The Sad, Strange Business of Spoilers

Jeffrey Bricker
Aug 30 · 11 min read

What was once a small sliver of insider information held by a select few, spoilers have become big business for Hollywood media both in the mainstream and the fringes. The sad truth is the vast majority of so-called spoilers are nothing much than unsubstantiated rumors perpetuated for profit by otherwise uninteresting blogs.

A (Brief) History of Spoiled Hollywood

Movie obsession is not a new thing. Film fanatics have existed since the early days of cinema. Even before the additions of sound and color, our imaginations were tickled by the endless possibilities that could play out on the widescreen before us.

Likewise, movie spoilers are not new either. For nearly forty years, rumors and spoilers have been out there as the constant foil to a filmmaker’s ultimate weapons of shock and surprise. One of the most intriguing (and sad) stories in the history of Hollywood involved British actor David Prowse, the man who played Darth Vader.

Although he didn’t voice the iconic character (that duty fell to James Early Jones), Prowse was the man inside the suit. There was a lot of behind-the-scenes tension between Prowse and some of the crew (including creator/director George Lucas). The tension got so bad that Prowse was actually replaced midway through production of The Return of the Jedi (1983).

David Prowse with Darth Vader (Source: The Telegraph UK)
David Prowse with Darth Vader (Source: The Telegraph UK)

While the reasons for Prowse’s dismissal vary among sources and personal recollections, one incident can be supported by fact. At a fan event in 1978, Prowse told a crowd of enthusiastic Star Wars fans that Darth Vader was in fact Luke Skywalker’s father.

According to a local newspaper clipping from the time of the event, Prowse was sharing with fans what they could expect in yet-to-be-announced third film (dangerous territory for a discussion anyway). Here’s the summary of what Prowse said according to the news article:

While he was a little off on the details (Luke learns Vader is his father in ESB not ROTJ), the fact that Prowse is revealing details from the biggest twist of the trilogy a full two years before the release of ESB is troubling. While there isn’t any evidence that Lucas knew what Prowse had said at the event and his comments didn’t garner national attention, the mere fact that what was supposed to be a well guarded secret being talked about so casually would have been anguish to the filmmaker.

Blogging with Nothing to Say

The wonder of the digital age is an infinite space where we all can find a corner to make our opinions heard (or technically read). With the mainstreaming of “nerd culture” and the rise of the superhero genre of films, we’ve witnessed an explosion of movie related blogs and sites.

Moreover, major media outlets from CNN to The New York Times and more have put a premium of news content that targets the “nerd” consumer. That means we can find an article on CNN about the impact of the end credits scene of Spider-Man: Far From Home. And article at The New York Times offering ideas of what fans of Netflix’s Stranger Things should binge watch next.

Sure these are by-products of our current age of entertainment. But they’re also prime examples of how big corporations are fighting for the attention of the “nerd culture” consumer.

Which then brings us to the smaller blogger/writer who fights daily to find his/her own sliver of the greater pie. Maybe the little blogs can’t compete with the viewership of the CNN, NYT, etc. But they don’t really need to. Even a relatively small slice can provide most blogs with a respectable (and possibly profitable) audience.

Big media will always have better access to A-list celebrities, insider scoops and behind-the-scenes privileges. From there the little guy is left with nothing but table scraps.

And then comes the forbidden fruit … spoilers.

Beat the big media sites by venturing into the grey area of spoilers. Long considered taboo by entertainment media standards, spoiling a film has historically been viewed as disrespectful to audience members and malicious to filmmakers. But that grey area presents an irresistible opportunity for desperate bloggers.

Do Spoilers Really Hurt?

There’s nothing hard about understanding the impact of spoilers on major films. The belief held by many in the industry is that audiences go to the movies to not just be entertained but also to be surprised.

A film that is too predictable almost always be ravaged by the professional critics. The formulated, even cookie-cutter, type films across genres will “lose points” with the most critics for not taking enough chances or trying to break the mold. Originality is among the most valued traits a film critic looks for in a movie.

But what about the average audience member?

That answer is not so simple.

An often cited study from a pair of researchers at the University of Southern California would beg to differ. According to the study results which were published in 2011, a group of subjects preferred stories where they were told the ending ahead of time (spoilers) over those stories where they were not (no spoilers).

On the surface, the study results would seem to contradict the long held assumptions by Hollywood studios that audiences relish a good twist or two. But if that were the case, why would some of the most prolific and popular filmmakers in history be those who successfully pulled off more than a few unexpected turns in their films?

From Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) to M. Night Shyamalan’s The Sixth Sense (1999) and more, many of the most popular films of that last seventy years have included at least one major plot twist intended to “trick” the audience.

Would you enjoy Psycho less if they knew beforehand the secret to Norman’s mother? Would find The Sixth Sense to be predictable if you were told before you watched it about the secret of Bruce Willis’ character?

For most of us these are purely hypothetical questions that illicit subjective answers. What could ruin a film for one person might actually make more enjoyable for another. The study from USC isn’t wrong, but it isn’t universally correct either.

If we accept this premise, then it should be understood that there is a market for movie spoilers out there because there is a segment of the movie going audience that is seeking them. Likewise we have to understand that there will also be a segment of potential moviegoers who do not wish to be spoiled. In fact for this second group, spoilers could actually ruin their moviegoing experience.

