Archive for the 'Fans and fandom' Category
Long-time readers of this blog may recall that in 2008 I went to Comic-Con for the first time. I can’t recall exactly what led me to take the plunge. It may have been that by that time it was evident that the con had grown into a major opportunity for Hollywood studios to publicize their upcoming blockbusters to their core audience and I wanted to witness the process in person. Until this year, I hadn’t returned to Comic-Con. I was motivated in part by the fact that this was the last big promotional event for a film in the Lord of the Rings/Hobbit franchise. I had briefly discussed Comic-Con in relation to LOTR in The Frodo Franchise, but I had not witnessed any of the appearances of cast and crew promoting the first trilogy. This was my final chance, the end of an era.
I blogged about my first visit four times. I wrote about the LOTR/Hobbit presence on the Frodo Franchise blog. On this blog I gave an overview of the Comic-Con experience, analyzed why Hollywood poured so many resources into an event nominally about comic books, and posted a conversation between Henry Jenkins and me. Henry, who had helped found the area of fan studies back in the 1990s with such widely cited publications as Textual Poachers, was also a Comic-Con newbie that year, and we shared our reactions. (This year Henry was on a panel, “Creativity Is Magic: Fandom, Transmedia, and Transformative Works,” one of a number of panels on fan culture. I missed it because I was in line for Hall H. More on that below.)
A friend of mine who has a press pass assured me that they were not as hard to obtain as I had feared, so, based on my collaboration on this blog and my position on the staff of TheOneRing.net, I applied. To my delight, I was granted one, so I set out to cover Comic-Con more officially.
Going to Comic-Con alone isn’t nearly as fun, and I was lucky enough this year to meet up there with my friends, Professors Jonathan Kuntz and Maria Elena le las Carreras and their irrepressible daughter Rebecca, who are always terrific company.
On the Wednesday evening before Comic-Con begins, there is a preview. This means that people with various special passes can get into the big exhibition hall where most of the booths are set up. These range from dealers in rare comic books to the biggest entertainment companies, like Warner Bros. and Lego. Many of them offer unique items only for sale or give-away at Comic-Con.
Many attendees have realized this, and they buy tickets that include the preview evening. The floor was much more crowded than when I attended the preview night in 2008. There were lots of lines with people trying to get those unique collectibles.
Others were there to look at comics. Yes, there are still plenty of comics at Comic-Con. There are dealers offering rarities, as in the image above. There are comics publishers with their latest offerings.
A particular favorite of ours is Fantagraphics, which specializes in reprinting comics. They’ve launched a set of hard-cover volumes of Walt Kelly’s syndicated Pogo strips. They also, I discovered, are doing a series of Don Rosa comics, also in hardback. In fact, when I was strolling around the booth, I realized that Rosa himself was signing autographs until 8 pm. It was then 7:59, so I grabbed volume 1 and was the last person to get my copy signed. By the way, it includes “Cash Flow,” one of the Uncle Scrooge stories I mentioned in our first blog entry on Inception. Volume 1 hasn’t actually been published, but it’s available for pre-order on Amazon.
The big moment of my evening, entirely by chance.
My first press conference
Once you’re granted a press pass, your name is put on a list made available to the exhibitors and publicists planning events. Companies big and small send you announcements about signings, press conferences, swag available at booths, parties in downtown venues, and so on. Many of these events promote video games, graphic novels, and television, but one sounded intriguing to my film interests: a press conference for Penguins of Madagascar, an entry in Dreamworks’ animated Madagascar franchise. The odd thing was that the event was scheduled in the morning at 11:15, fifteen minutes before the DreamWorks panel in Hall H. If we came to the conference, we couldn’t get into Hall H–unless the PR people reserved seats there for us. The big attraction was that some of the voice talent, including Benedict Cumberbatch and John Malkovich, as well as the two directors would be there.
I showed up and got a front-row seat off to the side. The room filled up (right).
The event itself started somewhat late, and two gentlemen who were not Benedict Cumberbatch or John Malkovich appeared and answered some questions. (I would give their names, but the usual signs put on the table in front of guests were not in evidence.) We were approaching 11:25. John Malkovich and another gentleman appeared. Another couple of questions were asked, and someone announced that Benedict Cumberbatch’s plane had gotten in late the night before and besides we had to leave to make room for the next event scheduled in the room. We were not escorted to reserved seats in Hall H, where I hear that Benedict Cumberbatch did appear.
I can only trust that this is not how most press conferences turn out. Perhaps I will be invited to another one and find out.
Bill Plympton in person
Given that I had no option to go to the Hall H DreamWorks Animation presentation, I sought out an alternative among the several items offered during the noon slot. I had had my eye on a panel which had as its guests the well-known animator Bill Plympton, as well as Jim Lujan, the co-director of the feature-length Revengeance, in progress. David and have long been fond of Plympton’s work, especially his laugh-out-loud classic, Your Face (1987), which was nominated for an Oscar. It’s just a series of distortions of a man’s face as he sings an utterly wimpy love ditty (above).
Plympton continues to be remarkably prolific. He has worked on fourteen episodes of The Simpsons, including doing twelve couch gags. Now he has a feature, Cheatin’, which will be shown for a week starting on August 15 at the downtown independent in Los Angeles. (Earlier this year it played at Slamdance, but I can find no theatrical release date.) You can see a short appeal animated by Plympton for the film’s Kickstarter appeal; its quite informative about the animation techniques used. The campaign itself is over, having raised $100,916, exceeding the goal of $75,000.
Apart from clips from Revengeance, Plympton also showed a brand new short, Footprints, a charming tale of a man’s search for a mysterious house invader. It will be shown on August 14 as part of the Hollyshorts Film Festival, which will honor Plympton with the Indie Animation Icon Award. The film was entirely hand-drawn in black and white and then colored digitally.
During the panel there was a contest for a T-shirt. The question was: What is Bill Plympton’s middle name? Despite a plethora of cell phones, laptops, and tablets in the audience, no one could come up with the right answer. A second question was put forth: what was Plympton’s first theatrically released film? “The Tune,” came a cry from the audience. It was Sam Viviano, art director of Mad Magazine; he walked off with the shirt. Plympton then sheepishly confessed that his middle name is Merton.
Plympton’s films have been hard to find online, but this fall they will become available on Source HD: “It’s the entire catalog, everything I’ve ever done.” That includes about 60 shorts. As a result of this online exposure, he says, “I expect that when I come back to San Diego next year they’re going to have to give me one of those huge 2000-seat rooms.” I hope so, and I hope it will be filled–but not so jammed that I could not get a seat.
Plympton offered all attending his panel a free autographed drawing. I went to collect mine at his booth in the exhibition hall and found him drawing (right), as he must constantly be doing. Note the Cheatin’ poster behind him at the left and the usual bustle of Comic-Con in the background. He paused to dash me off a delightful image of his famous Dog character. (An animator who doesn’t use cels has to be really fast at drawing.)
Plympton DVDs are not all that easy to find, though you can get them and other merchandise at his website’s shop. If you don’t know his work, it’s time to start catching up.
A new experience: The Indigo Ballroom
Seeking to accommodate more fans without violating fire regulations, Comic-Con has expanded into nearby buildings. One of the facilities utilized this year was the Hilton San Diego Bayfront, just across from the Convention Center on the Hall H end. That’s where the DreamWorks press conference sort of took place. Its biggest room was the Indigo Ballroom. I’m not sure it had 2000 seats, but I wouldn’t be surprised.
My colleagues at TheOneRing.net have been presenting panels on the Hobbit series for several years now. In fact, my visit to Comic-Con in 2008 was as a participant on one of those panels, speculating much before the fact on the shape that the Hobbit project would take. At that point the cast hadn’t even been chosen. I suggested that Wisconsin’s own Mark Ruffalo would make an excellent Thorin. I still think he would have, but Richard Armitage has gained a large fan following in that role. I’m not sure that at that early stage Martin Freeman was everyone’s favorite candidate for Bilbo, but he soon became so–including mine. The man is a born hobbit.
That 2008 panel took place in a relatively small room in the Convention Center. In more recent years, the TORn panel has been joined by such luminaries from the filmmaking team as Richard Taylor. It has gained such a following that this year it was booked into the Indigo Ballroom.
