In the past few weeks, I’ve been struck again at the ways fandoms now often precede rather than follow the release of a major motion picture. (See my discussion in Convergence Culture of how a fan community grew up around Global Frequency — a television pilot which never reached the air.) Fan filmmakers may immediately begin responding to, remixing, critiquing, and spoofing a film largely on the basis of its trailer. This is especially true when the film is based on a text which already has a cult following in another medium. Consider these two examples of fan films produced in reaction to Watchmen, which I ended up sharing with students in my Film Experience class this past week.
Or consider this example, produced in response to the trailer for J.J. Abrams’s forthcoming Star Trek film which I ran across doing some spadework for a forthcoming talk looking at the evolution of Star Trek fan culture since the 1960s.
I devoted a chapter to Star Wars fan filmmakers in Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide. A while ago, I got contacted by Clive Young about doing an interview for a book he was doing on fan cinema. Late last year, his book, Home-Made Hollywood, appeared, offering a fascinating account which spans from a 1930s vintage amateur version of Our Gang through landmarks such as Hardware Wars and George Lucas in Love down to the present era when all kinds of fan films are surfacing on YouTube. The writing is lively; the storytelling engaging; and he’s done spade work which, in some cases, urgently needed to be done if these chapters of the history of participatory culture were going to be preserved for future generations. As someone who has been researching fan culture off and on for more than twenty years, I learned something on almost every page. Young’s blog continues to monitor new fan film productions as well as share other forgotten chapters of grassroots media making.
In the interview that follows, Young talks about the history of fan cinema, the politics of copyright regulation, and how fan film experiences shaped the development of a number of media industry professionals. Next time, he will dig deeper into the issue of why more fan parodies are made by men and how fan cinema relates to vidding, which he sees as a distinctive and separate tradition of fan media-making.
You begin the book with an acknowledgment of Hardware Wars, which you write “helped to inspire fans and non-pros to pick up a camera and pay tribute to their favorite movies.” How significant do you think its influence was in terms of paving the way for contemporary fan cinema?
I think it’s hard to overestimate the influence that Hardware Wars had in 1977, because it made a mark on so many different levels, introducing many of its impressionable, young Generation X viewers (the core Star Wars fanbase) to filmmaking, the possibility of exploring one’s own creativity, and much like Mad Magazine a generation earlier, the concept of parody.
Key to its influence is the fact that it had widespread distribution. While to this day it is perceived as an underground phenomenon, Hardware Wars has been seen by millions of people in theaters, on home video, cable TV and through the internet, and is the highest-grossing short film of all-time.
Since the film was made by professionals for profit, it is not actually a fan film, but it is often mistaken for an amateur effort because it had a very homemade look by design. While that cheap aesthetic was a huge part of the flick’s humor, in a time before “behind-the-scenes” DVD extras, it demystified filmmaking for its audience to some extent, because it focused on everyday objects, like a hubcap that was supposed to be the Death Star. These were things that anyone could find, and the filmmakers used them unapologetically, as if to say, ‘Look, we all know this Imperial Destroyer is a steam iron–deal with it.’
By aggressively refusing to live up to Hollywood production values, Hardware Wars demonstrated that an amateur fan creator didn’t need money to get an idea across, and that’s a pretty subversive–and empowering–concept to imbue in a 10-year-old. That levels the playing field. The fact that the movie reveled in its low-tech juices was inspiring by example, giving amateurs permission to fail, because it illustrated that ‘failure’ on one level could be intriguing on another level.
In terms of parody, I think it was also rather instructive for its young audience, and I talk about that a bit in the book, because Star Wars as a cultural phenomenon was just getting started and there wasn’t much in the way of a critical backlash to the original 1977 film–especially in the media aimed at young Generation X at the time. As a result, Hardware Wars‘ sly commentary on how the audience had swallowed George Lucas’ creation whole was pretty radical. The short film’s narrator mocks the stuff on-screen, but his lines poke at the fans, too: “You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll kiss three bucks goodbye! Get in line now!” That challenges–perhaps forces–the fan to step back and assess his/her place in the big picture surrounding Star Wars, and cast a more subjective eye towards the film, fandom, and the economic machinery around both.
With all that in mind, its influence can be seen today, as there are more fan films about Star Wars than any other franchise, most fan films tend to be comedies, and most amateur Star Wars send-ups take a few shots at Lucas and his business style, even if they’re loving tributes. Additionally, one of the most popular forms of fan film is “the pseudo-trailer,” which Hardware Wars also pioneered–even though it’s a 12-minute film. When the fan film boom of the late Nineties came along, the number of fan productions that were parodies or pseudo-trailers (or both) was staggering. By that point, Generation X was in its 20s with some disposable income and that newfangled Internet on hand; the result was that Star Wars fan films were some of the first examples of viral videos.
As you note, amateurs have been making films for as long as there has been
cinema. So, what is different about our current moment of participatory
The basic staples of amateur film production–home movie cameras and enough pizza to get your friends to be in your flick–have been in plentiful supply since the 1950s; what’s different these days is the availability of low-cost, widespread distribution in the form of the internet, public access cable, DVD-Rs and so forth. Clearly the main conduit is the web, and the advent of sites like YouTube is fostering a growing mainstream awareness of amateur visual media among people who otherwise would never have been exposed to such material. Similar growth is occurring in other forms of participatory culture.
