Thursday, 5 September 2013

Fan Entitlement vs Fan Passion

(Once again, many apologies for the dearth of posts recently.)

As a fan of many things, one has to wonder at times where the distinction between tasteful understated nerdrage and entitled whining lies. Being a fan means enjoying things, but unfortunately that amount of enjoyment can sometimes lead to an equal and opposite dislike of things when it eclipses, disreputes, or is otherwise perceived to threaten the thing you like.

Scott Mendelson has chosen the somewhat unusual forum of the Forbes website to discuss what he terms Fan Entitlement Syndrome:

Current fandom doesn’t just get upset when their favorite shows get cancelled, their preferred films flop, or casting choices for their favorite projects go awry. They take to the Internet to absolutely demand that they get their way as a matter of moral principle, damn the business logistics or any other logical obstacles in their way. They swear up and down that not only was John Carter a great movie (debatable) but that it absolutely was a financially successful film that absolutely deserves a sequel. Never mind that it earned $282 million on a $250m budget and lost Disney around $200m, it was merely misunderstood and this time will be totally different. They clamor for sequels to MacGruber, an amusing action-film spoof that couldn’t even match its $10m budget at the worldwide box office. They start online petitions demanding Dredd 2 even though distributor Lionsgate and producer Reliance Big Pictures lost out when the $45m Dredd grossed just $35m at the global box office. I adore Speed Racer, but I and others like me don’t run around pretending that it wasn’t a costly flop that doesn’t justify a sequel. Sometimes one is enough and we should be thankful we got that one. 

Despite Mendelson's tone getting my heckles up a bit, I think it's worth examining a few things.



So, from the beginning:

Another week, another fandom freak-out.  Two weeks ago, we found out that Ben Affleck had been cast as Batman, and the Internet went predictably stupid, throwing online temper tantrums and actually creating a government petition via the online ‘We The People’ to force Warner Bros. to change their minds before said petition was taken down because, uh… that’s both incredibly stupid and probably not constitutional.

No kidding, though as far as I was aware it was not We The People, but Change.org which hosted the most notable petition at over 91,000 signatures as of writing. This conflation of one group of fans using a website that allows any number of subjects for petitions, and another group of fans using a government website, is one of my problems with the piece. Throughout, Mendelson seems to treat "Fandom" as some vast, monolithic entity who are uniformly outraged and mobilized by the Ben Affleck Outrage, as opposed to what it actually is: a subsection of an infinitely vaster group of disparate individuals.

The official fandom outcry of this week is the group furiously protesting the casting choices of Universal’s upcoming novel adaptation of Fifty Shades of Grey, which also led to a petition to convince Universal to ditch their casting choices. What we have here are extreme symptoms of a relatively new phenomenon: “Fandom Entitlement Syndrome”.

Once again, this idea that All Of Fandom is a grand collective of more or less the same individuals who are all outraged about the same thing, as if fans were all variations on the Nerds from The Simpsons. I sincerely doubt there's much overlap in a Venn diagram of the DC Comics and E.L. James fandoms, and I also doubt that Mendelson is actually suggesting that - however, by treating all these controversies as more or less on equal footing with each other, he's giving the impression of a common ground among the fans. Certainly there are unifying factors across fandoms, but I'd also say that there were significant differences in temperament, personality and other factors for the simple reason that not every fan of one thing is a fan of another.  The idea of fans expressing their criticism of a property's direction is also far from a "relatively new phenomenon," but I'll get to that soon.

Fans being up in arms over franchise casting calls has been a “thing” at least since Michael Keaton was cast as Bruce Wayne way back in 1989 in Tim Burton’s Batman.  And as I’ve said before, the complainers are usually wrong in the end, as they were when protesting the casting of Daniel Craig as James Bond in Casino Royale or Heath Ledger as The Joker in The Dark Knight.

I think that's very arguable for several reasons. First of all, the idea of fandom criticizing casting has been a "thing" for a lot longer than 1989. Secondly, while I've heard many extol Keaton's virtues as Bruce Wayne, his performance is by no means universally praised in the way Craig or Ledger has been. And as for the complainers "usually being wrong in the end," I'd say it's by far the exception rather than the rule - we just hear about those more often precisely because they proved people wrong. It's a much more satisfying narrative for an actor preemptively criticized for the role to turn in a stunning performance, than for an actor to be as bad as expected. Everyone mentions Craig and Ledger as if that means anything when Ben Affleck's Daredevil, Arnold Schwarzenegger's Mr Freeze, Halle Berry's Catwoman, Vince Vaughn's Norman Bates, Kevin Costner's Robin Hood, and Keanu Reeves in just about anything these days were criticized by fans before their films were released and proved... exactly right.

