Recently, Veronica Mars creator Rob Thomas presented a Master Class to a group of industry insiders at the Banff World Television Festival, where he also broke the news that the show is not coming back to television. I spoke with him prior to his class to talk about the ups and downs of his career, especially in the last month when the fate of his series was undecided.
Have you been to Banff before?
Never. It's fantastic. The view from my room is unbelievable.
What do you hope to share with people at your Master Class?
I've been trying to figure that out. What I've been trying to get an accurate read on, and what I'm coming to grips with is who is at this conference. I've been at places to speak where it's full of Veronica Mars fans and I've felt like Gene Roddenberry. It's – "Veronica was in this green blouse in episode three, and yet she didn't wear it again until episode 17 of season three. Can you explain why?" It's a bunch of stuff like that. And it seems invariably when I speak in LA, the room is full of writers who just want to know how to break into the business. That's the mindset. I'm starting to understand now that most of the people here are working professionals, and I believe then we'll stick to the travails of running a low-rated US network show and what the pressures involve. I think it will skew a bit more in that direction.
Are you going to any other sessions as well? Is there something you're hoping to get out of the festival?
No, unless they're holding those sessions in the spa.
Smart plan. It sounds like you might need a vacation after the events of the last few weeks.
Yeah, it's been very difficult. And now that I've taken this new job …
Is that official? With Miss/Guided?
Yeah, it's official, sort of. There's one little deal point that everyone involved believes is going to work out so it's official. Believe me, I've been doing Miss/Guided stuff every day this week, so I hope I have a job or I've been doing a lot of free work right now. But I think it's going to happen.
Is there any truth to the rumours of a movie to wrap things up, or is that in the past now too?
No, that's not in the past. I have read recently that Veronica Mars fans have been sending Mars Bars, and I don't want to dampen their enthusiasm, but I have to say, it's not going to happen. Veronica Mars the TV series is gone. Unfortunately. Lord knows I would have loved for it to keep going. I did meet with DC Comics last week to talk about continuing Veronica Mars as a comic book, and I have some aspirations to write a feature script about Veronica. But the show is a thing of the past now.
You had three seasons and you hoped for more obviously. Was the FBI scenario your creative decision, or was it a response to the network's pressures?
We could see the writing on the wall. We started to feel pretty certain that we would not be back in our current form. Dawn (Ostroff, president of The CW) had talked to me about doing a first year cop show, aside from Veronica Mars, so I came back and said, how about we put Veronica into a first year cop show. By "first year cop" I mean surrounded by other rookie cops. It was our Hail Mary pass to try to get another season or two out of the show. When we went in and pitched it to them, Dawn loved it. The Hollywood Reporter even reported "Veronica Mars back on the air, nearing a season four."
The impression I got was someone, probably Les Moonves (president of CBS, the C of The CW), just said "are you kidding, we've given this show three seasons," and killed it. We went from dead to back on the air to dead again very quickly. Our Hail Mary pass came very close to working but didn't quite get past all the filters it needed to.
The show was such a cult fan and critical darling. Why do you think it didn't get a bigger audience?
There are a whole bunch of theories. My favourite theory, the one I say the most, is that I wouldn't watch it either, from the logline.
It's funny, because certainly I loved the show and I'm incredibly proud of the show but as a 40-year-old guy, would I tune into a show about a teen detective? It needed people to sample it. I feel like we did a pretty good job of getting people, if they sampled the show, to turn into viewers. But being on UPN, a network no one I knew personally watched unless they were flipping through channels, it was hard getting people to watch a logline that most adults thought, well, there's a bubble gum show. It's a one-liner you hear and you don't think, I've got to watch that show. Combined with being on a network that wouldn't be watched by the people who could have gotten into the show.
I think had we been on, say, ABC and gotten the promotion that would have given us a big sampling of people, we would have either very quickly been a hit or very quickly died, because they wouldn't have let us linger for three years. That was the upside and the downside of being on UPN, because we got a lot of time but we didn't get enough eyeballs on it.
Sometimes I do believe that "critical darling, commercial flop" will be on my tombstone. I feel really confident that I can consistently do good television. I have yet to know whether I can write hit television.
Hopefully you'll find out with Miss/Guided.
Yeah, that would be nice. It's going to be on ABC. It's a midseason. And it will be good to be on a big network again. I am excited about that. For the "right people," being involved with Veronica Mars was very cool within the community there in LA, but traveling across America, telling people I did Veronica Mars, 19 out of 20 people would have no idea what that meant.
