Evaluating fan power – The influence of online fandom on film production, promotion and distribution
Introduction: Fandom and the active audience
“I’m your number one fan.” Whether spoken by a teenager at a science-fiction convention or by Annie Wilkes (Kathy Bates) in Misery (Rob Reiner, USA 1990), these words can be just as distressing as they can be gratifying. Indeed, fans are often the toughest critiques of the people they deeply admire. Of course, the wide majority are not the intense, obsessive and murderous stereotypes that Annie characterises. However, they do expect the best from their cultural heroes (whether writers, directors, actors or fictional characters), and thus, claim a right to express themselves on their favourite texts.
Fandom, after all, is born of a balance between fascination and frustration: if media content didn’t fascinate us, there would be no desire to engage with it; but if it didn’t frustrate us on some level, there would be no drive to rewrite or remake it (Jenkins 2006: 258).
This is why fans never hesitate to read a film against the grain, re-interpreting it in writing or art-work. If they are disappointed by a text they used to admire, they will strive to provide direct feedback. Janet Staiger explains that this extreme affection and need to share opinions expressed by fans comes not only from ‘desires for power and control’ (2000: 54) but also from a need to find ‘emotional significances through the lives of individuals’ (2000: 55) – either fictional or part of the fan community. This constant re-appropriation of the text led Henry Jenkins to refer to fans as ‘textual poachers’: ‘[the] “poaching” analogy characterizes the relationship between readers and writers as an ongoing struggle for the possession of the text and for control over its meanings’ (Jenkins 1992: 24). In emphasising a certain power struggle between producer and consumer as well as a desire to personalise the meaning of the text, Jenkins disproves the argument that all film and television spectators are passive and easy to manipulate. In fact, as Stephen Keane writes, the fan can be considered the epitome of the active audience:
Apart from simply watching, fans purchase, engage with, appropriate, share, communicate, debate and create. They pre-view and constantly re-view their chosen texts, and seek out and exchange all possible information relating to those texts. [...] In short, they are regarded as more actively active than mainstream audiences (Keane 2007: 83).
In the attempt to evaluate the evolution of the fan community’s power within the film industry since the advent of the internet, it is this active and creative definition of fandom that will be studied in the following chapters: the fans that strive to engage with a film, its producers and the fan community in order to connect more directly with the textual universe. The stereotype of the obsessive narrow-minded fan will not be considered as they represent a minority that is often seen as negative by the fan community itself. Indeed, as a Star Trek fan points out in the documentary Trekkies (Roger Nygard, USA 1997):
The word ‘fan’ actually is an abbreviated form of ‘fanatic’ and there are some people who fit that category who are the people who really do need to ‘get a life’. But most fans are pretty normal people who have a hobby, who have a sense of the desire to escape and, you know, they know it’s a show. Nobody really gets lost in it, it’s just fun.
Fans of film franchises and exploitation genres will be particularly relevant to this study as they are part of established and particularly active fan communities. Furthermore, the work of Henry Jenkins, who has studied fandom for over three decades, will constitute an essential support to the argument.
The perception of fans by theorists and the film industry will be examined in the first section. This will raise debates over the fans’ right to assert power over a film’s meaning and the part they played in valorising popular culture before the advent of the internet. The second section will explore the ways in which the internet has contributed to a certain empowerment of film fans. Finally, the newfound influence of online fans on the film industry will be investigated by looking at various cases of movies that have involved fans in the production, promotion and distribution processes. These examples will ultimately highlight ways in which the film industry can potentially enhance a film’s success by involving online fans.
I. The powerless fan?
As the active audience described above, fans often express their passion for a chosen canon of texts in a very informed and critical manner. They may research all that is linked to their favourite films: from its producers and influences to the opinions of the rest of the fan community. They will often be determined to write about their thoughts and interpretations and to share those with the widest audience possible. They may also actively seek to meet the actors, directors or other cultural producers that are involved in the film for interviews that will later be shared with other fans through fanzines, internet blogs or amateur film websites such as YouTube. In many ways, their activity is similar to that of the professional film critic who will only analyse films and express their opinions on them after having gathered a certain amount of knowledge concerning the context of production. When Mark Kermode lists ‘the five essential ingredients of a ‘proper’ film review’ (2011: 186) he describes little more than the activities of a film fan: ‘film criticism, if it is done properly, should involve opinion, description, contextualisation, analysis and (if you’re lucky) entertainment’ (ibid.). Apparent differences between scholar and fan writing would be that critics review a far wider range of films and focus less on entertainment than fans would. Thus, comparatively, fans could be considered unprofessional critics in their domain of speciality. In fact, many could be considered experts of certain texts, since they have constructed their opinions from extensive research. This may include anything that has been published on the subject and more: previous works by the director, documentaries, writings of other fans and professional critics, newspaper and online articles as well as Q&As with the stars and producers at conventions. Discussing fans of television series, Henry Jenkins echoes this idea of expertise:
Fans often display a close attention to the particularity of television narratives that put academic critics to shame. Within the realm of popular culture, fans are the true experts; they constitute a competing educational elite, albeit one without official recognition or social power (1992: 86).
It is because of this lack of recognition that fans are not taken seriously, no matter how much work they put in their art or criticism. However, it could be argued that the original reason bringing film scholars to exercise in their domain is that, in essence, they are film fans. What is it, then, that drastically differentiates fans and scholars in their writing? Matt Hills believes that rather than being about knowledge and understanding of the text, the distinctions have more to do with the rhetoric, style and applications of fan and academic criticism:
Fan criticism does differ from academic criticism in significant ways: the subjective and impassioned engagement with the material, the rejection of specialized technical language and theoretical authority, and the tendency to focus on personal rather than institutional explanations (Green, Jenkins and Jenkins (1998: 13) quoted in Hills 2002: 2).
Here, the choice of the term ‘rejection’ is evocative, and it reflects a point made consistently in the writings of Hills and Henry Jenkins: that a mutual exclusion persists between what Hills calls ‘fans-scholars’ (scholars who draw on their fandom for their academic writing) and ‘scholar-fans’ (fans who use ‘academic theorising within their fan writing’) (2002: 2): ‘Scholar-fans are typically looked down on as not being ‘proper’ academics, while fan-scholars are typically viewed within fandom as ‘pretentious’ or not ‘real’ fans’ (2002: 21). This label of ‘pretention’ attached to scholars explains why fans ‘reject’ the writing style of their professional counterparts. They do not consider themselves as being part of a higher culture but as lovers of popular culture. Fans therefore make their works as accessible and personal as possible. In contrast, academics strive to develop theories intended for other scholars and critics. Their writings may be considered too specialised and conceptual for popular understanding, while the applications of fan writing are considered to be focused on entertainment rather than theoretical advancement. Considering this ideological division between fans and scholars, one can question whether fan activities (including their criticism and artistic interpretation expressed in fan-art and fan-fictions) do indeed have less cultural value than academic activities (such as criticism, conference discussions, and the production of subversive art-films). This has been debated at length by various theorists.
