Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Before the age of the fan

The following is pulled from a much longer Mark Evanier piece on a notoriously unsuccessful attempt at bringing Archie and the Riverside gang to prime time television in the Seventies. TV buffs should read the whole thing (particularly the big reveal at the end), but as a business and marketing guy, this passage seemed especially interesting.
This one first ran on this blog on September 27, 2003 and it's about two pilots that were done in the seventies by the company for which I was writing Welcome Back, Kotter. Contrary to what has been reported elsewhere, I was not a writer on either, though I turned down an offer to work on the second. I was an unbilled consultant on the first. What happened was that the Komack Company had obtained the rights to do these special-pilots and Jimmie Komack had this odd notion of how to approach doing an adaptation of an existing property. His view was that it should be done by writers and producers who were completely unfamiliar with the source material so their minds were uncluttered by what had been done before.

While I was working there, he also did a pilot that brought back the not-dissimilar character of Dobie Gillis. Dobie's creator Max Shulman had co-written a pilot script for the revival — a real good one, I thought, that updated the property but still captured what was great about the old series. ABC assigned the project to Komack's company and Komack used the Shulman script to attract the necessary actors from the original version — Dwayne Hickman, Bob Denver, Frank Faylen and Sheila James. Then, once they were committed, he tossed out the Shulman script and had a new one written by two writers who'd never seen the original show. (If you think I'm making this up, read Dwayne Hickman's autobiography. [Hickman went on to become a CBS programming executive from '77 to '88, so Komack may have come to regret pissing him off on this one.-- MP])

Jimmie took a similar approach to turning Archie into a TV show. The creative staff he engaged were not totally unfamiliar with the property but he urged them not to read the old comics and to instead work from a rough outline someone had written about who they were. This did not sit well with John Goldwater, who ran and co-owned the Archie company and who regarded himself as the creator of the feature. One day, Komack called me in and said, "You know all about comic books, don't you?" I said I did. He said, "Archie Comics?" I said I did. Later that day, he brought me into a meeting with Mr. Goldwater, who was visiting from New York, and introduced me as his resident Archie expert and consultant.
I suspect that Komack's attitude was fairly representative. Fan culture was still in a fairly embryonic state in the Seventies. Other than the occasional opportunity to mine for camp, adaptations of popular pulp and nostalgia properties largely ignored the source material. The idea of sending A-list stars to woo the crowds at Comic-Con was decades away. These days, studios are extraordinarily concerned with winning the support of the fan base, even on bubble gum properties like Archie. It's almost impossible to imagine a producer instructing writers not to read the comics they were adapting.

What changed? For starters, the fan grew, both in number and economic clout. In the early Seventies, the San Diego Comic-Con was attracting a few hundred attendees. These days it exceeds 130,000 with tickets selling out within a couple of hours.

More importantly, Hollywood realized there was even more money to be made in straight adaptations than from the camp versions of the Sixties (though it should be remembered that the Adam West Batman was a massive hit for its first season). The 1978 Superman made 300 million on a budget of 55 million. The 1989 Batman cost seven million less and broke 400 million. Recently, Iron Man, the Avengers and company, though generally falling a bit short of those films on ROI, have opened up the possibility of unequaled potential franchise profits. Superheroes are the biggest thing to hit the movie industry since the big budget musicals of the Sixties (Sound of Music had a budget of just eight million and made almost 300 million. Along with other hits like Mary Poppins and Oliver!, this box office success inspired Hollywood to pour more and more money into big budget musicals. The trend did not end well).

Is this new emphasis on the fan a good thing? So, is the rise of the fan a good thing or a bad thing?Probably, a little bit of both. Certainly, the cross fertilization with many talented writers moving easily back-and-forth from the different media is a good thing. Lots of talented people were going underutilized as were many excellent, and as time has shown, highly profitable ideas.

However, we should remember that most of these ideas are disturbingly old. Fans have a tremendous fondness for properties with lots of history. That has been a dangerous combination with media consolidation, spiraling budgets and regulatory capture of the copyright process. Billions of dollars are going to the constant rebooting of aging franchises owned by a handful of companies while start-ups with fresh ideas struggle.

There are also risks associated with focusing too much on any segment of the audience, be it teenagers, critics, industry types or hardcore fans. As someone who's in the dangerous middle -- enough of a pop-culture geek to get the jokes but not enough of one to enjoy them -- I may be overly sensitive to nerd-pandering, particularly to self-reference, but I don't think I'm entirely unrepresentative.  J. J. Abrams has put me off Star Trek and probably Star Wars for life (If I ever hear another actor say "I'm a doctor, not a..." it will be too soon). Even in Skyfall, a movie I greatly enjoyed, the allusions to exploding pens and Aston-Martins were a distraction on first viewing and have gotten more annoying since.

Another indication of this influence can be found in the coverage of TV programs and movies that inhabit well-known fictional universes. PR is still the most valuable form of advertising and one of the most effective ways for these shows to generate that attention is reveal some connection to that universe.

For example, there was a great deal of coverage around the revelation that the characters played by Chloe Bennet and Kyle MacLachlan were a couple of fairly minor Marvel characters, though MacLachlan's has been bouncing around for a long time now. For serious fans, this was a big deal, but for most viewers, the connection meant nothing. If the name "Calvin Zabo" doesn't mean anything to you, you are not the target audience.

Eventually, the strategy of making most of the audience sit through allusions and in-jokes they don't get will inevitably have a negative impact on the ratings and the box office. This makes an already unstable trend even less sustainable. We are seeing lots of records being set on the revenue side, but far more on the other side of the ledger.

Take a look at this list of the most expensive films adjusted for inflation. If we exclude the 1978 Superman (the budget of which was meant to cover the sequel as well and which barely made the list anyway), the only movie less that twenty years old to break 200 million in today's dollars was the notorious Cleopatra and that only comes in at number 17. Hollywood has been burned before when hot genres petered out, but it has never stood to lose this much.

No comments:

Post a Comment