Fans and Audiences by Heidi Thomas

The film fan is almost as old as the medium itself. Since the popularity of Florence Lawrence – ‘the Biograph Girl’ – in the early 20th century, audiences have been keen to learn more about their favourite stars, and a star’s perceived popularity (or lack of it) with audiences has shaped studios’ casting and marketing decisions ever since. By the 1960s a fan culture emerged around specific science fiction television series such as Star Trek (1966-1969), and the blockbuster films of the 1970s and 1980s catered to this enthusiastic audience. By the 1990s, specific fan behaviours were firmly established, such as the production of ‘zines’, fan fiction, and visual arts. The internet broadened the reach of fan communities with the establishment of online mailing lists, even before the majority of homes had internet access.[1] In the mid-2010s, fan behaviour seems ever-present online. Fan fiction is no longer just the preserve of the science fiction genre, the fashion world has firmly adopted ‘geek-chic’, and ticket prices for conventions have sky-rocketed. This is in no small part down to the technological advances of the 21st century, both in terms of the widespread sharing of information ensured by internet connectivity, and easy access to technologies that facilitate the creation of fan art.

In her essay, A Brief History of Media Fandom, Francesca Coppa notes a fundamental change in the construction of fan communities brought about by the internet’s democratisation of information in the late 1990s:

Formerly, most fans had been mentored by older fans or had attended a convention in order to meet others who shared their particular obsession. Now people could just google their favourite show, join the available lists, or start reading fiction… on a public online archive.[2]

Significantly, the incorporation of the internet into everyday life has led not just to easier information access, but has also provided multiple platforms for anyone to express themselves however they should wish to, initially through message boards and forums, but more recently personal blogs and various social media outlets have widened this reach. This has given fans both a collective and an individual voice, and has increased the previously narrow reach of content formerly confined to limited-distribution fanzines and obscure message boards. With actors, directors, and studios all having a strong online presence fans are easier than ever to target-market but also have greater access to their stars, for instance by interacting with them on Twitter or through Reddit’s celebrity AMAs.

Not only did fan communities widen during the late 1990s and early 2000s, Coppa also points out that this was a time when fandoms started to intersect. For instance, comic book fans, fans of anime, and music fans started to join what she terms ‘neighbouring’ fandoms.[3] It is observable that this in turn has had an impact on the output of the film industry as evidenced, for example, by the unexpected rise of Marvel Studios and the popularity of comic book adaptations in general in the early 21st century. Fandoms are now recognised as having the power to make or break franchises more than ever before.

Beyond the sharing of personal reviews, fan theories, and insider knowledge the internet has also precipitated more collaborative creativity among fans. Perhaps chief among these is the Star Wars (1977 – present) fandom, which has embraced creator George Lucas’ enthusiasm for digital technology even while being vocal about disappointment in his own soulless employment of it to the detriment of the Star Wars prequels. High quality, modestly-budgeted, fan films such as the recent Darth Maul: Apprentice are virtually indistinguishable from Hollywood output in terms of both quality and ambition. Not only has the ubiquity of personal computers – and even smartphones – made creating fan art and fan films more achievable for all, the internet also offers new ways to collaborate. An ambitious hobby became a worldwide project when Star Wars fan Casey Pugh decided to re-create Star Wars: A New Hope (1977) by splitting the film into 15-second scenes and inviting fans to submit, and then rate, their own unique versions to be pieced together as one. The resulting film, Star Wars Uncut which blended animation and live-action – went on to win an Emmy, and soon work began on a re-creation of Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back (1980); this time in official collaboration with Lucasfilm. Not only was the project fun and fan-curated, it also received external recognition; a virtually unprecedented achievement for a fan film.

The creativity and dedication exhibited by these Star Wars fans fits John Fiske’s 1992 definition of fan behaviour, which requires what he terms ‘textual productivity’. For Fiske, for an audience-member to move from mere viewer to fan, a person must move beyond mere interpretation of and engagement with their text; some form of creative productivity is required.[4] Though the resulting film is not ‘original’, Star Wars Uncut offers an entirely original Star Wars experience. Other levels of engagement identified by Fiske pre-internet are also enhanced by the web. Pinterest and similar sites proliferate ideas for creating ever-more complex fan-made costumes, once limited to convention attendees, now a pastime in its own right. Online shopping sites such as eBay and Etsy have made amassing film memorabilia easier. Fans not only have a wider choice, but the ability to make online price comparisons also protects collectors from overpaying, potentially enabling them to amass a larger collection for their money.