Then we learned that George R. R. Martin was booked into the same room in the time-slot directly before TORn. (I’m sure you all know who he is, but for the few who don’t, I’ll just say, he’s the author of the “A Song of Fire and Ice” series, of which Game of Thrones is the first book.) We were all convinced that Martin’s session would be jammed and furthermore that an overlap in fandoms would mean that the audience there for Martin would stay for the TORn panel, excluding those who showed up just before the TORn session. There was much discussion as to how TORn staff not on the panel (like me) could get in and be sure of a seat. How many seats could be reserved? We didn’t know.
I determined to support my colleagues and attend the TORn panel. The question was, how many sessions would I have to sit through to make sure I could get a seat? (Rooms are never cleared between sessions at Comic-Con, since doing so would take too much time and would mean that people in one room for a session would not be able to get in line for the next session in that room. Hence the strategy of sitting through multiple panels in the same room to guarantee a seat at the one you really want to see.)
I arrived early in the afternoon in the middle of a session about some show on Comedy Central. This finally ended and the George R. R. Martin panel began. To my surprise, it was only about two-thirds full. I learned later that Martin often attends Comic-Con. Moreover, this time he wasn’t talking specifically about Game of Thrones. The session was billed as “George R. R. Martin Discusses In the House of the Worm.” The title in question is a new comic-book series that Martin is involved with. (Above, William Christensen, publisher at Avatar Press, interviews Martin.)
I had expected to sit through Martin’s session merely waiting for the TORn one to begin. I had read Game of Thrones, widely assumed to be heavily influenced by The Lord of the Rings. Game of Thrones was entertaining, but by the end I found it repetitious. I figured that the series could only become more so, so I quit there. I haven’t seen the TV episodes. Yet Martin turned out to be quite entertaining. He is a long-time fan, and his reminiscences about fandoms during the 1960s and onward were fascinating. He’s a lively, knowledgeable, and entertaining speaker with a wide experience in both reading and creating fantasy works in those days. His presentation made me wish that I liked that first book better.
The next session was “An Unofficial Look at the Final Middle-earth Film: The Hobbit: The Battle of Five Armies.” (Actually in the program the title said “Final Middle-Earth Film,” but I’m sure my colleagues did not make that capitalization error when they proposed the panel.)
The panel consisted of, from the left, Chris “Calisuri” Pirotta, a TORn co-founder; John Tedeschi, long-time staffer; Cliff “Quickbeam” Broadway, frequent contributor to the site; Kellie Rice, staffer and half of the “Happy Hobbits” fan duo; and Larry D. Curtis, another long-time staffer and frequent contributor. Chris and Cliff were among several TORn interviewees when I was researching The Frodo Franchise.
TORn has made annual appearances at Comic-Con, usually speculating in expert fashion on what might be included–or not–in the next film. Staffers comb the previous films, trailers, Peter Jackson’s production diaries, publicity photos, and cast and staff interviews, seeking for clues. While presenting their findings, they point out things in the earlier parts that people might not have noticed or may have forgotten.
The first line in the Powerpoint image above refers to widespread fan annoyance that Bilbo seems to have been pushed to the periphery of his own story in The Desolation of Smaug. This is a topic of frequent comment on the website. The TORn panel was held on Thursday, two days before any of us had a chance to see the first teaser-trailer’s premiere on Saturday in Hall H. (More on that below.) Although there are shots of Bilbo in that trailer, they mainly show him staring offscreen and reacting. I was left hoping that this is not an indication of more sidelining of our protagonist. In Tolkien’s book Bilbo decides to sit out the Battle of Five Armies and gets knocked unconscious early in the fighting; given that he’s our point-of-view figure, the battle is mainly told through other characters describing it afterward. No one expects Peter Jackson to stay true to that action and sacrifice the chance for another epic battle scene, so maybe Bilbo will get to do his share of fighting.
This year’s celebrity guest made an appearance at the end and took a few questions: Jim Rygiel, multi-Oscar-winning visual effects supervisor for The Lord of the Rings (and more recently Godzilla and The Amazing Spider-Man):
Whether the panel members were right in their speculations will not be known until December 17 (in the USA). Right or not, it was an entertaining and informative session.
What were they really there to see?
There are many rooms devoted to Comic-Con events, not to mention the various open-air booths and attractions set up in open spaces near the convention center. Room 25ABC is fairly large, but it’s considerably smaller than the Indigo Ballroom, 23ABC, and of course, Hall H. I was not alone in being puzzled as to why the panel “Fight Club: From Page to Screen and Beyond,” was scheduled in 25ABC at 7 pm on Saturday evening. Sure, the topic was an older film, and the panel was largely devoted to a forthcoming graphic-novel sequel to the story. Still, the participants included David Fincher, making his first Comic-Con appearance. I can only suspect that Fincher was a late addition to the panel’s line-up and it was too late to change the venue.
The result was that anyone determined to hear what Fincher had to say was bound to line up for the panels just before the Fight Club one and sit through them in order to see it. I decided to line up for “Disney’s Gargoyles 20th Anniversary” at 5 pm, having no idea what the Gargoyles are, and “Publishing 360: Building a Bestseller” at 6 pm, having no intention of trying to build a bestseller.
I got into a line that looked fairly short and was defined by lines of tape laid down on the carpets in the broad corridor outside 25ABC. It turned out to be one of those Disneyland-style ribbon-candy set-ups, where the line folds back on itself time after time, and you end up walking in one direction, turning around to walk in the opposite direction, only to realize that there is another group of people doing the same thing ahead of you in the same line. Fortunately most people seem to stick to the rules pretty closely, perhaps being aware of the wrath they would call down upon themselves by attempting to cut ahead of others.
I ended up about ten people back in line when the room was full. I never did learn what the Gargoyles were, but I suspected some people behind me had been hoping to get into that panel and were not there for the Fincher event. Indeed, as it became clear that no seats were going open up, a small number of people departed, leaving me about six people back from the front. It was looking good for me to get into “Publishing 360.”
At this point, from behind me I heard “Pardon me, but are you Kristin Thompson?” or words to that effect. Thus I met Ryan Gallagher, one of the stalwarts of The Criterion Cast, which describes itself as “A podcast network and website for fans of quality theatrical and home video releases.” (It is not officially associated with The Criterion Collection.) I recognized his name because he has sent many a reader to Observations on Film Art. Ryan’s latest podcast is a preview of Comic-Con, and I expect he will add one looking back on his experiences there.
What are the odds, I thought, and still think, that with 125,000+ visitors to Comic-Con, I would end up in line next to someone who recognized me? Turns out Ryan had been in line for the Gargoyles panel, so after a brief conversation, he departed. Eventually I was among the first into the room for the “Publishing 360″ panel, though there were people already there who didn’t leave, and I suspect the audience for Gargoyles doesn’t overlap all that much with the audience of people longing to write a bestseller. The procedure for building a bestseller, by the way, seems to consist primarily of getting the best agents and editors in the world. Aspiring writers, take note. Before the session began, I located an unoccupied electrical outlet and recharged my recorder. (This is a serious business at Comic-Con. The convention center is full of cell phones, tablets, and cameras dangling from outlets.)
The panel as pictured above consists of, from the left: moderator Rick Kleffel, Doubleday executive editor Gerald Howard, Fight Club author Chuck Palahniuk, David Fincher, and three artists and/or editors from Dark Horse Comics, which will bring out the Palahniuk-penned ten-part sequel starting in May, 2015.
A lot of the panel was about the graphic-novel sequel, of course. The main bit of new information about the film was that although it didn’t do particularly well at the box-office, Fincher finally got 20th-Century Fox to give him figures on how many DVDs were sold. Sales totaled around 13 million, so Fincher reckons the film must have made a profit in the long run. Probably the quotation from Fincher that will be remembered is: “My daughter had a friend called Max. She told me Fight Club is his favorite movie. I told her never to talk to Max again.” Fincher may not have been to Comic-Con before, but he knows how to please the fans.
Check out the Film website for an audio recording of the panel.
Hall H: Getting in
Hall H tends to draw much of the attention accorded to Comic-Con in the media. It’s the largest venue, with 6500 seats–including a large number reserved for representatives of the studios presenting publicity events there. That’s a big venue, but compared to the roughly 125,000 people attending the con each day, it’s not big enough. Although not everyone at Comic-Con wants to get into Hall H, most days the lines snake down and across the street, along the sidewalks. (A video moving along an entire Hall H line at a walking pace was posted on Youtube last year. It runs for over fourteen minutes, despite the fact that the people toward the front of the line are walking forward past the camera; if they were standing or sitting still, it would have run even longer.) In previous years the only way to guarantee getting into the hall for the first events of a day was to get there the previous evening and stay in line overnight. Short departures were possible if someone held your place, but basically you were there for the duration.
