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VERONICA MARS

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THE MYSTERY OF VERONICA MARS

It's a hot day in San Diego, and it's even hotter inside Hall H-hot enough to roast marshmallows, you could say. The massive room is Comic-Con International's biggest and most crowded venue, typically the launching pad for blockbuster action and sci-fi films. Yet waiting to go onstage today are the cast and crew of Veronica Mars, a TV show that went off the air in 2007. They're eager to greet their fans, the "Marshmallows" who have come to solve a mystery: what happened to teen sleuth Veronica and her friends, who had vanished without trace six years earlier? Thanks to a historic crowdfunding effort that set new records on Kickstarter, a new movie revealing the group's further adventures is underway, and anticipation couldn't be higher.

The excitement started a decade ago with an idea dreamed up by showrunner and former high school teacher Rob Thomas. He imagined a high-school noir featuring a female teen sleuth named Veronica Mars who overcomes personal and social obstacles to crack unsolved cases, incriminating rich and poor alike.

TOUGH GIRL, ROUGH TOWN

Veronica's sharp-tongued, quick-witted character set her aside from other female crimefighters. "She doesn't beat people up," says Thomas. "She outwits them." Writer Diane Ruggiero explains the character's painful origins: "a date rape and a best friend being murdered. But instead of just crumbling, she uses these tragedies to empower herself." Actress Kristen Bell, who plays Mars, agrees: "She keeps getting cut down and standing back up again."

To keep things interesting, Thomas gave his heroine rival love interests. Through most of the series she warms up to wealthy mischief-maker Logan Echolls, "a kind of a bad boy with a heart of gold," says producer Danielle Stokdyk, "who'll run in and beat up the person who's threatening you." When Veronica heads to college in the show's third and final season, she falls for Stosh "Piz" Piznarski, a deejay of modest means and all-around nice guy. Actor Jason Dohring, who plays Logan, summarizes their roles thusly: "Piz is the perfect husband, and Logan's the guy that you wanna be with for one day. Or two days."

Though the show is set in fictional Neptune, California, Thomas grounded it squarely within the real world. Neptune is "a town of haves and have-nots," explains producer Dan Etheridge, "with its own class tension and dynamic." "We dealt with topics that people were afraid to touch, like teen rape, homosexuality in school, and so many other things," adds actor Francis Capra (who plays Eli "Weevil" Navarro).

NOT OVER 'TIL IT'S OVER

The relevant topics and memorable characters gave the show a devoted fan base, one that was passionate if not exactly massive. "We were a cult favorite and we had a very loyal audience and following," says Stokdyk, "but we never really hit our stride on UPN or The CW in terms of the audience that they wanted." With cancellation looming at the end of Season 3, Rob Thomas refused to tie up the series' loose ends. "I intentionally left it unsettled because I didn't want to make it easy for the network to take us off the air. So it's felt unfinished for both me and the fans for the last seven years. Had I given it a tidy ending, there might not have been any clamoring to create a sequel." "I like how Rob left it on a cliffhanger as he so often does," adds Bell. "He's the best at leaving you wanting more."

BACK TO LIFE

Which brings us back to Hall H in the present day and fans still wanting much, much more. Over the intervening six years, says Bell, "the excitement never stopped. During interviews we were constantly reminded of our characters and asked if we wanted to go back to the old series. It felt inevitable that there would be another incarnation of the Veronica Mars phenomenon." And just like the fans, Bell never lost faith. "Kristen has even had more confidence than me that this project would somehow magically happen," says Thomas. "The movie wouldn't have gotten made if she'd been even a little ambivalent about it." But, to Thomas' credit, Stokdyk adds, "Veronica's been in his head for the last 10 years. And honestly, when a lot of other people might have given up on trying to pursue this, he never did."

THE MIRACLE OF CROWDFUNDING

As fan interest in a Mars followup grew via social media, another Internet phenomenon brought it to life: crowdfunding. This unique model allows inventors and creators to bypass the usual funding resources-corporations and private investors-and solicit advance purchases of items and experiences from the film from legions of fans and true believers, usually in exchange for recognition, merchandise, and other perks. Currently the most successful crowdfunding resource is Kickstarter, which had found backers for many kinds of projects, including low-budget films, but never a full-blown Hollywood feature. But, figured, Thomas, there's a first time for everything.