Theories of audience behaviour and fan culture require re-evaluation in a web 2.0 world. Though elements of fan behaviour have remained largely the same since the advent of cinema, the ubiquity of the internet has brought with it new ways to engage both with films and with the industry’s filmmakers and stars. It has engendered unprecedented levels of interaction among fans, often enabling a larger scope and scale to fans’ so-called ‘textual productivity’ as well as popularising once marginal pastimes such as cosplay. Digital technologies are widely available and relatively cheap, so fan sites and fan films can be produced and disseminated with minimal specialist equipment. Fans undoubtedly have a larger platform and wider choices than ever, however, it is interesting to consider whether fan behaviour has actually changed, or is simply being engaged with and enabled like never before. Ruth Deller points out the need for longitudinal studies.[5] As technology becomes ever more incorporated into every day life fan studies will need to address the changing nature of online behaviour and its continuing impact on audience engagement.

[1] Francesca Coppa ‘A Brief History of Media Fandom’ from Fan Fiction and Fan Communities in the Age of the Internet: New Essays, Hellekson, Karen; Busse, Kristina ed.s

[2] ibid, p.54

[3] ibid, p.56

[4] John Fiske, ‘The Cultural Economy of Fandom’ The Adoring Audience: Fan Culture and Popular Media, Lewis, Lisa A. ed. (London : Routledge 1992) p.39

[5] Ruth A. Deller, ’A Decade in the Life of Online Fan Communities’ https://vle.dmu.ac.uk/bbcswebdav/pid-3346120-dt-content-rid-5364497_1/courses/FILM1402_2016_2/Deller_A_Decade_in_the_Life_of_Online_Fan_Communities__-libre.pdf

Bibliography

 

Coppa, Francesca, ‘A Brief History of Media Fandom’ from Fan Fiction and Fan Communities in the Age of the Internet: New Essays, Hellekson, Karen; Busse, Kristina ed.s (Jefferson, North Carolina; London: McFarland & Company, 2006) pp.41-58

 

Fiske, John, ‘The Cultural Economy of Fandom’ from The Adoring Audience: Fan Culture and Popular Media, Lewis, Lisa A. ed. (London : Routledge 1992) pp.30-48

 

Whitehouse-Hart, Jo, Psychosocial Explorations of Film and Television Viewing (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014)

 

 

Online sources

 

Deller, Ruth A., ’A Decade in the Life of Online Fan Communities’ https://vle.dmu.ac.uk/bbcswebdav/pid-3346120-dt-content-rid-5364497_1/courses/FILM1402_2016_2/Deller_A_Decade_in_the_Life_of_Online_Fan_Communities__-libre.pdf Accessed 25th April 2016

 

Hills, Matt, ‘Fiske’s ‘textual productivity’ and digital fandom: Web 2.0 democratization versus fan distinction?’, Participations Journal of Audience and Reception Studies, vol 10, issue 1. http://www.participations.org/Volume%2010/Issue%201/9%20Hills%2010.1.pdf Accessed 25th April 2016

 

Jenkins, Henry, ‘Interactive Audiences? The “Collective Intelligence” of Media Fans’, http://labweb.education.wisc.edu/curric606/readings/Jenkins2002.pdf Accessed 25th April 2016

 

McMillan, Graeme ‘Lucasfilm Debuts “Empire Strikes Back Uncut,” Announces New Star Wars Fan Film Contest’ The Hollywood Reporter October 10th 2014 http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/heat-vision/lucasfilm-debuts-empire-strikes-back-740045 Accessed 27th April 2016

 

Singer, Matt, ‘Is this the age of Fanfiction films?’ http://www.ifc.com/2011/12/muppets-age-of-fanfiction Accessed 27th April 2016

 

Stetler, Brian ‘An Emmy for Rebuilding a Galaxy’ The New York Times August 27, 2010 http://www.nytimes.com/2010/08/28/arts/television/28uncut.html?_r=0 Accessed 27th April 2016

 

 

 

 

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