I was lucky enough to benefit from the innovation of a new policy on Hall H admissions. Color-coded wristbands would be handed out as the line formed, pausing at 1 am and resuming at 5am. The first portion of the line got a red band, with other colors for the next portions. The purposes were 1) the management could gauge how many people were lined up; 2) those in line could know whether they would get in or not; and 3) for the first time some people could leave for longer stretches of time than required for a rest-room break, as long as someone from their group with the same color wristband remained.
At least, that was how it was described in the online announcement. Those charged with distributing the bands and keeping order informed us that “a majority” of the group had to remain. To what degree that was enforced, we never learned. Fortunately that worked for Jonathan, Maria Elena, and I, since Rebecca had formed a “Hall H-line” group on Facebook and assembled a bunch of friends to camp out in line together. We adults, with our less flexible bones, departed for dinner and some sleep at our hotel. The next morning when we came to rejoin our group, the people in charge of keeping order asked if we had been to the rest room. Yes, we had. That and other things. Apart from everything else, the parking garage under the convention center has to be cleared after 10 pm, so the Kuntzes had to leave to get their car out. Clearly some clarifications of the guidelines are in order, but based on our experience the new wristband policy has improved the Hall H-line experience considerably.
The announced wristband-distribution schedule also had to be adapted. In the past, the Hall H line has started forming in the late afternoon or early evening, depending on the popularity of the first event scheduled for the following morning. Jonathan presciently went and got in line at 2:30 pm, and he was far from the first. Our party gradually grew as other members arrived, and inevitably groups ahead of us also swelled. Soon the line was very, very long. (A small portion of it is pictured above; the line had taken a U-turn a few hundred feet behind us, off right here.) Somewhere around 6:00 the wristbands started to be handed out, and small groups were escorted across the street to line up in the relatively luxurious area on the grass near the entrance to Hall H. There were white canopies overhead and the inevitable red plastic barriers dividing the area into rows approximately one reclining person wide. Those further back in line were less fortunate, having the sidewalk to call their bed. Our group of young stalwarts settled in for games, sleep, and an endless supply of trail mix and donuts. Rumor has it that anyone who arrived after about 9:30 pm didn’t get in. The last wristbands were handed out at around 2:30am. Presumably the handout did not pause at 1 am as planned, since clearly everyone who was going to get in when the hall opened was already there.
The next morning we received a call from Rebecca saying the group had been moved into the “chutes,” a process which had started at 7 am. These are slightly narrower strips of grass with the same plastic barriers; the chutes are opened one at a time, allowing the people in each to go in before the next chute is opened. More people are moved into the emptied chutes, and the process continues until the hall is full.
Although the handlers had said we would be let in at 9:30 for a 10:00 start, they got the process going at 9 am. By 10 we were all seated and ready for the Warner Bros. extravaganza to begin. There I am, wearing my vintage licensed Fellowship of the Ring T-shirt and the crucial pink wristband:
Warner Bros. had two hours in Hall H on Saturday morning to promote their films. The full program is not announced in advance. People were assuming that The Hobbit: The Battle of Five Armies, as the biggest item on tap, would be saved for the end. That turned out to be correct.
The event started with curtains sliding back to reveal a long, panoramic screen on either side of the big central one. This surrounded about the front half of the audience in a U-shaped set of images. Warners installed these screens at a cost of hundreds of thousands of dollars; naturally no other studios were allowed to use them.
Some short presentations opened the program, beginning with Zack Snyder coming onstage. He introduced Ben Afleck, Henry Cavill, and Gal Gadot, none of whom spoke. We saw a very brief clip from Batman vs. Superman. The two lead characters’ first meeting had them glaring at each other with glowing eyes, white and red respectively. (Naïve me, wondering why if they’re both good guys, they don’t just join forces to fight evil.) My main impression was that Batman looks like he’s wearing a small tank turret on his head. The fans were apparently pleased with what they saw.
The moderator then introduced Channing Tatum, who stood below the screen as a montage of footage from Jupiter Ascending was shown. This made no impression on me, and I have no memory of it, except that the big action scene looked pretty conventional.
The event really got going with a much longer promotion with George Miller talking about Mad Max: Fury Road. This used the side panels to good effects (above). David and I have been fans of Miller and the Mad Max series ever since Mad Max II (aka The Road Warrior in the USA) appeared. It was a treat to hear him talk about the new film, though what he said is pretty much what he has said in other interviews: there’s little CGI in the film, he storyboarded the whole thing rather than writing a script, it’s an attempt to do a continuous chase sequence for an entire film, etc.
Miller presented a montage of quick scenes from the film. It looked good but familiar. There’s Max, chained up on the front of one of the villains’ vehicles, as were some of the captives in The Road Warrior. A lot of the minor characters recall those of the same film. The digital image looked brighter and sharper than the previous films–not necessarily a good thing, since the three first films were muted, conveying a sense that everything and everyone was coated with dust. Unseasonal rains in Australia forced the new film’s shoot to move to Namibia, which looks like it stands in for the Outback pretty well. We must trust that, just as the first three films were significantly different from each other, this fourth film will have a unique flavor not apparent in the footage shown.
This was, by the way, the second preview I’ve seen recently of a film that imitates the awesome (in the old and literal meaning of that word) dust-storm in this well-known National Geographic clip online. And why not, though CGI can never equal the real thing in this case.
Hall H for Hobbit
The second half of Warners’ slot was given over to The Battle of Five Armies. An opening blast of music accompanied the appearance from left to right of a panorama of images from all three Hobbit films:
Even this fairly comprehensive view of the screens leaves out two or three images on the far right. The most revelatory of these shows Galadriel, Elrond, and Saruman at Dol Guldur, rescuing Gandalf. The panorama stayed up throughout the presentation. (A rather juddery pan around the whole things can be seen on Youtube.)
Steven Colbert, widely known as a devoted and highly knowledgeable Tolkien fan, MCed the panel, dressed in his costume from the third film, in which he has a nonspeaking bit part. He expressed his love for Tolkien and the films and showed the brief scene in which he appears. Then he introduced the impressive eleven-person panel Warner Bros. had managed to assemble:
From the left, Colbert, Peter Jackson, Philippa Boyens, Benedict Cumberbatch, Cate Blanchett, Orlando Bloom, Evangeline Lilly, Luke Evans, Lee Pace, Graham McTavish, Elijah Wood, and Andy Serkis
Of course, most of us couldn’t see them this clearly with the naked eye. Seated about a third of the way back in the auditorium, my view was as shown in the image at the top of this entry. Peter (that’s he in the lower left corner) looked mighty small in reality, but in Hall H three large screens magnify the proceedings for the crowd. (Similar video screens are used in the other very large auditoriums, notably the Indigo Ballroom.)
One highlight was the first screening of the long-awaited teaser trailer. This was released online two days later; the best place to see a large, sharp image that starts streaming almost instantly is on Peter’s Facebook page. I have to say that it looks pretty promising, apart from the continued presence of the distracting and tedious Azog and Bolg.
I won’t give a complete run-down on this panel, since a good video of it has been posted on Youtube (with the two screenings of the teaser trailer cut out). Much of it consists of typical star chit-chat. The most interesting thing said came from Peter. There has been considerable speculation among fans as to whether the filmmakers will stick to the book and let some characters die during the battle. Peter stated that the grim parts of the book are being retained and implied that several characters will indeed die. (This should mean that here will be much lamentation among the “hot Dwarves” aficionados.)
There has also been much speculation as to whether Peter Jackson or anyone else will be filming other adaptations of Tolkien’s work. This question wasn’t addressed during the panel, but the obvious answer is no. The production and distribution rights to The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings were sold by Tolkien and his publisher Allen and Unwin to United Artists in 1969. Rather than placing a time limit on the rights, as is customary, they sold them in perpetuity, and any control over the use of those rights forever passed out of the hands of Tolkien and subsequently of his estate. His son Christopher Tolkien has objected to the films that have been made, and he quite possibly will find a way to prevent any sale of film rights relating to the other books, even after his death. The Silmarillion, which takes place primarily in the First and Second Ages of Middle-earth, is, I think, virtually unfilmable. The most filmable single work, The Children of Hurin, is unremittingly grim and would be unlikely to attract any support within the industry. Apart from all that, Peter probably has no desire to prolong the franchise, either as a director or a producer.
