There has been fandom long before the Internet; ever since there have been fans. Skinny teenage Frank Sinatra made the girls swoon, as did Elvis Presley roughly twenty years later. Sometimes that fandom has made obsessions into legitimate world phenomena like, say, The Beatles in the 1960s. Most of the time though, they are represented by small but fiercely loyal cults, wholly proportionate to the subject’s influence. At least, that was the case until the Internet came along.
This is all relevant to this weekend as the San Diego Comic Con continues to play out, and these clusters of fanatics emerge in groups that, to an outsider, look like an actual movement. That is not a denigration of the fans so much as it is mockery of movie, television, and publishing heads. A vast majority of these folks are more in tune with the business angle than the creative angle. They see 100 people in a little room and think, “That’s a hell of a lot of people,” rather than, “This is a hell of a tiny room.” More than that, they bring previews and demos and trailers to the big convention with the full knowledge that these same fans will then spread that enthusiasm to their Facebook groups post-convention. They believe this will help bring these projects to the point of critical mass.
In a sense, that will happen. Fans who are thrilled by this big news or that big news will definitely spread the word like evangelists, but their congregations in the big picture are still incredibly small. The buzz, as shared on the Internet, takes a straight pencil and drops it in the glass of water, and these company heads see the pencil as warped and twisted like a divining rod and say it is so.
We’ve seen this happen a lot. The most crystallized example is the notorious Snakes On A Plane with Samuel L. Jackson. The crowd was whipped into a frenzy: of course, world-renowned badass Jackson stuck on a plane in mid-flight with poisonous snakes on the loose. That’s like Die Hard…on a plane…with snakes! The tantalizing concept went viral and people went nuts. They vowed to go see the movie on opening day because Jackson+plane+snakes = the coolest thing you ever heard. It turned out that the core group that thought this was a great idea would have thought the same without Jackson, on a shoestring budget, going direct-to-video, and they would not have been wrong. It is the distortion of taking this very ardent group and thinking this was actually a massive consumer block that is the culprit.
And it is not just Snakes On A Plane either. The fans of the show Firefly love that show like no other. They still campaign fiercely for its return. They fought the movie Serenity into existence, where it underperformed. Fans of the show Veronica Mars pledged up the Kickstarter campaign to one of the first multi-million dollar completions in the site’s history, and in record time, and surely that would bode well for massive box office returns when the movie finally got made and released. It was, it didn’t, and also underperformed. Earlier in the summer young girls cried and wept with joy — and I’m not even joking about that — when John Green’s YA book The Fault In Our Stars arrived on the big screen. They proclaimed the book the “best ever” and that everyone who could see this movie should see this movie. They didn’t and the film underperformed.
This has nothing to do with lack of quality. The Firefly fans believe Serenity to be exceedingly well done. The Veronica Mars fans do not feel a single penny of their pledges was in vain. Shailene Woodley, one of the primary actors in The Fault In Our Stars, received glowing critical reviews; certainly more positive than the reviews garnered from her previous film Divergent, another dystopic young adult adaptation where Woodley played, essentially, Jennifer Lawrence Jr. The point is that all these productions are not fluff junk, but their appeal is very narrow and very limited, and their financial performance is commensurate to their fanbase’s size. It is the studio chiefs that got greedy and failed to see just how small the target audiences were, deceived by the Internet that makes small pockets of like-minded individuals look like a movement.
The previously mentioned movies weren’t bombs, but they weren’t the world-beating blockbusters the studios hoped they would be…and so they are unjustly considered by the same studios as bombs. It’s an all-or-nothing game.
The consequences for this self-deception can be dire. Remember when we were talking about Snakes On A Plane? That movie was one of the last few from New Line Cinema as a relatively independent entity. The company cut its teeth on low budget films like the Freddy Krueger/Nightmare On Elm Street horror franchise and the sci/fi horror film The Hidden. It achieved a level of prominence in the ’90s and 2000s with films like the Austin Powers series, the Rush Hour films, and culminated with the massive success of the Lord Of The Rings trilogy. New Line had been shepherded over the years by the Turner Company, then Warner Bros., but still maintained a degree of autonomy. Snakes On A Plane represented a major hit to the company and suffered for the miscalculation. Warners would eventually subsume the independent and recast it as more of a boutique logo for genre-oriented fare. You would be far less likely to see some things as daring as David Fincher’s Seven, or Paul Thomas Anderson’s Boogie Nights or Magnolia, from New Line. Why would Warners give them up from having their own nameplate on it?
I’m not saying that fan influence is necessarily a bad thing. Without fan influence, Serenity wouldn’t have been made at all, and neither would have Veronica Mars. Yet both these projects would have appeared far more successful as television movies, perhaps budgeted at television rates. However, there’s a lot of data out there for producers to crunch, and if 80% of that data is coming from only one specific fan club, it may be honest numbers but it isn’t “good numbers.” This should be considered very carefully when Kevin Feige of Marvel Studios makes the rounds of the San Diego Comic Con and sees five people dressed like either the Human Fly or 3-D Man. You might think that is a sign, but you are wrong. You’re looking at the pencil in the glass of water and you need to be more perceptive.