The Architect of Fandom Driven News

By his own doing, Harry Knowles may never really be remembered as the pioneer he was. In the mid 1990s, Knowles came out of nowhere (well Austin, Texas to be exact) to shake up Hollywood like never before. More than any other individual, Knowles was responsible for circumventing the industry’s long held media practices in order to lend a voice to the common fan. However in recent years, multiple accusations of sexual misconduct levied against Knowles by several woman has made him a toxic figure and at outcast in space he (and his blog site) once dominated.

Aint It Cool News was among the very first of the fan driven blog sites that celebrated nerd culture and film. Knowles’ site wasn’t just a place for his personal musings, but a destination for insider information. AICN’s stock-in-trade was spoilers and getting the scoop before the major media outlets on upcoming films and television projects.

Knowles accomplished this by working directly with those involved including cast and crew. He frequently used anonymous sources who would provide him with key details from the sets of major films, the editing rooms and private screenings. He was so successful at this that eventually many studios started inviting Knowles to the inside of their latest productions, granting him unprecedented access.

In a 1997 interview with The New York Times, Knowles painted himself as the underdog fighting for the average fan:

As Knowles power and influence grew so did his apparent coziness with major Hollywood studios. Critics began to accuse him and his site of no longer being independent and becoming just another extension of the studio media machines.

Then the competing blog sites began to pop up and following AICN’s original model we began to see a major proliferation of spoilers. Competition became fierce as each site fought diligently to be the first one to release a spoiler from the next big Hollywood film.

The final blow for Knowles came with accusations of sexual misconduct backed up by digital evidence of creepy and abusive behavior. He’s taken a leave of absence from AICN with his reputation now in tatters.

But the doors opened by Knowles will never be closed as fans seems to have an unquenchable thirst for rumors, theories and spoilers.

Big Media Loves Spoilers

Today spoiler-filled news has moved on from the campy, fan-driven blog sites to big media sites. Publications like the Daily Mail (U.K.) and Screen Rant relish the opportunity to spill the biggest secrets of the latest films.

Something’s lost now as spoilers become just another commodity in trade for big media. What was once a niche for the obsessive fans is now on par with celebrity gossip and other forms of digital voyeurism. It’s like taking a great work of art and mass producing it on greeting cards … sure you recognize the Mona Lisa, but it’s not the same on a cheap Birthday card.

Moreover, the publication of spoiler driven content erodes the journalistic integrity of major media sites. Okay, so in this day and age maybe fewer people care about that … but being a paid journalist should mean something different than being a casual blogger. Not to promote an elite mindset, but paid journalists should be held to a higher standard.

That’s not happening when spoiler-driven content is put other by big media without checking sources (virtually impossible given the nature of spoilers) and when blogs written by uber fans are the original source.

Consider this for a moment: the same publications that want to be viewed seriously on real topics related to the film industry also want to get “clicks” on poorly sourced, rumor mill articles that might “spoil” an upcoming film. When the Daily Mail is constantly cited Star Wars enthusiast Mike Zeroh and his YouTube channel for content, one has to wonder if any shred of the truth is still relevant.

(For the record, I’m not a fan of Zeroh’s so-called spoilers. His track record, which you can verify by watching his old videos, is awful and his claims of “sources” close to SW films is laughable. He’s the Alex Jones of SW bloggers and yet he’s got a loyal following more than 150k strong).

The fact remains that big media is in the spoiler business because it DOES drive web traffic and that produces revenue. It’s also a easy way to cannibalize the work the small guys (bloggers) are doing and spread it to your wider audience for your own profits.

Photo by Agnieszka Kowalczyk on Unsplash

What’s a Real Fan to Do

This big business of spoilers isn’t going away any time soon. While filmmakers once detested the efforts of fans to learn their secrets before seeing the film, many have come to embrace it and even have fun with it. J.J. Abrams (Star Wars: The Force Awakens) is one of the best at teasing fans with red herrings and misdirection through careful marketing and movie trailers.

The Russo brothers and the folks at Marvel/Disney recently did a nice job of this as well with Avengers: Endgame. In that case, footage was digitally altered for trailers and TV spots just to throw fans off. It’s safe to assume we’ll see more filmmakers and studios employ such tactics to combat the threat of real spoilers.

Ultimately, it’s the decision of each fan whether he wants to be spoiled or not. More accurately, whether he wants to chase countless fake spoilers and silly rumors in anticipation of upcoming major film. There’s no solid evidence that fans who are legitimately “spoiled” fail to see a film at the theater. In fact, there might be evidence to the contrary.

But real fans should demand a higher quality of spoiler-driven content than what the big media is currently giving them. There are still good blogs out there managed by real fans who do their best to fact check and source the information they provide. When it’s simply a theory or a fan’s wish, they mark it as such. When the source really has come from a film’s production, they note that as well (aka a true spoiler).

A more discerning and discriminating consumer base can drive big media out of the spoiler business. Or at the very least, they can make it less profitable for these companies to crowd a corner of the Internet that belongs to true fans.

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Jeffrey Bricker

Written by

Indie author, journalist and film enthusiast., (my blog about movies), (contributor)

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