In short, we have almost certainly seen the final “Middle-earth” presentation at Comic-Con. I’m glad I was there to see it. The franchise as a whole will undoubtedly have a presence at Comic-Con for years to come. Weta Ltd. has become a major force in the world of film and its future seems assured in a way that it did not a decade ago, when Peter Jackson’s projects were its main customers. Weta Workshop now has taken over making the collectible figures not only for Peter’s work but for other films, and it develops its own original projects for collectibles, television, and publishing. Its booth this year (below) was considerably bigger than the one I saw in 2008. (See the top image here.) It was doing very good business every time I passed by. The full-size Smaug head (above right) attracted considerable attention.
It’s still the case that the vast majority of Comic-Con attendees are not in costume.
All photos down to the one of George R. R. Martin, plus the two of lines for Hall H and the Smaug head on the Weta booth were taken by me.
My camera failed me during the Fight Club panel, so I have borrowed one from Anie Bananie’s Tumblr site, “David Fincher Stole My Life.” The photo of the panoramic screen with the Mad Max image is by Albert L.Ortega for Getty Images and illustrates the Variety story linked as “Warners installed …” in the second paragraph below it.
I mentioned that I was at the con with my friends Jonathan, Maria Elena, and Rebecca. Jonathan and Rebecca provided all the photos taken inside Hall H. (That’s Maria Elena’s TA James Shetty beside me in the green shirt.) Rebecca took the photos of the TORn panel, and Jonathan the ones directly above and below.
Many thanks to Jonathan for booking me a San Diego hotel room while I was in Egypt this past spring, and to Rebecca and her Facebook group for heroically camping out and holding our place in the Hall H line.
The San Diego Convention Center: an escalator’s point of view
I don’t know about you, but back on January 16 about the last thing on my mind was the release, still six weeks away, of Jack the Giant Slayer. It wasn’t a film I was planning to see. Not many people were, as it predictably turned out. I was more concerned with a recent release, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, and whether the decision to turn a two-part film into a trilogy had adversely affected the narrative. I posted my some-good-news-some-bad-news entry that day.
Not as giant as they might think
It turned out on that same day there were some fans of fantasy films and/or Bryan Singer, the director of Jack, who were exercised about the recently released poster for the film (reproduced above). I discovered this from a Hollywood Reporter story published in the wake of Jack’s disappointing opening weekend, when it grossed $27.2 million domestically. The story led off with an anecdote about the poster kerfuffle:
When Bryan Singer sat down at his computer in mid-January and read Internet comments criticizing a new Warner Bros. poster for his big-budget epic Jack the Giant Slayer, he fumed. He didn’t care for the cartoonish image of the film’s stars brandishing swords and standing around a swirling beanstalk. So Singer complained on Twitter. “Sorry for these crappy airbrushed images,” he wrote Jan. 16, irking Warners’ powerful marketing head Sue Kroll. “They do the film no justice. I’m proud of the film & our great test scores.” An insider confesses, “Bryan felt like he had to apologize to his fans.”
This gesture annoyed studio executives, who demanded that Singer take it down. He hasn’t. The apology won him some points with the fans, as some sample tweets in response show:
Do any current Warner Bros. executives know who Saul Bass was? More to the point, do the studios have any idea how much fan devotion is gained by directors like Singer, Peter Jackson, and Guillermo del Toro, who try to communicate directly with the fans as often as they are allowed to, and even sometimes when they aren’t? If the studios did have any idea, they would encourage directors to hold question-and-answer sessions on fan sites and communicate via social media far much more than they do now. I suspect studios give up tens of millions of dollars in free publicity by treating fans as potential spies, spoiler-mongers, and authors of vicious reviews based on trailers.
Ring? What Ring?
This disappointment with Jack’s poster reminded me of an incident that happened late in the filming of The Lord of the Rings. I describe it in The Frodo Franchise:
On 16 Dcember 2000, New Line’s president of domestic theatrical marketing, Joe Nimziki, met with the director concerning the Rings publicity campaign. One of his purposes in visiting Wellington was to meet the cast, who would be involved in the upcoming press junkets, parties, and premieres. The occasion soured when the filmmakers and actors saw the proposed poster design. Based on its audience research, New Line had concluded that Rings would appeal primarily to teenage boys, and the design was busy and garish. The actors backed Jackson up, threatening not to participate in the marketing campaign if it proceeded along those lines. Jackson had a mock-up poster made, featuring muted tones and a simply design centered on an image of the One Ring. The design was not used, but it gave New Line a sense of what the filmmakers considered appropriate. (p. 81)
When I made my first research trip to Wellington in 2003, I had no idea that this incident had occurred. Someone high in the production mentioned it to me out of the blue during an interview, which led me to think that this person considered it important and wanted me to mention it. After nearly three years, it obviously had remained a sore point. (I did describe the incident, but in general I portrayed the few mistakes I mentioned in my book as part of a learning curve that the studio benefited from.) Unfortunately I have never seen the offending poster design. I have seen one of what were apparently two mock-up copies of Jackson’s version made, on the basis of which I wrote the brief description above. The design was too muted in color and minimalist in layout to be useable, but it evidently served its purpose.
Obviously there’s a big difference between the handling of these two offending poster designs. New Line, which produced The Lord of the Rings, took the trouble to show the cast and crew the planned poster and acceded to their wishes about replacing it. As a result, the cast participated in the many press junkets and other publicity events. I’m not sure which poster design for The Fellowship of the Ring convinced the cast, but the one at the bottom of this entry was the main one used. Definitely better than the one for Jack at the top.
Warner Bros. presumably did not bother to show Singer the poster, or test it on fans, or do anything to make sure that it would boost rather than dampen potential moviegoers’ enthusiasm. It is as conventional a poster as one could imagine for such an expensive film.
The irony in all this is that New Line also produced Jack the Giant Slayer. Due to various post-Lord of the Rings failures, primarily The Golden Compass, New Line is now a production unit within Warner Bros. It doesn’t handle its own distribution or marketing, having been downsized by about 80 percent. Warners takes care of everything except the production itself.
Doesn’t amount to a hill of beans
Jack’s opening weekend’s gross was followed by a nearly 64 percent drop during its second weekend. It just went into second run last week, so its theatrical life is rapidly tapering off. In the same Hollywood Reporter story that alerted us to the poster tweets, author Pamela McClintock called Jack “the latest in a string of dismal 2013 domestic releases.” She added,
Revenue and attendance are both down a steep 15 percent from the same period in 2012, wiping away gains made last year. Jack may have cost far more than any of the other misses, but in assessing the carnage, there’s a collective sense that Hollywood is misjudging the moviegoing audience and piling too many of the same types of movies on top of one another.
I think that collective sense is shared by almost every ordinary viewer. Jack the Giant Slayer. Really? For that matter, Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters? Upon merely hearing these titles, I didn’t expect them to be hits. In the wake of The Lord of the Rings and the Harry Potter series, Hollywood has been pushing fantasy harder and harder, but there is a limit. I think that has been reached with the mini-trend toward adapting fairy tales with adults in the lead child roles. Making Jack a “giant slayer” (grammar-police note: this should be “giant-slayer”) doesn’t hide the fact that this is really “Jack and the Beanstalk” re-titled by committee.
Recently Variety reported that the success of Alice in Wonderland early in the year (it was released in March, 2010) has led studios to release films of the summer-tentpole type well before the traditional Memorial Day weekend opening of the summer season: “Warner Bros. started this year’s March madness with the pricey Jack the Giant Slayer, which never sprouted.” Disney’s Oz the Great and Powerful opened one week later.
Now there’s a film I wanted to see, and many others did, too. It’s currently still in first run and pushing toward the $500 million mark worldwide. With a reported $215 million budget plus publicity costs, that’s not a big hit (it’ll probably become profitable in Blu-ray, streaming, etc.), but it’s doing a lot better than Jack. Jack’s budget is reported at slightly under $200 million, with marketing costs of over $100 million. As of now it has grossed a little under $200 million worldwide. A week after Oz, The Croods appeared, aimed to some extent at the same audience as the two films that preceded it. In short, Hollywood is not only making a lot of children’s fantasies, adapted to a broader audiences including adults, but it is releasing them opposite each other.
Fans? what fans?
This is not to say that all such films fail. I found Oz a clever film, better than most critics have given it credit for. It presents an imaginative riff on the 1939 The Wizard of Oz as if it had been made using classical storytelling techniques but with digital technology.
