Thanks, AJ, for doing the heavy lifting by synthesizing the tensions emerging out of this conversation, and for tackling the industrial context. You’re absolutely right, fans and producers both know the score, and I think it’s vital to acknowledge fan agency in this discussion, despite my qualms about how the campaign frames fan participation and labor. That said, I’d add a couple of corollaries to the core tensions you’ve identified above, drawing on the framing of fans across the past few exchanges.
First, I want to revisit Maurício’s point about the ultimate “winner” of the shifting power dynamics between media audiences, producers, and distributors being the story itself. Both Maurício and Henry make a strong case for the how this emerging model might be most beneficial for liminal producers and properties, those that don’t fall neatly into the categories of “mainstream” or “independent” production. But there’s a catch with fan-funded stories, and it’s already visible in the discourses around the Veronica Mars Kickstarter. It’s baked into the FAQ’s nod to shipping and fan expectations (see image), and it’s directly addressed in this remark from Thomas after the success of the campaign:
“I had some desire, as a filmmaker, to take Veronica in a slightly new direction and do something adventurous with her. Or, there’s the ‘give the people what they want’ version. And I think partly because it’s crowd-sourced, I’m going with the ‘give the people what they want’ version. It’s going to be Veronica being Veronica, and the characters you know and love. Certainly, I think I can make a fun, great movie out of that, and I’m excited about that, but it was a creative debate I had with myself, and I finally made the decision that I’m happy with it, to go with, ‘Let’s not piss people off who all donated. Let’s give them the stuff that I think that they want in the movie.’”
It’s the “give them the stuff that I think they want” that troubles the notion that story emerges the clear “winner” in this particular case. Whether Thomas is justifiably hedging his bets in response to the intense scrutiny that has accompanied the campaign’s success (“If the movie ultimately sucks, don’t blame me, my vision was hindered by fan service…after all, they paid for it…”) is beside the point. To return to the first tension AJ identified, fan “satisfaction” is clearly the central concern here, but it’s ultimately framed as a potential detriment to Thomas’ creative control. There is something empowering about the fact that, in Maurício’s terms, we can now frame fans as studios. But what I think might be getting lost here is the fact that fans are independent creators too, and it’s often their dissatisfaction with a story, or the industrial structures and strictures that limit it, that drives their textual production. Henry’s right that fans will always be read, first and foremost, through an economic lens. But, fans aren’t just storybuyers, they’re storytellers. They make their own satisfaction.
On a second and related point, you all make a compelling case for how distribution on Netflix, or similar platforms, might help reshape industrial investments in media properties, encourage experimentation with transmedia or non-linear textualities, and cater to pre-existing fannish consumption patterns such as binge watching. Our conceptual understanding of what “television” is (who produces and distributes it, and where, when and how we consume it) continues to be radically reimagined in the post-network era. Within the Netflix television model, the television temporalities of seriality and seasonality are effectively eradicated. This isn’t a bad thing, necessarily, but I do wonder how these new “telelvision” models might fundamentally alter our conception of television fandom.
If fans produce their richest work in the gaps and margins of a television text, they’ve also historically used the temporal gaps and margins between episodes and seasons to their advantage. I return, time and again, to Matt Hills’ Fan Cultures and his useful notion of “just-in-time” fandom to describe how fan practices have “become increasingly enmeshed within the rhythms and temporalities of broadcasting” (178). Moreover, Hills cautioned (back in 2002, no less), that eradicating time lags function “ever more insistently to discipline and regulate the opportunities for temporally-licensed ‘feedback,’ and the very horizons of the fan experience” (179). So, what happens when we begin to reconceptualize the afterlife for cult television series strictly as films, or in one large seasonal installment with no lag time between episodes? The pleasures of television fandom are deeply tied to its form, and the impact of these shifts deserves further consideration.
