MST3K at a Crossroads: Who Will Pay to Keep a Classic Show Alive?

Comedy Features MST3K
MST3K at a Crossroads: Who Will Pay to Keep a Classic Show Alive?

As stomachs around the U.S. reverberated with the aftershocks of Thanksgiving dinner this past weekend, fans of cult movie riffing series Mystery Science Theater 3000 were dealing with their own post-Turkey Day fallout. Following two immensely successful crowdfunding campaigns that had revived MST3K for the modern era, first on Netflix and then via the show’s own online streaming platform The Gizmoplex, it seems that the power of goodwill that has so long animated the MST3K fandom has finally started to waver. Attempting another high-profile crowdfunding campaign to keep the series rolling into its 14th season and second hosted at The Gizmoplex, fans didn’t respond with the kind of rabid support that was clearly anticipated, and the campaign failed to reach its goals. Peaking at more than $2.7 million–still a very big number, but well short of the $4 to $7 million goal–it calls into question not only what went wrong, but also how much cultural cache there is left in the MST3K brand.

Observing the tenor of conversation during this most recent crowdfunding campaign on a fan forum such as reddit’s r/mst3k, some of the elements of dissatisfaction become clear to see. There are of course some fans who simply don’t care much for the present product, feeling that the show has become increasingly overwrought and complicated with three different hosts and numerous different voices for robot characters like Tom Servo and Crow T. Robot, which makes it more difficult to achieve a level of comfortable familiarity. There’s certainly a perception that MST3K has slowly bled fans at various stops along the way without effectively replacing those people with new supporters, which would have the effect of taking a show that was always a passionately niche fanbase and making it that much more small and insular.

A greater source of enmity, though, is likely the fandom simply becoming weary of being called on in such a direct manner, of continuously being informed that they need to prop up this brand with direct, preemptive financial support in order to keep it from disappearing once again. Everywhere I look, this is the question I see longtime fans asking: Why are MST3K fans expected to fully fund new episodes of the series from conception all the way through production, rather than simply paying for the completed product once it’s been produced? Why is no other commercial entity seemingly interested or willing to fund the making of more MST3K? Is it even possible to make money on this show, in 2023-2024? This question, coupled with elements of dissatisfaction stemming from the last few successful crowdfunding campaigns, is the biggest existential issue that the show now faces.

MST3K and the Crowdfunding Blues

Reminder: MST3K Returns This Week as the Gizmoplex (and Season 13) Goes Live

I don’t mean to overlook some of the specific challenges and extenuating circumstances that may have made this particular crowdfunding campaign different or more difficult than the two that preceded it in 2015 and 2021. For one, it was hosted on a new platform called Showmaker rather than Kickstarter, which no doubt cost the campaign some amount of exposure. This method was presumably chosen in an effort to avoid onerous Kickstarter fees and issues related to shipping backer rewards–more on that momentarily–but it likely limited the ability of some backers to “stumble onto” the campaign.

A bigger simultaneous issue was likely that of timing, as the campaign was launched during the actors’ strike, which didn’t allow creator Joel Hodgson and co. to officially negotiate with cast members for their return or confirm who would or wouldn’t be involved in a MST3K season 14. This likewise prevented cast members from actively participating in promoting the crowdfunding campaign like they otherwise presumably would have, costing it more exposure. The obvious question is “So why was the campaign conducted now?”, but it’s not hard for fans to understand the reasoning–Hodgson and crew (presumably Shout Factory) no doubt believed that the symbolic importance of the Thanksgiving/Turkey Day marathon to MST3K lore made it an obvious place to end the campaign and put it over the top.

What the MST3K crew ultimately failed to grasp, though, was a growing impatience among the show’s most diehard fanbase to see Mystery Science Theater 3000 attain some kind of self-sufficient equilibrium with itself. The same fans who were thrilled to have a chance to bring the show back in 2015 did so again with another Kickstarter campaign in 2021, but even then there was a palpable undercurrent of resentment, a cynical subset of supporters asking “Just how many times are we going to be expected to do this?” The question becomes: Is there no way to create more MST3K that doesn’t involve fans fully funding every aspect of the show? What would it take for the series to pay for itself?

The mere fact that a $6 million Kickstarter campaign was necessary in the mid-2010s in order to fund the show’s first Netflix season was a red flag for many otherwise ardent supporters. This is, after all, Netflix we’re talking about–the world’s biggest streaming service wouldn’t foot a single dollar of the bill in bringing this beloved cult series to their platform? This is the service that paid Eddie Murphy $70 million for a couple of stand-up specials. They paid Ricky Gervais $40 million for two specials, and Jerry Seinfeld an incredible $100 million for two specials and Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee. But when it comes to MST3K, it was up to the show’s fans to foot 100% of the bill in getting the show produced.