If scholars and critics are often associated with high culture, fans are traditionally linked to lower art forms and popular culture. For many years, the cult admiration that fans had for ‘lower’ forms of entertainment inspired much scorn from academics. Indeed, while the latters’ canon includes films such as Citizen Kane (Orson Welles, USA 1941), Vertigo (Alfred Hitchcock, USA 1958) and La Règle du Jeu (Jean Renoir, France 1939) (see Ian Christie 2002), fans will line up for screenings of exploitation movies like The Evil Dead (Sam Raimi, USA 1981) or instances of ‘badfilm’ (Sconce 2008: 101) like Plan 9 From Outer Space (Ed Wood Jr., USA 1959) and The Room (Tommy Wiseau, USA 2003). This hierarchy mirrors the way heavy metal fans are looked down on by ‘melomaniacs’ who would only ever consider classical music worthy of theoretical attention. It is in his study of the loss of classical music to popular culture that Theodor Adorno expresses his pessimistic views on mass culture ( 1991). A member of the Frankfurt School of critical theory, he believed that culture is becoming homogenised as consumers are made passive:
The sacrifice of individuality, which accommodates itself to the regularity of the successful, the doing of what everybody does, follows from the basic fact that in broad areas, the same thing is offered to everybody by the standardized production of consumption goods ( 1991: 35).
He states that because of mass consumption, people try to appropriate works of high art like they appropriate commodities and this takes part in what he calls the ‘disintegration of the fetishes’( 1991: 36):
A Beethoven symphony as a whole, spontaneously experienced, can never be appropriated. The man who in the subway triumphantly whistles loudly the finale of Brahms’ First is already primarily involved with its debris (ibid.).
From his point of view, texts become alienated and lose all meaning through over-consumption. The fan, as a prime product of mass culture, would therefore become a passive receiver participating in the loss of the cultural substance in society. This is why popular culture no longer seeks to challenge audiences or produce quality films. He considers that audience expectations have been lowered as movies and other cultural products became mass produced using templates that were proven to be commercially viable. Following Adorno’s assumption, fans would be the self-appointed theorists of a popular entertainment that does not have enough substance to be theorised; thereby encouraging the masses to settle for superficial entertainment and fooling others into believing that films such as those of the Star Trek franchise (Various, USA 1979-2009) are an important part of the cultural canon. Admittedly, fans have blurred the boundaries between high and low culture in many ways, often making a travesty of well respected works which might indeed be perceived as participating in the ‘disintegration of the fetishes’. For example, fans may create artworks that merge classical styles with popular culture (see pictures below); sink to even lower forms of culture by eroticising popular characters in fan-fictions and fan-art; or write about and interpret these popular texts in scholarly fashions. However, Adorno’s argument that repeated mass consumption leads to the ‘disintegration’ of cultural texts ( 1991: 51) has been much criticised, especially by theorist (and self-proclaimed fan) Henry Jenkins.
Using the Velveteen Rabbit story as an analogy, Jenkins writes that the fan’s love does not disintegrate the text:
[it refits] prefabricated materials to consumer desires. By being loved and played with countless times, the once pristine toy rabbit slowly degrades with time. However, its beauty and value in the heart of the child only increase. In this way, the text becomes something more than what it was before, not something less (1992: 52).
Therefore, if a fan re-interprets Leonardo Da Vinci’s The Last Supper (15th century), by placing Star Wars (Georges Lucas, USA 1977-2005) characters around the table, the original art work can only gain in meaning, even if this meaning is only relevant to the fan in question. Furthermore, Jenkins believes that by repeatedly re-working popular texts (as shallow as they may be) fans can create depth in what is considered superficial mass-culture and thereby give the text value. These interpretations do not have to be close to those the author intended, they can even be opposed to his or her ideologies:
Some groups’ pleasure comes not in celebrating the values of their chosen works but rather in “reading them against the grain,” in expressing their opposition to rather than acceptance of textual ideology. Perhaps the most extreme example of resistive reading involves what Jeff Sconce (1989) has described as “the cult of ‘Bad’ cinema” (Jenkins 1992: 63).
This fan behaviour illustrates Roland Barthes’ ‘Death of the Author’ (1967) argument exceptionally well. In his essay, Barthes opposes the theory that the author should be the sole creator of meaning. He asserts that readers have just as much power to find the ideologies that suit them in a text. In this way, fans reject the author’s power over the text, asserting their own in the ‘Birth of the reader’ (Barthes 1967: 148). Thus, through their active reading and interpretation, fans will always have power over the meaning of the text even though they may remain powerless over its production.
Fans can therefore create new meaning and find relevance in texts that have aged, rendering them virtually timeless. Indeed, if one only strictly follows the authorial intention of a text, its message can lose all meaning over time and become lost in an aged translation. Consequently, the work of fans, just like that of scholars, can be seen as creating a frame of reference and contextualisation in order to help others read a text. In this way, like their professional counterparts, fans provide a bridge of information between producers and receivers. A wide knowledge, imagination and respect for the text gives the fans that succeed in expressing themselves publicly the potential to become culturally empowered. Not only could they influence popular readings of films and create social or political debates based on issues raised by a production, but they could inspire the filmmakers. Indeed, being the film’s most avid consumers, fans will sometimes actively express what they expect from a remake or adaptation, fearing that the producers might ruin their vision. Speaking of film and TV fans, Jenkins explains that:
Many program producers are sympathetic to such campaigns and have shrewdly employed them as a base of support [...]. Others, however, have responded to such fan initiatives with contempt [...]. Confronted with a letter campaign by Batman comic book fans angry about the casting of Michael Keaton as the Dark Knight, Batman director Tim Burton responded: “There might be something that’s sacrilege in the movie… But I can’t care about it… This is too big a budget movie to worry about what a fan of a comic would say” (Jenkins 1992: 30).
This shows an obvious lack of power on the part of fans. Although they have the potential to be heard and listened to, the choice ultimately comes down to the producer and whether he or she is willing to adapt their creative vision. This powerlessness is in fact very often felt by fans, especially when a classic franchise is readapted for a new audience or generation, expressing a producer’s vision that had not been previously considered by fans. Change is often feared in the fan community as it can jeopardise the particularities of the characters they have come to hold dear and the personal interpretations they had uncovered from the original text. This disappointment has been famously expressed at the release of Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace (George Lucas, USA 1999), especially because of the addition of Jar Jar Binks and other characters that fans felt brought a racist turn on the saga they loved so much.
Rarely has a movie character [Jar Jar Binks]–and a glorified cartoon character at that–inspired so much vehemence. Much of the criticism centers on what some see as Jar Jar’s stereotypical racial traits [...]. Audience members have complained that Nute Gunray, the evil Viceroy of the Federation, seems based on Asian stereotypes. And Watto, young slave Anakin Skywalker’s sleazy owner, strikes some viewers as an offensive caricature of an Arab. In addition, the Gungan, the primitive tribe of which Jar Jar is a member, is ruled by a fat, buffoonish character, seemingly a caricature of a stereotypical African chieftain (Harrisson 1999).
These new representations disappointed fans who had once idealised the world of Star Wars. Another film that let fans down was Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (Steven Spielberg, USA 2008). The film was not offensive, but some scenes were deemed ridiculous and not in line with the previous films. As a result, the director, Steven Spielberg, had to explain his creative decisions to fans. He blamed the introduction of an alien on his writer George Lucas, but took credit for a much criticised refrigerator scene:
I sympathise with people who didn’t like the MacGuffin because I never liked the MacGuffin. George and I had big arguments about the MacGuffin. I didn’t want these things to be either aliens or inter-dimensional beings (Spielberg quoted by O’Hara 2001).
Blame me. Don’t blame George. That was my silly idea. People stopped saying “jump the shark”. They now say, “nuked the fridge”. I’m proud of that. I’m glad I was able to bring that into popular culture (ibid.).