"Rob called and said, 'I have this idea, what about Kickstarter?'" says Bell. "I thought it was brilliant because it let us answer the question, 'Do the fans want this?'" Danielle Stokdyk also thought it was a good bet. "The Veronica Mars audience is kind of on the cutting edge, so they would know about Kickstarter."

KICKSTARTER: TWO MILLION IN TEN HOURS

In no time Thomas put together a Kickstarter page where fans could donate. On the day of launch, recalls Etheridge, "I was on the speakerphone with Rob. We weren't even talking but we could hear each other just hitting the refresh button on the computer watching the tally grow." And grow it did, notes actress Krysten Ritter (Gia Goodman): "I was watching it just like everybody else, in real time, seeing them crank up the dollar bills. It was insane."

A pregnant and sleepy Kristen Bell "woke up when it was at four hundred thousand or something. I opened my computer and I was just in shock. I couldn't believe that not only was it showing signs of success, but that we'd probably make our goal within a day, which had never happened before. We asked for $2 million; the fact that we eventually did 5.7 million blew everybody's lid."

Ultimately, the Veronica Mars movie funding on Kickstarter would set records for the site: most backers, fastest project to reach both $1 million and $2 million, highest minimal pledging goal achieved, and largest successful film project. But Thomas was determined that the project should make Kickstarter history after the fact, too, He resolved to give each and every one of its 91,585 backers much, much more than they'd paid for.

OLD FRIENDS, NEW CHALLENGES

With funding in place and distribution assured, Thomas focused on creating the awesome film that had been promised. But, though he'd directed a few TV episodes previously, he'd never helmed a feature film. Bell was concerned for him: "You can be a really good director but still mess up your first couple of movies." But she quickly adds, "He was the only person that could direct it. To not have him be in charge would have felt funny, so I'm really glad that he was." Krysten Ritter concurs: "He's a good leader, he communicates well, and he's supportive and encouraging. He's such a talent that I'm not surprised he's also a great director."

What would such a film look like? Kristen Bell was determined that it should dazzle. "I kept saying, 'Let's not make just a long TV episode. Let's have it be cinematic. Let's go big.' Otherwise, what's the point?" "The scope of the movie is much bigger than any episode of television that we did," Thomas explains. "It starts in New York, it's shot wider and has a different lighting aesthetic."

The story finds a responsible adult Veronica getting serious with nice-guy boyfriend Piz. "She's gone to law school, she's in New York, she's not sleuthing," explains actress Tina Majorino (Cindy "Mac" Mackenzie). "I was sad that she hadn't been doing her Veronica thing." Dan Etheridge continues: "She's on the verge of taking a job at a prestigious New York law firm when she is pulled back in by the murder of Logan Echolls' girlfriend Bonnie Deville, and she head backs to Neptune." Finally, Bell explains, "The case happens to fall on the same week as her ten-year high school reunion, so you get a chance to see all the other characters. She gets sucked into this 'Did Logan do it?' murder mystery and she has to figure out whodunit."

To help bring back the show's magic, Thomas reached out to friend and series writer Diane Ruggiero. "Writing this show was one of the greatest experiences of my life," she says. "But when Rob called, I was writing a pilot and I'd just had a baby, and I said, 'I don't know if I can do it.' And he said, 'You'll do it. It'll be great, just like it was.' And I thought, 'Oh, God. I'm going to screw it up.' But the first day, we each wrote seven pages and it was the best thing in the world. To go back and be with these characters again was great. Loved it."

PLEASING FANS OLD AND NEW

Crowdfunding provided Thomas with newfound freedom to create the film as he saw fit. Yet he was determined to make choices that would please the diehard Marshmallows. "They wanna see everything, from every character that they love-or love to hate," says Etheridge, "from every trope that we used through the series, from styles of jokes to methods of Veronica's sleuthing." Bell adds, "There was more at stake because the fans were our bosses and we were working for them." Danielle Stokdyk elaborates. "There's such investment in making sure that the people who paid for the movie are satisfied by it. I remember when I read the first 30 pages of the script, how excited I was. I was like, 'Oh my god, we totally covered it! We made them so happy, they're gonna love this.'"

