In 1977, Star Wars (now referred to as Episode IV: A New Hope) was released, and it became the highest-grossing film of that year. By a lot. There was no Star Wars fandom to please in 1977.
In 1984, the horror-comedy Ghostbusters became a surprise hit, coming in just under Beverly Hills Cop as the top-grossing film of that year. There was no fandom to betray or childhoods to ruin when it did so. A sequel by the original makers and a reboot produced by Ivan Reitman underperformed, despite a presumably eager fanbase.
In 2008, the Marvel Cinematic Universe was launched with Iron Man. It ranked barely in the top ten of highest grosses that year (Hancock, of all things, beat it handily), but it inarguably was the set-up for a multi-billion dollar franchise of superheroes movies about to reach its first apex with the Infinity Wars. There WERE Iron Man fans, of course, but you’ll need a lot of Tony Stark’s liquor cabinet to convince me that Iron Man was a success because of a sleeper cell of dedicated comic readers.
Lately, I can’t scroll through my Facebook newsfeed without stumbling across a million think pieces on the “division” among people who saw Star Wars: The Last Jedi. There is a huge gap between critics’ scores and viewers’ scores on sites like Rotten Tomatoes. The obvious explanation is that pissed-off (and, let’s be honest, mostly bigoted) fan boys created online programs to spam reviews and lower the score. This is actually a long-running phenomenon, especially when it comes to anything where women take leading roles. A lot of dudes have a lot of time and a lot of anger and so they abuse review systems to… I don’t actually know. Appear relevant? Like, somehow the white man action hero is in danger? Have you guys BEEN to GameStop recently?
I don’t really have the energy or initiative to re-explain for the Nth time why you cannot trust gameable review systems or mass tweetstorms, especially on things like Star Wars. These tactics have been used by everyone from GamerGate to Russian spy networks, and they all have the same goal. They want to create a cloud of anger that regular people will regurgitate on their behalf. I’m rather disappointed in my generation, to be honest. “Not everyone online is telling the truth” was kind of a big premise for after school specials when I was a lad.
So, let’s leave the useful idiots behind. I want to address fandoms. More specifically, why fans are not the be-all-end-all of properties like Star Wars. Fans have their worth, but they desperately need to understand that literally no one appointed them the arbiters of creation or the judges of how things are done properly.
The Last Jedi cost $200 million to make. And, no, weirdos, I’m not counting the marketing budget until you can tell me the merchandising revenues. I’m willing to bet plush Porg sales alone paid for every TV ad, but let’s settle on the fact the movie needed a good-sized Powerball payout to get made.
You CANNOT make a profit on the group of people who identify as “fans” alone when you’re talking that kind of dough. Most blockbusters lose money. I’m not sure who is making bank in Hollywood beyond the coke dealers.
Here’s a fun fact: Transformers is the 11th highest-grossing film franchise of all time. It easily beats out powerhouses like Jurassic Park. These are not good films. If you have a free afternoon, I suggest checking Lindsay Ellis on the freaking weirdness that is the success of Transformers, but I promise you it has nothing to do with folks who grew up watching Saturday morning cartoons. You just don’t make this kind of money based entirely on folks who can name all of Soundwave’s microcassette partners.
Gatekeeping is as old as fandom itself. Ask any woman who has walked into a comic shop in the last two decades. Many geeks like to portray themselves as paladins against the bullying they themselves received, but many of them end up just another kind of bully. That’s what you’re seeing now.
Fans often decide among themselves that they are the final say-so, but that’s just not true. The purpose of new creations, even among established properties, is to reach new audiences. It’s not about placating people who have already bought the product.
For the last year, I’ve been carefully monitoring Doctor Who fan pages I’m on as the first female Doctor came closer and closer to realization. She’s here now, and oh the butthurt does flow chronologically. It’s a constant race to establish how long you’ve been watching the show for the purpose of dominance. As if being born in 1958 and to a family owning a television was some sort of skill to be admired.
“I’ve been watching since William Hartnell, and I don’t want a female Doctor,” is not actually an argument. It’s just a statement of opinion. It also has little to nothing to do with the next generation of Whovians. It’s certainly not a badge of authority.
One of the games I play with Who fandom is what I call the Lungbarrow Test. Lungbarrow is a spin-off novel, and arguably the most important semi-canon work in the Who universe. If someone at least KNOWS what Lungbarrow is, they’re probably a fan worth engaging. If they don’t know, they’re probably arguing bullshit out of their weight class.
Way too much of fandom is a branded conservatism. It’s people who like a thing, and want to immediately encase it in amber. They want more of the thing, but they don’t want the thing to change. I don’t know what to do with that information. Star Wars, Star Trek, Doctor Who… these are all things that continued to exist because fans, real fans, hid in the shadows and wrote spin-off novels of debatable quality. In Whovian terms, Russell T Davies was one of them, and both Steven Moffatt and Neil Gaiman were readers. They took ideas and ran with them, and the thing they loved is better for it.
Fandom is not a position of authority. As things like Star Wars grow larger, they can’t be. Ideas are not land. You can’t stake a claim on them. No one owns Luke Skywalker, not even George Lucas or Mark Hammill. In the end they can only contribute to the idea of Luke Skywalker, and have their contributions judged in measure of their worth. You can be the world’s biggest fan of whatever, and it will still not make you the God of that thing.
Do not confuse professional appreciation with creation. It’s just going to make you unhappy.
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Fans CAN be final say-so in small ways. The Veronica Mars film is a good example. Kevin Smith has virtually abandoned the idea of making movies for anyone but dedicated Kevin Smith fans, and frankly his work is better for it. David Lynch doesn't give a single fuck for anything except what David Lynch feels like doing, which explains the last season of Twin Peaks pretty well. None of these are meant to fall in the Hollywood blockbuster category.
"Normies" is a term I hate because a bunch of Reddit toads lifted it from Monster High, and now watching those movies with my daughter is super-awkward. That said, it is an accurate description. When you make a movie for $40 million, you can do that "for the fans." Beyond that price tag, though, the normies matter. These are not people in your forum. They don't get the memes. They likely don't give a toss if Last Jedi "ruins" the concept of the Jedi, or if a bunch of salty fans were hoping for Kylo Ren's shirtless redemption (some of y'all are gross).
They're just folks who want to go to a movie on a Saturday and like Star Wars. I'm not saying fans don't matter. Any reader of Houston Press' art blog knows I am an apostle at the church of fandom, but we're NOT the deciding factor in a big thing's success. We're just not, and we don't really deserve to be. Fandom, by definition, is always a celebration for what has always existed. Evolution for new audiences is celebration of what doesn't exist, but may.
And that's always better.