Garwulf’s Corner #1: Riding the Waves of Controversy and the Strange Case of Loot
Originally published March 18, 2015
UPDATE: This was originally the third installment of the column, with the intention being to set the tone with a two part exploration talking about diversity in creating video game characters, and how to avoid token characters. And then the story about Loot hit the news, and it was too bizarre not to lead off with. As for the film itself, it failed to win the $10,000 viewer’s choice award.
HELLO, AND WELCOME to the first installment of my new column on the Escapist! My name is Robert B. Marks, and I’m an author, editor, researcher, and publisher. About 15 years ago, I wrote one of the first computer games issues columns to appear on the Internet — it was called Garwulf’s Corner, and it was published in 52 installments on Diabloii.net between October 2000 and October 2002.
This is the older, wiser version of that column.
Every couple of weeks, I’ll be here, musing on something that has caught my attention and raising whatever questions come to mind. It could be about video games, movies, books, television, or whatever else strikes my fancy. I can’t claim that I’ll always have the answers, or even be right, but I will do everything I can to be entertaining and thought provoking — that is my promise to you.
And, just like the original column all those years ago, every seventh installment will be a feedback column. So, regardless of if you agree or disagree with what I’ve said, I want to hear from you. The best comments will be published (and do be warned: if you write to me, the Escapist and I will consider it permission to publish).
So, that pre-amble out of the way, let’s get started with a truly bizarre incident…one that began, as a number of these things do, on Reddit.
A young student filmmaker named Nicholas Henderson posted a message on the KotakuInAction sub-Reddit . He had entered a student film contest, he vented, where his clearly superior short film — Loot — had lost because it lacked a social justice message. He then declared that he was done with it all, because clearly technical skill, editing, and good writing wasn’t worth anything if you didn’t follow the “SJW” (or “Social Justice Warrior”) agenda.
The Reddit community was quick to take a look. They then returned to the sub-Reddit with reactions that were more-or-less variations on “Oh God, my eyes! Quick, somebody bring me a melon-baller!”
Loot was, in point of fact, just an awful student film (and I speak from experience — I watched it). The story was fairly incoherent, although it did seem to be taking a number of cues from Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, and everything from the editing to the sound to the colour-matching was done poorly. In short order, the Redditers en masse told Henderson that he hadn’t lost because of any SJW agenda or the like — he had lost because his film just plain sucked.
It looked, for all intents and purposes, like a case where some student filmmaker had made a bad movie and refused to take responsibility for it. Indeed, when the media picked up on it, that was exactly how it was taken. And, to be fair, this sort of thing happens often enough that it probably wasn’t really worth mentioning in the first place, least of all here in this column…except for one little thing.
Henderson had posted his rant at the same time as Campus MovieFest, the organizing body of the student film contest he had lost, was also running a viewer’s choice contest with a prize of $10,000. With the attention from his Reddit rant and its media coverage, Loot managed to gain a YouTube viewer count around an order of magnitude higher than any of the competing films Henderson had mentioned in his post.
This raises a question: was the controversy over Loot a case of a bad filmmaker failing to take responsibility for a terrible film, or was it instead a cynical attempt to draw attention and win the Viewer’s Choice contest using controversy?
Riding the waves controversy is an old PR trick. Monty Python’s Life of Brian saw much of its success come from the fact that it had offended a number of religious groups. Penn and Teller once admitted that they had cemented their reputation as the “bad boys of magic” by talking about articles bashing them to major media outlets — articles that had actually been published in tiny fanzines (in reality, they later said, they hadn’t really offended the magic community at all).
Done right, riding controversy works. You don’t just get your fans reading, watching, or listening to you — you get attention from the people who love you and hate you, along with anybody else who just wants to know what the fuss is about. Get into the heart of a controversy, and even if half of the people speaking out are doing so against you, they’re still talking about you.
Even I tried to channel it, back in my younger and stupider days. Shortly after Demonsbane was released (October 2000), I found myself hoping that some states in the Bible Belt would try to ban it (they didn’t even notice it existed). There was also an early installment of the original Garwulf’s Corner which propositioned the entire city of Toronto in the hopes of offending people while forcefully making a point (all my readers got it, nobody was offended, and I learned an important lesson about trusting the reader, instead of trying to bring in unnecessary artifice).
I do not have a window into Henderson’s soul, nor do I have telepathy. I don’t know if the strange circumstances around Loot were a case of a tone-deaf ranting student filmmaker that just happened to coincide with a viewer’s choice contest, a cold-blooded attempt to win the contest through controversy, or some combination of the above. But, the timing of it all, I think, is worthy of a raised eyebrow.
The good news, if there is any out of this, is that if it was an attempt to ride a wave of controversy into a $10,000 prize, it will probably fail miserably. While Loot has racked up the YouTube views, the contest requires viewers to actually vote for the movie — which from the looks of it, nobody is terribly inclined to do.
Perhaps the moral of the story is that if you’re going to succeed in riding the waves of controversy, you first need a ship worth fighting over.