What role have science fiction conventions played in fostering this amateur film
culture? Why has fan cinema been slower to emerge around other genres?
Science Fiction conventions are often run on a shoestring budget, so amateur films constitute free programming; at the same time, sci-fi fans are often attracted to technology-oriented hobbies–like filmmaking. Put them together and it’s a tight fit. The modern pop culture and sci-fi conventions blossomed during the 1970s when 1960s sci-fi TV shows entered reruns, most famously Star Trek and Lost In Space. If you were a hobbyist filmmaker and you went to a convention, it was easy to see that a homemade sci-fi flick presenting new adventures of a beloved old franchise could find an appreciative audience at such an event.
Likewise–and I’m hardly the first to suggest this–men bond by ‘doing,’ so a group of male sci-fi fans getting together to explore their fandom through a group activity like filmmaking makes sense. Additionally, since many guys collect memorabilia as an expression of their fandom, a fan production provides a convenient way to rationalize some purchases: “Yes, Honey, I spent $700 on a Stormtrooper costume–but it’s for my fan film!”
What place does the female fan practice of “vidding” hold in your account of fan
To be honest, it’s barely present in my book, which is not to imply that Vidding is insignificant. Rather, it’s a very different art form, deserving its own in-depth exploration, such as the Vidding History project by the Organization of Transformative Works. I discussed Vids in passing a few times in the book, because to ignore them would be disingenuous; however, it would be presumptuous and insulting to that community for me as an outsider to attempt to tell Vidding’s story.
The fan remake of Raiders of the Lost Ark has generated much greater visibility than any other fan film in my memory. How typical is that production of fan filmmaking practice in general and what brought that film to such a high level of public consciousness?
There’s a lot of elements at play when it comes to the (relative) success of Raiders of the Lost Ark: The Adaptation. Primary among them is the fact that you can’t see the film. Despite the fact that it has gained a high profile, it isn’t readily available on the internet or home video; the only way to see it is to attend one of the scattered screenings held around the country each year by the filmmakers at non-profit cinemas and the like. By using the media to spread the word about the film–but not the film itself–the filmmakers have created a pent-up demand to see it…and fortunately, it is one of those rare cases where the movie actually beats audiences’ expectations.
As far as fan filmmaking practice goes, the level of work that went into Raiders was unprecedented up to that point. For three pre-teens in the 1980s to spend seven years shooting a movie without any parental help is unusual enough; once you throw in the fact that they recreated all the major set-pieces of the original–Indiana Jones being chased by a boulder, getting dragged under a truck, fighting in a bar that’s on fire, and so forth–it becomes astounding. Besides rooting for the kids–how are they going to pull off the next part?–I think many viewers relate to the film because everyone role-played as a child, whether it was “Cowboys & Indians,” “Superheroes” or something else. These kids elevated that experience to the next level by videotaping it. At the same time, the sheer scope of what they achieved is inspiring–they had an impossible, idyllic dream as 11-year-olds and tenaciously made it happen, despite overwhelming odds. That’s an experience anyone can get behind.
One of the things I talk about in Homemade Hollywood is how fan films are the offspring of scripted entertainment and Reality TV, and the Raiders adaptation is a great example of this, because you’re seeing familiar scripted characters enacted by regular people in real-world settings without the perfect Hollywood sheen. When you see 13-year-old Chris Strompolos as Indy, trying to outrun a 100-lb. boulder made out of fiberglass or hanging off the front of a rolling truck, the look of terror on his face is undeniably real. It’s a very analog, visceral experience to view the film and it sucks viewers in, because these days, that’s something you often can’t get from professional movies.
Ironically, Hollywood reacted to that analog, visceral experience by buying the life-rights to the filmmakers’ story in a six-figure deal that made the front page of Variety. In a few years, you can expect to find a professional tribute movie about their amateur tribute movie about yet another movie at your local multiplex.
How has the web reshaped amateur film production, publicity, and distribution?