But back to that claim that “Hollywood is misjudging the moviegoing audience.” It’s hard to imagine a group of executives sitting around a big table and seriously thinking that an expensive digital extravaganza based on “Jack and the Beanstalk” would bring people flocking to theaters, yet they did. Why? Possibly because they are out of touch with the fandoms they depend on.
Back when I was researching the Lord of the Rings online fandom and its relationship to New Line’s publicity department, it seemed that Hollywood was beginning to understand fans. It was a hard learning process, but New Line’s executives reluctantly gave some big websites occasional access to sets and once in a while sent them news exclusives. Such openness, grudging though it was, generated free publicity and goodwill. The studio also allowed Peter Jackson to interact with fans, though in strictly controlled circumstances.
Warner Bros. is a different animal altogether, and it has squandered much of what goodwill New Line gained in those days. The Jack the Giant Slayer poster controversy provides perhaps one clue as to how indifferent studios now are to their public and how much their insularity can damage their bottom lines.
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, made by New Line under the tight control of Warner Bros., has of course done very well financially. It grossed over a billion dollars worldwide–though just barely, at $1,017,003,568. If we could adjust worldwide figures for inflation (impossible due to different inflation rates in different countries), each installment of The Lord of the Rings would undoubtedly turn out to have earned more. This despite all the surcharges for the many 3D screenings of The Hobbit.
Why didn’t it do quite as well as the previous entries in the franchise? Perhaps some people who had liked Rings were put off by their perception of The Hobbit as more of a children’s film. Perhaps it was partly the reviews, which were considerably less enthusiastic than for any of the three parts of Rings.
I wonder, though, if Warner Bros.’s lack of interest in the fans might have had something to do with it. Consider what New Line had done for fans in the marketing of Rings as compared to what Warner Bros. has done with The Hobbit. New Line started a pioneering website, managed by Gordon Paddison, that drew millions of fans long before The Fellowship of the Ring appeared. Gordon Paddison, now running his own publicity firm, has created a Hobbit website as well, but it’s primarily a large ad for the Blu-ray and DVD, with none of the free wallpapers and other items that were so popular on the Rings site. Even a live online event from March 24, during which Peter Jackson answered fan questions, was re-posted there without the brief preview footage from The Desolation of Smaug–an unkind cut that annoyed fans greatly. This was especially unfair because to log in to the live event, one needed a code enclosed in the Blu-ray/DVD package, and the Blu-ray release hadn’t occurred in many part of the world by March 24. Not good public relations.
The main online publicity venue for The Hobbit has been Jackson’s own Facebook page, where ten production vlog entries were posted at wide intervals. These later became the main supplements for the theatrical DVD release. Given the breezy, open tone of these vlog entries, it seems possible that they can be credited more to Jackson’s initiative than Warner Bros.’s.
New Line also licensed a company to create a fan club for The Lord of the Rings, complete with an excellent bimonthly magazine. A considerable amount of effort was put into the eighteen issues that appeared, including interviews not only with the filmmakers but with the makers of licensed tie-in products. Fans were encouraged to send in questions for the interviewees, and some of these got included. The names of the charter members of the club were run in a crawl after the credits of the extended-edition versions of the DVDs, a process that, even at a rather fast clip, ran for about twenty minutes. This won huge loyalty from fans, even those who joined later and didn’t get into that crawl-title.
For The Hobbit, there was no fan club and no magazine. I can imagine that the Rings fan club generated a relatively small income for New Line compared to the many other licensed items, but it created much enthusiasm among fans. The film’s official Facebook page is a feeble substitute.
For decades people have been saying that Hollywood executives are out of touch with their audiences, make too many movies, spend too much on their movies–especially in age of special-effects-based blockbusters. It’s an old complaint but one that may be a genuine and growing problem as executives with no personal film production experience control the output of studios owned by huge corporations.
The Hollywood Reporter story that began with the anecdote about Singer’s apologetic tweet ends with some insight:
Privately, studio executives concede that Jack was a feathered fish, neither a straight fanboy tentpole that Singer (X-Men, Superman Returns) is famous for nor a pure family play. “Sometimes you simply have a movie that is rejected,” laments one Warner executive, a common refrain these days in Hollywood. “You can spend as much as you want, market it a zillion different ways, and it still doesn’t work.”
Someone might point out that Jack and Rings are not comparable projects. Rings was adapted from a beloved classic and already had a significant fan base. Jack was not based on a novel and had no such fan base. But I believe that the big studios view fantasy as a genre with a broad, somewhat unified fan base consisting of people who will go to see just about any fantasy film. The failures of not only Jack and Hansel and Gretel but also of others like Mirror, Mirror show that that’s not the case.
The answer is out there
One solution to the studios’ isolation could be to get on the Internet, keep tabs of the huge amount of fan opinion already there and appearing every day, and get a sense of what the real audience wants.
For a start, there is no “fantasy” fandom. There are fandoms around specific stories or series or movies or games. They create websites and Facebook pages and videos. Many fans are quite smart and understand the conventions of the fantasy genre. They know how the industry markets things to them. (Witness all the accusations that fly when a studio repackages a film yet again as a DVD/Blu-ray with only minimal changes in the supplements.) They know exactly what they want marketed to them and what they don’t want. Richard Taylor, the head of Weta Workshop, which designed many of the collectibles as well as the Rings and Hobbit films, is a hero to fans. Affluent Rings fans who get married can commission Daniel Reeves, the calligrapher for the franchise, to design their wedding invitations. Denny’s Hobbit meals, on the other hand, are viewed variously as merely amusing to downright offensive.
There are also rivalries among fandoms. Ask a Ringer and a Harry Potter fan who is the greater wizard, Gandalf or Dumbledore, and watch the feathers fly.
There was a vivid example of this just last month. The MTV Awards nominations for 2012 were posted for fans to vote on. In the Best Hero category there were Snow White (the Snow White and the Huntsman version), Batman, Catwoman, Iron Man, Hulk. and Bilbo Baggins. Shortly into the voting, Snow White was at first place with 13,556, with Bilbo dead last with 226 (left).
Snow White beating Iron Man and Batman? Ringers realized at once that this was not an overwhelming vote for Snow White but for Kristen Stewart, and it was happening because of the Twihards–the devotees of the Twilight series.
Rallying around, Ringers began trying to get people to Vote Bilbo. Fans created memes for tweeting and re-tweeting. TheOneRing.net, the biggest Tolkien website, got involved in helping coordinate individual efforts into a unified campaign to spread the word. Spiegel Ei posted a amusing video on Vimeo, “put a ring on it #VoteBilbo,” in which Bella Swan (Stewart’s character in the series) meets several Rings characters, reads Tolkien’s novel, researches it on the Internet, and abandons her world for Middle-earth. The short film was so clever that MTV’s website even featured a news story , linking to it–a strange case of bias that may have helped sway the voters. (The # symbol in the title comes from the fact that fans could vote only by tweeting for one of the six nominees.)
Even so, during the final exciting week, the MTV vote seesawed back and forth between Snow White and Bilbo, but the Ringers’ campaign won out, with Bilbo attaining a margin of just over 100 thousand:
Measured by the box-office records of all the films, Snow White would seem to be least popular. Yet it wasn’t the ticket-buying audience as a whole voting. It was the hardcore fans–and mostly fans from a different fandom at that.
Cliff “Quickbeam” Broadway has posted an excellent rundown of the campaign on TheOneRing.net, “When Fandom Comes Together: How #VoteBilbo Rallied the Ringers.” It conveys how a large number of devotees worked very hard for free to create an almost professional-level campaign for a character and film they loved. All this within the space of a few weeks.
I’m not saying that a studio marketer could go onto the Internet and find hard facts on fans’ likes and dislikes. It’s something one gets a feel for by looking at the message boards on TheOneRing.net or checking out The Leaky Cauldron (the biggest Harry Potter fansite) or liking a bunch of directors’ and films’ Facebook pages. By the way, it’s odd that Peter Jackson has a FB page that, with its nearly 800 thousand Likes, has become the main online publicity site for The Hobbit, while Bryan Singer doesn’t even have a FB page. Does that suggest any systematic approach in WB’s publicity campaigns? True, Jack has a FB page, but these days every film does.
What sorts of things can you learn by looking at such sites and pages? It’s interesting, for example, that Cliff’s fandom story includes one of many images that were devised by fans for the twitter campaign for Bilbo, one not from Rings or The Hobbit, but from Game of Thrones (right). Ringers would instinctively know that Lord of the Rings fans would be far more likely to read George R.. R. Martin’s book series or watch the TV adaptation than would Twihards. Not only would they recognize the image shown (the character played by Sean Bean, who was Boromir in The Fellowship of the Ring), but they would know that “Snowwhite is coming” is a riff on a portentous line from Game of Thrones, “Winter is coming.”
