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When it Hits the Fan: What Do Creators Owe Fans?

Fans are a very dangerous group to court – although I suppose that’s implied, what with the word being an abbreviation of “fanatic”. Sure, they’ll follow a particular project with zeal and enthusiasm that most producers could only dream of, and (perhaps) prove an invaluable marketing tool in this era of the viral campaign – at the very least, they are more likely to invest a lot more money in your product than a regular consumer. However, that investment comes with a downside – one that I wonder how much creators ultimately end up resenting. To call it “demand” perhaps understates the matter – after all, plenty of non-fanatic movie fans wait for the big blockbusters of the year – but there tends to be a note of what is best described as “possessiveness” or “entitlement” that comes with a large invested fan group. And is that necessarily a good thing? Do these fans feel that these creators “owe” them something for their extended loyalty? Is it fair to demand that from any producer or writer or director?

Heated fan disagreements sometimes get out of hand...

Don’t get me wrong. I do think that every actor, director, producer and writer owes something to anybody paying to consume their work. Call me romantic, but I think that anyone producing anything (not just entertainment) owes it to their customers to produce the best material that they can – this is why, perhaps, stories like Matthew Goode laughing at how crap he knew Leap Year was while he was filming it upsets me so much. I think there’s something disappointing about a production that isn’t trying too hard – I don’t need every film to “push the boundaries of the medium”, for example, but I do want them to try to be good at what they’re doing.

However, I have difficulty translating that more abstract philosophy into a more fundamental debt to those who invest in a property. What prompted this post was a news article I was reading, on a (quite probably) fake poster for the Star Trek sequel. The article in question mounted a particularly scathing attack on the individuals behind the film for daring to broaden their horizons a little bit:

The people who are supposed to be making it are taking their time about it. Not because they care deeply for Star Trek and want to get it right, but because they’re all using the success of the Star Trek reboot to get them all sorts of jobs doing other things, which have distracted them from doing the only thing they’re involved in that anyone really cares about: Star Trek.

The sense of entitlement in that post is palpable. “You owe me a Star Trek!” the author seems to scream, with a bitter resentment. Of course, the logic suggested by the article is that JJ Abrams, Damon Lindelof, Robert Orci and Alex Kurtzman is down solely to Star Trek. In fact, their involvement with the franchise, this article would have you believe, was solely so that they could use it as a stepping stone to climb over it – towards more “artsy fartsy” things, no doubt.

When your living room looks like this, you might have a problem...

I don’t accept any of this. Sure, Star Trek was a huge hit, but JJ Abrams was already a massively successful television and film producer. Lost was a generational phenomenon on par with Star Trek: The Original Series, regardless of your opinion on it. Cloverfield had demonstrated that Abrams had an eye for quirky pop culture through a hip and modern lens – he was always going to have a big hit, and if it wasn’t Star Trek it could have been Magnum P.I. or The Twilight Zone or something. He has admitted in the past (perhaps too candidly) that he isn’t a “trekkie” (or “trekker” depending on the nomenclature), but you know what? I am glad that he did make it. It was a hugely entertaining and optimistic blockbuster which captured the spirit of the characters particularly well.

So I don’t think that Abrams or any of his associates “owe” anyone a sequel. Would I like one? Yes, very much so. I would gladly have it tomorrow. But I don’t want Abrams or Lindelof to produce it out of a sense of obligation – I want them to do it because they have an idea which absolutely needs to be told on the big screen and seen in Imax. I felt the same way about Christopher Nolan and the sequel to The Dark Knight. I thought the movie felt like a middle act in a trilogy, but if Nolan didn’t want to come back… well, it was a shame, but nothing to be angry about. He had given me two fantastic movies and I was thankful. He didn’t owe me anything – I owed him a “thank you”. I’m delighted that we’ll be getting The Dark Knight Rises in 2012, but I’m even more ecstatic that Nolan is doing it because he wants to.

However, it’s easy to feel the pressure to give in to the vocal segments of fandoms which want creators to cater to them. After all, it’s these sorts of highly invested people who run movie blogs – I know I often end up far more invested than I should be. “The Internet has given everyone in America a voice,” Holden McNeill observed in Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back, “For some reason, everyone is using it to bitch about movies.” The last thing any prospective movie wants coming out the gates is a bunch of angry and aggressive on-line critics sniping at it before they’ve actually seen a frame. And so they pander.

The logic is that if you can please these people, they will sell the movie for you – viral marketing in action. In practice, I’m not convinced that the concept works. Watchmen tried extensively to court on-line fans and ended up doing less than impressively at the box office. Kick-Ass and Scott Pilgrim vs. The World are two films this year which generated significant on-line buzz only to open to disappointing numbers. Maybe it’s because hardcore fans are hard to please, or maybe it’s because there aren’t enough of us, or perhaps it’s the fact that selling to on-line fans tends to alienate regular movie-goers. I don’t know – but I remain to be convinced that allowing fans to feel like they “own” a property in a tangible manner makes the movie more profitable in the short term. Of course, I don’t know the DVD and Blu Ray sales, so they could simply be playing the long game – these fans will undoubtedly stay invested in the properties for years to come.

A fan collective can be a dangerous thing to provoke...

However, the real risk that comes from pandering excessively to the hardcore fans is a more fundamental one, one which affects the property itself rather than the financial bottom line. If fans could be considered “investors” in a given property or franchise, they’d be a conservative group. It’s just logical – they were drawn to a franchise by one particular element, so it’s only reasonable that they base their loyalty on that one element. The fandom’s interest is in keeping the movie series or the adaptation or the show just the way that they like it – giving them exactly what they want, exactly how they want it.

I was a Star Trek fan when I was younger. I watched the last two series, Star Trek: Voyager and Star Trek: Enterprise, whittle away into nothing as they attempted to replicate the formula for Star Trek: The Next Generation – a show which was fresh and new at the time, but twenty years of repeating the same formula will make anything stale. In playing to the fans – whether through sticking to the same format or featuring increasingly tangled continuity – the show found itself moving further and further out of touch from the mainstream.

It’s the same thing which killed the original series of Doctor Who. The appointment of self-proclaimed “super fan” Ian Levine as “continuity advisor” and an increasingly inward-looking focus helped make the show increasingly less and less accessible to regular viewers. Most of the later years of the show, despite featuring better special effects, is regarded as nigh unwatchable due to the ridiculous reliance on contrived continuity.

This post probably makes me sound bitter – in fairness, I’ve expressed my distaste with certain unsavoury aspects of hardcore fandom before. I’m not – I’m really not. I’m a fan. I’m a geek. I’m a nerd.And these fandoms can do incredible things. Fans managed to get the canceled television show Firefly brought to the big screen as Serenity. They saved Family Guy from cancellation. Twice. Right now, Warner Brothers is giving them a chance to bring Veronica Mars to the big screen. They can do these great and productive things.

And, to be honest, even I get over-involved sometimes. I can rant and rave with the best of them. But, at the end of the day, I can shrug my shoulders because… well, these creators don’t owe me anything except their best. I’d rather see a new idea which can’t quite take flight than watch an old and reliable concept executed on auto-pilot – that’s just the way I am. I don’t “own” any of these properties, and I’m glad of that. I don’t want to dictate to a show or a franchise what I need from it – I want it to surprise me with what it can give to me.

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