However, it has been argued that sometimes, change is necessary. Just like it is necessary for fans to alter an old text to suit their modern interests, audiences evolve and classic films are often adapted to suit new viewers. As Will Brooker argues, sometimes, there is a risk in empowering fans. If they were always listened to, texts would never evolve artistically: ‘like the work of Austen and Shakespeare, Conan Doyle and Fleming, it is through being adapted that Batman has survived’ (Brooker 1999: 197). Indeed, from the Batman comics and camp series of the 1960s, to Christopher Nolan’s more realistic take on what was originally a Gothic world, most changes have been controversial. In fact, his originally unpopular casting of Heath Ledger as the Joker in The Dark Knight (Christopher Nolan, USA 2008) proved that when done well, innovative ideas can often create a whole new fan population and open older fans to new interpretations. An important paradox can be identified here: the fans’ fear of change contrasts with their own need to ‘poach’ the text, thereby endlessly altering its meanings. Due to their relentless protesting, fans can sometimes be seen as conservative inhibitors of what could be a healthy and natural evolution. It seems that although fans fear the change over which they have no power, they will often respect it if done well: if the change was done for a reason that inspires further reasoning, or offers further insight into the essence of a character. Whether the fans like it or not, change is necessary because stories and characters need to evolve and develop. If not, the text may stagnate and becomes unworthy of the attention of both old and new viewers. As a result of this lack of democratic power, fans will be alternatively thrilled or disappointed by new adaptations. Nevertheless they will have to accept the producers’ need to rely on their own creativity, which is, more often than not, their own inner-fan’s interpretation.
The paradox of fans as cultural inhibitors and creators is not an isolated concept. In fact, the themes of contradiction and blurring of boundaries are central to the definition of fandom and an essential element of Matt Hills’ book: Fan Cultures. One of the major contradictions the author draws attention to is the fan’s position in relation to consumerism: ‘Fans are, in one sense, ‘ideal consumers’ (Cavicchi 1998:62) since their consumption habits can be very highly predicted by the culture industry, and are likely to remain stable. But fans also express anti-commercial beliefs’ (Hills 2002: 29). In many ways, the fan is the ‘ideal consumer’ described. Indeed, not only are their consumer habits predictable, but they have been known to attach value to anything that has a connection to their favourite text: films, books, tie-ins, collectibles and products of fan culture (fan art, fan fiction, fan criticism…). This behaviour can sometimes be taken advantage of by major corporations. For example, collectible 3D glasses were sold in some cinemas for £3.00 on the release of the 3D version of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2 (Davit Yates, UK 2011), these were three times the price of a normal pair of 3D glasses and their round shapes did not cover the spectators’ field of visions as well as normal rectangular pairs. They were aimed at fans of the franchise and confirmed their predictability when they sold out in the first weekend. This fan behaviour could be read as a marker of their powerlessness against mass culture. On the other hand, as products of the postmodern society, fans are conscious that capitalism is engraved in their cultural identity. They do not consider themselves victims of it (see Hill 2002). Indeed, fans will not consume blindly: just as they select a canon of texts to cherish and share, they are selective of the markets they consume from. This can lead to actions such as protests or boycotts of products that fans may consider exploitative (the sale of bootlegged tapes or collectibles for example). Furthermore, fans can turn capitalism to their advantage in their creation of value. This is mostly apparent in the trade of fan-art and fan-fictions at conventions:
Much as science fiction provides a market for commercially produced goods associated with media stories and as a showcase for professional writers, illustrators, and performers, the conventions are also a marketplace for fan-produced artwork and a showcase for fan artists (Jenkins 1992: 47)
This creation of value exhibited at conventions is an evidence of a certain power of the fan over the culture industry: they influence the production of collectibles linked to films (whether produced by members of their communities or bigger companies). Thus, even if their influence over the production of films remains limited and arbitrary, their influence on the distribution of tie-ins is an acknowledgement of their financial importance to cultural producers. As Martin Barker explains:
Merchandising associated with a film can now constitute the difference between financial success and failure. Jurassic Park released more than 1,000 merchandised items – and displayed them in the film itself, in long shots of the Park’s shopping area. Star Wars has earned substantially more, over time, from continuing merchandising, than it has from box office returns (Barker and Brooks 1998: 182).
Indeed, if fans can influence the production of certain collectibles, surely to an extent they are being encouraged by producers to keep up their activity. As the following chapters will demonstrate, the fans’ influence over the film industry has only become more important with their increasingly creative and widespread activities on the internet, even though they have not always been condoned by producers.
II. Fans and the internet
Although their interpretations are personal, the passion and activity of fans did not develop in a vacuum, but within a supportive community. In fact, they seem to relentlessly share their creativity in an attempt to inspire others. As Henry Jenkins puts it: ‘for most fans, meaning-production is not a solitary and private process but rather a social and public one’ (1992: 75). This sharing among fans has been happening for decades through the publication of fanzines, conventions and fan clubs. However, these channels always had a limited and specialised audience. The globalization of the internet offered many opportunities for fans who saw it as a means for immediate and unrestricted expression. It offered them unlimited creative tools and placed those who knew how to share their work in front of a worldwide audience. Moreover, the internet has provided them with a way to communicate with the producers and audiences of the films that enthralled or disappointed them. It gave them the potential to be more active than ever, in their quest to someday gain a tangible amount of influence over a film’s production and reception.
This perspective is one that considers the internet to be socially empowering– a democratic medium that allows the people to respond to the cultural powers (whether filmmakers, politicians or the media). The internet allows people to express themselves on any issue, to tell their stories and to be heard. In 1976, Hans Magnus Enzensberger had criticised the top-down power of the media. Indeed, he argued that if the communication only goes one way and offers no chance of reciprocity on the part of the audience, then there is no communication and therefore democracy is compromised.
For the first time in history, the media are making possible mass participation in a social and socialized productive process, the practical means of which are in the hands of the masses themselves. Such a use of them would bring the communications media, which up to now have not deserved the name, into their own. In its present form, equipment like television or film does not serve communication but prevents it. It allows no reciprocal action between transmitter and receiver; technically speaking, it reduces feedback to the lowest point compatible with the system (Enzensberger  1982: 48).
Arguably, the internet solved this problem and allowed the general public to not only comment on the media, but to become the media. Enzensberger’s argument can be applied to the ways fans now use the internet: they may provide immediate feedback to cultural producers and consumers and, through their own creativity, develop debates or interpretations of cultural texts that will challenge those of professional film critics. Contemporary audiences and film fans thus have the opportunity to get their opinions heard and be taken seriously. Writing about the impact of the internet on fandom, Henry Jenkins states: ‘I have watched fans move from the invisible margins of popular culture and into the center of current thinking about media production and consumption’ (2006: 12). Roger Ebert has also praised this phenomenon, calling it ‘a golden age for film criticism. Never before have more critics written more or better words for more readers about more films’ (2010). In these writings, Jenkins and Ebert demonstrate that audiences have just as pertinent and creditable opinions as professional theorists and reviewers. In this way, the development of internet criticism as well as the production of fan art and fan fiction can be seen as disproving Adorno’s argument that popular culture comes at the expense of the consumer’s ‘individuality’.