The web has certainly become the lifeline of the fan film community and has affected all the aspects you listed. Before the mid-Nineties mainstreaming of the internet, there were plenty of fan filmmakers out there, but they weren’t aware of each other. In fact, the term “fan film” didn’t exist because no one realized that this was a filmmaking movement instead of merely a few isolated movies mentioned in the back pages of enthusiast magazines like CineMagic.
In terms of production, sure, amateur filmmakers use the internet for obvious things like buying costumes or equipment (or, in some cases, pirating editing and effects software), but now they can build a virtual crew as well. For instance, the 2005 fan film, Star Wars: Revelations, was an ambitious, 40-minute effort covered by all the major news channels and downloaded over a million times in its first 48 hours on the web. Part of the appeal was its eye-popping special effects, which were created by a volunteer team of CGI enthusiasts around the world that used the web to recruit artists, exchange files and compile the finished effect shots.
The internet also provides varied levels of distribution, from simple YouTube clips to over-the-top efforts like Revelations, which was available in a variety of forms, from iPod-friendly MP4 files to a Bit Torrent package that that could be burned to DVD-Rs to create a two-disc set–one for the movie and one for the behind-the-scenes extras, naturally.
As for publicity, websites and the blogosphere are certainly the main forum for spreading the word about fan films today, because a simple link will get your work seen. I run a daily fan film blog called FanCinemaToday.com, and I get everything from illiterate emails (“Dude, U rite on my movie?”) to professional-quality digital press kits. No press junkets or swag yet, but I can dream (just kidding). Like the films themselves, the publicity efforts range all over the map.
You describe a number of cases where studios have struggled with how to respond to fan films produced about their franchises. What factors have shaped their decisions in regard to fan cinema? How would you characterize the current perceptions in Hollywood towards fan films?
Hollywood has been fairly alarmed by them–and with good reason. While I’m an advocate of fan filmmaking, I think the studios are right to be concerned. If you owned a sleek Maserati and the 12-year-old next door took it for a joyride, you’d be furious even if it came through without a scratch. That’s something like what’s going on with the studios, because amateurs are basically hijacking these billion-dollar franchises and doing whatever they want with them.
Now, to be fair, 99.9 percent of all fan films are tributes in some form or another, they pose no real monetary threat to a studio’s franchise and they don’t impact the public consciousness when you compare the number of people who saw The Dark Knight last summer to 6,000 people watching Batman’s Bad Day on YouTube. Studios realize this and I think that fuels the current take on such flicks–that they’re relatively harmless. At the same time, going after fan filmmakers with IP lawsuits would be a waste of resources because they’d cost more than could be won, plus they’d be a PR nightmare similar to the travails that Warner Brothers experienced when it tried to shut down Harry Potter websites a few years ago.
On the other hand, the current state of things where most studios are looking the other way is going to end sooner or later. To make up an example, let’s say you make a $20,000 fan film where Superman goes crazy because of Kryptonite and starts graphically killing babies with his X-ray vision. If it’s a well-made film that grabs the eye of a cable news pundit on a slow news day, that could blow up into a serious problem and potentially damage the franchise.
A more likely scenario, however, is that studios will get involved with fan films simply because there’s money to be made, whether it’s through some form of licensing out characters to the filmmakers, or making the best flicks available on a studio-sanctioned X-Box channel for a buck apiece, or something else entirely.
Lucasfilm has taken an interesting approach to dealing with fan films with its annual Star Wars Fan Movie Challenge. The contest is used to reach out to the fanbase, it appears to show fans great largesse because George Lucas is “allowing” them to make fan tribute movies, and yet it gives Lucasfilm indirect control over what material goes into such flicks, because if you’re going to go through all the effort to make a Star Wars fan film, why wouldn’t you follow the content guidelines so that you could enter it in the contest?
As you note, far fewer women than men have been involved in the production of
original fan films. Why do you think this pattern has emerged and are there
signs that more women are producing fan movies now than in previous decades?
