You wouldn’t think two of my favorite shows, Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries and Star Trek, have a lot in common. But as of recently, they share one very interesting feature: Both are asking die-hard fans to pony up a lot more money than one normally expects to pay for such entertainment. MFMM, after three seasons on Australian TV with international streaming distribution, launched a crowdfunding campaign to make a feature film (and hit their goal within days). After five Star Trek series on ad-supported broadcast TV and 14 films, Star Trek Discovery is being used as the flagship series of CBS’ new streaming service, CBS All Access, on the theory that Star Trek fans will be willing to pay a monthly fee.
What’s even more interesting is the very different reception these strategies have gotten. With MFMM, it’s very positive. Fans are eagerly pledging, with some even kicking in thousands of dollars in exchange for a chance to appear onscreen or get a piece of wardrobe after the shoot. The tone of the chatter on social media is excited and hopeful. The press coverage emphasizes the dedication and enthusiasm of the fan base rather than the fact that thousands of people are paying a lot of money, most for very minor incentives like a postcard or access to “inside info” (more or less a fan club), so they can get to see a movie they would otherwise have paid 12 bucks for at the theater. ("Put your sassy magnifying glass away because there’s no mystery here, fans are absolutely humming for a ‘Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries’ movie,” says this HuffPo article.)
But the response to ST:DSC on CBS All Access has been far more negative and cynical. Even die-hard ST fans who plan to pay for the service (like me) seem to be resentful. While fans on social media debate whether the series is likely to be any good (as ST fans will), the response to putting it on CBS All Access for U.S. viewing (it will be on Netflix elsewhere) is universally negative. There’s a lot of grumbling about CBS’ greed and abuse of the franchise. The tone of media coverage is more like, “Will rabid ST fans fall for CBS’ money-making ploy?” ("CBS hopes that fans will embrace that vision — and, with credit cards in hand, help build a new business to carry the company forward,” says Variety.)
There are some obvious reasons for the disparity, like the fact that MFMM fandom feels like the little engine that could, since the show isn’t widely known, and the fandom is young and hasn’t been overtly exploited for decades. Also, a crowdfunding campaign on the front end of a project feels voluntary, while a streaming distribution scheme for a finished product feels like being overcharged. The different responses the two efforts have received are more psychological than anything else; MFMM feels inclusive and optimistic, while ST:DSC feels coercive and mercenary.
But in the end, they’re not actually so different. For whatever reason, the producers are calculating that a dedicated fan base will pay well above market price for access to this particular product because they want it so badly. What’s more, MFMM fans are handing producers their hard-earned money with no guarantee they will actually get a movie. (Do people realize that Kickstarter itself offers no guarantee that a project will be completed? I wonder how many people have actually read the terms of service? “The creator is solely responsible for fulfilling the promises made in their project. If they’re unable to satisfy the terms of this agreement, they may be subject to legal action by backers.” In other words, if you sent the creator money and they didn’t make the thing, you could sue them. Good luck.) At least with ST:DSC, you don’t have to pay a dime until the product actually exists (which it does; the premiere is a few days away!), and for that matter, until the product has actually been seen and reviewed. And yet, people are more negative about the ST:DSC model. Humans are funny that way.
Interesting thought experiment: What if the two were reversed? What if ST:DSC had had a crowdfunding campaign and MFMM were being used to anchor a paid streaming service? Would the responses be reversed as well? Possibly not, because MFMM is still relatively small and hasn’t already been monetized to death the way ST has. But still, I wonder.