To encourage this new need for individual expression that the internet offers, several social networking websites appeared. For film fans, profiles on numerous networks provided access to an ever-growing community of people whose tastes and thoughts could be shared with the world. Indeed, Facebook allows fans to join groups and fan pages made by people with similar passions. There, they can share opinions as well as their fan creations. YouTube is a place to ‘Broadcast Yourself’, encouraging fans to do what they do best: create, share and discuss. In addition, IMDb offers a colossal amount of information on the film industry as well as forums on every page to encourage discussion, debates and the sharing of knowledge. Most interestingly, Twitter is a space to communicate directly with the objects of fan attention. Here, fans can read ‘Tweets’ written by film producers and actors themselves. They can provide feedback and share their fan art directly with the objects of their admiration and their hopes for a response will sometimes be granted. Thanks to Twitter, fans can feel directly in contact with their idols, as part of their community and therefore more important and empowered than ever. However, this power can be limited and it can be argued that such websites are a place to contain the fan’s need for power: a place where cultural producers know feedback is available if needed, but that they can choose to ignore altogether without feeling harassed on all sides by fans trying to get in touch.
This control and therefore limitation of fan power is discussed by John Fiske. The theorist disagrees with both the pessimists who believe that popular culture homogenises the masses (such as Adorno) and the optimists who hope that the ‘new media’ such as the internet will democratise the media and bring cultural power to the masses (such as Enzensberger). Fisk wrote that:
The term “people”, then, refers to social groups that are relatively powerless and are typically interpellated as consumers, though they may not respond in this manner. They have cultural forms and interests of their own that differ from, and often conflict with, those of the producers of cultural commodities. The autonomy of these groups from the dominant is only relative, and never total’ (Fiske 2011: 313).
He considers popular culture a source of pleasure and inspiration to viewers who have the freedom to create meaning and produce culture. This freedom of interpretation participates in the ‘relative’ power that Fiske believes the people have and which is at the root of fan activities. While he accepts that the new media provides greater opportunities for these active audiences, he believes that political, economic and social hierarchies remain. The dominant minority, ultimately, can choose to listen to the masses (here, the fans who express themselves on the internet) or to ignore them, thereby allowing a controlled amount of power in order to keep them satisfied.
Recently, the controversial proposal of an American bill called SOPA (Stop Online Piracy Act) confirmed that the power of the masses remains limited and that the dominant people strive to control every media, including the internet. In January 2012, the bill almost passed, but a protest initiated by Google, Wikipedia and a number of other major websites generated widespread attention concerning SOPA’s possible breach of the American constitutional right to free speech. Indeed, the bill is set on protecting American intellectual propriety. In order to achieve this, it threatens to blacklist ‘rogue’ sites (foreign websites that infringe on American copyright laws) and American websites that link to pirated content.
Laurence Tribe, a high-profile Harvard law professor and author of a treatise titled American Constitutional Law, has argued that SOPA is unconstitutional because, if enacted, “an entire Web site containing tens of thousands of pages could be targeted if only a single page were accused of infringement” (McCullagh 2012).
This means that if the law had passed, websites such as YouTube, Facebook, Twitter or Wikimedia would be at risk of blacklist if a user posted copyrighted material. Consequently, online fan activity would have become considerably limited. For instance, fans would no longer have been able to share re-edits of film scenes, fan-made music videos using original soundtracks, or links to fan-made film merchandise. As internet piracy represents a threat to the motion picture industry, it is likely that SOPA was only one of many internet copyright protection laws to be proposed and could be the initiator of a future de-democratisation of the internet. Sergey Brin, co-founder of Google, claims that this may already be under way:
The threat to the freedom of the internet comes, he claims, from a combination of governments increasingly trying to control access and communication by their citizens, the entertainment industry’s attempts to crack down on piracy, and the rise of “restrictive” walled gardens such as Facebook and Apple, which tightly control what software can be released on their platforms (Brin quoted in Katz 2012).
However, before the media companies find an efficient and lawful way to control public activity on the internet, fans remain more influential than they ever were before the advent of the medium.
In fact, on a more optimistic note, Henry Jenkins describes the ‘newly empowered consumer’ (2006: 19) that internet has created:
If old consumers were assumed to be passive, the new consumers are active. If old consumers were predictable and stayed where you told them to stay, then new consumers are migratory, showing a declining loyalty to networks or media. If old consumers were isolated individuals, the new consumers are more socially connected. If the work of media consumers was once silent and invisible, the new consumers are now noisy and public (ibid.).
This new consumer, or new fan, blurs the once oppositional elements that Enzensberger criticised: ‘the ruling class and the ruled class’, ‘action’ and ‘contemplation’, ‘producers and consumers’ ( 1982: 48, 55, 56). The internet remains a relatively democratic media, where fans can be as active as ever, or as Jenkins writes: ‘fans [...] may sample dialogue, summarise episodes, debate subtexts, create original fan fiction, record their own soundtracks, make their own movies – and distribute all this worldwide via the internet’ (2006: 16). Looking up to the filmmakers whose text they parody or re-invent, fans dream of similar careers. Therefore, they make their films in order to showcase their talent and hopefully break into the commercial industry. The odd amateur filmmaker success stories such as Peter Jackson’s – who rose to fame by directing no-budget horror movies such as Bad Taste (USA 1987) before becoming one of Hollywood’s most important directors – bear evidence that it is possible for dedicated film fans to gain recognition and artistic power in the film industry. This hope of being ‘discovered’ is made even more attainable considering that nowadays, amateur filmmakers not only have access to digital cameras and editing softwares, but to the worldwide distribution medium that is the internet.
Fan digital film is to cinema what the punk DIY culture was to music. There, grassroots experimentation generated new sounds, new artists, new techniques, and new relations to consumers which have been pulled more and more into mainstream practices (Jenkins 2006: 136).
Indeed, as fan activities became more public, they slowly began to gain influence on other consumers. Writing about fan activity on the internet in the 1990s, Stephen Keane observes that ‘there were signs that early speculation, ongoing opinion and subsequent reviews on the internet were beginning to have an actual effect on the lead up to and reception of certain films’ (2007: 77). Noticing this new widespread influence, some cultural producers decided to acknowledge their fan’s feedback, creativity and eagerness to actively participate in a film’s production, promotion and distribution. In the internet, they have found an opportunity to obtain precise knowledge of the dimensions and expectations of their audience. Considerable film successes have emerged from the acknowledgement of fan input and examples of those will be discussed below.
III. The influential fan
Taking a look at the most successful films since the year 2000 (see below), one cannot help but notice that a wide majority are adaptations, sequels or remakes of popular material.
From Star Wars prequels to The Passion of the Christ (Mel Gibson, USA 2004), these films had source materials that counted millions of avid fans and devotees worldwide. In the past twelve years, only two blockbusters that were not direct adaptations made the list: Avatar (James Cameron, USA 2009) and Inception (Christopher Nolan, USA 2010). However, the films had a strong and trusting fan following from the start which was based, not on the storyline, but on the directors and their previous franchise-based successes. Indeed, Christopher Nolan had risen to fame with his imaginative Batman adaptations (Christopher Nolan, USA 2005-2012), while James Cameron had created the Terminator franchise (Various, USA 1984-2009) and was responsible for the one of the most successful films in history: Titanic (James Cameron, USA 1998). If those films prove anything, it is that fans are a reliable and loyal audience. Although the biggest blockbusters are made for a mainstream viewership, they rely on fandom for their immediate success and on the creation of new fans for the viability of possible sequels. In a time of economic recession, fans have been identified as the audience to target. Not only are they vocal about what they want to see and have a predictable consumption behaviour, but they are also measurable: often signed up to fan clubs and forums, “followers” on Twitter or “fans” on Facebook. Writing about the adaptation ‘waves’ of popular comic books, Stephen Keane echoes this point:
We are currently undergoing a definite wave of comic book and graphic novel adaptations. [...] The timing has [...] proven advantageous with regard to the internet providing evidence of a notable fanbase from which to launch these expensive and initially unproven adaptations (2007: 91).