It is also interesting that TheOneRing.net catered to the slightly older-skewing demographic that is far more important in Rings fandom than in Twilight fandom. As Cliff says: “We have an audience that included older-generation folks who had never used Twitter, so we gave quick and easy instructions to help guide our friends toward their goal.” New Line’s audience research, which originally convinced them that teenaged boys were their primary audience, didn’t reveal that other big audience–which most Ringers would know about.
These little details may not be important in themselves, but picking up many of them from fan discussion adds up to an overall view of characteristics and attitudes. Fans are also quite clear on their likes and dislikes as far as directors and stars go. Just the other day on a thread on TheOneRing.net, Lusitano gave his opinion concerning future possible adaptations of material from Tolkien’s The Silmarillion and Unfinished Tales: “If in the future they end up being adapted, it is only sensible to give them to someone else [other than Peter Jackson]. Tim Burton, perhaps? ” Such an adaptation would, I think, be unwise, but a producer who went down that road ought to be interested in that opinion.
Clearly from the way most studios treat most fan sites, they aren’t particularly grateful for any of this. They also don’t seem to recognize that the most devoted fans working for such sites or posting on their own FB pages, YouTube, and Vimeo, have an extraordinary expertise concerning one fandom and often several.
Possibly the studios do closely monitor fansites. Certainly some people in the Rings filmmaking team read TheOneRing.net. When Guillermo del Toro was slated to direct The Hobbit, he even joined the Message Boards and participated in discussions fairly frequently. Naturally the fans adored him for it. If he had stayed on as director, would WB have allowed him to keep up that practice? Probably not unless he cleared every contribution with the studio publicity department.
I’m not saying that cruising online fan outlets would guarantee that the studios would get such a feel for their public that all the films they greenlight would be successes. There are always inexplicable flops. Why did audiences who flocked to Tim Burton and Johnny Depp’s Alice in Wonderland reject the same team when Dark Shadows appeared? Was it just the difference between the sources: a universally known classic book vs. an old TV show with a devoted but small cult following?
Still, when I hear about such incidents as the ones I’ve described here, I can’t help but feel that the fans are a far more valuable source about potential audiences than the studios realize. Why do studios not identify certain particularly knowledgeable and devoted fans as experts and hire them as consultants? Or at least quietly study what they say and do and benefit from it? Maybe then they would know what many of us already know: that the impending failure of some films, like Jack and Hansel and Gretel, is bone obvious from the start.
All this is not to say that Jack the Giant Slayer is a bad film and not worth seeing. It has gotten some surprisingly good, if not rave reviews, though its score on Rotten Tomatoes is only 52% (and 61% among fans). It’s just that WB should have known what they were getting into.
(From the Seth Saith blog)
Way back in January Jim Emerson participated in the “Movie Tree House” conversation on Sergio Leone and the Infield Fly Rule. On January 14, his blog recounted his discussion of the differences between “average viewers” and those of us who are more intensely involved in films in one way or another:
I met a very nice, intelligent woman (maybe ten years older than me) at a New Year’s Eve party and she told me “The King’s Speech” was the best movie she’d ever seen. I responded politely by showing (genuine) enthusiasm for Geoffrey Rush’s performance. But I don’t know what to say to something like that. I mean, I had no reason or desire to dismiss her, but it wasn’t the kind of statement that calls for critical analysis, either. It was just social small talk. But I believe she was quite moved by the film. And, yes, there’s nothing at all wrong with that.
I thought of saying, “Wow. My favorite movie is ‘Nashville.’ Or maybe ‘Chinatown.’ Or ‘Only Angels Have Wings.’” But I didn’t think the conversation would have much opportunity to go anywhere from there, so I didn’t.
I suspect Jim’s experience is common among people whose main vocation is writing about films. When I meet someone who isn’t a film buff or scholar, he or she almost inevitably asks one of two questions: “What is your favorite film?” or “What do you think is the greatest film ever made?” From the looks on their faces, I suspect they really want to know the answer and think that it will be interesting, even gratifying. After all, meeting a film critic or historian is less common and more potentially interesting than meeting a mathematician.
Up to now, I have generally answered honestly that I think the greatest film ever made is Jacques Tati’s Play Time and that it’s probably my favorite as well. Or I say that it’s hard to choose, but some candidates would be Ozu Yasujiro’s Late Spring, Jean Renoir’s The Rules of the Game, Sergei Eisenstein’s Ivan the Terrible, and Play Time. Almost invariably the smile on my interlocutor’s face fades into disappointment as he or she admits to never having heard of any of these films, let alone having seen them. Awkward pause, with conversation turning to other matters or my making a feeble attempt to say sometime to encourage the person to give these films a try.
I think I’ve come up with a better way to answer these questions. I’ll say something like, “Well, lately I’ve really enjoyed True Grit and Toy Story 3.” This dodges the question, but the person is bound to have heard of these, likely to have seen one or both, and may well have something to say about them—though I hope it isn’t “Yes, that’s the best film I’ve ever seen.”
Maybe that tactic will work. After all, most movie-goers work on what in cognitive psychology is called “the recency effect.” Our memories of things we’ve just experienced are more vivid in our minds than those from longer ago, even though those older experiences may have seemed equally intense or pleasurable at the time.
I ran across a good example of this effect in an Amazon review of True Grit posted by Harold Greene. Giving the film five stars, he enthuses, “I am reluctant to declare it THE best movie I have ever seen in my life but in five weeks watching it every Saturday night I can recall none to surpass it.” As a fan of True Grit and the Coen Brothers, I would believe that possibly it is the best film Mr. Greene has ever seen. But it could equally be that the intense repetition of viewings may have solidified the recency effect and diminished his memory of other films that he esteemed equally at the time.
More generally, the recency effect tends to be borne out when one of my colleagues in film studies here at the University of Wisconsin-Madison surveys their students at the beginning of a course. The goal is to find out something about their knowledge of film going into the class. One question, “What is your favorite film?” almost invariably elicits a title released in the past year or so.
So I suspect that the party-goer asking about my favorite film would be satisfied with my talking about recent movies I’ve enjoyed. The real puzzle, though, is why such people would ask such questions to begin with.
One possibility is that most people have very little sense that there is a vast body of movies out there, from over a century and from many significant filmmaking countries. Their impression of film history, as reflected in the popular media, could reasonably be that the film I might name as the greatest is probably one they’ve heard of, maybe Casablanca or Citizen Kane or The Godfather or La Dolce Vita or even Avatar.
Could it be that my questioner is hoping, probably without realizing it, that I will name his or her own favorite film? Or at least a title that he or she has seen and enjoyed? Or at least heard of? In the latter case, the person can hold up his or her side of the conversation by responding, “Oh, I’ve heard of that and have been meaning to watch it. I must put it in my Netflix queue.” A satisfactory conclusion to that little stretch of social interaction, and it does happen, albeit rarely.
I try to imagine whether scholars of opera or poetry get such questions at parties. Does someone who has just been introduced to them ask what their favorite opera or poem is? Maybe. I wouldn’t. My typical response on learning that a perfect stranger standing in front of me is a professor of something is to ask what his or her area of specialization is, hoping that it’s something I know a bit about (Vivaldi operas as opposed to Verdi, nineteenth-century Victorian novels as opposed to Renaissance poetry).
I have to admit, some people I meet at parties do launch in by asking me what areas of film I study, which makes the subsequent conversation less likely to end in mutual embarrassment. That is, with me looking like a pointy-headed, ivory-tower intellectual who wouldn’t be caught dead watching Cedar Rapids (which I’m actually looking forward to seeing) and my new acquaintance looking like an ignorant clod who doesn’t look beyond this year’s Oscar nominees (even though he or she has probably in reality seen quite a lot of excellent movies).
This entry on Jim’s blog led to a touchy exchange in his comments section about whether he and the other participants in the dialogue were being condescending to “average viewers.” This sort of disagreement seems inevitable, since people who know a great deal about any subject are likely to seem condescending to people who don’t, even if that is not their intention. But the question I’m asking is not whether “average viewers” have good taste. Some do, some don’t. So far I’ve just been trying to figure out why many of them seem determined to ask experts questions that will very likely expose their own lack of knowledge.
