August 9, 2006
Building Popular Buzz: What to Do, What Not to Do

This is the second cross-posting from my blog written by Ivan Askwith, a media analyst with the Convergence Culture Consortium, on his experiences at this year's ComicCon in San Diego. Considering that Ivan blogs here from time-to-time, I thought you all might be interested in reading this:

Based on the evidence from this year's ComicCon, the entertainment industry is slowly starting to understand just how important a vocal fandom can be in the success of a new brand or franchise. As I indicated at the end of my last post, this growing comprehension is most evident in the largest "panel events" -- on the ComicCon schedule, this generally means those events held in Ballroom 20, Hall 6CDEF, and Hall H, which can seat anywhere from 2000-6500 spectators. Or, as the industry is learning to think of them, potential advertisers and advocates. Some presentations were more overt than others, but almost all of the largest scheduled events were closer in tone to a high-powered sales pitch than an intimate discussion between fans and creators.

That said, some presenters seem to have a more nuanced understanding of fan behavior than others. As Henry has already discussed, no one is currently cultivating fan participation more effectively, or respectfully, than New Line Cinema, in promotion for Snakes on a Plane. The panel for SoaP came at the end of a longer presentation from New Line, which featured previews of the Final Destination 3 DVD -- interesting insofar as it leverages the rarely-used interactive capabilities of DVD systems to let viewers determine the course of events at pivotal moments -- and the forthcoming Jack Black film, Tenacious D in 'The Pick of Destiny'. But the audience and presenters both knew that these were diversions from the main attraction: as the discussion about Tenacious D wrapped up, the energy in the crowd became palpable, and when panel host Kenan Thompson finally spoke the words -- "Snakes On A Plane" -- the audience erupted with enthusiasm and applause.

The entire presentation that followed demonstrated the same respectful appreciation of the internet fandom that has characterized the film's marketing campaign over the last several months. The presentation began with a video which flashed the words "Thanks to you....Snakes on a Plane.... is already the summer's most talked about movie.... and it's not even out yet." This was followed with a several-minute montage collecting some of the best fan-generated content (spoofs, advertisements, posters, images, viral memes, etc), and used the winning entry from a fan-generated-soundtrack contest as the musical track. The video ended with another sequence of titles, which declared "Thanks to you, Snakes on a Plane is one of the most anticipated movies.... ever."

Based on the audience reaction, this isn't too far from the mark: the 6,500 seat Hall H was packed, with plenty of people standing in the back and even more turned away at the door, and the crowd responded enthusiastically to pretty much everything that was shown, said, or asked. Most of the audience "questions" consisted of variations on a theme -- the theme, in this case, being what a bad-ass motherfucker Samuel L. Jackson is.

In fact, one audience member straight out asked:

"What's it like, always being such a bad-ass mother fucker?"

To which Jackson replied:

"It's great to be able to live that out on screen, but, you know, I don't walk around every day thinkin' I'm a bad ass mother fucker. I'm just trying to make it through the day, most days, but I thank you for feelin' that way about it... You're a bad mother fucker, man, thank you. Thank you, thank you."

This was more or less the tone for the entire panel. However, one audience member did ask an interesting, albeit predictable question:

"Do you think that this movie will have a lasting effect on the way that the industry looks at internet hype?"

To which Jackson replied:

I hope that people in studios are looking and paying attention and trying to figure out how and why this phenomenon took place. I hope that there's some young filmmaker somewhere that knows, that understands that now they could put a premise on the internet -- 'my premise for this film is... boom... who has a scene?' -- and people will start writing the first scene for that particular film, and then they'll choose that scene. Somebody'll write the next scene, and they'll choose that particular scene, until they end up with a whole film, and then somebody will say, 'Who do you think should be in this film?', and then they go through that, and they come up with a whole cast list of people, and if everybody sends a dollar in, we can hire these particular people and shoot this particular film, and we'll have a film that's all-inclusive, that's something that a lot of people came together on, and had a collaborative passion about. And I think that would be kind of a wonderful thing to see happen. And hopefully that will be somewhere down the line... [audience applauds]

And while Jackson's scenario might be a little utopian for the near future, it suggests that he (and I suspect this carries over to many of the individuals working on this film) is beginning to recognize and respect the changing role of the audience, and the relatively awe-inspiring possibilities that emerge from the collective intelligence and energy of online fan communities. A collaborative online movie might still be some way off, but as to the more immediate question that was posed, it seems clear that this movie has already had a significant effect on how the industry looks at internet hype. Will it have a lasting effect? My guess is "Yes", in that it represents a substantial advance on the learning curve, as studios start to realize that there are right and wrong ways to engage with fan cultures.

Speaking of "wrong ways," I feel obligated to report that some presentations demonstrated far less tact in their attempts to engage would-be fans. During the World Premiere of NBC's forthcoming serial drama Heroes, which Henry has also discussed on his blog, Executive Producer Jeph Loeb (a comics legend in his own right for his work on Batman and Superman) instructed the audience that their job was to go home after the screening, get on the internet, and talk to everyone they know, as much and as often as they could, about how much they loved the show. While there's some room to encourage fans to be vocal in responding to a new show, I think it's a dangerous -- and potentially offensive -- move to instruct them to talk about how great a show is, especially before they've even seen it. (Of course, Loeb repeated the instructions at least twice more during the post-screening discussion, and closed with them as well.) But the guy sitting next to me gave a low, dismissive whistle during Loeb's first round of encouragement, muttering "Bad move", and (personal opinions of Heroes aside) I think he was absolutely right.

The fact is that studios don't need, and perhaps can't, instruct fans to be fans, you just need to be responsive and encouraging once they express appreciation for your work. If fans like what they see, they're going to talk about it -- it's part of the pleasure of being a fan. And if they don't like what they see, odds are they're still going to talk about it, but you're better off if they don't.