3:26am

Fri March 14, 2014
Pop Culture

Forget Nancy Drew: Thanks To Fans, 'Veronica Mars' Is Back On The Case

Originally published on Fri March 14, 2014 5:03 pm

When Rob Thomas created Veronica Mars, his show about a sharp-elbowed girl detective, he had an ulterior motive: He wanted to kill off the reigning queen of teenaged sleuths — one who's been around for more than 80 years.

"Nancy Drew," Thomas says, his soft-spoken affect barely betrayed by a trace of a snarl. "Like, I feel like she had her run."

Thomas gently eases himself into a faux leather couch backstage at Last Call With Carson Daly, where he's just wrapped up an interview with the host. (He squeezed in an interview with NPR right afterward.)

He wears his exhaustion as lightly as his writer's getup: black jeans, black T-shirt, silver track shoes. Exhaustion, after all, has been his norm for years. Right now, for example, Thomas is rocketing between Los Angeles; Austin, Texas, where he lives with his family; and Vancouver, B.C., where he's filming a zombie-themed pilot for the CW.

A Tiny But Dedicated Fan Base

During its 2004 to 2007 run, Veronica Mars endeared itself to fans with its tangy love triangles and quippy dialogue. It centered on Veronica (Kristen Bell), a student at Neptune High School whose dad is a private investigator. She helps him with cases, everything from multiple homicides to adultery, while also solving crimes at school — crimes that would have given Nancy Drew the vapors.

The show had a prescient focus on privacy and surveillance, and it resonated economically, too, with a beach-town setting that pitted tech billionaires and movie stars against working-class and low-income residents trying to hold things together.

Ratings were never great, and Veronica Mars was canceled after only three seasons. It's one of a number of shows — think Freaks And Geeks, Chuck or Firefly — with tiny but uncommonly dedicated fan bases. So when Thomas put up a Kickstarter page soliciting donations for a Veronica Mars movie, the money flew in at a record-setting pace. He reached his $2 million goal within hours, and by the end of the campaign, Thomas had raised nearly $6 million — a comfortable, if not lavish, budget for the film he had in mind.

'Picking The Lock' To Hollywood

Veronica Mars fan Biz Urban remembers her reaction to hearing about the movie. She says, "It was like my birthday and Christmas and Hanukkah and New Year's Eve all rolled into one."

The 35-year-old freelance photographer donated $50 to the Kickstarter campaign, and she recruited two friends to watch the entire series in advance of opening night. She was one of more than 91,000 "investors," and Thomas found pleasing them to be a bit more than he had bargained for.

"It's been the most work," he says ruefully, unconsciously rubbing his forearm. "I just finished signing 5,500 posters this week that are all going out to Kickstarter backers."

That's the kind of tendon-cramping work you don't have to do when you get your money directly from the studios. It's one reason why Washington Post pop culture blogger Alyssa Rosenberg sees Kickstarter as a less-than-perfect alternative for such projects.

"It's a way of picking the lock on the Hollywood gate and getting around the gatekeepers," she says. "But that doesn't mean there [aren't] enormous advantages in working with mainstream studios."

Whether or not Veronica Mars succeeds on the big screen is almost irrelevant, since it's essentially paid for itself. What Rosenberg sees as maybe even more exciting is how Thomas, who started by writing critically acclaimed young adult novels, has transitioned from books to TV to movies — and now back to books. A Veronica Mars series of novels is scheduled to come out this spring, picking up where the movie leaves off. And the CW is interested in spinning off a web-only series about a minor character.

"He's opening up the world," Rosenberg notes. "It'll get to continue in other media now."

That is, Thomas says, until some other future writer tries to kill off his creation the way he tried with Nancy Drew.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

All right. It is time for a game of pop culture name that theme song.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GREENE: I had no idea, but some of you might know this as the theme to the late TV show, "Veronica Mars." Maybe you already have tickets for the "Veronica Mars" movie that's opening tonight. NPR's Neda Ulaby wondered how a low-rated CW show cancelled eight years ago managed to find new life.

NEDA ULABY, BYLINE: When Rob Thomas created his show about a sharp-elbowed girl detective, he had an ulterior motive. He wanted to kill off the reigning queen of teenaged sleuths who'd been around for 80 years.

ROB THOMAS: Nancy Drew, like, I feel like she had her run.

ULABY: "Veronica Mars," is a very contemporary student at Neptune High School.

