Debating Whether Geeks Control Hollywood

Things will remain a little quiet here on the blog for a bit while I take care of some things, including setup following last week’s move from Philly and some revisions on an article about games I just had accepted for publication. (More details on the latter soon, as it should be freely accessible online eventually.) In the meantime, though, here’s a couple of articles to chew on, offering something like a point/counterpoint on the popular notion that Hollywood must take geeks’ opinions into consideration.

There was a time when Comic Con International was about comic books; now, however, it’s a massive pop culture festival, and a sort of testing ground for movie trailers and TV pilots. In the wake of Comic Con 2008, the Guardian offers an article titled Geek Almighty,” a fairly typical article about geeks’ influence in hollywood:

As The Dark Knight roars towards $400m (pounds 201m) this weekend in its record-breaking US run following successful summer launches for Iron Man and Wanted, comic book adaptations are once again bossing it at the box office. […]

The studios are once again courting one key demographic – the geeks. This knowledgeable and vocal sub-culture has returned to prominence since the 1990s, when fan hysteria greeted films such as Men in Black, Blade, and the Star Wars sequels and propelled them to box-office success. In the intervening years, Hollywood’s cyclical nature and the ascendancy of comic book aficionados such as Christopher Nolan, Zack “300” Snyder, and Frank “Sin City” Miller has seen the nerd return as a highly influential factor in Hollywood. Studio chiefs know all too well that if upcoming projects such as Captain America, Wonder Woman and Wolverine are to prosper, first and foremost they have to be all right with the fans. […]

[T]he comic-book fans are a savvy crowd and, if Hollywood gets it wrong, poor early word can spread like wildfire. Ever since the cult website Ain’t It Cool News damned 1997’s Batman & Robin with negative advance reviews, there’s been a potency to the musings of netizens.

The article continues with some of the other usual comments about how fans will revolt if adaptations veer too far from source material, and how central fandom is to some geeks’ lives. Lucasfilm’s head of fan relations adds: “Fan culture is all sorts of things. It can be geeks in costumes who haven’t showered for two weeks or ordinary-looking people who received their love of Star Wars from their parents and have in turn passed it on to their children.”

Hollywood Reporter, meanwhile, offers another sort of piece. A piece titled “Is Hollywood Overestimating the Clout of the Geek?” similarly recognizes the film industry’s efforts to appeal to the hardcore, but questions whether the extra effort really pays off in the end in the form of better profits:

Marketing to the grassroots wasn’t always this important. For years there were two tiers of marketing, usually arranged in a clear hierarchy. […] Where most marketing went broad, the second type trafficked in details; where mass-media marketing tried to stoke enthusiasm, this kind assumed it and cultivated it. […]

But a few years ago, some time after showrunners started quietly checking out catty TV blog and some time before Comic-Con became the calendar’s biggest corporate marketing destination, a funny thing happened: The second approach became primary.

On its face, this shouldn’t be the case. A brand’s cult following isn’t a very large number, and it’s also a group already inclined to like and spend money on a product, which by most marketing logic is exactly the group you should spend the fewest resources on.

The thinking, though, grew out of a crucial tastemaker argument — the idea that the movie and television business functions as a series of concentric circles, with the tastes of a relatively small group on the inside radiating to the larger — and more lucrative — circles outside it.

But a few years of experience have yielded enough anecdotes and data to suggest that the nerd-herd strategy might not matter as much as the hype has suggested.

The article offers a few main arguments against “the nerd-herd strategy.” First, fans are too elusive to know how to really please them. Second, fans’ favorite series don’t always catch on with the mainstream, with one director suggesting that “the total number of people in the blog world is probably only a few hundred thousand, and as much as they might hate to hear it, for most movies that’s not going to make the difference between a success and a failure.” And third, movies that were successful with both fans and the mainstream tend to be held aloft as examples supporting the power of geeks, while new projects that meet with geek approval at Comic Con, only to flop when released into the wild, tend to get glossed over.

It’s an interesting argument, so I encourage you to read both articles and chime in with your own thoughts. For now, I’d just like to note that I was a bit surprised the latter article didn’t get into any of the “long tail” stuff about the most passionate niche being where most of your money might come from in the long run through DVD sales, licensing, and merchandising—a lesson taught to Hollywood by none other than Star Wars, a modern geek classic (you know, back before George Lucas went to the dark side). It’s probably also worth noting that “the total number of people in the blog world” is several times larger than estimated above, according to even just a quick glance at the estimated stats of some major geek destinations online (which can number in the millions). Even if these geeks’ opinions aren’t filtering into the mainstream, there’s still enough members in these groups to constitute some viable markets in themselves. And, as Church pointed out in a conversation about this, geeks may be able to hurt a project with negative reactions more than they can help a project that excites them (see above note of fear about repeating Schumacher’s Batman debacle).

I definitely have to agree that a cheering crowd at Comic Con is not an accurate litmus test for success; the audiences and viewing conditions just aren’t generalizable, even among geeks. It’s also worth pointing out, however, that short-term profitability with the broadest audiences possible isn’t necessarily the smartest way to define a movie as a “success,” let alone a product of any “quality.”

(Thanks to Church for links and conversation on this topic.)

3 thoughts on “Debating Whether Geeks Control Hollywood

  1. The thing that makes me crazy is that even though we now have an onerous copyright regime that has fenced off the public commons, everyone still insists on making money in the shortest time frame possible, ignoring the fact that they have a hundred-odd years to recoup their investment.

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