TV lover—or at least the kind of TV lover prone to falling for shows that have more fan devotion than audience shares—used to be an exercise in almost unrelenting heartbreak. Efforts to save faltering shows relied on grand and often futile romantic gestures—in addition to mailing peanuts, the Freaks And Geeks tribe scraped together more than $3,000 to run a full-page ad in Variety pleading for a stay of execution—and efforts to prove to mercenary network executives that there were actual viewers out there who’d happily put their money in the pockets of show sponsors.
While these campaigns produced some victories (Jericho eked out an additional seven episodes as a result of fan efforts, Chuck lasted an impressive three more seasons on NBC), losses far outweighed the gains—as a friend of mine who took a day off work to drag a Ferris wheel around Los Angeles on behalf of Everwood in 2006 could testify.
All of these efforts now seem quaintly homespun compared to the crowdfunded campaign that finally got the Veronica Mars movie off the ground (compare the Mars Kickstarter page to this circa-2000 webpage instructing Freaks fans on how to pen polite letters to network brass). The precedent-breaking effort orchestrated by show creator Rob Thomas and star Kristen Bell raised $5.7 million in a single month, and proved definitively that cash in hand speaks louder than candy bars. In addition to representing a new milestone in the evolution of fan campaigns, the startlingly successful endeavor puts Veronica Mars into an elite group of cult favorites (including Twin Peaks, Firefly, Friday Night Lights, and Arrested Development) that achieved second lives.
In many ways, David Lynch’s oddball murder mystery Twin Peaks was a prototype of the kind of cult TV obsession that would fully come of age post-Internet. From 1990-91, fans obsessed over the question of who killed homecoming queen Laura Palmer, making the show a pop phenomenon until its increasingly oblique plot alienated viewers and it was canceled after 30 episodes. Its short but memorable life led to the feature film Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, a prequel set in the week before Laura Palmer’s death. In an ignominious final chapter, the film was famously booed at the 1992 Cannes film festival and fared poorly at the U.S. box office.
In the annals of grassroots fan movements, the tribe of “Browncoats” that launched Joss Whedon’s space Western Firefly into the feature film Serenity is legend. Once Fox canceled the show after airing only 11 of its 14 produced episodes, an army of fans kept the flame alive. Based on its vocal (and often costumed) supporters and the strength of DVD sales, Universal acquired the rights and the Whedon-written and -directed feature film Serenity opened in 2005. However, the almost $40 million film underperformed at the box office, killing any chances for the story to continue, except in comic-book form.
Had Firefly come along a few years later, it might have benefited from the kind of creative network finagling that saved the elegiac, small-town football drama Friday Night Lights. Following Lights’ second season in 2008, when cancellation seemed certain, NBC announced a cost-sharing deal with DirecTV. The satellite television service carried a portion of the production costs and aired new episodes several months before they ran on NBC. The deal also ushered in a creative renaissance for the show after its (rightfully) maligned second season, allowing it to reboot and launch its core cast of young characters into their post-high school lives.
Around the time Friday Night Lights was ending its charmed run, Netflix announced its foray into original programming. In 2013 the streaming service asserted its commitment to buzz-generating content by bringing the cult-adored sitcom Arrested Development (canceled in 2006) back for a fourth season. In what has become a signature move for the service, it unleashed all 15 episodes at once. Although Netflix doesn’t release viewership numbers, it has expressed enthusiasm for a fifth season.
Thanks to a confluence of technology and audience segmentation, we’re now living in what feels like an era of unprecedented fan power. Freed from the diabolical whims of network programming, we watch what we want, when we want, on any device we want. Passionate, niche audiences have become a group worth pursuing—particularly for ancillary networks and video-streaming services that don’t carry the same viewership mandates as larger networks.
The Veronica Mars campaign broke new ground for being the first to operate as a full collaboration between the creator and fans. And by calling on supporters to put their money up front, it succeeded where passion and foodstuffs had previously failed. Its success is a study in the delicate alchemy of strategy and timing. The project team took advantage of now-mature crowdfunding technology and created a project to scale—a feature film with a modest budget and tempered expectations that could be sold to both potential funders and to a reluctant studio. It also benefited mightily (at least from a PR standpoint) from being the first endeavor of its kind out of the gate.
Of course, fan power still has its limits. As was oft-discussed in the wake of the Mars Kickstarter launch, it’s the studio and creators who stand to benefit financially from the film, while supporters will have to be satisfied with the T-shirts, stickers, and signed posters they received as rewards for contributing (along with the movie itself, of course). But detractors who reasonably question the wisdom of people sending their hard-earned dollars to Warner Bros. tend to overlook the illogical, myopic love that beats in the heart of every long-suffering fan. As Captain Malcolm Reynolds says of his ship at the end of Serenity (which could just as easily be applied to the franchise’s scrappy fans): “You can learn all the math in the ’verse, but you take a boat in the air that you don’t love, she’ll shake you off just as sure as the turning of the worlds. Love keeps her in the air when oughta fall down, tells you she’s hurtin’ ’fore she keens. Makes her a home.”