Such audience predictability minimises risks and marketing research costs. By opening a webpage on which fan activity can be ‘channelled’ (Keane 2007: 78), their wishes and expectations for a filmic adaptation can be assessed. During a financial recession where mainstream cinema attendance has become unpredictable, filmmakers have been seeking to minimise risks. It can be argued that the active online presence of fans has been a strong reason for the influx of adaptations, remakes and sequels being produced, sometimes regardless of their critical reception:
Negative reviews for sequels are nothing new, and rarely something the studios fear. For with the likes of Saw, they don’t even bother with press screenings, knowing full well the fans will find out the movie is there, whether the newspaper reviewers get to slag it off or not (SkyMovies 2011).
This draws attention to the importance of long-time fans in the reception of such films, those who await sequels, spark online activity and expand the fan community before the releases of the films. They are the ones whose opinions producers must investigate and never disappoint at the risk of losing powerful support. In many cases (instances of which will be discussed below), professional critics have become overlooked as fans proved to sometimes be more reliable allies to film producers and marketers. Interestingly, this change has its roots in a new generation of popular filmmakers: before the 1990s, critical approval was mainly sought by filmmakers who had gone to film school and studied the theorised work of auteurs from the French New Wave and Italian neorealism. In the 1990s, a new generation of filmmakers appeared who had grown up as film fans, trying to imitate and subvert the work of their idols with cameras that were no longer restricted to professional use. Such filmmakers as Quentin Tarantino, Peter Jackson, Kevin Smith and Judd Apatow recognise their young selves in their fans, making films for them and about them. Many of these directors do not take their subjects too seriously and their films are layered with pop culture references, nodding to hyperconscious audiences much like themselves. In many ways, their films are similar to the fan films that now populate the internet: filled with parody, pastiche and self-consciousness. Thus, such successful fan filmmakers do not seek critical praise as much as the recognition of other fans. This is why, for some of their most fan-oriented releases, their attention has turned away from critics-only festivals and press screenings, and towards fan festivals (such as Comic Con) and ‘Talkers’ – free early screenings advertised on the internet to films fans.
In privileging their fans, these filmmakers encourage what Martin Barker refers to as ‘scuttlebutt’ (1998: 185), another word for ‘buzz’ or ‘spontaneous talk’. These fans are therefore expected to speak of the films to as many people as possible or to write about them online, giving them the opportunity to actively promote movies and feel like a useful and powerful part of the industry. Criticising Kevin Smith for his rejection of critical opinion at the release of Cop Out (USA 2010), Mark Kermode explains that:
The reason I had paid to see this film rather than catching it at a free critics-only preview screening was because Kevin Smith (whose work I have enjoyed and championed in the past) had taken to the internet to complain about over-privileged critics seeing his films for free and then unfairly rubbishing them in public (2011: 190).
To be sure, Kevin Smith, believes that critics do not seek the same qualities in a film as fans do and therefore will not be useful in influencing the right target audience. Other filmmakers who have been known to refuse such press screenings are exploitation filmmaker Darren Lynn Bousman, the director of Saw II, III and IV (USA 2005-2007) and David R. Ellis, the director of Snakes on a Plane (USA 2006) (Waxman 2006) who will be discussed further in this chapter.
Highlighting this increasing interest of producers and scholars in fan activity, Matt Hills refers to studies of online fan behaviour as ‘cybernetic ethnography’ (2002: 176).This research method proved to be cheap and efficient as it can provide quick and pertinent feedback from fans. It involves reading or moderating internet forums and ‘chat rooms’ to find out what fans expect from an upcoming release or thought of a recent production.
‘Cybernetic ethnography’, then, becomes a media-hybridised form in which the ‘viewer’ carries out a textual analysis not of the isolated originating media text, but rather of the constructed ‘text’ of cult fandom which nevertheless unfolds with as much scheduled regularity and predictability as its point of origin/attachment (ibid.).
Echoing Henry Jenkins’ concept of the ‘textual poachers’ who embrace their capacity to read a text in their own terms and can therefore inspire alternative visions, Hills adds that the fans are also useful to the ‘cybernetic ethnographer’ because they can be relied on to provide almost instant feedback. Moreover, the fans who express themselves on these specialised forums expect to be read by a community of connoisseurs. As a result, they often feel pressured to contribute with a precise and insightful argument. The information that can be obtained online can, for these reasons, be more useful to an ethnographer than any half-motivated focus group. Jenkins further argues that fans can provide significant benefits to companies that will include them in their production and promotional endeavours:
New media companies (Internet, games, and to a lesser degree, the mobile phone companies) are experimenting with new approaches that see fans as important collaborators in the production of content and as grassroots intermediaries helping to promote the franchise (2006: 138).
By definition, fans are enthusiastic and willing to contribute to anything relating to their favourite text. Therefore, the chance to be involved in a film adaptation of that text represents an opportunity that they could not afford to miss out on. In these situations, fans can become the most respectful, honest and motivated collaborators. For the producers, pursuing their help is cost-effective as most fans do not demand compensation and minimal promotion is necessary to assemble fan volunteers. One only needs to contact the fan club or website to get in touch with numerous members eager to help. The Lord of the Rings films (Peter Jackson, USA 2001-2003) represent an exemplary case of fan participation in the adaptation of a popular series of novels. Indeed, fan input was solicited during pre-production and their creativity was encouraged as part of the film’s promotional strategy.
When Peter Jackson and his producers at New Line Cinema were in the pre-production stage of The Lord of the Rings franchise, they faced a complex challenge: ‘to connect with 100 million loyal Tolkien fans and avoid alienating as many as possible’ (Shefrin 2006: 84). In order to achieve this, Gordon Paddison, the director of interactive marketing at New Line decided to connect with online fans of the Tolkien books and take their vision into account. In an interview with iMedia Connection, he explains how his online strategy got started:
I wrote a memo in ’99 that laid out a suggested strategy for being completely open and working with the fans. It was a gut thing because New Line has been involved in grass roots marketing on many projects over the years. I believe in working with the fans and I believe in being open. Mark Ordesky was the executive producer on the film and he was completely supportive as was the director Peter Jackson. As the film went into production and began filming we had developed a legitimate dialogue with fans and were supported by management. Our approach was organic and honest (interviewed in Ty Braswell, May 2003).
A series of online interviews were conducted by Peter Jackson himself on Aint-It-Cool-News.com where the director openly discussed the difficulties that were being encountered in the adaptation process. Furthermore, he proved that he was willing to give in to more fan demands than expected when he replied to an online petition stating that ‘the filmic text would adhere more closely to the novels than had originally planned’ (Shefrin 2006: 85). This acknowledgement of fan demands shows that these interviews were more than just a means to control the fans by pretending to listen to them, and more than a publicity stunt aiming to create awareness and buzz around the film. New Line implemented a controlled, yet earnest communication with Lord of the Rings enthusiasts and created a trusting climate where fans were granted a democratic power. In addition, the film’s official website became linked to various fan sites, demonstrating that the people associated with the Lord of the Rings franchise authorised and even encouraged the production of fan fiction and fan art. In this way, ‘the precedents set by Jackson, New Line Cinema and online fans have provided an alternative model for envisioning future producer-consumer alliances in the field of media production’ (Shefrin, 2006: 86). By presenting himself as a fan as well as giving future viewers a say in the looks of the film, the casting and elements that could be cut from the book, Peter Jackson placed himself at the same level as his audience and blurred the lines between fan and producer. He listened to people whom he knew held the text dear while knowing that these long time fans were his gateway into the trust of the fan community. In counterpart, these long-time fans would recommend the film to numerous future fans and therefore play an important role not just in the production of the film but also its promotion.
