Use the Force
All fans are equal but some are more equal than others. For any given property, you’ve got fans… and then you’ve got superfans. Superfans make up a small percentage of the audience, but can have an impact far greater than their numbers. They’re a loyal band of dedicated individuals whose focus and intention can make extraordinary things happen. In cult media terms, they’re the Jedis of the fan world. As a transmedia producer your job is to get them to use their power for good and keep them from going to the dark side.
Winning over superfans is the first step toward attracting a mass audience. “But beware. Anger, fear, aggression. The dark side are they.” Avoid sparking these emotions at all costs. Honor and respect the property that they hold so dear. Do not underestimate the power of the dark side.
Jenkins: What are the risks involved in alienating the base of your audience?
Gomez: Franchises are built on the energy and loyalty of their hardcore fan bases. While these bases are often a fraction of the size of the total audience, they are indispensable, because they are vocal, passionate and active. A tiny fraction of the genre television series Jericho sent tons of jars of peanuts to the network that had just cancelled the program–moving them to reinstate the series. A small group of fans that gathered at conventions and shared amateur publications centered on the original Star Trek series managed to bridge the period between that series’ cancellation and the Star Wars-inspired relaunch of the franchise in the late 1970s.
When the producers of the television series Enterprise publicly stated that the show was being designed for a much wider audience than previous incarnations of Star Trek, and exhibited this intention by altering the shows music cues, pandering to sexual titillation and (perhaps most egregiously) ignoring at will the established continuity and thematic tone of the fictional universe, the result was a gradual erosion of the franchise’s core fan base. Without the approval and loyalty of “Trekkers” there would be no reason for the greater audience to stick around.
The original Crow graphic novel and feature film generated an extremely loyal fan base. But with the second feature, producers chose to ignore the fictional rules and tenets set down by the original work, and so the franchise experienced the first of what would become many fractures. Dubbing the property an “anthology franchise” that could be wildly altered based on the vision of individual artists and storytellers, the producers continued to build and deconstruct The Crow into smaller and smaller pieces, each with its own dwindling following. They chose to place the needs of their artists above the integrity of the mythology of the universe–a mythology that the fan base deeply cared about. The property now languishes in limbo.
Jenkins: What do you see as the downsides of generating such passionate consumers?
Gomez: On the other hand, passion can be blind and judgmental. Fan zeal can threaten to “box in” a property, potentially stunting its growth. It can generate negative “buzz” around a project, which can leak into media coverage and plant seeds of doubt in the general audience base. For example, Warner Brother’s upcoming “Justice League” feature film has been the target of fan criticism around story and casting issues. Since then, script and casting choices have been amended. Whether or not this will help the production remains to be seen.
Jenkins: As some of these genres have become more commercially viable, the San Diego Comic Con has emerged as an important media marketplace. Can you speak to the role this gathering plays in the marketing of your properties?
Gomez: Comic Con International in San Diego plays a more and more pivotal role in heralding, marketing and launching new genre efforts. In the midst of negotiating with executives at The Walt Disney Company for a job working with one of their largest franchises, Starlight Runner took them on a tour of the Comic Con exhibition floor. Many of the “worlds” we helped to develop were on spectacular display: Mattel’s Hot Wheels universe, the fantasy realms of Magic: The Gathering, high priced back issues of Valiant Comics, and the announcements for new video games and comic books based on Turok and our own “Team GoRizer” at Disney’s own booth! Suffice to say, a deal was quickly sealed!
Each year, Comic Con attracts well over 100,000 “gatekeepers,” fans of niche, cult or genre entertainment who make it their business to spread the word about the newest and coolest content to their friends and acquaintances both in their home communities and on the Internet. It used to be that one of these gatekeepers would have a circle of five to ten contacts back home to whom he or she would convey what was best about the convention. Now in the age of social networking and pop culture web portals, that number has multiplied exponentially. Add to this the mass media coverage given to Comic Con and content producers can reach untold millions through it.
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Jeff Gomez (email@example.com), is the CEO of Starlight Runner Entertainment, Inc., a developer and producer of highly successful trans-media projects whose clients include The Walt Disney Company, 20th Century Fox, the Coca-Cola Company, Mattel and Hasbro.