As more people discover amateur media, it’s fair to expect that increasing numbers of people will at least dabble in expressing themselves through amateur-level creativity, regardless of whether it’s written, aural or visual. Whether the resulting projects are any good is largely besides the point; the end result is that by aping professional productions, “regular” people become more media literate with a deeper understanding (perhaps not consciously but it’s still there) of how and why certain forms work.
This in turn raises the bar for professional creators, because even if they deliberately aim for the lowest common denominator in their work, even that audience’s level of sophistication will rise over time. This is not a bad thing.
You document, for example, an amateur film based on Our Gang which got some visibility in the 1920s. What does this story tell us about the potentials and
limits of amateur film production in the early history of Hollywood?
Amateur film production back then was largely a hobby of the rich, because cameras were rare and prohibitively expensive. Seeing one “in the wild” was unusual, so the anonymous creators of Anderson ‘Our Gang,’ the Our Gang film, were likely itinerant filmmakers working for the newsreel companies, who saw a financial opportunity to con a small town into believing they were making a real Our Gang flick. Home movie cameras didn’t start making inroads into average households until the 1930s, and whatever momentum they gained was stopped cold by the outbreak of World War II. As a result, home movies didn’t truly take root until the 1950s as suburban America settled in.
While the Our Gang film doesn’t offer much information on the limits of amateur film production at the time, it’s a great example of why fan films are valuable for film and cultural studies.
When we watch the official Our Gang movies–or James Bond, Star Trek or any long-running franchise–we see them through the eyes of people living in 2009. Our modern-day values and beliefs color how we experience and perceive those films, When you see a period fan film though, you’re not simply watching a story; you’re also getting insight into how people experienced the official movies back then.
For instance, when we think of the official Our Gang movies, it’s typically, “Oh, cute kids getting into mischief,” but Anderson ‘Our Gang,’ made in the deep South in 1926, was actually extremely racist and demonstrative against the disabled as well. The ways the filmmakers try to imitate the series reveals how they perceived the original and illustrates what aspects resonated with them, for better or worse.
There has been a certain degree of media attention of late on the death of
Forrest K. Ackerman. What role did he play in helping to support the production
of amateur horror films?
The 1950s and 60s saw the development of “Monster Kid” culture–a male, pre-teen slice of the population that was enamored with the movie monsters of the 1930 and 40s, due to the films regularly playing on afternoon and weekend TV. Ackerman, a life-long sci-fi and horror movie buff, edited a popular magazine for those kids at the time, called Famous Monsters of Filmland.
Many of his young readers were interested in making their own homemade monster fan films (although the genre didn’t have the “fan film” appellation at the time), but information on special effects, makeup and so forth was hard to come by back then. Ackerman, however, wrote extensively in his magazine how readers could create their own explosions, models, masks and makeup effects. Additionally, if readers wrote in about their productions, he often ran photos and blurbs about them, providing a national platform of recognition for young filmmakers whose sphere of influence pretty much ended at their bedroom door. Some of the professional filmmakers today who credit Ackerman and his magazine as an important influence include Peter Jackson, Joe Dante, John Landis and Dennis Murren, among many others.
You identify a range of significant public figures, such as Hugh Hefner, who produced amateur fan films in their youth. How important were such activities in shaping their later development as media makers?
While making fan films is not strictly a youthful hobby, it’s true that many of its participants try it out at a young age, often while they’re at the ‘gee, what do I want to do with my life?’ stage. While all of them want to make their movies, I suspect that the underlying drive–especially at that time in life–stems from something deeper: A need to be heard.
Some discover that filmmaking is the perfect form for their vein of self-expression and they continue to pursue it–case in point? Eli Roth, the writer/director behind the Hostel “torture porn” movies that were box-office hits a few years ago. He started out filming homemade remakes of Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Pieces in his basement as a teenager, and clearly the experience must have resonated with him.
Hugh Hefner, too, made a horror film in his basement at age 16–a Frankenstein/vampire amalgam called Return From The Dead. While filmmaking struck a chord with him–years later, he became an executive producer of various films in the 1970s–I suspect he found that films weren’t the right vehicle for communicating his ideas, and thus he went on to try his hand at other forms before founding Playboy 11 years later.
In both cases, however, amateur film production once again provides an opportunity to expand one’s understanding of how media fits together; concepts of structural flow, editing, timing and so forth learned in a creative medium like film are often transferable to other media, such as writing or music.
Clive Young is an author/lecturer covering the crossroads between high tech and popular culture. He is the author of the first book about fan films, Homemade Hollywood: Fans Behind The Camera (Continuum, 2008). He is also senior editor for Pro Sound News and has written for MTV, VH1.com, American Songwriter and numerous other outlets; additionally, he is the author of Crank It Up, an exploration into the world of rock concert roadies. Young has lectured extensively on film and music at many universities, libraries and conventions, and lives in New York with his wife and daughter. Visit his website,