The good news is that the fans saved Veronica Mars. For six years, a film project based on the cult-favorite detective series languished in development hell, until its fans voted with their wallets in an unprecedented tidal wave of support. The now legendary Kickstarter campaign netted it $3 million in two days and pulled the series out of dry dock.
The bad news, however, is that it was the fans who saved Veronica Mars. In a time when superfan influence already drives much of our cultural conversation, that influence, thanks to Mars, is about to get even bigger. And that is not a good thing for our culture.
The core dilemma rolling its way down the runway is that the fans’ agenda is not at all the same as the general public’s. When the non-affiliated public sees a new film or TV show — even if they are seeing the eighth installment of a franchise — they are open to a realm of diverse possibilities. A project can take them in any possible direction; its success or failure is determined by whether the piece ultimately entertains them — or on a more highbrow plane, provided them with new and meaningful insights into the human condition. And while some element of familiarity may be required, ultimately if the project doesn’t tell its story in a way that is at least slightly new and unpredictable, audiences lose interest.
Fandom concerns itself with none of those hifalutin concerns — or only as a secondary interest. The fan aesthetic is not about being taken to a new place, or challenged to consider a different aspect of the human experience. Fan culture is about referencing pre-approved characters and situations; fan-driven films, such as many of our current superhero epics, often feel much more like a pep rally than storytelling, where hometown heroes are simply marched across the stage for applause.
It is not, I think, something that fans themselves would contest to suggest the fan culture is not exactly the paragon of emotional maturity. The streets of Comic-Con are paved each year with grown men in their forties and fifties who refer to themselves as “fanboys.” The projects to which these fanboys — and their affiliated legions (Twihards, One Ringers, etc.) — attach themselves tend to be those with which they formed close bonds in their formative years and have clung onto ever since as a refuge from the cruel, scary world. The appearance of Iron Man or Twilight’s Bella on the screen acts as a Pavlovian trigger, like a bite of mom’s tuna casserole that takes them back to a safe, warm corner of their memory.
What superfans look for is not something unpredictable, but a project to demonstrate its fidelity to the original text. And that is all well and good. There’s nothing wrong with people finding a bit of shelter amidst the chaos of civilization. There are those of us, however, who don’t associate Iron Man with a time before the world got big and scary but still want to enjoy a movie. Fans are not seeking a broader experience but a replication of their original experience built on an ever-bigger scale.
In a normal entertainment universe, one would see a healthy balance between the poles, with some films targeted to the general public and some targeted to the fans. Even within films, it has been the job of filmmakers to find that balance. Since Star Trek returned to the big screen in 1979, filmmakers have sought to placate the rabid Trekkie hordes ready to take to the streets at the first misplaced setting on a photon torpedo while finding ways to amuse the larger general public, searching for entertainment in an increasingly crowded marketplace.
In the best of circumstances, the fans are but a small percentage of the total audience for almost any work. The 57,000 people who have contributed to date to the Mars Kickstarter account for about 2% of the 2.5 million who watched the show in its final season on the air. It was never more than a sliver of a Trek film’s audience that donned fake ears for a Star Trek convention. But this sliver of people have become the shock troops of the modern blockbuster age, drumming up the enthusiasm that fuels a marketing campaign while enforcing fidelity to the original texts.
Recently, however, the balance has shifted. Thanks to the niche-fication of the culture and the airwaves, power has moved hugely into the domain of the fans. The number of people it takes to make a show a hit or become a hot-button cause célèbre is now minuscule compared with what it took to break through in the past. The audience for the perpetually discussed HBO’s Girls has hovered around the 1 million mark since its debut — numbers that would have been considered catastrophic a few years ago. But because those viewers are so ardent and noisy about their affections, Girls’ future is assured on the network, which depends much more on word of mouth to guarantee its future than mere ratings. While the films of the Marvel universe ultimately seek vast audiences, the multiyear campaigns building up to each release — with their rollouts of casting news, villain names, posters, costumes, etc. — are effectively slow-motion Shiatsu massages of fanboy pressure points played out over the course of years.
In the crowded media universe, a film project needs something to break through the clutter, to build the drumbeat, and the ardent support of a “built-in fan base” is the tool that many look to. For a would-be film or TV show, it is not an audience they can afford to alienate.
And now, thanks to the Mars Kickstarter, fans not only hold the key to the hype, but the keys to the purse strings as well. For projects long suffering in development, the means to tap directly into fans’ wallets is the answer to an auteur’s prayers. But now that this alternate means of funding is out of the bag, ever lingering before filmmakers’ eyes, how much greater will the temptation be to play to the fans rather than the general public? (The fact that unlike with every other funding source known to mankind, they can raise this money without giving up an iota of equity doesn’t hurt either — although that may change soon.)
On another level, the rise of the fans is just an extreme symbol of our “like” culture, where people are constantly spurred on to declare their allegiance and list their favorites. On Twitter, the medium demands that individuals come out with all the exclamation points they can muster for (or against) whatever has passed through them. The result is a pass/fail culture, where nuance and moderation are drowned out, where the search for meaning in a work becomes secondary to cataloging its articles of cool. For the artist, pressing the buttons that will lead the audience to press buttons becomes all-important.
To see where this leads, one has to look no further than politics, where officeholders playing hard to their bases (that is: superfans) have made the idea of reaching out to the broader public impossible. If we cannot find a way to put the fans back in their cages, a 1,000-year cultural version of the debt-ceiling debate might well be our future.