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Exclusive: Mystery Science Theater 3000 creator Joel Hodgson explains why it’s time for a comeback

"It's time to see how Mystery Science Theater can function in this world."

Joel Hodgson took this photo with the help of his robot friends.
Joel Hodgson took this photo with the help of his robot friends.
Shout! Factory
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015, may go down in history as one of the most momentous days ever for the beloved '90s cult comedy Mystery Science Theater 3000. Early that morning, series creator Joel Hodgson launched a Kickstarter campaign designed to bring the show back, to the tune of $2 million for three brand new episodes. (Raising $5 million would mean 12 new episodes.)

Fans of the show — which aired 10 seasons on Comedy Central and later Sci-Fi (now Syfy) and featured a beleaguered human and his robot pals mocking some of the worst movies ever made — immediately began tossing their cash at the project, and as of this writing, it's raised just over $1.5 million with nearly a month to go.

Later that same day, home video company Shout Factory, which has been releasing MST3K episodes on home video since its days as an offshoot of Rhino Records and currently airs MST3K episodes on its Shout Factory TV streaming service, announced that it had acquired the series.

The timing was, to put it mildly, a little strange. Shout has recently moved into producing its own content, and even if funding a full season of MST3K might prove too expensive for the fledgling programmer, it still seemed odd that Hodgson made his initial appeal to fans, rather than attempting to find a network or streaming service to air them.

Kickstarter appeals have gone directly to fans before — see also: the Veronica Mars movie — but usually with the promise of a specific studio or network that would produce them. There was no such guarantee here, beyond the thought that Shout would be involved somehow.

Garson Foos, co-founder and president of Shout, told me via email that "Shout! Factory purchased the MST3K IP [intellectual property] from Best Brains for a significant sum and has entered into a new agreement with Joel to produce new episodes. Shout! is not making a profit from the Kickstarter campaign. The raised funds will go toward the production of the new episodes, backer rewards, and cost associated with running the campaign."

But I also hopped on the phone with Hodgson himself to talk about the show's new relationship with Shout, why crowdfunding is the method of choice for bringing back the show, and whether any other members of the original cast will be joining him on the Satellite of Love.

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Todd VanDerWerff: What have these couple of weeks entailed as you've been building up to this Kickstarter launch, and how has the aftermath been?

Joel Hodgson: It's been really hectic. I feel really lucky. There are a lot of good people working on the project and helping me out. I'm really happy and pretty amazed at how well it's going.

It's a different way of living. The only analogy I can make is it must be what a telethon is like if you're Jerry Lewis and you have to run the Labor Day Telethon. This is kind of a window into what it must be like.

TV: What made you decide that now is the right time to bring the show back?

JH: It's taken so long. I've been talking with Shout Factory for five years now, and we really earnestly started focusing on it two years ago. Something that was really important to me was to check in with the fans about it and go, "I want to do this, and I want to know if you guys want to help."

Crowdfunding lets fans demand what they want. I saw other cult shows trying to really quickly gather an audience and have this moment.1

So far, the most successful variation on this came from the Veronica Mars Kickstarter, which briefly raised hopes every unjustly canceled series might have its own crowdfunding comeback. Such a movement hasn't really materialized.

For some reason, I guess, I just felt like that was a good fit for MST, going back to, "Keep circulating the tapes,"2 and all that stuff. [The fans are] so important to keeping it alive. During times when we couldn't, they kept it going.

A famous fan rallying cry in the days when the best way to see all episodes of this show was to mail other fans videotapes of them.

TV: Did you go out and look at streaming or cable network partnerships, or did it seem like that sort of approach wouldn't have worked?

JH: This is my own personal interpretation of the situation, but I felt like that wasn't the proper way to start. The proper way was to alert the fans, and if I wouldn't have done that, then there would have been a lot of backtracking and going, "Oh, I'm over here now. We're starting." So I felt like this was the best way to involve them in a really cool way and acknowledge them and how important they are to the show. So far, it's working. They seem to be responding.

TV: Since you launched the Kickstarter campaign, have you received interest from people who would be in a position to put it on their network or streaming service?

JH: Yeah. We're open about that. We've gotten calls. We have tried to structure it so the fans know that the end game is not just so the shows are siloed away in a Mystery Science Theater fan site. We wanted to get out in the wild. We wanted to be in the world again. It's time to see how Mystery Science Theater can function in this world.

TV: Is there a lot of opportunity right now for properties with passionate fan bases that maybe aren't huge but are willing to put their dollars behind stuff?

JH: [There] seems to be. Just getting to know about Kickstarter and realizing that this is a living catalog, and how amazing that is for people that if they believe in something and they like something, they can actually greenlight something and bring it to life — it's a really amazing time.

