I’ve never been someone who laughed very much. That’s not to say that I lack a sense of humor or have a gloomy disposition; when the mood strikes, I’ve been known to chuckle, or even let off the occasional giggle if I’m tired enough. I’ve just always been someone who smiled constantly and laughed infrequently. That was never the case while watching Mystery Science Theater 3000. That show made me laugh, big, whooping, ugly laughter that prevented me from ever watching the show in the presence of new acquaintances or adolescent crushes. If I was watching a personal favorite – an episode like Space Mutiny, whose status as a classic was confirmed by the popped tab on the VHS cassette – it wasn’t uncommon for me to start laughing in anticipation of every line of dialogue, funny or not. Mystery Science Theater 3000 warped my sad little child brain.
And it wasn’t that MST3K was some kind of uniquely personal experience that only I could truly enjoy. Quite the opposite: tape trading and online captions at the Sci-Fi Channel website were some of my first experiences with internet fandom and the desire to be part of a community of strangers. I loved MST3K because it wasn’t an individual experience, but instead, a shared experience for thousands of people around the country like me. And if you’d told me fifteen years ago that I’d have the opportunity to work with that very same online community to bring MST3K back to life, I’d have considered it my privilege – my civic responsibility – to throw a little bit of money the show’s way.
So I should be excited about the Kickstarter campaign to bring back the show. And I’m really, really not.
Earlier this week, show creator Joel Hodgson announced that they would be launching a Kickstarter for new episodes of Mystery Science Theater 3000. According to the Kickstarter website, our donations of anywhere between two to five million dollars will help Hodgson and his to-be-identified staff produce up to ten new episodes, with the proceeds being split between Kickstarter costs, backer donations, and production and licensing costs. My initial reaction was one of pure joy – my favorite television series of all time was coming back! – but as the day dragged on, a few new pieces of information came to light. Shout! Factory had purchased the rights to the show. Mike Nelson and other cast members were not involved in the reboot. And five million dollars is still a helluva big ask.
Since money is the biggest tripping point, let’s start there. With the digital era and the early successes of services like Netflix, companies are considerably more likely to hoard their licenses in the hope that one of them could potentially pay off down the line; look no further than the garbage soundtrack lineup at your nearest record store to see which independent distributors are squeezing their properties for all they are worth. This means the films aren’t as cheap as they used to be. Still, asking fans to help raise two-to-five million dollars for new episodes feels a bit far afield from the show’s origins. Hodgson and his staff are asking us to spend more money on MST3K than many of the movies featured on the show budgeted for their entire production costs. The estimated budget for Soultaker, for example – a 1990 movie featuring Joe Estevez and Robert Z’Dar – was a scant $242,000 dollars. The estimated budget for Werewolf, a 1995 film also featuring Joe Estevez? $350,000.
And if spending two million dollars was the only way to get three brand new episodes of MST3K, then sure, that’d be one thing. But just as people are being asked to spend millions of dollars of their own money on the show, news also broke that Shout! Factory had purchased the rights to the series, including past and future episodes of the show. If the production costs of the show are now being overseen by an actual media company – one that has its own digital distribution platform in place, mind you – then why are the fans being asked to offset so much of the money involved in the new show? The MST3K Kickstarter tells us that we need to show that we still care about the show and that we need to donate money in exchange for rewards, but isn’t that what we’ve been doing all along when we buy DVD sets from the Shout! Factory website? If buying copies of a thing is no longer enough to prove its liquidity – if we need to donate money on top of our purchases as well – then maybe we don’t deserve new episodes of MST3K after all.
It also seems to me that a modern version of MST3K would take advantage of the glut of undistributed feature films to keep their costs low. By one estimate there were over 2,300 feature films submitted to the 2015 Sundance Film Festival; each years, countless thousands of movies never find a distributor or break through the glut of movies uploaded to YouTube or Vimeo. If the MST3K of the 1980s and 1990s was targeting the no-budget films of the previous decades, then it would make sense that the MST3k of the 2000s would look to its modern equivalent, the films that would be willing to sell their rights very cheaply for a shot at greater exposure. Otherwise, we’re just paying for the privilege to watch people make fun of more recognizable feature films, and the good folks at RiffTrax discovered the inexpensive workaround for that years ago. After all, this is a society that has elevated movies like The Room and Birdemic to a kind of trash art. We’re not particularly worried about where we get our highs from these days.
There’s also the issue of talent involved and who will be represented on the new show. An earlier piece this week by Entertainment Weekly made it clear that Joel Hodgson will be inviting previous members of the cast and crew back to contribute on the occasional episode, and while I have my personal favorites among the actors and the voice talents – who doesn’t? – the idea that MST3K should be updated for a new generation of fans is generally a good one. But that does raise the question of where the premium lies for recognizable faces. If it turns out that we are paying millions of dollars for the right to watch skits intercut into the movie itself, then I’d ask that we all take a long, hard look back at some of the MST3K skits we may have forgotten. The strength of the show was always in the riffs rather than the live-action skits; the line between low-budget charm and Kickstarter remorse becomes awfully thin when we’re watching someone wiggle a puppet at the camera using our collective $5.5 million.
Finally, though, there’s the broader question of where MST3K fits in the current landscape of film and criticism. What seemed revolutionary and liberating twenty years ago – a group of people making fun of a movie for a large audience – is now every waking minute of every day across every social media platform. I loved MST3K the most when it was expanding my knowledge of pop culture; even now, my brain does cartwheels when I learn some new random fact and link it to some obscure MST3K joke I never quite understood. When the movies on the show were kind of bad, there was still an unspoken understanding that the cast and crew would probably be watching these types of movies anyways, even if it was just at someone’s apartment on a Saturday night with a case of beer. I would hate to see a new iteration of MST3K — or worse, a new generation of MST3K fans – confuse the charm of low-budget cinema with the easy laughs that come with making fun of a film’s constraints.
Maybe there are great answers to all of these questions, and in thirty days, I’ll be facing a credit card charge along with everyone else for the successful backing of the MST3K Kickstarter. Or maybe we’re all fools for giving money to MST3K when RiffTrax has proven that there’s a better model. Either way, it’s hard to see the indecision of one person mattering too much in the grand scheme of things – we’ve already given Hodgson and Shout! Factory a cool $1.3 million as of this writing, suggesting that the campaign will blow its stretch goals out of the water by the end of its thirty day waiting period. It’s great to see such an important part of my own development as a movie fan back on the market; I just wish I could enjoy the moment without reservation.