Plus there's the fact that Craig and Ledger were both fine, accomplished actors for years before cast in their respective roles. Craig was nominated for a dozen awards over the decade before Casino Royale, and won an EFA, a BIFA and an LFCCA for his acting. Ledger has received more nominations for a single role than Affleck has in his entire acting career. The outcry against Craig was largely based on the fact that he was blonde; the outcry against Ledger was based on anti-homosexual prejudice and ignorance of his accomplishments beyond fluffy teen heartthrob roles; the outcry against Affleck at least has a basis in his three Golden Rasberry nominations taking place in the same year for three different performances - one of which was in a film routinely considered one of the worst of all time.

While Affleck has improved leaps and bounds since then, this is not remotely comparable to the situation with Craig or Ledger - and while I'd love nothing more than for Affleck to knock it out of the park in Batman vs Superman, he has a much larger mountain to climb. And - once again - there have been plenty of Superman/Batman fans who are either completely unmoved or cautiously optimistic about the casting.

But this isn’t just a bunch of angry fans complaining that Dakota Johnson and Charlie Hunnam were cast in the respective lead roles of Fifty Shades of Gray as opposed to fan-favorite picks Matt Boomer and Alexis Bledel. These people now have the megaphone known as the Internet. They seemingly believe that they are entitled to approve of the casting of a major studio release and have the ability to influence those in power over such decisions. They think they know who should star in Fifty Shades of Grey and those like them think they deserve John Carter 2 because John Carter was secretly a big hit and really deserves another chance.

Here Mendelson segues into a strange tack: not only that this idea of fans expressing their disapproval being somehow a creation of (or at least greatly facilitated by) the internet, that their "ability to influence those in power over such decisions" is in fact a new thing, but that this is somehow bad. I find this problematic.

First of all, it's not new. Of course it's not new. One of the most famous examples of fans making a difference is found in one of the most famous fandoms of them all.


In 1968, following the news that Star Trek was to be cancelled, 200 fans (Trekkie and Trekker had not yet been coined) from Caltech mobilized and marched on NBC to voice their displeasure. Concurrently, hundreds of thousands of letters were sent to NBC offices, to the point where mail trucks delivering said letters lined down the street. A nationwide campaign to save Star Trek happened. And guess what? We got a third season, with all the main cast and crew including Roddenberry. And to think, at this point, Star Trek wasn't even close to the phenomenon it would become: it was still very much a cult show, one which would only explode when syndication of the episodes brought it to a wider audience. These fans obviously felt, in Mendelson's words, "entitled" to a third season of Star Trek - and they got their way before the decade was out.

We can go back even further. When Sherlock Holmes fans learned that Arthur Conan Doyle's "The Final Problem" was to be the last story featuring the Baker Street Detective, a substantial number of them also acted: they wrote in to voice their enthusiasm for Holmes & Watson's continued adventures, publically "mourning" the death of Holmes, and even going so far as to continue the adventures themselves in what we'd now call fan-fiction. The result? Conan Doyle brought Holmes back - officially.

Science fiction and fantasy fandom went back decades, where authors and fans intermingled - often one and the same - and the direction of a series or franchise could indeed be altered or influenced by input from readers. Just look at how much Lovecraft, Howard and Smith influenced each other, their responses to fan mail, and their own gushing letters to their literary heroes - you see this in action with modern authors, too. In fact, the sheer amount of interplay between fans and professionals back in the Golden Age suggest that this distinction between creator and audience is in fact a somewhat modern occurrence, and that only now is the balance reasserting itself.

And why shouldn't it? Art is what it is. Some say that the audience should have no influence on the creator's work: others say that the audience is paramount to the creative process. There is no right or wrong answer here, only what's right or wrong for one or the other.

Current fandom doesn’t just get upset when their favorite shows get cancelled, their preferred films flop, or casting choices for their favorite projects go awry.  They take to the Internet to absolutely demand that they get their way as a matter of moral principle, damn the business logistics or any other logical obstacles in their way... Part of what’s changed is that the entitled fans actually got their way a few times over the last couple years, which only creates the impression that such relentless complaining or demands may yield results.

I'd already mentioned that this is hardly merely the domain of "current" fandoms, but is something that has always been a part of it. Not only was Star Trek given a new lease of life thanks to fan campaigning, but Cagney & Lacey and Designing Women - two shows which also predated the internet - Quantum Leap (where a letter campaign against moving the show to Friday nights succeeded) not to mention Xena: Warrior Princess and Roswell, which all happened over 10 years ago. Rare they may be, but they're a precedent.

