Henry Jenkins The Movie or How Does Fandom Happen?

Around the same time as Teenage Paparazzo first appeared on HBO, I was participating in a Social Media week event billed as a "Fanthropology" workshop here in Los Angeles, hosted by Cimarron Digital, and intended to share insights with area media makers about how they might productively reframe their relations with their fans. I was asked to deliver some opening remarks as a "fan expert" and then join a panel of entertainment bloggers as they talked about their relations with the media industry. My fellow speakers were:

  • Alex Billington, FirstShowing.net movie blog, Owner and Executive Editor
  • Brett Erlich of Current TV, host of The Rotten Tomatoes Show and the Webby Award winning Viral Video Film School segment on infoMania.
  • Babette Pepaj, CEO of BakeSpace.com, the Webby-award nominated largest food-themed social network, which has created social campaigns for Desperate Housewives, Julie & Julia, Grey's Anatomy, It's Complicated, Ugly Betty, etc.
  • Scott Perry, New Music Tipsheet music blog founder
  • Eloise Hess, 15on15, 15-yr-old Creator, Producer, Host. 15on15 is a live music, video web series and music blog which has interviewed bands including Dead Man's Bones, Local Natives and Titus Andronicus @15on15
  • Jovana Grbic is the Creator, Editor and Creative Director of ScriptPhD.com, a blog and creative consulting company focused on science and entertainment

and the event was moderated by Digital LA founder Kevin Winston and Cimarron's Kristen Olson.

How Does Fandom Happen? from Cimarron Digital on Vimeo.

Stitched through the discussion was a power point presentation created by the Cimarron Digital team which explored the stages through which the media industry fed and responded to fan interest surrounding the emergence of a media property.

Much to my amusement, the slides were organized around Henry Jenkins the Movie. A highlight for me was a photoshopped image that shows what the more or less appropriately aged and built Bruce Willis would look like wearing suspenders, glasses, a grey beard, and my alternately bald and shaggy pate -- that is, in the branded, trademarked, and copyrighted persona of Professor Jenkins which I sometimes play in the media.

Here's part of a synopsis created for the rather unlikely Henry Jenkins vehicle:

In the Summer of 2011, America's attention is held in thrall by the 24/7 news machine, focusing on the deterioration of the Space Station and last-minute rescue attempts to remove the scientists and experiments aboard it before it potentially crashes to earth. For Henry Jenkins, however, business goes on as usual in preparing to attend the San Diego Comic Con... until a mysterious woman leaves a mildew-ed, yellowing packet of papers in his office containing an ancient prophecy predicting the space station's crash, and suggesting that only George Takei can stop it. He brushes it off until reaching Comic Con and discovering the situation is dire: not only are several major cities threatened by the crash, but the suggestion of sabotage has the makings of an international incident. As San Diego is one of the cities under threat, organizers have curtailed activities in cooperation with local authorities.

Though he dismisses his own concerns as foolish, the product of an idle mind, Henry is compelled to find George Takei and show him the papers. Despite being a respected professor, he can't even get close; Takei's people won't let Henry see him, and the papers are scattered. He can only recover a few, but as he does, he realizes that the George Takei depicted isn't the George Takei of today, but of 1967, during Star Trek's second season. Confused and frustrated, and figuring someone has played a practical joke on him, he makes his way out of the exhibition hall, colliding with a young woman in steampunk gear, Sally. The papers go flying again, but this time he leaves them. Sally picks them up and returns them to him anyway, and noticing their content, offers to help him with his "time travel problem."

Of course, he's still going to need Takei - otherwise he won't be able to find his past self. So Henry waits for an opportune moment during the Con and grabs Takei, stuffing him into an elaborate costume to avoid detection. When Takei wakes up, they're in the basement of a San Diego hotel with Sally and her steampunk friends. One of whom is suspiciously military-looking. He hands them a couple of devices that don't look anything like steampunk technology, and, before Takei can object, zaps them back to 1967. No explanations, instructions, or anything. Just zap!

Takei is furious. He immediately attempts to kill Henry in an epic fight, before calming down and remembering he's a pacifist. Henry shows him the few papers he has left, and by his reaction, it becomes clear that they mean something different to George than to Henry. He immediately recognizes the nickname of a man he met in 1967 called "The Dreamer." He doesn't know what he has to do with it, but he agrees to take Henry to where he was when he met The Dreamer... The Monterey Pop Festival in San Francisco. But neither one of them has a car...

I don't know about you but I'd certainly buy multiple tickets to that movie and almost certainly grab it when it came out on DVD! Your stakes might be a bit lower than mine, but still, you can surely see why this movie would generate buzz. We might call it William Shatner In Love With Himself or as the Hollywood team preferred, The Redemption of Sulu.

As it happens, I do not know George Takei, but I did have a chance to moderate a panel featuring the Star Trek actor at MIT where he was taping narration for a game in which he played one of my faculty colleagues, Shigeru Miyagawa, so sometimes reality is almost as strange as fiction. At the time, our biggest concern was heading off likely audience questions that might attempt to out the still closeted Star Trek performer, though today, he's a poster child for gay marriage in California.

For the presentation, the Hollywood types had mocked up everything from Tweets and Facebook updates to blog posts, suggesting how the fan community would respond to news about the production -- from its initial announcement through to subsequent announcements and promotions. The goal was to prod the panelists into reflecting on the ways that they, as entertainment bloggers, interfaced with the publicity machine surrounding a major studio release. They did a very effective job at simulating the courtship dance between producers and fans, including unauthorized leaks (and strategies for dealing with them) and fan objections to race-bending casting decisions as well as more carefully controlled PR releases. Below are a sample of the materials generated for this event.

As the presentation's narration explains:

A film is in social media as soon as it's announced - because today, that announcement always occurs through an online news source. An aggressive social media strategy means you leverage every drop of content, using it when it will be most effective. As soon as you announce a film, there will be people - we call them "bleeding edges" - that will be looking for information. Setting up channels for information early establishes the studio as an accessible and important news source.

Their presentation worked through how the studio gradually reveals information about the production, how it responds to fan speculation and gossip, how it fuels and expands audience interest, and how it incorporates grassroots intermediaries into the information flow. It is a strategy designed to build buzz and cultivate but not regulate the growing fan base around this property. I've included some samples from their slides below.

All in all, I felt they did a plausible job of modeling fan response, including how the fan base emerges from existing fan communities, how interest gets expressed initially through speculation and later through various kinds of cultural production, how fans develop a sense of ownership over the property and sometimes doubt the legitimacy of the people producing it, and how this buzz may or may not translate into box office success.

After all, Scott Pilgram went through this entire cycle only to disappoint its producers, though I have argued this has as much to do with inflated budgets leading to inflated expectations. After all, if Scott Pilgram was a small budget indie film (on the same level as the comic on which it was based), it would have been fantastic to see it ranked fifth in that week's box office, where-as seeing a highly touted major studio release there was a devastating disappointment.

After all of this excitement, I will now go back to my normal life as a mild-mannered, absent-minded, and over-worked USC professor who wants to make the world safe for participatory culture. But you never know when I may get pulled back into duty as a time-traveling adventurer or when I may find myself being played on screen by Bruce Willis. When duty calls, I hope to have the smart folks at Cimarron Digital build the PR campaign for my big screen adventures.