Beyond that issue, though, is the symptomatic implication of these two nearly universal cocktail-party questions. I think people are more apt to ask “What do you think the greatest film is?” than “What do you think the greatest opera is?” because film is still taken less seriously as an art-form than are the “high” arts. Most people think they know more about film than they do about opera because almost anyone you and I are likely to meet goes to movies more than to operas. The fact that a steady diet of well-reviewed, even Oscar-nominated Hollywood films remains only a tiny slice of the entire range of surviving movies made so far doesn’t occur to them. The same is true even for those who see the occasional indie or foreign-language film.
It used to be that a good liberal-arts education gave a young person a solid foundation in fields like music and art. I took two four-credit semesters of classical-music appreciation as a freshman and have benefited ever since. I took literature courses, and although I took only one semester of art appreciation, I have filled in by visiting museums all over the world. Even so, I would be cautious in trying to make conversation about topics like ballet, which I realize I know very little about.
Yet, the “What’s your favorite film?” question doesn’t just come from neighbors I see only at the annual block-party potluck or over bed-and-breakfast buffets. It comes from college professors who themselves are often specialists in one of the arts. They probably would feel, as well-rounded intellectuals, required to know at least something about the other arts—except film.
David was once talking with a distinguished literary scholar who would have been appalled if someone in a university had never heard of Faulkner or Thomas Mann. But when David said he admired many Japanese films, the scholar asked incredulously, “All those Godzilla movies?”
That’s really the crux of what bothers me about the awkward great-film/favorite-film question. If it’s a non-academic who asks it, it tends to be a conversation-stopper, which is unfortunate. But anyone is entitled to love the movies they want to love and to believe, if they wish, that Avatar is the greatest film ever made.
But when academics who would claim to be well-educated in the arts look blank when I mention The Rules of the Game or one of the other likely masterpieces of world cinema, I do mentally pass judgment. Is it more important to be aware of Monteverdi’s Orfeo or Velasquez’s Las Meninas than of Renoir’s film? Obviously I would say no. Yet I don’t think that these academics feel particularly embarrassed at not recognizing the title of a mere film.
This is not to say that all liberal-arts academics in other fields are ignorant of film and its history. On the contrary, we have friends who certainly know as much about the subject as we do about any other art form. But on the whole, in-depth knowledge of film is fairly uncommon across the campus. There are physicists who play piano sonatas and biologists who love painting, but those typically aren’t the people showing up for our Cinematheque screenings. The question isn’t merely one of taste either. In universities, people in the other arts vote on funding for film programs. If they deep down consider film a lesser art form and hence an inconsequential subject of study, we can expect less support, or perhaps the sort of condescending support that says, in effect, “Well, I suppose that since it’s popular with students we should go ahead . . .”
A final note. If anything I have said here sounds “elitist,” you might consider the vast movement we see occurring in this country’s politics, especially on the far right, where any learning at all is equated with elitism and any experience in public office is equated with being tainted. When our educational system is being systematically downgraded, expecting people to learn things is simple common sense.
Planet Hong Kong, in a second edition, is now available as a pdf file. It can be ordered on this page, which gives more information about the new version and reprints the 2000 Preface. I take this opportunity to thank Meg Hamel, who edited and designed the book and put it online.
As a sort of celebration, for a short while I’ll run daily entries about Hong Kong cinema. These go beyond the book in dealing with things I didn’t have time or inclination to raise in the text. The first one, listing around 25 HK classics, is here. The second, a quick overview of the decline of the industry, is here. The third, on principles of HK action cinema, is here. A fourth, a portfolio of photos of Hong Kong stars, is here. The next entry is concerned with directors, and the final one focuses on film festivals, with a list of a few more of my favorites. Thanks to Kristin for stepping aside and postponing her entry on 3D.
For a long time film academics lived in a realm apart from film fans. But over the last decade or so, the borders have been dissolving. Following the pioneering work of Henry Jenkins in Textual Poachers (1992), academics have started to study fans. More strikingly, they have joined their ranks.
Michael Campi, fan, and Chris Berry, aca-fan. Hong Kong International Film Festival, 2006.
My generation of 1970s film academics looked down what were then called film buffs, the FOOFs (Fans of Old Films), and the star-gazers who dwelled in Gollywood. We were going to make film studies serious. We over-succeeded. Actually, many of us were fans without admitting it. Many of my peers were shameless fans of Ford, Hitchcock, Fuller, et al. Is the appeal of the auteur theory a form of fannery?
Still, things seem qualitatively different now. I think that the Internet, the arrival of new generations brought up on tentpole movies and HBO, and a boredom with the Big Theory that cast its spell over official film studies, hastened the arrival of what Jenkins has called the Aca-Fan.
The Aca-Fan is a researcher immersed in fan culture without a trace of guilt or condescension. In 1973, a film professor’s office was likely to display a poster for Blow-Up and maybe another for Singin’ in the Rain (approved classic). Today the professor’s office is likely to have something more downmarket—a poster for The Matrix or Fight Club or a Beat Takeshi movie. Look on a bookshelf and you might also find a few Simpsons or Buffy action figures. The emergence of aca-fans lends support to the idea that today geek culture is simply the culture. As Xan Brooks put it in 2003, “We are all nerds now.” Or as Patton Oswalt remarks in his funny Wired essay, “All America is otaku.”
Zapped by zines
Stefan Hammond and Nat Olsen. Hong Kong City Hall, 1996.
If you wanted to know something about this tradition in the late 1980s and early 1990s, your options were limited. There were the annual catalogues published by the Hong Kong International Film Festival, but they were hard to find overseas. Virtually no Western scholars had studied this popular cinema, and the occasional pieces in Sight and Sound, Film Comment, Positif, and Cahiers du cinema made you want more. That more was often delivered by the fans.
They were a mixed lot: followers of the splice-ridden 1970s martial-arts imports that played in hollowed-out downtown theatres; lovers of Godzilla, Ultraman, and Sonny Chiba who saw Hong Kong as another wild and crazy cinema; big-city cinephiles who sought out recent imports at the local Chinatown house; fanboys and –girls in flyover country renting videotapes from Asian food shops and crafts stores. While Internet 1.0 cranked up, they found an easier outlet: print. Designing pages with good old Xerox and cut-and-paste, they created magazines.
One distant progenitor was Greg Shoemaker’s Japanese Fantasy Film Journal (started in 1968), but the punkish Film Threat (1985) was also important, for it showed that deep-dyed fan publications with attitude could wriggle their way into magazine stands. Soon DIY Asian movie zines burst forth in gaudy profusion and gave the copy shops of the world a new clientele. The early production values recalled high-school poetry magazines, with ragged right margins and nearly illegible illustrations, but the content was compelling. An early entrant was the mimeographed M.A.M.A (Martial Arts Movie Associates, 1985), created by the authors of the still very useful From Bruce Lee to the Ninjas: Martial Arts Movies (1986). A step up in flair was Damon Foster’s Oriental Cinema. Lurid covers enclosed newsprint pages jammed with information, opinion, tawdry gossip, and pictures jaggedly assaulting text. Foster was probably the most colorful editor in the field, making his own films (notoriously, Age of Demons), offering his services as a mime for the blind, and boasting, “I’ve never gone to bed with an ugly woman, though I’ve woken up with quite a few.”
It was a far-flung community. Texas gave us Hong Kong Film Connection and Asian Trash Cinema (motto: “Good Trash Knows No Boundaries”). From Toronto came Colin Geddes’ Asian Eye (first issue: Guns Robots Ghosts Kung Fu). From Honolulu came Richard Akiyama’s Skam and then Cineraider, “published,” proclaimed the masthead, “a few times a year or less.” But soon real publishers brought out slicker magazines. San Francisco had Rolanda Chu’s Hong Kong Film Magazine. LA’s Giant Robot, a phantasmagoria of Asian lifestyles and pop culture, always ran some HK features, as did Tokyo Pop. The UK gave us Eastern Heroes (Free Van Damme Double Impact Poster Inside!) and Oriental Film Review. France had Cine.Zine.Zone, East Side Stories, and the Rolls Royce of the genre, the luxuriously printed HK: Orient Extreme Cinema. Some of these became fan magazines—professional magazines aimed at fans—as opposed to fanzines, magazines made by fans. The HK ones paralleled those devoted to anime, fantasy and science-fiction, and other realms of fandom. I couldn’t collect them all—I missed out on Fatal Visions, for instance—but in an era of scarce information, the ones I found were precious.