(SOUNDBITE FROM TV SERIES, "VERONICA MARS")

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Did anybody complete the reading? Veronica. Veronica Mars.

ULABY: Neptune's a beach town, half seedy, have swanky. It's a microcosm of a wider world with lots of haves and lots of have nots. Veronica's dad is a private investigator barely holding it together. She helps him with cases, everything from multiple homicides to adultery. Meanwhile, on her own, Veronica solves crimes at her high school, crimes that would've given Nancy Drew the vapors.

THOMAS: A girl comes to Veronica and says, my boyfriend took compromising pictures of me, get them back.

(SOUNDBITE FROM TV SERIES, "VERONICA MARS")

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: I must've been wasted. I would never do something like that. It's totally disgusting.

KRISTEN BELL: (As Veronica Mars) You mean you two having sex?

THOMAS: Or I failed my school athletics drug test, find out why.

(SOUNDBITE FROM TV SERIES "VERONICA MARS")

BELL: (As Veronica Mars) The only way they could pull it off is if they bought off someone at the testing facility.

ULABY: Fans loved "Veronica Mars" with an intensity that did not translate into high or even decent ratings. The show lasted on three seasons. Rob Thomas tends to make shows like that, shows some people glom onto and obsess about. That's also true of Thomas' show "Party Down." It aired for only two seasons on Starz.

What he makes are, frankly, cult shows.

THOMAS: I would like to have at least one hit without that modifier.

ULABY: His fans could care less about that modifier. Take Biz Urban. The 35-year-old freelance photographer is lounging with friends in a Santa Monica living room re-watching "Veronica Mars" DVDs.

BIZ URBAN: Why go into the darkened garage? (Unintelligible) She's been roofied before.

ULABY: This group's watching every single episode before they see the movie.

URBAN: Tonight, we actually are gonna try and watch five in a row.

ULABY: About a year ago, Urban gave $50 to a Kickstarter campaign to help get the movie made. Rob Thomas had asked fans to chip in $2 million. He got it in only 11 hours. He ended up raising $5.7 million. Urban's contribution earned her a T-shirt, a DVD and a bunch of other stuff. But for her, just learning the movie would happen was thanks enough.

URBAN: It was like my birthday and Christmas and Hanukah and New Year's Eve all rolled into one.

ULABY: The process was somewhat less celebratory for "Veronica Mars" creator Rob Thomas.

THOMAS: It's like having 91,000 investors.

ULABY: It sounds great to work outside the system, get a huge check from Kickstarter to make your movie, but Thomas doubts he'd ever do it again.

THOMAS: It's been the most work. I just finished signing 5,500 posters this week that are all going out to Kickstarter backers.

ULABY: You don't have to do that when you get your money directly from the studio. Washington Post pop culture blogger, Alyssa Rosenberg, says that's one reason why this might not be such a great alternative.

ALYSSA ROSENBERG: It's a way of picking the lock on the Hollywood gate, but that doesn't mean there aren't enormous advantages to working with a mainstream studio.

ULABY: In the movie, Veronica Mars is not in high school anymore.

(SOUNDBITE FROM MOVIE, "VERONICA MARS")

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #4: So you're at Hurst(ph) college.

ULABY: The character, still played by Kristen Bell, has just graduated from law school.

(SOUNDBITE FROM MOVIE, "VERONICA MARS")

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #4: You're due to take the bar in six weeks.

ULABY: But, of course, an old voice from home tugs her back, just in time for her 10th high school reunion.

(SOUNDBITE FROM MOVIE, "VERONICA MARS")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: I need your help, Veronica.

BELL: (As Veronica Mars) I don't really do that anymore.

ULABY: Whether or not "Veronica Mars" succeeds on the big screen is almost irrelevant, the movie has essentially paid for itself. What's perhaps more exciting at this point is the show's ongoing resurrection across multiple platforms. A "Veronica Mars" book series comes out this spring, starting when the movie ends. And there's a web-only spinoff on the works about a minor character. Alyssa Rosenberg says it's a smart strategy for Rob Thomas to hopscotch dexterously across platforms.

ROSENBERG: He's opening up the world. It'll get to continue in other media now.

ULABY: That is, says Thomas, until some other future writer tries to kill off his creation the same way he tried with Nancy Drew.

THOMAS: Veronica Mars had her turn. What is she, 60 now?

ULABY: Hopefully, there'll be room for more than one girl detective in 2045. Neda Ulaby, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.