Franchise filmmakers walk fine lines for raves from finicky fans
Every studio would love to create movies with built-in fan bases. It means less risk and more reward. Witness Hollywood’s obsession with reboots, remakes and superhero franchises. Still, appeasing only modern fans can be as dicey as casting the next Batman feature.
Choose the “wrong” actor or fudge a critical part of a beloved property, and suddenly Fan Nation is nipping at your heels. Bad buzz is real, and it can ding a project at the speed of a tweet.
Today’s fans are “mini-marketing juggernauts” that can impact massive franchises, said Marcus Peterzell, an entertainment marketing veteran and executive vice president of Ketchum’s entertainment and music team. That dates back to fan loyalty for the original “Star Trek” series, which never faded despite the
show’s three-season run on broadcast television in the late 1960s.
“The studios and networks have had to carefully navigate these passionate consumers, who ultimately are the reason the franchises still thrive in today’s cluttered pop culture world,” said Mr. Peterzell, who has supervised the marketing campaigns for eight features including the documentaries “Farmland” and “A Fighting Chance.”
That zeal comes with a price, he said. “Many of these fan factions even create their own content and storylines way ahead of a film release, which many consumers cannot decipher from the official trailers, making it difficult for studios to control their own content,” Mr. Peterzell said.
This doesn’t apply just to the next DC Comics feature. Passionate fans rallied around projects such as the “Fifty Shades of Grey” series, the “Twilight” saga and even “Ghost in the Shell.” The latter suffered a casting controversy when Scarlett Johansson took the lead role in the big-screen adaptation, a Japanese cyborg cop named Major in the Manga source material. The film flopped in theaters.
More recently, a fan movement bloomed to remake “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” to better reflect the franchise’s spirit … as they see it.
Our Comic-Con-obsessed age often overvalues the fans’ collective worth, said Jonathan Taplin, director emeritus of the University of Southern California Annenberg Innovation Lab.
“If you want to break out to the mass audience … the fans aren’t going to help you do that,” Mr. Taplin said. “If you have a little niche movie that has some fanatic fans … they slowly spread the word to people who have no idea what the movie is, and that can be useful.”
Conversely, if the next “Avengers” installment needs hard-core fans to push it over the top, Marvel Studios certainly will be disappointed, given the franchise’s massive budgets and marketing costs, he said.
Studios should trust originality over wooing a segment of fanatical ticket buyers, said Mr. Taplin, citing the creative and commercial success of “Black Panther.” Marvel allowed director Ryan Coogler to pursue his own vision with spectacular box office results — more than $1.3 billion worldwide.
“If you had focus-grouped that, you wouldn’t think it would be such a hit,” Mr. Taplin said.
Patrick Courrielche, a pop culture reporter and podcaster featured on Breitbart.com, said today’s fan base reflects this hypersensitive age.
“Everyone has the ability to express themselves, to like or dislike a storyline,” Mr. Courrielche said.
That often results in cyber food fights between fans and content creators. The “Ghostbusters” reboot in 2016 had cast members firing back at fans aghast at the idea of four women as the lead characters. The movie even featured a scene in which the fledgling Ghostbusters mocked online critics.
“Internet 101 is ‘Don’t feed the trolls,’ Mr. Taplin said. “All you do is make them feel more powerful by sending [‘Ghostbusters’ co-star] Leslie Jones out to go to war with them.”
Actors sometimes hurt the bond between a film series and the fan base by getting political on social media or in press interviews.
“The biggest obstacle for film studios is navigating that hurdle throughout the promotion process,” Mr. Courrielche said.
Kate Farrell served as the co-administrator on HungerGamesTrilogy.net for seven years, and she explained why fans care so deeply about fictional yarns.
“Once they feel they can connect to a character in the story, they make parallels to their own lives,” Ms. Farrell said. “If you know that Katniss [from ‘The Hunger Games’] would receive all this recognition for standing up for her sister, then you’d have that role model in your head from a fictional story.” The bond doesn’t end there.
“Some books and fan fiction have turned into people’s whole lives. … These stories become part of them,” Ms. Farrell said.
The modern fan is starting to mature regarding how Hollywood treats its cherished properties all the same, she said.
“If the ending is changed or specific scenes are changed, that’s a pain to their heart,” she said. “At the same time, stories in movies and books are two different pieces of art, and fans are coming to that realization a little bit.”
Mr. Taplin acknowledged the power of the “Star Wars” franchise, now more than 40 years old. The Disney executives behind the saga still suffered a blow when “Solo: A Star Wars Story” underperformed this summer. The film hit theaters mere months after “The Last Jedi” debuted in December.
“The problem is, if you believe the fans are insatiable, then you probably make a mistake,” he said.
STAR WARS WARS: Daisy Ridley starred as Rey in “The Last Jedi,” which was a box office hit. “Solo,” released only a few months later, underperformed.