It's cool to see what fans say, and they really care about it. Right now, there's this big thing where we can't make offers to the original cast yet. We have to get funded and then go to people.3 The fans are really concerned about that, like, "What's going to happen? Is Joel doing this without everyone?" We're listening to what they say and letting them know that we intend to do that. We want to invite everybody back.

Hodgson spoke about this in more specificity in a Kickstarter update: "I've reached out and spoken with some of the old cast and writers, but until I knew how much money we'd have to work with – and when we'd start writing and shooting – there was just no way to make the specific offers that I hope will bring many of them back."

Mystery Science Theater 3000
Joel Hodgson, along with Crow T. Robot (left) and Tom Servo, in the original run of the show.
Best Brains

TV: Have you had contact with the original cast members and people who worked on the show in the '90s? What's their level of interest?

JH: We've been talking to some of them. Not all of them yet. I think as soon as we get to the $2 million, we'll be able to start creating a plan and know more. We'll reach out to all of them, basically. I wanted to wait until I could offer them deals that were as much as they deserve.

TV: How has Shout Factory purchasing the show helped in terms of furthering its future?

JH: I've actually partnered with them, so we're doing it together. They've been big advocates for Mystery Science Theater. The fans really love them. They're quirky enough, and they know as much about the business side of MST as I do about the creative side of it. So it's a really good match. I'm really having a good time working with them right now. So far, so good. It's still the honeymoon period, but I'm really happy with them.

TV: One thing I remember about MST from the '90s is that sometimes it was hard to lock down the rights to the movies you wanted to riff on, especially as the show became more popular. Is that something you anticipate still being a problem?

JH: They turned the prices up as time went on, but it was funny, because a lot of the show was before the age of video. We didn't really think about it in terms of these things living on as DVDs and downloads, so we really just made licenses for broadcast [on television]. I think that's what people think of when they say, "Oh, there's problems."

Now if Shout Factory wants to release a DVD or do a download, they have to go in and find the rights and renegotiate them. They've done an amazing job clearing a lot of the library, but there's still a few that just go, "Oh, we don't wanna license it."4 I think that's where that comes from. But now, it's a little more cut and dried, because we know we want to get the [download and home video] rights.

Famously, one of the earliest MST3K VHS releases was for the episode "The Amazing Colossal Man," but due to copyright issues, the video was later pulled, and the episode has never been legally reissued.

TV: You've mentioned in other interviews what you've learned from going back and rewatching the show. What have you been most surprised by in going back to look at the show and interacting with people who are still fans of it this long after it aired?

JH: I tried to make it super simple. I think that helped it a lot, as far as it being a unique format of television. We did everything in-camera. Everything was videotaped live, and all the effects were live. It kind of had a feel to people like it was a document of a day, and it really was. It has a very live, crisp feel to it. That's one of the things that I think has helped it travel through time.

The alternative might have been shooting it on film, which we spent a certain amount of time discussing. I think that wouldn't have served it as well, for some reason. There used to be standup comedy specials on film back in the day, and you had to be a really good comic to make it work on film, as opposed to videotape. I think videotape helped.

People's attachment to it is unusual, and I think it's because you're sharing the same screen with people, so the [characters] and the viewers are looking at the same thing. It's really different from most other television. You have the exact same reference point, so because of that, it's a little richer. Lots of people say it anticipated social media for that reason.

TV: One of the things the show struggled with was finding a time slot of two straight hours to air. Is that less of a concern now that you could theoretically just throw it on a streaming service where people can watch it at their leisure?

JH: Yeah! I think that's a really cool thing. What people are discovering are these environments. Like House of Cards, it's an environment you drop into for an hour. It's really dense, and it's really rich, and that's why I think that everybody says there's this golden age of television where these shows have gravity. You want to be immersed in them for a long time if you like that kind of thing. It's almost like the environment is what's winning in television. Sports is an environment. Game of Thrones is an environment. You just like being there. Hopefully, we can create that too.

TV: Do you have all the original sets and things like that?

JH: No. I don't want to recreate the show. It's going to be kind of a reimagining of the Mystery Science Theater world. It'll be slightly different, but it will be built off the narrative where we left off. The Kickstarter costs more upfront5 because we're paying for those upfront costs — building sets, new costumes ,visual development, building models, upgrades to the puppets. Tom Servo will be able to fly around in the theater, and Crow's going to be able to walk and stuff like that. There's all these little neat things.

Hodgson is talking about how often building the sets and assembling other visual elements for a series are its greatest expense, an expense loaded into pilot preproduction. He breaks this down visually in this Kickstarter update.

TV: If you could put one episode of MST into a time capsule, which one would you pick?

JH: I think "Mitchell"6 works really well. I think that's a really strong one. All our systems were firing that day.

Coincidentally, the very last episode Hodgson starred in as host.

For a Mike7 episode, I really like "Final Sacrifice." I think that's super strong.

Nelson, the show's second host.

You can watch numerous episodes of Mystery Science Theater 3000 at Shout Factory TV.

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