What the ‘Veronica Mars’ Flixster Fail Tells Us About Big Media and the Web

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Happy Monday, Marshmallows — did you enjoy the Veronica Mars movie that you paid for? Were you thrilled to see Ms. Veronica back in action? Were your expectations met w/r/t the Logan vs. Piz conundrum? Were you delighted by its “everybody’s back, plus James Franco!” casting? Most importantly, were you, y’know, able to watch the movie? As we noted Friday, Warner Brothers made the dubious decision to make the digital reward promised to Kickstarter backers available only via their Flixster app and Ultraviolet service, an interface that is, to put it mildly, problematic. (To put it less mildly: it blows.) And your film editor wasn’t the only one kicking and screaming over the endless logins and failed downloads; by 11:30 Friday night, director/creator Rob Thomas was emailing us with fixes and apologies. But was it too little, too late?

“We know that some of you have strong opinions about the decision to provide digital versions of the movie through Flixster,” Thomas wrote to his backers — a bit of an understatement. He encouraged us to reach out to their customer service team, which WB gave “a lot of freedom to help make things right, so if you’re having issues, please let them know: they’ll do their best to either help get Flixster working to your satisfaction, or, if you prefer, to provide an alternate solution.”

When I reached out to the customer service email he provided, I received two replies: an almost-immediate “we got your email, but shit’s goin’ bananas, we’ll get back to you as soon as we can” kinda thing, followed by a lengthier response two hours later outlining three options: They could offer technical assistance with Flixster, a $10 refund (“the amount of your Kickstarter pledge that was used for the digital download”), or reimbursement for purchase of the movie through another service (like iTunes or Amazon). I chose the latter, spending $20 on the iTunes download and emailing them the receipt as soon as I received it from Apple. Their response: “Thanks for your response and in making a selection for one of our options. We will begin processing those options and be in touch with you soon to provide you a status update. We hope you enjoy the movie and thanks again for all of your support!”

So presuming that all goes according to plan and that refund pipes through, it’s all good — no harm no foul, right? Eh, not so much. Though Warner Brothers issued a statement Saturday stating (insisting, really) that the “vast majority of Veronica Mars backers who attempted to redeem their code had a successful experience,” clearly enough didn’t for them to go into bunker mode over the weekend. It was a giant miscalculation at the end of what would seem a model example of how to engage a Kickstarter audience even within the structure of a high-profile release by a giant multimedia conglomerate — updates were frequent and informative, previous rewards were delivered quickly, fan interaction was extensive. And then they fumbled the ball on the one-yard line.

You’ve gotta feel bad for Thomas and company, because (as we’ve noted) this feels like anything but their decision. Flixster is property of Veronica Mars distributor Warner Brothers, an expensive 2011 purchase that hasn’t exactly paid dividends. They clearly saw this as an opportunity to introduce it to something of a captive audience — exactly the kind of corporate decision-making that can give a delicate project like this a black eye. Even those of us who backed the project felt a little uneasy about bankrolling what was, when you come down to it, a studio motion picture; said studio thundering in at the 11th hour and sitting on the project’s head, burying it in bad PR in a failed attempt to service one of their other “properties,” did no one any favors.

And these little failures are making the giant media companies look increasingly inept. As Variety ’s Andrew Wallenstein notes, this is the third weekend in a row that we’ve seen this kind of high-profile online stumble: last weekend, HBO GO crashed when everyone tried to watch the True Detective finale at once (prompting a Twitter timeline full of “the HBO GO loading icon is a flat circle” jokes), and the weekend before, the wheels fell off the Watch ABC app during the Oscars. For a good decade and a half now, “content providers” have seemed comically behind the curve when it comes to utilizing online resources; now, the “y’know, we’ll put it on the Internet!” school of thought is blowing up in their faces just as frequently. They haven’t figured out exactly what their online interfaces can and can’t do, and as a result, they look no less out of touch.

And more importantly — to them, and to fans who’d like to see more movies like Veronica Mars — it affects their bottom line. Veronica Mars made it into the weekend top ten, its online release complimented by a run in 291 theaters, most of them rented outright (or “four-walled”) by Warner Brothers. We don’t know how much the movie made on demand this weekend (those numbers aren’t made public in the same weekly, horse-race fashion as theatrical releases), but it seems safe to assume that this you-buy-it-and-we’ll-reimburse you stopgap Band-Aid is costing someone, somewhere — and costing significantly more than a more sensible iTunes or Amazon redemption deal would have, had it been made in advance of Flixster-gate. Will those costs affect the film’s ability to get to the “magic number” Mars has to reach for a sequel to happen?

The 21st century is a complicated time for studios and conglomerates, and there’s no doubt that much of their future lies in web-based solutions. But they’ll keep accumulating massive PR fails if they continue pinning their hopes to technology that’s not yet ready for prime time.