The Ch-Ching Crowd

Last week, Joel Hodgson launched a Kickstarter campaign to revive Mystery Science Theater 3000 with a characteristically sarcastic video in which he is heckled by Tom Servo and Crow T. Robot over his appeal for money to make a show famous for its low budget. Crowdfunding compliments a cult program like this, but it’s becoming a reality for all kinds of television. As the way we watch TV changes, so does the way that it’s financed. In fact, I’m currently involved as an actor in a TV project that needs a crowdfunding campaign before it can get off the ground.

It's a mystery...why they need money!

It’s a mystery…why they need money!

I’m talking about The Cast Members, a sitcom in the great American tradition of the comic ensemble about the employees of a cinema/theatre (delete depending on whether you’re saying it rightly or wrongly), created by Aaron David Roberts. Even though the concept is so good you can’t believe it hasn’t been done before, the scripts are as tight as those trousers David Bowie wore in Labyrinth, and it features some of the best onscreen and stage talent in San Diego – and in L.A., for that matter – without the backing of a production company or network (in whatever broadcast or digital form they exist now), it’s the audience that has to pay upfront to make the program they want to see. A crowdfunding campaign will start next year and my work for the project so far has been to shoot a promotional video that takes the form of a condensed pilot.

Crowdfunding is common enough when it comes to reviving a show that’s been cancelled by a network, as the Kickstarter campaign that brought Veronica Mars back to our screens as a feature film illustrates. It’s a relatively new concept for launching TV shows, however. Nat Geo’s global pub crawl Chug is considered the first Kickstarter-funded series and that starting airing in 2014. In most crowdfunding campaigns, success is determined as much by the incentives for donating as the product. These ‘perks’ – as they are known – range from bonus material (a callback to the DVD extra and Easter Eggs that made us pay twice to watch TV the first time round) to branded merchandise only available to donors, and usually only by donating a specific amount. It’s easy to see how this form of financing would work in the current TV climate, which is driven largely by multi-platform intertextuality and consumption.

Many of the series funded by Kickstarter campaigns are intended to stream on the web rather than ever make it to air, although the distinction between the two is closing as some of the most highly-regarded TV of our time now begins online and stays there. Chug eventually found a major cable network, despite the fact that it was their collective ambivalence that compelled producers to go the crowdfunding route in the first place, and can’t be seen as representative. The Veronica Mars feature film was streamed on Amazon Instant Video but I doubt whether the decision to add the film to their stores posed much of a quandary for the online shopping giant given that it was a known quantity and that production had already been paid for. I’m sure it’s not normal to exceed funding goals in the way the campaigns for Veronica Mars and Chug did either.

There’s usually some kind of trailer for the project requiring funding to launch the campaign. The Kickstarter for Veronica Mars assembled actors from the series and had them perform their launch video in the style of the teen noir. You might also say that the three seasons of the show were the trailers for the feature remake. For The Cast Members, Aaron decided on a mini-episode, which made the most sense since the actors had already been cast and storylines devised for the first season. It also meant that the Kickstarter could act as a shop window for the series and its stellar cast, as well as a fiscal means to an end. Mounting a pre-pilot also suggests that the ‘starter’ bit of the campaign website’s name is misleading, as projects need to be in an advanced stage, both conceptually and in finances, to even launch a campaign at all.

By all accounts, the Kickstarter to revive Mystery Science Theater 3000 is doing well, as did the one for Veronica Mars, while Chug demonstrated that it’s possible to get a brand new show on the air using crowdfunding. It’s still a high-risk, high-reward strategy that may bankrupt you before launch.

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