Rob Thomas was getting so much good news, his cell phone couldn’t handle it.
Last Wednesday, when the veteran TV showrunner launched a campaign to finance a movie version of his cult-hit TV show on the crowd-funding site Kickstarter, he had no concept of just how successful the effort would immediately become. Within hours, the movement had spread across the internet, exciting both fans of the Kristen Bell-led teenage detective series (which ran on UPN/CW from 2004-7) and generating think-pieces of all kinds.
"It made my phone unusable, because there would be literally four pledges a second," Thomas tells . "You couldn’t clear the notifications fast enough … I had to use my computer to remove the Kickstarter app so it could function as a phone again."
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Less than 12 hours into the drive, the project had reached its $2 million goal, and nearly a week later, it’s still climbing, up to $3.6 million and counting, from over 56,000 donors. The cash will go toward producing a film from the Warner Bros.-owned property, which will shoot between mid-June and mid-July this summer. Thomas has been actively promoting and answering questions about the endeavor, and he doesn’t plan on disappearing when the 30-day window of Kickstarter fundraising closes.
"We were built by fans, so we’ll try to do our best to keep the momentum going through that," he says, promising an open shoot with plenty of tweets and photos transmitted to the Internet. "We’re hoping to go to Comic-Con, maybe have some footage to show at Comic-Con. We have a documentary following the making of the movie."
The writer-producer continues to watch the needle rise, adjusting his in-progress script as the wallet fattens.
"The movie is outlined, but frankly, I needed to know how we were doing to figure out how to model the script and how to write it. There are very specific things that are going to be affected by what our budget is," he says. For one, Thomas wants to be able to shoot in Southern California, where the series was originally set. That’s more expensive than, say, Vancouver or Michigan, but the palm trees are worth it.
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"There’s an altercation [at a high school reunion in the film], and how much money we raise affects whether that is having terse words exchanged or a full-on brawl," he adds. "One if we hit certain dollar amounts, and the less spectacular if we haven’t."
As the project sets crowd-funding records, some concerns have been raised over whether a property owned by a major studio should even be on Kickstarter, which was started — and has largely served — as a way to support independent artists and entrepreneurs who otherwise might not have the capital to launch their vision. Kickstarter is known for helping raise funds for projects like the six shorts that have earned Oscar nominations, including , which won this year for best documentary and shot on a budget of just $52,000, or movies made by the New York Independent Film Collective. Since 2009, the site has directed over $100 million to over 8,500 indie films.
"I don’t think is negatively affecting people that Kickstarter was built to serve, those people who are making $30-40,000 documentaries," Thomas defends. "I think what has done is brought Kickstarter to the masses. More people are now familiar with Kickstarter, and more people are browsing Kickstarter for other projects, who now understand what it is and what it does than there were before we launched our campaign. I think we’re bringing more eyes to that site, so I think that has to be good for indie filmmakers."
On the other hand, the fervent fan base putting up its own money to fund the project is in some ways instructive to both major networks and creatives; was canceled by The CW after three seasons, and once-mighty broadcasters such as NBC have seen ratings tank, thanks in part to the failure of broad efforts meant to capture wide swaths of audience.
"There are more and more markets and more networks, more places you can put shows on, the mandate becomes more and more ‘Give us something that two million people love rather than attempt something that 20 million people like,’" he says. "The big networks are struggling to stay in that old model of a little something for everyone."
Yet at the same time, Thomas also knows his business model — or even that of cable — isn’t necessarily the answer for the national broadcasters.
"I don’t know what it would do to advertisers at NBC. I suspect if [small niche shows] were the key, they’d be heading down that direction," Thomas adds, which could have been a nod at , the fervently-loved but little-watched comedy that is most widely known for its backstage drama, not quirky meta-humor. "Those bigger networks need big products. The things they can do better than the smaller shows like throw $3 or $4 million at the screen. No small network could’ve done . That show had a budget and a cast that you could not do. Those few hits big networks have tend to make up for the failures so I don’t think they’re going to give up to the cable networks. They’re going to go down screaming, trying to do big shows that appeal to tens of millions of people."
Luckily, thanks to Kickstarter and some dedicated fans, Thomas doesn’t have to worry about that struggle anymore.