Fox didn’t cancel Arrested Development before its time, but rather three low-rated seasons in. Yet those who spent the next decade clamoring for a movie or a new season got their wish when Netflix NFLX +0.87% produced another thirteen-episodes last May. 

Mendelson either does not know or does not wish to acknowledge that Arrested Development's low ratings came in spite of massive critical acclaim and accolades, as well as significant DVD sales and syndication viewership, which I think might have had a part in the revival at least as much as the fandom.

Never mind that John Carter and Dredd were costly flops, the fans still feel absolutely entitled to a respective second installment, weirdly possessed of the notion that they weren’t really flops.  Never mind that Arrested Development and Veronica Mars ran for three low-rated seasons apiece, they were clearly cancelled before their time by greedy studio executives who couldn’t just think of the fandom. Never mind that Darth Maul was chopped in half specifically so fans would know that he was actually dead or that Clark Gregg’s death was the emotional backbone of The Avengers, the fans want them back to hell with the narrative consequences and thus they are back. I’m no fan of Scream 3, but Wes Craven’s refusal to resurrect fan-favorite Randy (Jamie Kennedy), brutally knifed to death in Scream 2′s most shocking moment, now counts as a genuine act of courage.
And while much of the current outcry is merely the same obsessive fans being given a bigger platform, what is disconcerting is how seriously they are taken by the media at large, and in turn how often they seem to get their way through luck or happenstance.  What this creates is an expectation that every major casting decision will be met with shrieks of outrage and copious online signatures while every franchise will be expected to basically never ever die. I’m sure the new season of Arrested Development was nice for the fans, but the money spent on that fourth season could well have been spent on the “next Arrested Development“. At what point do we say “enough is enough” and let a franchise be put out to pasture?  Does the world really need a Ghostbusters III or yet another one of Bill and Ted’s excellent adventures?

Here Mendelson really starts to lose me. Who, may I ask, are you to say what money should or shouldn't be spent on when it comes to art and entertainment? Sure, that money could be spent on the "next Arrested Development," but it could also be used on - say - the latest reality show.

And frankly, I think Mendelson truly overestimates the power of the fandom - after all, as I've said, this phenomenon is not new. The only reason more TV shows are being resurrected is because more TV shows are being created. There are far more channels on television across the world these days, and there is a need for far more programming to fill the slots. When more shows are created, more are cancelled - and when more are cancelled, the possibility of resurrection is greater.

The same film fans who often decry the lack of originality in Hollywood are often the same to crave more variations on that franchise they loved in the 1980′s. 

No, Scott, they are not often the same, and it's disengenuous for you to suggest that this is the case. And this core misunderstanding of fandom is what makes this paragraph so infuriating:

At a core level, this may be harmless, but the sheer sense of entitlement is… disconcerting. Giving the fans what they claim to want is what got us a half-baked version of Khan in the last Star Trek film and a half-baked Venom in Spider-Man 3. Giving the fans what they want means a new 13-episode season of 24 instead of Fox spending the time and money to develop the proverbial “next 24″. Letting the fans make the choices means handing over the keys to a committee, albeit one with no sense of financial variables and absolutely no responsibility for the financial outcome.

Holy cow... OK...

First, saying that Khan in the latest "Star Trek" is "giving the fans what they claim to want" only works if even a sizeable majority of Star Trek fans did, in fact, claim - let alone actually say - they wanted Khan. Yet even based on anecdotal evidence, I can't think of a single one of my Trekkie friends offhand who explicitly wanted Khan in the most recent "Star Trek" film, only to be disappointed when they got the half-baked version.  Second, since when does the desire for something in any way justify or mitigate a subpar execution? By that logic nobody should complain about a poor adaptation for the simple fact that they wanted an adaptation in the first place - after all, if you didn't want an adaptation of a beloved book/comic/series, then it's nobody's fault but your own when that adaptation turns out to be garbage.

And what's this obsession with financial variables, Scott? You bring it up with your dismissal of John Carter and Dredd fans:

They swear up and down that not only was John Carter a great movie (debatable) but that it absolutely was a financially successful film that absolutely deserves a sequel. Never mind that it earned $282 million on a $250m budget and lost Disney around $200m, it was merely misunderstood and this time will be totally different. They clamor for sequels to MacGruber, an amusing action-film spoof that couldn’t even match its $10m budget at the worldwide box office. They start online petitions demanding Dredd 2 even though distributor Lionsgate and producer Reliance Big Pictures lost out when the $45m Dredd grossed just $35m at the global box office. I adore Speed Racer, but I and others like me don’t run around pretending that it wasn’t a costly flop that doesn’t justify a sequel. Sometimes one is enough and we should be thankful we got that one.

