Something’s Not Right About the New, Crowdfunded ‘Mystery Science Theater 3000’

When the message popped up on my Facebook feed, my immediate reaction was visceral and intense — could this be real? “ABSOLUTELY HUGE NEWS EVERYONE,” it read. “Joel Hodgson is trying to bring back Mystery Science Theater 3000, but he needs your help! Head over to bringbackmst3k.com to learn more, and keep circulating this post!” For a true MSTie, it sounded like some kind of a miracle — our favorite bad-movie showcase, brought back to life more than a decade and a half after its cancellation by what we still, at the time, called the Sci-Fi Channel (itself a three-year stay of execution after its initial cancellation by Comedy Central). It sounded too good to be true! And come to find out, it just might be.

Here’s the deal, in a nutshell: Joel Hodgson, the original creator and host of MST3K, has set up a Kickstarter to fund a new season of the series. The minimum funding will pay for three new episodes; they’re hoping to raise much more, enough to make a full season of 12 shows. The ultimate destination for the new season, whether on broadcast or streaming, is still up in the air — but at the very least, it’s safe to bet they’ll eventually hit the disc and streaming platforms of Shout Factory, which has been releasing old episodes in box sets since 2008 (taking over from Rhino), and which, coincidentally enough, acquired full ownership of the series from production entity Best Brains Inc. the very day the Kickstarter went up.

This is where the crowdfunding thing starts to get hinky, since we’re not talking about an unknown quantity here. Shout knows full well what kind of an audience they’ve got for Mystery Science Theater, because they sell a new box set of old episodes to them — at a $59.99 list price — every three months. (They’re up to volume 34, out next month.) If MST3K weren’t a profitable enterprise, they wouldn’t keep putting those sets out, and they certainly wouldn’t have just bought the property outright. (Asked for comment, a Shout rep confirms, “DVD sales have declined as the market for physical media in general has declined, but they’re still respectable – and plenty of fans continue to stream and download the show.”) So when you get down to it, the company is asking fans to foot the bill for what is, it seems, a pretty sure thing.

And it’s quite a bill. The Kickstarter minimum, to create just three episodes, is $2 million, with an overall goal of $5.5 million for a dozen episodes. It’s a pretty staggering amount, considering the entire concept was borne out of making a show inexpensively. In a 2013 interview, Hodgson told me he created MST3K at a Minneapolis UHF station with the express desire “to come up with the cheapest show possible.” Writer/performer Trace Beaulieu later deemed their budgets “microscopic,” with homemade props and costumes and whatever movies were available in KTMA’s shoddy film library. And the station got them cheap, because all of them were terrible, which worked out fine for the show they were doing.

Now, no one’s saying they should have to go back to that kind of poverty — but seriously, two million clams for three shows? It’s a guy and two robots talking over an old movie, which reportedly used to cost somewhere between $85,000 and $100,000 per episode. Shout estimates the current shows will cost $200-300K each, covering “a crew, shooting, writers, actors, and especially, a license for a movie, which costs at least five figures just by itself.” (That seems awfully high for the kind of movies they tend to clobber, but sure.)

Hodgson went into greater depth about the high Kickstarter goal in a Reddit AMA yesterday, attributing it to backer rewards, Kickstarter and credit card fees, and costs incurred in re-mounting the program (building initial sets, props, costumes, etc.). But that still seems mighty steep, and should the show take off, MST and Shout will continue making coin off that initial (fan) investment for a very long time. (Their rep counters, “While it’s true that Joel is hoping that the cast, crew, and Shout Factory will eventually profit from the show if it comes back — like any show — Shout has also made huge investments already just to make this possible.”)