This strategy diverges from that of Lucasfilm Ltd., the company run by George Lucas that owns the rights to Star Wars, another multi-billion dollar franchise. Textual appropriation of the Star Wars universe and its characters has been at the centre of fan activities since the release of the first instalment in 1977 and has only developed with the advent of the internet (see Jenkins 2006: 154-164). From YouTube amateur films and parodies to fan fiction websites and dedicated discussion forums, the online presence of the series is limitless. Aware of this exceptional fan activity, Lucasfilm welcomed the praise but felt threatened by fan creations that took too many liberties with the copyrighted material and interpretations that could affect the brand’s reputation (such as erotic or explicitly violent material). In an attempt to control the scope and content of fan productions over the years, Lucasfilm hosted competitions and collaborated with websites such as http://www.starwars.com and AtomFilms.com in order to offer free space and sound effects for amateur films. However, Lucasfilm had set unpopular conditions: the fan productions had to meet certain moral and copyright requirements and ‘whatever they created would become the studio’s intellectual property’ (Jenkins 2006: 157). In this way, George Lucas and his representatives defined boundaries as to what constitutes ‘good’ and ‘bad’ fan practices, thereby alienating a large amount of long-time devotees:
Jim War, vice president of marketing for Lucasfilm, told New York Times reporter Amy Harmon in 2002, “We’ve been very clear all along on where we draw the line. We love our fans. We want them to have fun. But if in fact somebody is using our characters to create a story unto itself, that’s not in the spirit of what we think fandom is about. Fandom is about celebrating the story the way it is.” Lucas wants to be “celebrated” but not appropriated (Jenkins 2006: 154).
In this declaration, fan fiction as a whole – the creation of ‘a story onto itself’ involving the Star Wars characters and universe – is condemned. As a result, over the years, some ‘good’ fans were rewarded for their creativity by winning competitions or finding jobs in the film industry, while some ‘bad’ fans were legally pursued for copyright infringement (Klinger 2006: 229). In addition to Lucas’ attempt to control fan output, he has disappointed long time admirers by ignoring their input during the production of Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace. This led to a poor reception of the movie as fans felt the filmmaker had taken directions and created characters that were not in keeping with the previous films (see Chapter 1). Comparing George Lucas and Peter Jackson’s relationship with their fans, Elana Shefrin explains that:
Jackson’s disposition has been generally acknowledged to be sincere and in harmony with his position, while Lucas’s disposition has often been attacked as insincere and in disharmony with his position. At least one contributing factor to this discrepancy is that Jackson is perceived as an encourager of participatory fan practices, while Lucas is perceived as an inhibitor of those practices (2006: 87).
This marks a break between two generations of filmmakers, one that produced in the 1970s and the other in the 2000s, the age of the internet and participatory culture. Here, Shefrin takes the concept of fan power to a new level, where fans can, not only affect the critical reception of a film, but also the cultural reputation of filmmakers such as Lucas and Jackson. Indeed, it can be argued that in developing a trusting fan following, Peter Jackson has gone on to work on numerous and varied productions following The Lord of the Rings trilogy. In counterpart, George Lucas has not been encouraged to work on many new projects. In fact, by looking at the respective prominence of their names on the promotional material attached to recent films, one can tell that Peter Jackson is a more prominent selling point than George Lucas is. For example, Jackson was a producer on The Adventures of Tintin: the Secret of the Unicorn (Steven Spielberg, USA 2011) and his name on the poster is placed at the same level as Steven Spielberg’s, while Lucas was the executive producer on Red Tails (Anthony Hemingway, USA 2012), a smaller picture by an unknown director that hardly boasts Lucas’ association, relegating his name to the poster’s unreadable credits. This can be seen, in part, as evidence that Peter Jackson’s relationship with his fans has contributed to his strong reputation while George Lucas can no longer count on a loyal fan base to sell cinema tickets.
After The Lord of the Rings’ critical success, the involvement of fans in the production of films became a more common practice. Observing that production companies have started to adopt what he calls a ‘collaborationist’ approach, Henry Jenkins argues that:
Media producers can garner greater loyalty and more compliance to legitimate concerns if they court the allegiance of fans; the best way to do this turns out to be giving them some stake in the survival of the franchise, ensuring that the provided content more fully reflects their interests, creating a space where they can make their own creative contributions, and recognizing the best work that emerges (2006: 173).
For one, New Line maintained its fan-oriented strategy for its fan-oriented films. One of those productions, Snakes on a Plane (David R. Ellis, USA 2006), became an internet cult phenomenon before it even went into production. The evocative title, along with the casting of Samuel L. Jackson in the lead role were enough to inspire B-movie enthusiasts’ creation of trailers, merchandise, fan fictions and other art work. Samuel L. Jackson explains that the online activity around the film came as a surprise:
I knew when the websites started to pop up and people started to talk about the film itself and what they thought was going to happen, or people making posters or making T-shirts or creating songs, that there is a market that even New Line had no clue that they were tapping into (interviewed in Tangiel 2006).
This prompted New Line’s investment in their fans’ participation. For instance, tickets to the film premiere were offered to the winners of ‘Blanks on a Blank’, a short film competition in which amateur filmmakers were assigned a random ‘animal on a vehicle’ title – the winning short was entitled Racoons on a Space Shuttle (Unknown director, USA 1996). Inspired by Samuel L. Jackson’s brutal and foul-mouthed Pulp Fiction (Quentin Tarantino, USA 1994) persona, the numerous fan productions and discussions revealed that Snakes on a Plane was expected to be violent and it had been agreed that the actor should say the words “motherfucking snakes on a motherfucking plane”. In order to satisfy their audience, New Line sent the film back into production:
The filmmakers even reshot some scenes at the bloggers’ suggestion to make the movie harder-edged, with more rough language and violence to give it an R rating. They also added a signature line for Mr. Jackson, who shouts an unprintable epithet about the snakes that originated from Web chatter (Waxman 2006).
In addition to this, fans were involved in the promotion of the film: aside from the already strong internet buzz, viral telephone marketing was made available. Fans could enter a friends’ telephone numbers on the official website, which would send them personalised messages using Samuel L. Jackson’s voice. Within one week, 1.5 million telephone calls were made (Leo 2006). Unfortunately for the filmmakers, the internet activity proved more interesting to the fans than the film itself as Snakes on a Plane did not meet its high box office expectations. Film critic Michael Medved believes that the producer’s confidence in their fans is to blame:
Almost everything about the project suggested that it would squeeze box-office dollars out of boys between the ages of 12-and-15 like a giant boa constrictor — but then the internet activists insisted on more racy content and an “R” rating, and the producers inexplicably followed their lead (Medved 2006).