On the Internet though — I always said if the Internet audience represented the audience as a whole, Veronica Mars would be a top 5 show.
How much of that do you think helped keep the show on the air, the Internet fan base and the critical acclaim? Or is that beside the point?
I don't think it's beside the point. I will say this: I think one of the reasons we existed for two years on UPN and survived for two years was we gave the network a bit of artistic cache that they didn't have before us. Critics particularly could say UPN is doing some quality television, look at this. And we were the first drama that they successfully launched over there that got more than one season. I think they were very proud of our show and didn't want to cancel the show that was their artistic – for whatever that means in television – crown jewel. So I think the critical reaction and the fact that people seemed to be so rabid meant a lot to the network. It outweighed the numbers we were doing for them. But after three years it quit meaning so much.
I think the Jericho peanut campaign that worked inspired the Mars Bars campaign, and will probably inspire a lot more save our show campaigns now.
Honestly, it makes me sad. It makes me sad because I so appreciate the people who are doing it and I also know the Mars Bars campaign needed to happen a month earlier if it was going to have any impact at this point. [Sighs.] There's a part of me that feels this whole June 15 deadline that "we're going to give Kristen (Bell) and Rob to continue on" is a way to deflect from the fact that they cancelled us.
I don't want to say it's disingenuous because I think Dawn would love to do something with Kristin and myself on that network, but at the same time, it will make me look like the bad guy. Because they're not offering us much of a deal to do something new, but suddenly they can say to the press that they offered Rob the chance to continue on and he turned it down. Which isn't exactly the truth. The truth is they wanted me to write an FBI pilot with no guarantee behind it of episodes. Meanwhile I'm being offered real money to run a show that is on the air backed up by a development deal, a deal that Warner Brothers (the W of The CW) is not offering.
And people within the business said that Les Moonves was not enthusiastic about putting a new Veronica Mars on the air. So it was asking me to turn down a lot for a very, very outside shot of getting Veronica Mars back on the air.
In a way, a clean "they're cancelled" would have been less painful. I mean, less painful for me and less painful for the fans, I think.
You were a youth novelist before you got started as a TV writer, right? How did you get into TV?
That is the craziest, most unbelievable story in the world, so when I do talk to writers about how to break into the business, my story is so crazy and unbelievable that I say "don't do this." This is certainly not a model for how you do it.
I had been a high school teacher, and I moved out to LA to take a job for Channel One, which is sort of like CNN for kids in the United States, beamed directly into their classrooms. While working this very boring job, I wrote my first novel. One of my duties was to run Student Produced Week, to fly in kids from all over the country to take over the news show for the week. In the 2,000 video applications I received, there was one note in there directed specifically to me: "Dear Mr. Thomas, I would like to recommend my niece for your program, blah blah blah," and it was from the president of CBS, Jeff Sagansky.
By the way, I didn't make the final call, I just took the 2,000 tapes and weeded it down to the 50 contenders and passed them on to the executive producer. But Jeff Sagansky's niece did get selected for the show. So a year later when I'd finished my first novel and had it in bound galleys, I sent a copy to Jeff Sagansky, who'd moved from president of CBS to president of Sony. So I wrote a ludicrous letter: "Dear Mr. Sagansky, You may remember writing to me last year in regards to your niece appearing on Channel One. Gosh, we sure loved her. She was great. I was hoping you might do me a favour in return and pass along my manuscript to any show that you're in contact with involving teen characters."
I wasn't naive, I believed there was a 1 in 100 chance that he would ever even see this envelope. I believed there was a zero percent chance he'd read it. I believed if he even got it, there was a 1 in 10 chance he'd hand it to an assistant. So I wasn't staking anything on this, I just thought it was the one name I knew in television.
A year later – a year later – I got a call one night, and it's Jeff Sagansky.
I'm living in Texas at this point working on my second novel and he says, "Hey, I just finished your book and I think it's great and I think you should write for My So-Called Life. I just got done doing a movie with Ed Zwick called Legends of the Fall so I'll recommend you to him if that show gets picked back up, so fingers crossed. Hey, do you have any screenplays I can see?" Uh, no. I admitted I had not written any screenplays. He said, "Well, if you do, send it to me."
