The Critters have voted with their dollars — and they’re not done yet.
In under five days, Critical Role’s Kickstarter campaign to produce an animated special has raised $6.54 million as of Friday at 1:30 p.m. PT from around 48,000 fans (aka Critters) of the Dungeons & Dragons weekly role-playing show. It busted the crowdfunding platform’s record on Thursday for the most-funded TV or film project ever, topping the “Mystery Science Theater 3000” campaign in 2015. It hit its original $750,000 goal for “The Legend of Vox Machina,” about the first Critical Role D&D campaign that ran from 2015-17, in less than an hour.
Now Critical Role has pledged to make at least six 22-minute episodes of “Vox Machina.” If the money keeps rolling in, with 41 days still left to run on Kickstarter, they could produce as many as 10 episodes — or possibly even more, according to Travis Willingham, Critical Role CEO, cast member and executive producer on the series.
The unexpected level of fundraising means Critical Role will be able to invest more into the production, said Sam Riegel, Critical Role cast member and also an EP on the series.
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“We’re going to make this the best goddamn cartoon anyone has ever seen,” Riegel said.
The CR team is still shocked and amazed by the fan support. “We thought it would be a fraction of what we’ve seen. We were grossly unprepared for this,” said Willingham, who thought $3 million was the absolute max they’d be able to raise. Added Riegel: “In our wildest dreams, we had hopes to make a pilot episode –- and maybe if the gods were smiling, a two-part special that we could show off to studios. We never thought we could make the series straight off Kickstarter.”
Critical Role started working on the project in the spring of 2018. Initially, the team pitched the idea to “major streaming distributors” and a few TV networks, Willingham recalled. “We said, ‘This is just ripe for the picking.’ There was some interest but mostly it was met with confusion. When we tried to describe the weekly show, they didn’t really get it.”
After getting snubbed by Hollywood, CR decided to take a crack at bringing the project to life on Kickstarter. Since the campaign blew up, a few of the would-be buyers have checked in with Willingham, who said it’s possible “Vox Machina” could land a deal with a TV or streaming outlet. “We’re interested in seeing who might be able to offer us distribution avenues,” he said. “We’re waiting to see what happens in the next 40 days.” In any case, CR has pledged to give Kickstarter contributors first-window access to the series.
Even before trying to shop “Vox Machina” around town, Willingham and Riegel had settled on animation house Titmouse as the production partner. Titmouse’s credits include Netflix’s “Big Mouth,” Adult Swim’s “Venture Bros.” and “Metalocalypse,” and Disney’s “Star Wars: Galaxy of Adventures.”
Besides the studio’s track record, Titmouse co-founder Chris Prynoski is a huge D&D fan, Willingham said: “He has a running eight-year campaign in Los Angeles. He’s our kind of peeps.” Said Riegel: “They have a punk-rock awesome they bring to table.” In addition, CR signed on writer Jennifer Muro (“Justice League Action,” “Star Wars Forces of Destiny”) to script the series.
Production on “The Legend of Vox Machina” is slated to start at end of May or the beginning June, with an 18-month production calendar. Critical Role is aiming for the fall of 2020 to release the series.
The full Critical Role cast will voice their “Vox Machina” characters in the series: Willingham (Grog), Sam Riegel (Scanlan), Marisha Ray (Keyleth), Taliesin Jaffe (Percy), Ashley Johnson (Pike), Liam O’Brien (Vax) and Laura Bailey (Vex). Matthew Mercer, who is CR’s Dungeon Master, will voice “tons of ancillary characters,” according to Riegel, who teased that the series also would feature a few special celebrity cameos (but he didn’t spill the beans).
The first two installments of “The Legend of Vox Machina” will be an all-new story about the adventurers at D&D Level 7 on their first “grown-up” mission, set prior to the events of Critical Role’s first streamed show in 2015. The next four episodes will be an adaptation of the Briarwoods storyline, in which the Vox Machina crew avenge the murder of the rulers of the town of Whitestone and most of their brood by the evil Lord and Lady Briarwood.