Joel Hodgson and Mike Nelson on "Mystery Science Theater 3000"

Of course, there’s one good explanation for coming up with that kind of money: paying the people who worked so hard on the show what they’re worth. And this may be the area were MST 2.0 falls shortest, because at the moment, the single, solitary member of the Mystery Science Theater team, from either the Comedy Central or Sci-Fi eras, as either writer or performer, is Joel Hodgson. “Mystery Science Theater has already refreshed itself once with a completely new cast, so I think it deserves to do that again,” he told Entertainment Weekly, which is true — by the time it ended, the host, robot voices, and primary antagonist (Mike Nelson, Kevin Murphy, Bill Corbett, and Mary Jo Pehl, respectively) were entirely different than when the show began on The Comedy Channel, aka Comedy Central (Hodgson, J. Elvis Weinstein, and Beaulieu in a double role). But they were also vets who worked their way up after contributing to the show for years (in Murphy’s case, since its beginning); more importantly, they were eased in one at a time, giving the audience to chance to get to know them, and eventually love them.

And they did, so much so that after MST folded up shop, they kept riffing on movies. Nelson, Murphy, and Corbett do both mp3 commentaries for big hits and all-in riffs on terrible B-movies via Rifftrax; Hodgson, Beaulieu, Weinstein, Pehl, and “TV’s Frank” Coniff spent years doing a live-performance variation called Cinematic Titanic. Those ventures landed because of the affection and attachment fans had towards those particular performers — not just the movie-riffing concept, and certainly not just the “stranded on a space station with robots” framework.

Joel Hodgson and the 'bots of "Mystery Science Theater 3000"

“The original cast is going to be invited back to write, produce, and do cameos as their mad scientist characters, and then there’s a new cast with new talent,” Hodgson told EW, and Shout Factory confirms, “While it’s true that Joel is the only member of the previous cast or writing team formally involved so far, many of previous team members just haven’t been invited yet.” But if the original cast will “be invited,” it doesn’t sound like many of them are all that into it.

“I’m not involved at all with the Mystery Science Theater 3000 reboot,” Nelson noted on Facebook, and then followed up: “I loved my time at MST, but I was in essence a hired gun. The brand does not belong to me, and I make and have made (almost) zero dollars off it since it stopped production in 1999.” Bill Corbett concurred: “No, I am not involved in this.” J. Elvis Weinstein “won’t be participating.” Trace Beaulieu: “Not involved at all,” and the kind of Dr. Forrester cameo Hodgson alludes to “won’t be happening.” Mary Jo Pehl is not involved. Frank Conniff hasn’t yet commented publicly; neither has Kevin Murphy, but considering his ongoing relationship with Corbett and Nelson, it seems safe to bet he isn’t in either. (It sounds like there may be some ill will over residuals from the old show —when I reached out to Rifftrax about their recent addition of old MST3K episodes to their streaming library, I was told that, among its benefits, the new syndication gave “Mike, Kevin, and Bill a chance to see direct economic benefit from MST, where since the show stopped airing, they have received either very limited, or no compensation.”)

So what, exactly, is Hodgson making here? From the looks of it, something akin to New Monkees, a beloved property resurrected without the participation of those who made it great. The number of performers involved in the original series, and the well-reported (and much speculated-upon) personality clashes between them probably made the idea of an all-hands reunion/super-MST a practical impossibility, but some semblance of love for those performers (and, from the sound of things, an overdue payday) would’ve made a lot more sense than this Joel-approved third-team iteration. There are options out there for fans who miss Mystery Science Theater, in the form of live appearances, the old DVDs of the sadly defunct Cinematic Titanic, or the admirably prolific Rifftrax crew. They’re continuing the good work that began on the Satellite of Love — and for a damn sight less than five-and-a-half million bucks.

[UPDATE 11/13/15: A few hours after this piece went live, Joel Hodgson posted a Kickstarter update addressing some of these concerns–some satisfactorily (the total cost of the episodes makes a bit more sense), some less so (the comments about inviting former cast to participate don’t jibe with the statements of non-involvement most have already made), some not at all (it’s still not clear why fans are being asked to shoulder the entire cost, but that’s an ongoing question with celebrity-fueled Kickstarters). At any rate, you can read it here.]