One is reminded that just as ‘a camel is a horse designed by committee’ a group of fans will not always give the best advice to filmmakers, and in the likeness of their internet shorts, the production could become a parody of itself. Thus, although it has been seen that democratic involvement of fans in the production of a film can do a lot in terms of public relations, their help should be taken with a pinch of salt. Fans should be involved in order to rectify issues that have been precisely outlined by the filmmakers and only to complement a work with a strong artistic integrity. Although Snakes on a Plane’s moderate success shows that fan involvement does not always destine a production to a Lord of the Rings-like achievement, the film went on to enjoy the cult status it was originally made for. In fact, B-movies seeking a cult following seem to be the perfect genre for fan collaboration as they can afford to depict the absurdity and campiness that fan ideas often entail. With this in mind, Sylvester Stallone has invited his Twitter followers to contribute to the casting and plot development of The Expendables 2 (Simon West, USA 2012), his tongue-in-cheek, over the top action sequel. Here, Twitter becomes not only a tool to involve the fans in the making of the film but it also spreads awareness of its development to worldwide Sylvester Stallone fans who will eagerly share the information with their friends.
In this way, social networking has become one of the most convenient and cost-efficient medium to promote a film. It complements the once dominating ‘push’ strategy of film marketing with a ‘pull’ strategy that depends on the potential audience’s active participation. Henry Jenkins highlights the transmedia status of modern film marketing: ‘convergence represents a cultural shift as consumers are encouraged to seek out new information and make connections among dispersed media content’ (2003: 3). Indeed, nowadays, the filmmakers and the film itself have an online presence (on Twitter or Facebook for example) that fans can seek out and in which they can participate. The potential of the internet in creating buzz became widely recognised with the popularity of the Blair Witch Project (Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez, USA 1999) website. To be sure, all the information that circulated around this low budget film led audiences to believe that the events depicted in the film had really happened. Every piece of advertising surrounding the film directed people to a carefully crafted official website that not only promoted The Blair Witch Project but constructed a whole new layer of story around the film. This participated in the then developing transmedia tradition and led ‘individual sites [to be] analysed in terms of the parallel or further depth they bring to a film’ (Keane 2007: 80). This new phenomenon was also exemplified in the ‘beast’: an online game preceding the release of A.I. Artificial Intelligence (Steven Spielberg, USA 2001) which, to its participants, proved to be far more interesting than the film. The ‘beast’ was set in the A.I. universe, involved thousands of web pages, and could only be solved by a worldwide community of fans bringing their skills together: ‘to confront the “beast” required players to work together, seeking out friends, tapping Web communities, drawing in anyone you could find’ (Jenkins 2006: 129). The direct involvement of all the participants with the universe of the film guaranteed a growing fan community that would create a considerable amount of buzz.
In the past decade, the communication around a film has become increasingly effective in acting on an individual – rather than mass – level: people are personally invited by the film or their friends to join an online profile, their questions are answered and they receive insider information on the development of films. Whether one is a fan of a comic book, film franchise, director or actor, it is now possible to follow their film projects in real time and to share information, opinions and fan work with them. An interesting example is that of The Avengers (Joss Whedon, USA 2012) a film that has had a strong networking presence on Twitter as the film itself (@Avengers), the related media company (@Marvel), and some of the lead actors (@clarkgregg, @SamuelLJackson, @twhiddleston, @Mruff221). Combined, these Twitter accounts communicate daily to over a million fans, reminding them on a daily basis that The Avengers film is being released. If the fans enjoy what they read about, they can share the information on their profile, letting their friends and followers know about the movie. On the social networks, fan participation is explicitly encouraged as representatives of the film regularly praise and share the parodies, posters, music videos and artworks that they receive. Furthermore, the @Avengers account nominates a daily ‘Avengers fan of the day’ by posting the following ‘Tweet’:
As explained to a fan who asked how the ‘Avengers fan of the day’ was selected, @Avengers replied “We pick excited fans who tweet about #Avengers!”. By acknowledging and naming a fan, the representatives of The Avengers validate his/her status as a full member of the Avengers community, flatter his/her ego, make the relationship personal, and thereby, guarantee that the fan in question will talk about the film and purchase a ticket when the movie is released. Moreover, the ‘Avengers fan of the day’ scheme encourages fans to ‘Tweet’ daily about the movie in the hope of being selected. Another promotional event was held by @Avengers on the day of the Superbowl (2012). The first theatrical trailer of The Avengers was to be broadcast during the advert break and to raise awareness for it, the director and various actors answered fan questions on Twitter. As a reward for participating, the fans were sent a link to a preview of the trailer. Of course, they shared the link with friends immediately after receiving it, generating a large amount of discussion before the broadcast of the full-length trailer. All this fan activity creates buzz, encourages new people to follow the @Avengers account and thus makes the number of potential viewers increase exponentially. These people will not go see the film because they feel obligated; they will go see the film in order to be part of a community, knowing that the producers of the films care about their fandom and their thoughts on the finished production.
In terms of social networking, the films of Christopher Nolan have also proven to be prime examples of the importance of online fans in creating buzz. Indeed, his films are known for the extreme secrecy surrounding their making. Therefore, when a breach in secrecy appears, the enthusiastic fans will do everything they can to find out all there is to know. For instance, during the production of The Dark Knight Rises (Christopher Nolan, USA 2012), the third instalment of Nolan’s Batman franchise, a strange sound appeared on the film’s blank official website. After studying the sound’s wave form, fans discovered that it spelled out ‘#thefirerises’. Each time users posted the code on Twitter, their picture appeared with many others on a black page on the @thefirerises Twitter account (Lambie 2011). Little by little, the mosaic of Twitter users began to reveal the first picture of Bane: the Batman villain played by Tom Hardy (see below). Such a viral marketing scheme takes patience, a lot of thinking, and a lot of sharing. Indeed, thousands of people had to participate in making this image appear, generating considerable buzz. Christopher Nolan is famous for his thought provoking films and, by making the fans reflect on elaborate clues, he and his marketing team flatter their fans’ intelligence. This is a level of ‘pull’ marketing that demonstrates a strong confidence in their fans’ curiosity. To be sure, a considerable amount of effort is required in order to obtain small amounts of information and this works to make the release of the film an exciting event where all can be revealed.
These examples suggest that fans are not just the targets, but also necessary catalysts for viral marketing campaigns. Their intellectual and emotional involvement in a film’s pre-release has become fundamental. In order for them to actively participate, their enthusiasm has to be fed, they have to be repeatedly challenged, rewarded, or made to feel like they are part of a communal event. This sense of community was at the basis of the Paranormal Activity (Oren Peli, USA 2007) promotional campaign which showed, instead of a traditional trailer, footage of a screaming cinema audience. Josh Greenstein, the co-president of marketing at Paramount explains this strategy: ‘We really want to sell it for what it is. The truth is, the experience of watching the movie is terrifying, and it’s an absolute communal type of experience best seen in the movie theater’ (quoted in Hampp 2009). Here, what appealed to the horror fans was the focus on other fans’ reactions, on the group experience that such a film allowed. However, the film did not stop there: if fans wanted to experience what the trailer offered, they needed to get involved in the film’s distribution. By going on the film’s website and voting to get it released in their city, they could demonstrate the existence of an audience in their region.