The group’s first D&D campaign ended in November 2017 after 115 episodes and 373 hours of gameplay. That’s a vast trove Critical Role could draw on for additional animated projects, Willingham said: “There’s so much more story to tell.”
For its regular D&D RPG show — which will continue alongside the production of “The Legend of Vox Machina” — Critical Role is in its second campaign with new characters. That’s produced from a 5,000-square-foot studio space, in Burbank, Calif. The company live-streams the shows on Twitch (on Thursdays at 7 p.m. PT) with episodes uploaded to YouTube the following Monday.
Crticial Role knew they had a big and engaged fanbase but the team didn’t expect the flood of pledges that has poured in. On Twitch, between 30,000-40,000 people typically watch live with another 150,000 views on-demand, according to Willingham. The episodes on YouTube typically hit around 250,000 views in the first 24 hours. All told, each episode garners around 1 million views.
“Through all of the past of the show, the fan interaction we’ve done in live events, and fan-art engagement, we’ve always been surprised at how large the fandom has grown,” Riegel said. “Every time we think we know the size of the community, we are proven wrong.”
The Critters have urged Critical Role to make as much animation as possible. “A four-episode miniseries seemed like plenty,” Riegel said. “But the response on Kickstarter and social media was, ‘Make more! Even if it’s just for us and never makes it to Netflix or television.'”
With the huge response to the Kickstarter campaign, Critical Role is recognizing it will likely need to spend more on rewards fulfillment than expected. But their budget plan remains largely intact, according to Willingham. “A lot of crowdsourced campaigns get caught off guard – they don’t anticipate the expense of filling the rewards,” he said. “We worked out the math beforehand.”
Critical Role’s original budget projected that 74% of funds raised would go toward animation production, with 17% for campaign rewards and 9% for Kickstarter and credit-card processing fees. The range of rewards available to “Vox Machina” backers include downloads of the “Your Turn to Roll” theme song, production art prints, a dice set, playing cards, stickers, character pins, and a plushy of Trinket the bear. Big-ticket contributors who give $1,000 or more are being invited to a private screening of “The Legend of Vox Machina.”
Riegel said the Critical Role members aren’t trying to enrich themselves from project. The actors and animators who work on the series will receive SAG and Animation Guild pay scale. “We’re not raiding the coffers,” Riegel said.
Critical Role originally launched in partnership with Legendary Digital Networks’ Geek & Sundry but parted ways last month with Legendary to form an independent company, Critical Role Productions LLC. The “Vox Machina” series is completely separate from the split with G&S and Legendary, according to CR. “We are grateful to Geek & Sundry and Legendary Digital Networks for helping us to build our audience, and know they will have more great shows to share with you,” a Critical Role rep said in a statement.
Kickstarter, for its part, is crowing about the booming Critical Role campaign. Kickstarter’s previous record-holder: Joel Hodgson’s effort to revive “Mystery Science Theater 3000” in late 2015. The “MST3K” campaign closed out with a total of $5.76 million raised and led to Netflix picking up the show. According to Kickstarter, about 60% of Critical Role’s backers were already active on Kickstarter, funding projects for tabletop games and role-playing games.
“Critical Role’s success, like those of ‘Mystery Science Theater’ and ‘Veronica Mars,’ shows Kickstarter’s ability to tap the power of a fan base,” Elise McCave, Kickstarter’s director of narrative film, said in a statement. “Kickstarter is essentially a way to vote for the kind of creative work you want to see in the world, often things that have been overlooked or undervalued by major media companies.”
The crowdfunding platform also noted that Netflix’s “Period. End of Sentence” — the documentary short about an initiative to bring affordable menstrual pads to rural India that just won an Oscar — began as a Kickstarter project.
Pictured above (l. to r.): Critical Role members Sam Riegel, Liam O’Brien, Marisha Ray, Laura Bailey, Matthew Mercer, Taliesin Jaffe, Ashley Johnson, Travis Willingham