Edit: It looks like I may have misremembered the timeline here, and that Netflix hadn’t officially been announced as the new home for MST3K until well after the first Kickstarter had already been successful.

At the time, this shifting of the responsibility for reviving MST3K to the fanbase was painted as an act of empowerment, a metaphorical ownership stake that would let fans feel proud of their investment in a cult classic series and theoretically give the showrunners more direct power and oversight over that series, free from Netflix meddling. In retrospect, however, it certainly feels as if Netflix simply never had any faith or much interest in the series at all–how else to explain such a lack of financial support when the likes of Carl Rinsch, whose only credit was the box office flop 47 Ronin, was handed $55 million by Netflix to produce a sci-fi series that never completed a single episode? Is it any surprise that this left a bad taste in the mouth of cast members such as MST3K’s Hampton Yount (Crow T. Robot), who have since expressed their frustration online?

The subsequent move to hosting MST3K on its own proprietary streaming platform, dubbed The Gizmoplex, seemed to be another opportunity for the show to potentially build a self-sustaining method of creating new episodes. One would likely expect this to take the form of a subscription-based service with monthly costs attached to it, but access to the Gizmoplex was complicated by the need for the 2021 Kickstarter to initially fund its development, ultimately raising another $6.5 million while giving most fans semi-permanent access. More fans were subsequently alienated in the long and arduous process of distributing backer rewards that followed, with many of those physical rewards (t-shirts, stickers, etc.) not being shipped until Sept. of 2023, nearly 9 months after the last episode of season 13 had premiered at The Gizmoplex, and more than two years after the Kickstarter campaign concluded.

All of this could likely have been forgiven by the show’s fanbase, however, if there was some indication that The Gizmoplex had been able to directly fund more episodes of the series. Indeed, comments from the 2021 Kickstarter campaign certainly made it sound as if this was one of the goals of the Gizmoplex, though Hodgson and crew have subsequently stressed that this was never the platform’s intention. Still, look at this Q&A question from 2021:

Q: Why are you spending so much to build the Gizmoplex? Just spend everything on new episodes and put them on YouTube!

A: Part of our goal in launching the Gizmoplex is to make sure we can distribute our own episodes from now and bring in some ongoing revenue to support more new episodes, instead of depending on another Kickstarter for each new season.

And that’s the heart of the matter. It only takes a quick glance around the MST3K fan pages to see that supporters very much liked the idea of not being dependent on “another Kickstarter for each new season,” a hope that the season 14 crowdfunding campaign launch seemed to shoot down, with a disheartening effect.

Given this, is it any surprise that enthusiasm for each subsequent crowdfunding campaign would inevitably start to bleed away? This was a model that simply wasn’t sustainable. Or put another way: If this WAS a sustainable way to make television, then wouldn’t you expect the creators of your favorite series to conduct yearly crowdfunding campaigns themselves in order to produce a completely independent product? At the end of the day, asking supporters to continue committing to a product, a year or more before they can even access the product, was a stress that not even the goodwill of a show legendarily built on goodwill could bear.

Judging from Joel Hodgson’s gracious statement at the end of the season 14 campaign on Showmaker, it feels as if the MST3K brain trust may increasingly understand some of these concerns. The show’s future is entirely uncertain at this point, more tenuous than it’s been at any point since before 2015, but Hodgson doesn’t appear ready to give up by any means. In advancing, though, they’ll have to answer the question of how many people out there are truly willing to pay for more MST3K in advance, and how much ownership or control of the product they’re willing to potentially cede to at least partially remove the burden of responsibility from directly falling on the fandom. Some of Joel’s words here could have significant portents: “One silver lining is that the continued support for this campaign, and the show, may have opened up some new conversations about potential partnerships and fundraising that could be key in getting the show another season.”

For now, though, it’s clearly time for Hodgson and Shout Factory to regroup and rethink what MST3K really looks like in this day and age, even as the show celebrates its 35th anniversary. As he put it, “We’ll spend some time now exploring those, and working to integrate all of the feedback and suggestions we’ve heard from you, and will follow up again next year, Lord willing and the creek don’t rise, when we’ve had a chance to regroup and have more to share downstream.”

As a longtime fan of the series myself, I think we need to at least entertain the possibility in this moment that perhaps MST3K’s time has come and gone, and that it should be allowed to graciously enter its latest retirement phase, fond memories intact. At the same time, if its creative team is able to reenergize the concept in some way, shape or form in the coming years, I’ll be ready to embrace one of my favorite series once again. For now, though, it’s back to circulating the tapes.

Jim Vorel is Paste’s resident genre movie guru. You can follow him on Twitter for much more film content.

Share Tweet Submit Pin