Fran­chise film­mak­ers walk fine lines for raves from finicky fans

The Washington Times Daily - - FRONT PAGE - BY CHRIS­TIAN TOTO

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 Bre­it­, 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 HungerGamesTril­ 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.

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