May 10, 2010
When Fans Become Advertisers: Smallville Becomes Legendary

When we hear that fans are rallying support behind a favorite television series, we might imagine the letter writing campaign in the late 1960s which kept Star Trek on the air; we might imagine fans of Jericho sending crates of peanuts to network executives; we might even picture fans of Chuck organizing a large scale "buycot," getting people to purchase foot long sandwiches at Subways to show their enthusiasm for the series. What we probably do not picture is fans raising the money to support and air their own commercial paying tribute to the star of their favorite series. So, I was impressed when I received this press release the other week:

Smallville fans have funded a professionally-filmed tribute commercial for the CW leading lady Allison Mack and her tv character, Chloe Sullivan, to air this Spring in Los Angeles before this season concludes. Starring on Smallville since 2001, Ms. Mack has gained a large and devoted fan base as one of the CW's most beloved stars. For the completion of her 9th year on the series, Smallville fans decided to celebrate Allison Mack and her tv character, Chloe Sullivan, with a commercial project entitled Legendary. Scripted and funded entirely by fans, this first of its kind tribute ad was filmed in Los Angeles in late February. In the capable hands of the director, Jon Michael Kondrath, cast and crew created a tribute ad focusing on who Chloe Sullivan is and what she means to Smallville fans. The ad highlights milestones in Chloe Sullivan's journey from her introduction as a high school student in Smallville to being hired at the Daily Planet as well as becoming Clark Kent's confidante

I wanted to know more of the story behind this project and reached out to Maggie Bridger, who is one of the organizers, to learn more about how fans have been able to mount such an ambitious undertaking and to explore with her what it's implications might be for future forms of fan activism.

Your project represents a unique example of fan-supported and generated advertising in support of a commercial television program. What are you trying to accomplish here?

We are hoping to celebrate our adoration for a character whom we feel serves as a positive representation of a heroine in popular culture and in fandom. Part of it is about gratitude for DC Comics, Warner Brothers, the CW, Smallville Productions and Allison Mack for bringing us Chloe. The other part of it is about showing that we love Chloe and want to see her as the series goes forward.

Why Chloe Sullivan? What does this character mean to you?

Chloe Sullivan represents the meeting of two worlds---the fantastic and the ordinary. We watch her and see the journey of a driven career woman who, from her first days at her high school paper through her career at The Daily Planet and beyond, has served as a role model for many of us. A lot in our group started watching the show and Chloe Sullivan when we were still in high school and college. We have doctors and lawyers and grad students among us. Chloe didn't make us into those, of course, but she was a girl out there in the media who was going through our same journey. She gave us hope and confidence. If she could accomplish her goals, then we could. That common drive was how Legendary was conceived in the first place.

When we watch Chloe Sullivan, we also see a woman who has been asked to play above her head. She's smart; she's capable. However, she's still a normal human who is dealing with a world of superheroes and aliens. She stands shoulder to shoulder with the future Superman and with the Green Arrow and the rest of the Justice League and she does it with her wits and will. It's inspiring.

Can you describe the process you've gone through to produce the advertisement?

Sleeplessness? In all seriousness, it's been a long process. We started with planning back in January. The executive producer, Liz De Razzo, called me about this idea she had. We all clearly love Chloe and had felt some disappointment over her reduced screen time this season. This commercial came to Liz as a way to draw some attention onto fans' love for Chloe Sullivan and the actress who plays her, Allison Mack.

We worked in a whirlwind---getting funds raised, auditioning actresses, recruiting the crew, and getting details assembled. We got legal finalized about 24 hours before shooting time.

It was a marathon!

Then we went into post-production. We did extra fund raising to obstain money for sound mixing. Again, it's been a two pronged process. I've been working a lot with the fandom as a whole while Liz, our contact in Los Angeles, has done the amazing on-the-ground work. She's been the one leading this through editing by the very talented Avi Quijada.

Where are you at in terms of meeting your goal for this project?

Currently, we are finishing our sound mixing and score for the completed edit. We will be sending it off via our air agency to KTLA this coming week. We had a lot of goals going through this process. One was to get the commercial shot and finished and we're almost there with post-production. The next was to get funds and purchase air time on KTLA, the Los Angeles CW affiliate. Again, we're finalizing a deal with them. However, while these initial goals are finishing up, we have a bigger goal---taking the Legendary commercial to other markets. We're eying WPIX, the New York affiliate, and would love to air there as well. It all depends on funds!

How many people have contributed - time, ideas, money -- to make this all work?

I have honestly lost count.

It's not just the online Chloe fans who have contributed. It's also the production company, Rekon, and the crew. There's the director Jon Michael Kondrath and the actresses. Then there's been other producers added to the project and all those involved in post production and securing air time. It's really grown into an amalgamation of fans and professionals in Los Angeles dedicated to make Legendary come to life. Without Liz, we never would have been able to do all this. She blended her fandom love and her real life connections in the industry and made this happen.

What has been the biggest challenge in terms of pulling this together?

Murphy's law. I have to be honest and admit that something unexpected always comes up. If you budget out X amount for a project like this, I think it'll probably double or triple by the end. I know it has for us. The other huge problem is distance. That's a unique aspect of online fandom. While many Chloe fans are from the United States, we also have a large international community. Our script writer lives outside of Tokyo; one of the copy editors for our press releases and our website is in Australia; I live in the Deep South on central time and Liz, of course, is in Los Angeles. It's been hard coordinating virtual teaming meetings for a time we could all make it. Basically, it took me and Megan Butler, our script writer, being insomniacs to pull it off.

I definitely received my share of 1 A.M. phone calls from L.A.!

Do you think this is a model other fan groups can or should follow -- not only in terms of paying tribute to characters but also as a way of increasing the visibility of favorite programs?

Well, I'm not sure yet. As far as increasing visibility for favorite characters and for favorite programs, I hope this is an exciting new direction. I know we've all seen fans send in favorite items like peanuts for Jericho or the Tabasco bottles for Roswell as well as putting out Variety ads. I think fan ads, even if it's specific like for an actor/actress or a character, can change how marketing is done. It can help form a partnership in a new way between shows and their fanbases.

But I do have to preface that with "not sure yet." We've had some luck so far with Legendary. In a month, the vimeo preview vid has had over 3,000 hits. We've had supportive blog coverage and twitter notice. I'm not sure what the larger print or television media will think of it when it hits airwaves. I hope they love it as we do. Similarly, I don't know what the network's reaction will be yet. Again, I hope it's all positive. This project is our baby and we are extremely proud of it. I guess, then, that you'd have to ask me again in about six months, if I think this is a model that should be emulated.

I do have to say one thing. I don't think this will catch on completely as a "save our show" type of campaign. I know that Jericho, Farscape, and I believe Star Trek: Voyager fandoms have done fan sponsored commercials for their favorite shows. I'd say it's an iffy proposition, not just because it might fall flat but because it takes a long time. The fundraising, the coordination of efforts, getting a crew and all takes more time than I think the average canceled/on-the-bubble show has before its final death throes.

However, if you're asking me if I'd love to see commercials for Dr. Temperance Brennan or for Cara from Legend of the Seeker, then why not? Bring on the love for favorite characters. Bring on another Jericho-style commercial. It might not make complete waves in the industry but it shows fan love and devotion matters and that's extraordinary to me.

Maggie Bridger is an aspiring graduate student in developmental psychology at a university in the Deep South of the United States. Always interested in fandom studies, she's been published in Slayage, the online journal of Buffy studies. She is currently working toward her masters doing research hippotherapy and autism. One day, she hopes to also be able to write a scholarly piece on fandom campaigns, citing Legendary as a prime example.