There are lots of theories about this out there–for instance, that women are more interested in characters’ internal lives–an aspect more easily explored through fan fiction–or the comment earlier that guys bond by ‘doing’ so they gravitate toward a group activity like film production.
I think one overlooked aspect is sheer momentum. Fan fiction took off in the 1960s and 70s with zines and quickly became an outlet for female fans. I suspect that since then, women looking to create new stories for a favorite franchise have looked at the fanfic community and said “That’s where my peers are; I guess I’m going in that direction.” It’s self-perpetuating at this point.
Of course, I’m not a female fan filmmaker and never will be, so I can’t speak from a place of authority. As a result, in Homemade Hollywood, I spent a chapter interviewing women filmmakers and a number of them spoke of women being uncomfortable with being in charge. One filmmaker who teaches film to girls noted that the idea of being a director never occurred to her students and when she suggested it, they couldn’t envision themselves in that position at all.
With all that in mind, I don’t see the current male-to-female amateur filmmaker ratio changing anytime soon. One thing I would like to see is more collaboration between the fanfic and fan film communities. Most fan films would benefit from better characterization and more fully rounded stories; who better to write them than fanfic authors? It’s happened in a few cases–most noticeably the aforementioned Star Wars: Revelations–and I think both sides of the equation could benefit from it.
In the case of Star Trek, we are seeing increased collaboration between fans and some of those involved in the commercial franchise itself, including actors,
script writers, and technicians. What are the implications of this kind of collaboration for the future of fan cinema?
There are a number of high-profile fan efforts with sophisticated production values now, most noticeably Star Trek: Phase II, a fan series which sports a $100,000 Enterprise bridge set. They’ve been known to feature Trek alumni such as George Takei (“Sulu”) and Walter Koenig (“Checkov”) recreating their original roles, and have had original series writers script and sometimes direct their episodes
Quasi-pro efforts like Phase IIdo point the way towards a number of possibilities for fan films in the future beyond obvious things, such as that they may prove to be a “farm league” for tomorrow’s professional casts and crews. For instance, fan productions may wind up being used by Hollywood to see if the time is right to bring back a shuttered franchise. Similarly, analyzing fan films based on properties that are still up-and-running may provide insight into what aspects resonate most with die-hard fans. Alternately, if fan films show a trend of including a specific characteristic not in the original–for example, many Star Trek fan films pointedly feature gay characters–they may provide insight into what would realign a troubled franchise with its fanbase.
And as noted before, studios are likely to eventually get involved with fan filmmakers simply because there’s money being left on the table under the current arrangement of pretending they’re not there. If fans are going to make an amateur production based on your IP, why not sell them a specialized set of rights, props, costumes, digital filmmaking “toolkits” customized to the franchise with trademark sounds, music and “greenscreenable” effects, and rent them space on a special website just for “official fan productions” based on your franchise? Once there are enough decent flicks, they can be repackaged as a TV special, a DVD, or some other product. There’s a lot of way studios and fans can work together in a symbiotic fashion that would benefit all parties.
Getting into bed with the studios works for fan films primarily because most filmmakers in the hobby daydream of breaking into Hollywood; such a model would be far less successful if applied to other media like fan fiction, where similar efforts have failed.
Also, another concern is that high-end, high-profile fan productions are a lot of fun to watch, but they can be intimidating to potential fan filmmakers–“Why should I bother if that’s what a fan film is supposed to be? I can’t do that.” Phase II, in particular, is far removed from the underground, “punk rock” aesthetic that has powered so many fan efforts throughout the years.
Ironically, that sheen of perfection is exactly what Hardware Wars parodied back in the 1970s, showing that a fan production didn’t have to be perfect–much less made with professional help–to be enjoyable. Perhaps things are coming full-circle and we need a new low-rent flick like Hardware Wars to burst that bubble again. Who knows?
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,