Thomas was also determined that the film should not only please the fans but speak to a new, uninitiated audience, and actor Chris Lowell (Stosh "Piz" Piznarski) says "Rob has really walked that line masterfully." "You don't need to have seen the show to enjoy the film," says actor Sam Huntington (Luke Haldeman). "It's a beautiful standalone piece that's gonna be amazing." And Stokdyk is confident that "for people who just love a good movie, there's enough here that they're gonna want to come see it."

WELCOME TO THE REUNION

The generous Kickstarter budget afforded Thomas the luxury of shooting in Southern California, allowing virtually all of the original television cast to sign onto the film. "Many cast members are busy with big careers at the moment, and shooting here made it easy for their schedules to work," explains Etheridge. "Shooting in LA is the best," agrees Kristen Bell. "Anytime you get to go home and sleep in your own bed, it's rare, but it's welcome."

Thomas was excited to reunite this happy and hardworking cast. "A lot of them were seeing each other for the first time in a while, and it was joyous." "It felt like the energy from the pilot," adds actor Percy Daggs III (Wallace Fennel), "with everybody getting back out there, excited to make a great project happen." "The first day that all of us were here together was really exciting," recalls actress Tina Majorino. "I was in the makeup trailer and within 20 minutes Chris, Kristen, Ryan, Percy, all of them came in back to back. I was sitting in the chair looking in the mirror and they were coming in behind me, I was like, 'oh, oh, oh.' It was so exciting. We picked up right where we left off."

Making a film is always hard work, and the project's compressed shooting schedule demanded many long hours and sleepless nights. But it was a labor of love, explains Bell: "When you go to work because you're allowed to be creative, when you know what you're doing is unique and people want to see it, you can't really complain about anything." As far as Majorino is concerned, the intense shoot was a blast. "It doesn't feel like work. You're coming and hanging out with your friends. You're playing every day. It's really fun."

GIVING BACK TO THE BACKERS

As the shoot got underway, Rob Thomas didn't forget the 91,585 backers who had made it possible. "When you're trying to raise the money, you're highly motivated to be communicative. It's our ambition to not lose that steam now that we're in production. We want to make the people who backed the movie happy that they did. To make this a textbook example of how to do a Kickstarter campaign."

During the shoot, Kickstarter backers were on set as on-camera extras, watching the day's action unfold after their scenes were done. "We had a tons of Kickstarter extras in the shoot," says Bell, "and it ended up actually being really, really fun. There was this energy of excitement; everyone wanted to be there." Thomas even turned their presence into a challenge for the cast. "We played a game with the actors: 'pick out the Kickstarter extras without anyone pointing them out to you.' The backers are the ones who look eager, who can't wait for the next shot."

On set, Stokdyk notes that the Kickstarter extras are "all ages and they're from all over," and Majorino explains, "Most of them are not even from LA. They're flying in from all over the country just to be day players, to stand in the background." "I just had dinner with two backers who flew in from Hong Kong last night," says actor Daran Norris (Cliff McCormack). "I was like, 'Seriously you guys came in from Hong Kong?' It just blows your mind."

Though the fans were breathless to greet the beloved cast, the jitters went both ways. "I'm nervous but excited to meet the backers," says actor Ryan Hansen (Dick Casablancas). "I want to make them feel like their money is well-spent." Thomas notes proudly that his cast "didn't have to be encouraged to be chatty and sign autographs, they just did it unprompted." Jason Dohring loved it. "Talking to a fan is the fun-est conversation you ever have, because they love you; you don't even have to say anything. You get this positive energy all day just talking to these guys." "Normally, set visitations can be a joy for about one minute," observes Etheridge. "But the backers have made our project feel special all day, every day, and that's pretty cool."

THE WORLD'S SMARTEST FANS

To entice potential backers at all levels, Rob Thomas and his staff developed a dizzying array of options: 32 pledge levels ranging from $1 to $10,000. Adhering to Thomas' notion that "the best Kickstarter drives give value back for the dollar," each pledge level had its perks. These started on the low end with T-shirts, posters, scripts, and DVDs, adding personalized voicemail and video greetings from the cast for mid-range backers, and offering movie premiere invitations, character naming rights, and nonspeaking film roles for the highest-level pledges.