With this online endeavour, Paranormal Activity was groundbreaking in its involvement of horror fans in the worldwide distribution of a film. This is not to say that fans have never influenced film distribution, but it had usually been initiated by the fans themselves rather than the studios. For instance, fans developed a market and initiated the distribution of Japanese anime in America (see Jenkins 2006: 160-165). In the 1980s and 1990s, American students discovered the anime style and dedicated societies appeared on campuses. There, enthusiasts dubbed the films, developed collections and held screenings. With time and the help of Japanese media companies who considered grassroots activity to be a promotional medium (rather than piracy), they developed distribution networks across Western markets (Jenkins 2007, 164). Unfortunately, this pre-internet fan influence was limited: the process of delimiting a market for anime took many years and was costly. It required professional organisation and therefore the existence of a centralised union of fan representatives in the form of campus societies. Later, the advent of the internet and its democratic characteristics gave fans the chance to become more central to the distribution of films. For example, in the mid-1990s, an online buzz created by fans of the moderately successful The Shawshank Redemption (Frank Darabont, USA 1994) allowed the film to experience a commercial rebirth. Countless fan sites appeared and the The Shawshank Redemption quickly reached the top of the ‘IMDb Top 250’ page, listing the world’s best films as rated by internet users (Schurr 1999). This encouraged more people to seek out the film which endured an exceptionally successful run on VHS and DVD. Speaking of the film’s late success in 1999, when fans were still considered relatively powerless in relation to the movie industry, Stephen Schurr observed that online fans could alter the fate of a film:
That a film which had only a so-so run at the box office could find redemption in the afterlife is vivid proof of a populist revolution shaking the movie industry. Cable television, videos and the internet have all given movies more avenues to reach viewers by – and, in turn, they have given audiences more say in a movie’s long-term appeal (ibid.).
If this was perceptible over a decade ago, the 2009 success of Paranormal Activity, a film that had previously endured an unsuccessful limited release in 2007, shows that the potential of online fans in influencing a film’s distribution is still growing strong. Indeed, studios have begun to trust fans to promote and distribute their films, giving their activities a purpose that transcends that of pure entertainment. Fans now have a direct implication in the fate of their favourite films, an involvement that still required considerable – and often pointless – effort only ten years ago.
Conclusion: the fan as modern cultural producer
In becoming active participants in the production, promotion and distribution of a number of recent film releases, fans have obtained a more respected socio-cultural status that contrasts with the 1992 observations of Henry Jenkins:
Like the poachers of old, fans operate from a position of cultural marginality and social weakness. Like other popular readers, fans lack direct access to the means of commercial cultural production and have only the most limited resources with which to influence entertainment industry’s decisions (26).
Indeed, nowadays, fans have in many ways taken the place of professional movie reviewers and can be considered experts in their areas of predilection. Moreover, with the success of Judd Apatow films and the popularisation of fan pages on Facebook and Twitter, the ‘Geek Chic’ culture has emerged: a trend that has put fan behaviour at the forefront of popular culture, making it no longer shameful to be a film and television enthusiast. Film subversion, parody and the sharing of YouTube fan videos have become everyday activities for social networkers who have become used to participating in their own culture. As Henry Jenkins puts it: ‘in a hunting culture, kids play with bow and arrows. In an information society, they play with information’ (2006: 134). Through these online activities, they immortalise films in a cult canon and thereby create value in films that would otherwise have fallen into oblivion. In the film industry, the collaboration of fans and professional film producers has been linked to considerable successes. Furthermore, as discussed in the case of George Lucas and Peter Jackson, the disregard of fan input can lead to a director’s demise while welcoming their enthusiasm can help fuel a filmmaker’s career. It is therefore undeniable that the internet has granted fans with a considerable amount of power that media companies are still attempting to control, one is still to find out where boundaries will be set. In fact, whether fans are professional filmmakers like Kevin Smith or amateur YouTube users, it can be argued that they have become major producers of popular culture: in contrast to the auteurs of the past decades who made films to become part of a critical canon, nowadays, fan filmmakers make films to entertain fans.
However, it should be stressed that this cultural power does not apply to any area of filmmaking. Many film genres and styles still rely on the filmmaker’s artistic integrity and the evolution of art forms has always relied on the work of creative individuals. In many cases, fan involvement can inhibit creativity and render a production camp and superficial. Therefore, fan involvement should only be sought by producers who seek to target a strong fan base. In the cases of blockbusters, comic book adaptations, exploitation films or movies of cult appeal, fans can prove to be the most rewarding allies. As Grant McCracken, an industry consultant suggested:
In the future, media producers must accommodate consumer demands to participate or they will run the risk of losing the most active and passionate consumers to some other media interest that is more tolerant: “Corporations must decide whether they are, literally, in or out. Will they make themselves an island or will they enter the mix? Making themselves an island may have certain short-term financial benefits, but the long-term costs can be substantial” (quoted in Jenkins, 2006: 138).
The first step in ‘accommodating consumer demand’ would be for media companies to loosen their intellectual property legislation. Indeed, fans who feel at risk of legal pursuits feel like their enthusiasm is snubbed and can quickly create negative internet buzz around a franchise. This has been seen in early 2012 in the case of The Hobbit pub in Southampton that was threatened with closure by the Lord of the Rings producers (who encourage fan activities when not used for business purposes). Within a week, the local news became a worldwide phenomenon on the internet, gained celebrity support (from Ian McKellen and Stephen Fry) and prompted the producers to reconsider their position. In giving fans more online freedom and encouraging them further through the organisation of online events and competitions, film marketers would embrace the fans’ enthusiastic ability to promote films across websites and social networks. In this way, producers would gain the loyalty of those who nowadays have the power to make or break the films of the popular culture canon: the empowered fans.
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A.I. Artificial Intelligence (Steven Spielberg, USA 2001).
Avatar (James Cameron, USA 2009).
Bad Taste (Peter Jackson, USA 1987).
Batman films (Christopher Nolan, USA 2005-2012).
Citizen Kane (Orson Welles, USA 1941).
Cop Out (Kevin Smith, USA 2010).
District 9 (Neill Blomkamp, USA 2009).
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2 (Davit Yates, UK 2011).
Inception (Christopher Nolan, USA 2010).
Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (Steven Spielberg, USA 2008).
La Règle du Jeu (Jean Renoir, France 1939).
Misery (Rob Reiner, USA 1990).
Paranormal Activity (Oren Peli, USA 2007).
Plan 9 From Outer Space (Ed Wood Jr., USA 1959).
Pulp Fiction (Quentin Tarantino, USA 1994).
Racoons on a Space Shuttle (Unknown director, USA 1996).
Red Tails (Anthony Hemingway, USA 2012).
Saw II, III and IV (Darren Lynn Bousman, USA 2005-2007).
Snakes on a Plane (David R. Ellis, USA 2006).
Star Trek films (Various, USA 1979-2009).
Star Wars (Georges Lucas, USA 1977-2005).
Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace (George Lucas, USA 1999).
Terminator films (Various, USA 1984-2009).
The Adventures of Tintin: the Secret of the Unicorn (Steven Spielberg, USA 2011)
The Avengers (Joss Whedon, USA 2012).
The Blair Witch Project (Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez, USA 1999).
The Evil Dead (Sam Raimi, USA 1981).
The Expendables 2 (Simon West, USA 2012).
The Dark Knight (Christopher Nolan, USA 2008).
The Lord of the Rings (Peter Jackson, USA 2001-2003).
The Passion of the Christ (Mel Gibson, USA 2004).
The Room (Tommy Wiseau, USA 2003).
The Shawshank Redemption (Frank Darabont, USA 1994).
Titanic (James Cameron, USA 1998).
Trekkies (Roger Nygard, USA 1997).
Vertigo (Alfred Hitchcock, USA 1958).
Willow (Ron Howard, USA 1988).