The fanzines were a rehearsal for the writerly gambits that would be played out high-speed on the web. Although wordage was costly in a print mag, an article could be as garrulous as a blog today. Concluding a report from a film set, the author notes: “If you found this report boring, then I am sorry. If you found it interesting, then I am glad.” The pages saw flame wars as well. “The retreading of that Amy Yip libel is but the tip of the proverbial iceberg for [your magazine] and other fanzines puking out unprovable sludge as though it were straight from CNN.” We watched all the games cinephiles play—exercising one-upsmanship, excoriating rivals, impressing newbies, and expressing pity or contempt for those wanting a snap course in hip taste. More often, there was the hospitality and a sincere urge to share l’amour fou that we find on fan URLs now. Within trembling VHS images, reduced to mere smears of color by redubbing, the writers glimpsed paradise.
I would read the zines for opinion-mongering, harsh or rhapsodic, and data delivery. Apart from pictures, usually of attractive women in swimsuits, the fanzines provided reviews (always with a ranking, usually numerical), interviews, and filmographies. There were lots of lists too; where is our Nick Hornby to commemorate the compulsive listmaking of this gang? Fandom is as canon-compulsive as any academic area, and as meticulous. One issue corrects an earlier Police Story review: “The synopsis indicated that Uncle Piao masqueraded as the aunt of Chan’s character. Actually, he disguised himself as Chan’s mother.”
Ryan Law, founder Hong Kong Movie Database and film programmer. Hong Kong, 2007.
As I discuss in PHK, upper-tier journalists usually learned of 1980s Hong Kong cinema from a parallel route, the festivals that began screening the films, usually as midnight specials. Visionaries like Marco Müller, Richard Peña, Barbara Scharres, and the New York group Asian CineVision boldly programmed Hong Kong movies. Critics, particularly David Chute in a 1988 issue of Film Comment, acted as an early warning system too. Meanwhile, the fans were amassing documentation. One zine might be given over to a film-by-film chronology of Jackie Chan’s career; another might solicit Roger Garcia to write about the tradition of Wong Fei-hong films.
One of fandom’s lasting monuments is John Charles’ vast reference book The Hong Kong Filmography 1977-1997, a detailed list of 1100 films with credits, plot synopses, and the inevitable ratings. Charles, a Canadian who wrote for many zines, has been a contributor to Video Watchdog, another generous source of Hong Kong data from the 1980s to the present. Many of Charles’ reviews are available on his site Hong Kong Digital.
By the mid-’90s the modern classics had become known to cinephiles throughout the west. A 1997 editorial announced that Hong Kong Film Connection, despite having a circulation of over 5000, could not continue. Why? Clyde Gentry III explained.
The fandom base has dropped considerably because they have been hand-fed ‘the list.’ You know. The list of films like A Better Tomorrow, A Chinese Ghost Story, Police Story and others that signify the popularity of these films as a collective. It’s even more of a shame that these people will walk away leaving an entire industry with a lot more than that to offer.
Once the canon was established, once everyone had reviewed the standard items and interviewed Michelle Yeoh, agitprop was no longer needed. Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez were spreading the gospel, and the surface dwellers could now get The List through real publishers like Simon & Schuster, which produced the still-enjoyable Sex & Zen and a Bullet in the Head. In the hands of Stefan Hammond, Mike Wilkins, Chuck Stephens, Howard Hampton, and other skilled writers, fan enthusiasm blended with turbocharged prose to bring the news to a broad audience in search of offbeat cinema.
Soon, the Internet created a new era in fandom, with sites like alt-asian.movies newsgroup, Brian Naas’s View from the Brooklyn Bridge, and Ryan Law’s Hong Kong Movie Database. Some zines, like Cineraider and Asian Cult Cinema (Asian Trash Cinema redux), continued for a time online. HKMDB, another monument bequeathed to us by fan passion, remains a central clearing house of information, as do LoveHongKongFilm, Hong Kong Cinemagic, and others. The Mobius Home Video Forum became a robust conversation space devoted to Asian film, and other forums sprang up, most maintaining the old zest for discovery, unexpected information, controversy, and nostalgia. At Mobius the perennial topic, So what have you been watching lately?, has amassed 32,209 posts.
The zines and the Net made fans more influential. Some turned into critics and film journalists, and a few, like Shelly Kraicer, Colin Geddes, Ryan Law, and Tim Youngs, became festival mavens too. Frederic Ambroisine became an accomplished maker of documentaries on classic and contemporary Asian cinema. With Udine’s Far East Film and New York’s Subway Cinema, enterprising fans launched their own superb festivals.
Academics respect knowledgeable people with vigorous opinions, so I found a lot to like in Hong Kong fandom. And since the phenomenon played an important part in bringing the movies to western attention, I devoted some pages in PHK to it. Wearing my historian’s hat, I wanted to trace how fans helped build up a climate of opinion that with surprising speed created a canon and gave stars and directors international fame.
There’s a personal side to it too. Otaku I was, otaku I remain. (Comics, detective stories, Jean Shepherd, Faulkner, certain TV shows, and chess as a teenager; movies came later.) As a professor, I turned late to studying fans, but once I started, it felt like coming home. “Fan” is short for fanatic, and outsiders speak of cult movies. Both terms suggest deviant, even dangerous religiosity. The analogy isn’t far-fetched. Fans pursue revelation, as often as the remote control will yield it up. This search gives their subculture its own strange sanctity. In their frenzies and ecstasies we can glimpse a quest for purity.
For a useful lineup of HK fan sites, go here. Nat Olsen maintains a gorgeous site on Hong Kong popular culture and street life from his base in the territory. Grady Hendrix is everywhere at once, but he’s often to be found at Subway Cinema, an enterprise he and Nat founded with their colleagues.
I’m inclined to think that most people who study popular culture have great fondness for the things they study. Many film academics are cinephiles (that is, lovers of the medium itself). Others confess to great admiration for films or directors they study. So there was a fan potential latent in many researchers. But some academics evidently hate the films they write about. One friend of mine, a meticulous scholar of film and culture, doesn’t seem to enjoy any movies at all. This attitude seems to be most common when the writer takes on the task of denouncing some ideological shortcomings in the movie–its covert political messages, or its portrayal of ethnic or sexual identity. How can you love a film that is criminal?
This is a complicated matter; I note in PHK that many Hong Kong films present questionable attitudes toward police procedure, women’s roles, and other topics of social importance. The problem is that by today’s standards, virtually every artwork ever made can be interpreted to be “complicit” (a favorite word), in league with some objectionable world view. Recall the critic who heard a passage in Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony as “the throttling murderous rage of a rapist” (though she later modified her claim). By these standards, who shall ‘scape whipping? In a perfectly just society, will we have to stop watching Minnelli movies?
Granted, there are ways for the denunciatory critic to save a film that is she or he admires. It can be found to be secretly subversive, open to a “counter-reading.” Or it can be a work that openly challenges social norms, as with Surrealist cinema, gay/Queer cinema, or the work of Straub/ Huillet. Since the 1970s we have had films, mostly avant-garde ones, that seem to anticipate every possible line of objection that an academic critic might raise. But in any case you have to acknowledge that mass-production cinema is likely to call on prejudices and stereotypes. You don’t have to go as far as Roland Barthes, who noted that a “fecund” text needs a “shadow” of the “dominant ideology.” Nonetheless, our tasks as students of film, I think, is to recognize these factors but not to let them halt our efforts to answer our questions about other aspects of the films. As for love: Well, up to a point you can love a person despite his or her failings. Why not a film?
Lisa Odham Stokes and Tony Williams are other early HK aca-fans. Both have written for fanzines and have produced insightful books on Hong Kong films. See Stokes’ City on Fire: Hong Kong Cinema, with Michael Hoover, and Historical Dictionary of Hong Kong Cinema. A specialist in horror and action pictures, Tony has most recently published a study of Woo’s Bullet in the Head.
On fan culture, Henry Jenkins’ most comprehensive followup to Textual Poachers is Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide. An important recent collection is Jonathan Gray’s Fandom: Identities and Communities in a Mediated World. Online fandom and its role in promoting a film are analyzed in Kristin’s book The Frodo Franchise (Chapter 6) and her blog here. Patton Oswalt’s newly published Zombie Spaceship Wasteland is in parts a memoir from within fandom.
Thanks to Shelly Kraicer, Yvonne Teh, Peter Rist, and Colin Geddes for help jogging my memory for this entry.
Fans all: Peter Rist, Shelly Kraicer, Erica Young, Colin Geddes, and Ann Gavaghan. Hong Kong Film Awards, 2000.