So I spent the next six months waiting to see if My So-Called Life got picked back up, which it did not. In the meantime, a film school grad asked me to write a feature for him. He wanted a romantic comedy that he was going to shoot for $100,000, so he wanted something with very few characters and very few sets. So essentially I wrote My Dinner With Andre with a teenaged couple, a twentysomething couple, and a thirtysomething couple in a Chinese restaurant. When I finished, I gave it to the guy who bought it from me and I sent a copy to Jeff Sagansky.
This time, in a bold move, I FedExed it to him. I said, "You may remember calling me last year and asking to see any of my screenplays." He called me back in two days and said two things. One, "I'm at Sony and we have this new show called Dawson's Creek that we think is going to go, so I'm going to recommend you to those guys. And I really think you should do a romantic comedy for television, so why don't you come up to New York and pitch me some ideas."
I went up to New York. I had seven ideas, and I was through the first four when he was dozing off, and he said, "Let me stop you there. I helped launch Touched by an Angel and I have this idea, touched by a cupid, where we have a cupid figure who shoots people with a bow and arrow." And the last idea on my stack was Cupid.
To tell you how far away we were on these two ideas, they were both cupid, but his was Dean Cain as a true god shooting people with a magic bow and arrow, and mine was Wallace Shawn as a mental patient.
So Jeremy Piven was the compromise?
Jeremy Piven was where we ended up, and not knowing whether he was magic or not.
So Jeff Sagansky launched my career. He got me my job on Dawson's Creek, so I moved to LA for that and started to develop Cupid. It was a crazy time for me, because in the space of a year I went from living in Texas writing young adult novels to having my own show on ABC. Those were heady times. And everything came very easy for me at the very beginning, which set me up for the cautionary tale that was to come.
But comparatively, to a lot of people, you've had tremendous success.
Oh absolutely, and I'm thankful for all of it. But I had seven years of my career going like this [hand signal showing a steep upward trajectory] to the moment where David Kelley anointed me crown prince of television and asked me to run his new show (Snoops), to the day I quit that show and a four year slide into a miasma of failed projects and depression. Really to the moment where Veronica Mars got picked up and gave me renewed faith.
So why television? It seems with novel writing you're in your own world with complete control …
Well, let me show you my pay stubs from the two careers …
[We both laugh.] Well, OK, yeah, dumb question.
No, it's really not a dumb question and there's more to it than that. Even on a low rated show on UPN, I have three million viewers. My best selling teen novel has now sold 200,000 copies. I love having that big audience. I mean, you're a writer, you want to be read, or in this case, viewed, you know.
Then there's the thrill, when I write down "Chicago, Irish bar, Taggerty's," and a crew of people builds it and I fly to Chicago and there it is, in the flesh. And then to have really remarkably talented people performing your dialogue? I adore it. I love doing what I do.
Television really plays to my strengths as a writer and as a person in that I need the immediate gratification. Being a highly paid feature writer seems like it would be great and it would be about a fifth of the work of running a television show, and certainly there's quite a bit of cache. Except in television, the writers are the boss, and I love that.
I love that you have to shoot things tomorrow. You don't get to tinker around. You have to produce 22 episodes, and a script has to be ready every eight days. I love the process and the immediacy.
You can't fail in features. You can fail in television and be OK. You can try something different that maybe doesn't work and you have one off episode. In features, that's your shot.
And I like television as a viewer. I like living with characters for long periods of time.
I'm fast and I like to be in charge and I'm impatient and these are all good things in TV. In the feature business as a writer they pat you on the head for the script and escort you out the door and it's a director's medium. In television, it's a writers medium. I get final say on the cast and the script and the cut. I dig it.
It's certainly more collaborative than writing a novel, and yet being a showrunner is as much power as you can get being a writer in Hollywood.
There are limits to your power. And by the way, I've only been the showrunner on low-rated shows. If I were the showrunner on America's Next Top Model I could have gone into Dawn Ostroff's office and, I don't know, tanned nude in there. I could have gotten away with it.
[Laughs.] But it seems like in creative terms, you're considered one of the most respected writers. That's got to have some advantages.
It does, and that means a lot to me.
That might not be true if you were in charge of America's Next Top Model.
That's true. Then let's shift it to if I were the executive producer of Lost. I mean, there are places where you could get the best of all worlds.
Well good luck with your next show, and I hope it gets the ratings that you've deserved before.
Thank you so much.