The top-tier prize-a speaking part in the film-went to Steve Dengler. He plays the host of a viral-video show seen (and heard) onscreen and feels his money was well spent. "I've had way more than $10,000 worth of enjoyment and excitement from meeting all these people." Dengler also notes that it wasn't top-level backers like him but the lower-tier fans who really brought the film to life. "The $25 and $35 backers account for something like 78 percent of the money raised. The rank-and-file Veronica Mars fans were what caused this movie to happen."

And even the lowest-level pledges-those who contributed just $1-received one of the campaign's most satisfying gifts, a steady stream of exclusive pictures, videos, anecdotes, and updates from the movie set. Like any entertainment property, the Veronica Mars movie stayed in the public eye through updates on Facebook, Twitter, and other social media. But the bulk of the material-all the juiciest stuff-was sent solely to backers through private email blasts, members-only website updates, and frequent exclusive photo streams. Rob Thomas stepped away from the director's chair to craft witty, affectionate posts to the people who'd made the movie happen.

With this constant, hour-by-hour connection to the project, it's little wonder that backers started calling the film "our movie." Even Stokdyk was amazed by the level of fan awareness via the updates. "The backers know what's going on every day, before a lot of the actors who haven't shown up on set yet."

THE ONES WHO MADE IT POSSIBLE

Cast and crew alike were unified in their praise of Kristen Bell, the actress who originated the Veronica Mars character. "She works like a freaking dog," says Chris Lowell "and shows up every day with a smile on her face." Rob Thomas concurs: "Our tremendous esprit de corps started with Kristen, who had just had a baby and yet was in almost every scene of the movie. It's great when your star player and hardest worker is the natural team leader, and that's what Kristen is for us. I don't know if I'll ever be as lucky again."

There's no shortage of praise for Rob Thomas, either. Says Sam Huntington, "He's a genius when it comes to storytelling and interweaving characters and storylines. It hasn't changed at all." "He's collaborative and he's also opinionated," says Stokdyk. "He's our fearless leader. I would go into any war with him. He's brilliant." Francis Capra reflects on how the director helped him turn things around long ago. "I auditioned for this series during a very transitional point of my life. I didn't know whether I wanted to be an actor or a gang member. Rob put his hand on my shoulder and said, 'I really wanna work with you.' He saved my life, he really did."

And of course, the film wouldn't have happened without the fans themselves. Though their backing made the project possible, it was their dedication and support that kept the dream alive. "I know how it feels to care about characters," says Thomas. "It makes me feel so good that people care that much about Veronica Mars." Tina Majorino also feels the fan love: "It almost makes me wanna cry-these people adore something that I'm lucky enough to be a part of. It makes doing this a labor of love: I just want them to be happy."

ONE FOR THE HISTORY BOOKS

The project represents a seismic shift in the way films can get funded and produced. "Things are being made now that just simply could never have been made before," says backer Steve Dengler. "It won't be obvious for 20 years how important a social change the crowdfunding thing is." Actor Max Greenfield (Leo D'Amato) calls the Kickstarter outreach "a very tangible way to view exactly how much people wanted this movie. To see it generate that kind of money so quickly opened up a lot of people's eyes." Francis Capra observes, "An amazing thing happens when one voice wakes other people up, and their voices join yours. Before you know it, there's a lot of power behind those united voices, and that's what brought this film to life."

"They're struggling to make it, and that's where their fighting nature comes from," says Kristen Bell. Though she's talking about Veronica and her father, her words apply equally to the fans. Just as Mars overcame tragedy to make herself stronger, the Marshmallows struggled through the cancellation of the series and fought to continue the story. "Isn't this a great system where fans can rally the troops and get things like this made?" asks Thomas affectionately. But perhaps Jason Dohring says it best. "Our show meant something to people. They showed us the love, and we're showing it back to them in this movie."

Back in Hall H at Comic-Con, the cast's entry onstage is met with deafening cheers. "It felt like we were Comic Con royalty or something," says Kristen Bell, and Rob Thomas agrees: "It was the closest I'll ever come to feeling like a Beatle." When an exclusive teaser reel details the incredible Kickstarter outreach, the fans realize that, by helping to make a movie, they're making history, too. Will the excitement be enough to support a followup film, a Veronica Mars 2? Writer Diane Ruggiero thinks it's more than a possibility: "It's almost imperative. We could definitely do more. And why would you not?" Maybe Rob, Kristen, and the gang will have the chance to make history all over again.

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