For the Fans? Or By the Fans?

Mass Effect 3 poster

In 2012 the final video game of the Mass Effect trilogy was released to widespread outrage from fans of the franchise. As the finale of an epic sci-fi opera its ending was deemed insufficient by its player base. Criticisms and outright bile was poured, not just on the game itself but its development team. Death threats were received along with a near constant barrage of social media attacks from angry gamerrrzzz that ended up overshadowing the game’s release and the generally positive reviews in the video game press. The outcry became so large and poisonous, Bioware, the game’s developers, had to respond. A promise was made to ‘fix’ the ending with an “extended cut” that was rushed out in response, forcing the developers to crunch in an effort to have the update released in the promised six months. But the damage was done. The controversy over the ending is branded all over Mass Effect 3 and is generally the first thing mentioned about the game if it comes up. Not only that, the story has strong echoes in developer circles who use it as an example that woe betide you “misrepresent” a project to a fanbase. A lesson No Man’s Sky learned to its cost. (I should clarify both Mass Effect 3 and No Man’s Sky are both excellent video games and the criticisms described above are those of an entitled, whiney group of self-styled video game defenders who, frankly, don’t deserve to play these games.)

This isn’t the first time a creative project was swamped with negative criticism by a fan base and it wouldn’t be the last but it was the first time I had heard of those responsible going back and changing the product after release, akin to a product recall. This is easier with wholly digital media but not as easily done outside of that arena though. Right? Well maybe ask Warner Bros Studios, who suffered a massive amount of backlash over the poorly reconstituted effort of a film that was Justice League which received enough of a sustained campaign by a rather toxic group of obsessive fans that they ended up having to re-release the whole thing in a “fixed” format a few years later. The Fans, it seems, must be appeased, or you suffer the consequences. Though what those consequences are seems ill defined as, regardless of these outraged groups, the original cut of Justice League still made over $650 million. And yet, because this is under the ludicrous demands of modern box office percentages that is still, somehow, considered a ‘flop’. I don’t think, however, the much begged for Snyder Cut made more money than that but it certainly appeased the fans, who, fresh from the success of this campaign immediately began a #RestoreTheSnyderVerse hashtag which has not gained the same amount of traction. All of this does seem to suggest the balance of power has shifted toward these ‘fans’ of certain franchises in that, after these series of appeasement programmes, their demands must be met or the product receives a drop in sales. And we can’t have that.

As these kinds of campaigns have gained traction over the years, with audience’s foot-stamping, tantrum petitions for “competent writers” to remake The Last Jedi and the Game of Thrones final season, this shift in power should perhaps be looked upon with a tad more skepticism. For a good case study into why, the current reigning champions of fan appeasement programmes, Marvel Studios, is a good place to start. The world swallowing, multi-media hype machine that was Endgame was a three hour piece of fan service of the highest order after all, evidenced by the hour of runtime dedicated to solely going back to many of the previous 20+ movies in the franchise for a bit of a wallow. This was more recently seen in the release of yet another Spider-Man sequel No Way Home that built itself around the intertexuality of the “Spiderverse” by casting many leading figures from previous filmic incarnations, therefore combining different generations of rabid fanbases both for nostalgic reasons and for contemporary pop culture. This was a film not made to tell a story necessarily but to appeal to as broad, and more fervent, fanbase as possible. Films like this, that reach success like this, are examples of where this dissolution of power has occurred. In Hollywood, and elsewhere in pop culture, it seems the audience or fanbase must be found, or created, first, then you build your story around the demands of that particular audience.

And for many, this is enough. Great, even. But the problem is this creates a cyclical stagnation whereby the corporations making this stuff are seen to be “giving the audience what they want”, then it makes a lot of money, so the corporations think that this is all the audience wants and while the money keeps rolling in we just receive… well, what we are currently receiving, i.e. endless remakes, reboots, reimaginings, rip offs and sequels. Star Wars, Terminator, Alien and many other movies from the 70s and 80s were original screenplays once upon a time, but are now in their 40th year of franchisification, purely due to an illusory belief in ‘audience demand’. But if this is true, if Hollywood is purely responding to fan pressure, whereby a film like Ghostbusters: Afterlife is purely made “for the fans” of the original as stated in the movie’s marketing, then who is actually the driving force behind creating this stuff? This is further complicated by what actually constitutes everyday entertainment for this generation.

Tiktok, Instagram, Twitch and YouTube are overwhelmingly the daily choice of entertainment for the under 25s. In short, the things that are watched most continually and consistently by younger audiences are themselves. The audience now produces as much, and, in some cases, better quality, entertainment than the ‘mainstream’ media. This was proved during the pandemic when all the major TV networks had to produce their shows from home and audiences were forced to watch the daily news in grainy 240 resolution with watery audio because none of these celebrity newscasters or talking heads had any knowledge of how to produce a show from their homes. Meanwhile the streamers didn’t skip a beat with their dual computer, mixing desk, hi-def webcam, ultra-fast fibre broadband upload setups at home. But even when it comes to the film industry itself audience created ‘content’ (yak) has usurped Hollywood. Ticket sales for straight up comedies has declined steadily over the last decade as most people now get their laughs from TikTok or Instagram, with creators on these platforms commanding audiences greater than network television viewing figures and entering into lucrative partnership deals that make some of them into millionaires. Throughout the pandemic, audiences were the ones making high quality content not the billion dollar media companies. With this level of sophistication, one would think, this ‘pro-sumer’ audience would render mainstream, high budget output obsolete but it hasn’t. Why? Because it is all reactive.

The majority of what is seen on these social platforms is almost entirely reactive. Streamers responding to a new video game or youtubers reacting to the latest movie trailers or making video essays about the latest TV show, TikTok is entirely built on a lack of originality by promoting people who remake funny videos in pursuit of trends whereby the original they mimic ends up being impossible to track down, and so on. And this is the audience the media companies are chasing. It is all in pursuit of the much desired ‘engagement’ which can then be monetised through advertising. It is a strange world we live in now where audiences hold the power to dictate the direction of these incredibly powerful corporations’ media output but is also entirely beholden to it. Despite the apparent disruption between audience and creator, brought about by the internet and social media, where tastes are ‘made’ now, but, ironically, neither has a hand on the reigns. The push and pull between artist and audience is as old as humanity itself but in contemporary culture what is created today actually has nothing to do with either. Both artist and audience are beholden to wealth and those that possess it. Media projects must be ‘greenlit’ by these companies but only if an audience already exists for the project and if one does not already exist it is created, whereupon the artist is told to make their product to appease that market. In short, it is not the audience that is ruining things for creators, it is the corporations that now gate-keep the artist’s work from reaching the audience that are the problem.

Given the technology that is available to everyone now, we should be in an interesting era of dynamism between audience and artist, whereby the audience is now the artist too and the ficticious but much desired ‘market place of ideas’ should take over, a meritocracy of art whereby truly the best is what emerges from the mass of ‘content’ pumped into our devices today. But, instead, it all revolves around who has the most money to spend. It is true to say audiences hold more power than ever with regard to making art today, but it also doesn’t matter, because ‘art’ isn’t what’s being made, it is content that is being sold.

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Leo Cookman

Leo Cookman

Peripatetic Writer. “Time’s Lie” out now from Zero Books.