August 28, 2013

Geek almighty

Local professors’ book shows power of fandom

By Christopher Smith

— When news broke last Thursday that Ben Affleck is set to replace Christian Bale as the next Batman, social media erupted in a frenzy, condemning Warner Bros., the film studio that is overseeing a Superman-Batman crossover in a 2015 “Man of Steel” sequel.

As a result, some Warner Bros. executives are probably “resenting” the fans that collectively spend millions of dollars on their movies, said Dalton State College professor Jonathan Lampley.

Lampley, with Dalton communications professor Kris Barton, has co-edited an “academic book for non-academics” titled “Fan CULTure,” which explores the power and psychology of fans and their control over popular media.

The book, set for release on Dec. 7, includes essays by several professors from around the world, ranging from New Zealand to Canada, including an essay by Barton and an afterword by Lampley. The book is published through McFarland and Company Publishers ( The list price is $40.

Much of the book talks about fan control, most recently seen in the Affleck outrage. Barton said several fans think they “own,” at least partially, the works they support with their dollars and devotion. Thanks to social media, the entertainment business has become a “free-for-all,” Barton said.

“One of the big questions we deal with is who owns these franchises. Who owns ‘Star Wars,’ or the ‘Harry Potter’ series?” Barton said.

Several might be quick to think their creators, George Lucas and J.K Rowling, respectively. Not necessarily, Barton said.

“Do I have a right to ‘Harry Potter’? Do the fans own it? Without the fans, J.K. Rowling would still be poor,” he said. “Some fans think they have a right to her characters. Without them, there is no Harry Potter. Without fans, there’s never another ‘Star Wars’ movie. Without fans, none of this stuff exists. So they feel entitled to have some ownership over these works, whether justly or not.”

It wasn’t always that way with fans, Lampley said, not until the information age of Facebook walls and constant tweets on Twitter.

“Nowadays you have more connection between the creator of popular media and their fans,” he said. “I think that fosters a love-hate relationship. Creators love that people are so devoted to their work, but they probably resent being told what to do with their own creation.”

In the case of Affleck’s casting, “people who take Batman very, very seriously aren’t happy,” Lampley said.

“People who are into Batman don’t want the movies to be bad,” he said. “They have a lot of emotional investment. They don’t want the character or story to be mistreated. The folks at Warner Bros. are probably shocked at the outrage. But it’s those devoted fans that support the projects long after most of us have forgotten about them.”

How fandom shapes the world

And support is what brings in the big money, Lampley said.

The phenomenon of the midnight movie premiere — where droves of fans pack movie theaters to see their favorite films before the rest of the world (even though much of the world is also there) — is the best example, Barton said.

Movies with huge fandom, including the titles in “The Lord of the Rings,” “Harry Potter,” “Iron Man,” James Bond and “Batman” series, bring in billions in revenue at the box office and are cited by the Internet Movie Database as some of the highest-grossing films in the world.

“Fan culture, as we define it, is how people interact with the things they love and what kind of culture is created from that,” Barton said. “It doesn’t have to be just media like ‘Lord of the Rings.’

“There are Tim Tebow fans that ‘Tebow’ (bow and pray in a way the player is famous for doing during NFL games) and buy his jersey. There are huge LEGO fans who have all this influence on LEGO sets and spend money there. The biggest fans have so much influence they now have a direct pipeline to LEGO and give input on the next set.”

The television show “Lost” is famous for being shaped by fans, Barton said. The Emmy-winning show, which ran from 2006 to 2010, explored a mysterious island through the eyes of stranded airline passengers after their plane crashed.

Because of its heavily-involved plots — ranging from an amorphous monster made out of black smoke to time travel — fans created several online communities to discuss and share theories seeking to explain the show’s mysteries.

Though the show received criticism from entertainment critics for never fully explaining itself, Barton said the producers and writers paid close attention to the online chatter.

“The guys on ‘Lost’ were very active on things like Twitter and Facebook and podcasts (fan-made talk shows uploaded to iPods),” Barton said. “Fans of the show would say, ‘This story line isn’t good.’ So the writers would change the story lines to make fans happy. Fans had a lot of control over that show.”

The same goes for the AMC zombie apocalypse drama “The Walking Dead,” Barton said.

“Season two of that show was really slow,” he said. “There was lots of talking and exposition from the characters. Fans didn’t like it. So season three went back to what season one was: zombies every week, violence and mayhem. Which is what the fans said they wanted.”

Is fandom hurting or helping?

There’s no clear answer, Barton said.

“George Lucas made the first ‘Star Wars’ in 1977 without fan input because there were no fans to begin with,” he said. “Some people think it’s the best one of the series. Who knows what would have happened if George Lucas had listened to fans? Who knows if it would have been better or worse?”

One thing is clear, Lampley said.

“If you do something to make fans upset, there is always fallout,” he said.

Whenever someone has a fan base they always “run the risk of making a lot of people unhappy” by any decision, Lampley said.

“A decision, like casting Ben Affleck, can cause backlash,” he said. “It happens. It happens fairly frequently.”

Which can create stress for anyone in the entertainment business constantly fearful of “laying an enormous egg,” Lampley added.

Barton said he would argue such dedication of fans, at times obsession, “enriches” the work.

“The TV show ‘Star Trek: The Next Generation’ is famous for accepting screenplays from fans,” he said. “If it was really good, it would be made into an episode.”

Some of the most famous episodes of the series were fan-written, Barton said.

There’s also the example of “Save Chuck,” Barton added.

Several fans of the NBC comedy “Chuck,” which told the story of an everyday guy who becomes a spy overnight by accidentally downloading state secrets to his brain, mounted a campaign to buy advertiser Subway’s sandwiches to show their support when the show was set to end in 2009.

Barton said he was one of those fans who, by “picking Subway over McDonald’s in the morning,” prompted the sandwich company to sponsor three more seasons of the show.

“I think that has helped me understand what I do and why I do it in a different light,” he said. “I realized my actions have an impact. It kind of made me more aware of the impact I can have.”

Perhaps one of the most famous fans, Stephen Sansweet, is the best example of how fandom helps more than it hurts, Barton said.

Sansweet, who wrote a foreword for “Fan CULTure,” was a Wall Street Journal reporter famous for his obsession with all things to do with the Force. Lucas was so impressed by Sansweet’s fandom that Lucas hired Sansweet to be his director of content management and head of fan relations.

“I’m super excited about his foreword,” Barton, who confessed to being a “Star Wars” fan himself, said. “In the world of fan culture, he is the main guy. He’s kind of the epitome of when a fan becomes a creator. He’s what every fan fantasizes about becoming.”