My concern here isn’t just the horizons of the fan experience, but the horizons of the industrial and cultural framing of fans and fan participation. Whether we’re talking about fan-funded film extension of a cult television series, or an entire new season of a cult show dropping on Netflix, these temporal horizons are potentially less generative for fans, which in turn might make it increasingly difficult to discursively shift our understanding of them as producers of anything but capital. If I’m being totally honest, as a Veronica Marsfan, what I really want is another season of Veronica Mars. And as an Arrested Development fan, I will absolutely binge watch the new season (and, let’s be real, I’ll binge watch the prior three seasons as an amuse bouche the day before the launch).
Understandably, we all want to focus on what we’re gaining. I’m admittedly more interested in what’s potentially being lost or overlooked, but I don’t want that emphasis to be mistaken for a lack of enthusiasm about these developments. I do think they have game-changing potential, particularly as the beginnings of a creators’ rights movement. I just worry that fans’ legacy as creators in their own right will once again be obscured in favor of celebrating industrially sanctioned modes of fan engagement.
From all of our contributions so far, the ones that mostly intrigued me were the ones related to roles (fans, producers, distributors) and business models.
And both rely on a discussion that, if not well explored, can become a “chicken or the egg” equation.
Some questions to provoke that discussion:
Would Veronica Mars raise all that money on Kickstarter if it was an independent movie from a new director with an unknown actress about an unknown character?
Do we really need algorithms to figure out that BBC Format + David Fincher + Kevin Spacey + Washington politics is a success formula for House of Cards?
Is 60 thousand people as a Box Office number for a movie a sufficient number for a studio to green light to produce it?
When fans “invest” or donate for IP development and or production they are looking for some sort of creative control or ownership or just wanting the story to come to life?
We are entering – with or without the help from the Studios – an era of what we like to name as “Grassroots Blockbusting”: where IPs are nurtured to the ground up and more independent of the “normal” way of becoming a success. All Studios have what we name “Dormant IPs” – stories that have already a whole world built, good story arches and some sort of audience built through generations. But very few of these IPs (and even less Studios) are being developed in a way that allows them to become something profitable and successful.
Unfortunately it is still naive to come to a studio or any big show runner in town and tell them to “hand over IP”. This is not only a conversation about studios focusing on blockbusters and mainstream stories because of shareholders. They are also investing on their libraries and keeping as much control of that IP as possible. Their framework is built around owning as much % of the IPs as possible since the same framework is built around giving more power and control for the part that invests more to make a story happen. And although roles are blurring, very few creators can say they can make their own shows without a major investment from a studio.
In Brazil, the Government is making an immense effort to grow our TV industries by creating a new law that makes every cable channel to invest massively on original content produced by Brazilian companies (like mine). It is a huge achievement but it has also been very tricky and challenging for the producers to convince studios and networks ( still the most important distribution channels) to give up on a big percentage of an IP they would air because of that new law. Simply because it forces them to not own majority of brazilian original content. So, better said than done.
However, there are independent funds – in the US, Latin America and Asia – that are starting to invest into new green IPs or buying turnaround scripts from studios/production companies to re-start them from the ground using transmedia and the digital tools to start them small and sustainable. Like I said before, lines are blurred, roles are confused and money and knowledge about what works is more democratized.
The existing cases we have been discussing are actually good starters for a possible different model where fans and creators are closer by sharing a common dream and making it happen. And by doing so more and more the Studio system will then have new competitors among the same people they see as consumers. Which is a good thing since humans and companies tend to pay more attention to things and people that threat them than to people that they take for granted. And to AJ’s points looks like creators and fans are paying more attention to what is happening around them.
Aymar Jean “AJ” Christian is an assistant professor of communication in the Media, Technology and Society program at Northwestern University. His manuscript, tentatively titled Off the Line, Independent Television and the Transformation of Creative Economy, explores the politics and value of the web series market. He edits a personal blog, Televisual, has been published in the academic journals Continuum, Transformative Works and Cultures, First Monday and Cinema Journal, and in the popular press in Slate, Indiewire, The Wall Street Journal and The Root, among others. For more information, visit his site.