Are you seriously arguing that a film's financial success is actual justification for ending a franchise? Seriously? Because it didn't make enough money, it didn't "justify" a sequel? This is what is wrong with the film industry right now, and you're making excuses for it. You're excusing the fact that John Carter and Dredd won't get sequels not because they were terrible, not because they said all they needed to say, but because they didn't sell enough. My God. Are we talking about heads of cattle or cinema here? Produce or art?

By all means, explain that this is why we don't have The Gods of Mars or Dredd 2, but I cannot fathom how you could possibly justify it using the exact same thinking which means we have interminable sequels to The Fast and the Furious and those horrible _____ Movies. Who would you prefer getting their way: the fans who are passionate and enthusiastic enough to actually petition studios for sequels to beloved films, or the people who "get their way" purely by turning up in sufficient numbers to watch the latest braindead action flick - despite the fact that a film can be both fairly intelligent and financially successful? Or are you going to argue that the same people who donated to Veronica Mars are the same people who made Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen simultaneously the highest grossing film with the worst reviews?

But the constant barrage of entitled online outrage is frankly annoying. It’s a symptom of fan entitlement, fueled by the notion that, because geek culture is now taken seriously by the mainstream media, their demands should be respected damn the consequences.  And dear lord, there are so many more important things to get upset about, right?

The irony of that last sentence somewhat mitigates my own feelings on this article (i.e. "frankly annoying.")

I think Mendelson has a point in among all this regarding fan entitlement, but it's awfully obscured in the simplistic strawman he's set up, where everyone who complains on the internet is a single individual, yet dares to act surprised when this mythical OverGeek has entirely contradictory opinions from controversy to controversy. But more bothersome is how Mendelson portrays this in an entirely negative light: that fans banding together and doing something productive, debating and conversing, and seeking a solution rather than just moan and complain, is still rendered as "harmless" yet "disconcerting." Certainly I can agree that some cases are problematic and counterproductive, but I feel that anything which causes such an emotional reaction has to have some value, even if it seems negative.

Take the Ben Affleck controversy: this just goes to show that people care enough about a character created in the 1940s that they feel his part in a new film deserves a much better actor than the one currently cast. Is that really such a big deal to Mendelson? And Maria Abramovic shows that the creator and the audience do communicate in one way or another in varying levels of intimacy, and it is the height of arrogance to say that anyone but the creator and audience themselves have any say in where that communication begins and ends. A subset of the potential audience has chosen to interact with the creators in the form of protest, because currently it's the only way they feel they have any power - "the customer is always right" has long been a powerful mantra in the American consciousness, and so it's the way these people feel they can make their voice heard. Doesn't mean Warner Brothers will, or should, listen, let alone act, but the act of communication itself is not only inevitable, but something to be cherished.

Perhaps I'm looking too deeply into this - after all, I signed a petition not unlike this myself, so I'm probably a wee smidgen compromised. But the idea of fans having an impact on art is not something to be skeptical about, nor should it be viewed with contempt: it is something which is integral to the very nature of art.

3 comments:

  1. Hero of the Federation5 September 2013 22:33

    We have to go back to P....

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  2. Completely missing your point, let me quickly say I liked the second Khan!

    Now let me add, I agree with most if not all of your points. The furor over poor insanely-rich Ben (Sheesh...am I the only person who liked Daredevil? I know my taste is now suspect.) has triggered this particular navel-gazing moment for sure, but as you astutely point out since Sherlock himself the fans have demanded more. It's not a bad thing to want more of something you like. I guess the "entitled" part comes when you think other folks are stupid because they can't be bothered to give it to you.

    Rip Off

    P.S. I liked John Carter too. Aarrrggghh!

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  3. IIRC, to the extent Star Trek fans wanted any original series villain to be in the new movie, it was Gary Mitchell they wanted, or at least expected, not Khan. Khan was pretty low on people's lists, including the creators if you believe them, but Damon Lindelof allegedly lobbied hard to get him and I'd argue that it blew up in the filmmakers' faces.

    Absolutely right about Affleck vs. Ledger/Craig. The thing is, some people did lobby for Affleck to do a Batman movie, but they wanted him to DIRECT the movie because Affleck's recent re-ascension has been built entirely on his directing ability, not his acting, which is as mediocre ever. Casting Affleck as Batman without letting him direct the movie himself is a move guaranteed to make no one happy.

    ReplyDelete