Unbreaking the Relationship with Fandom

There’s a revolt brewing in the entertainment industry. “Fandom is broken,” Devin Faraci announced in a recent article. Creatives in the public eye experience Twitter as a never-ending siege. Execs talk about audiences like vengeful gods. Will they respond better if we sacrifice a cow or a sheep? How can we find divine the right combination of actions that will produce the best outcome — the magic spell to turn unruly fans into an adoring, slavishly faithful audience once again?

Once upon a time, viewers had to take what they were given. Distribution was limited. Only a few people controlled what television shows and films made it to a wide audience—and that audience, starved for content, ate it up.

Those days are gone the way of the dodo. Now viewers have innumerable choices of what to watch, and they’re becoming more and more aware of their power. Shows that attract a passionate fandom quickly are most likely to succeed (that’s what’s behind Starz’ “Obsessable” rebrand, behind MTV’s focus on social media engagement), but once you’ve got that fandom, it can feel like you’ve caught a tiger by the tail.

Thing is, the fans have a point. They really do have power, and that entitles them to a place at the table, whether the entertainment industry likes it or not.

Since fans’ engagement and attention is necessary for any TV show or movie to succeed, they expect respect, honesty and accountability from the entertainment industry. These are simple requirements. But we don’t always do a good job of meeting them.

For example, MTV’s show Teen Wolf became an even bigger hit when fans latched on to “Sterek,” the romantic pairing of two male characters. Their social media accounts reposted Sterek fan art, chose Sterek fanfic to win a competition, and largely ignored other romantic pairings.

Sterek: Stiles (left) and Derek (right).

Several seasons in, though, the fans began to feel cheated. The Teen Wolf social media accounts had been promising Sterek for years. When were they going to make good on that promise? The backlash was swift and intense.

Yes, this really was a fan-made graphic that went around Tumblr. Teen Wolf fans were really, really, really unhappy.

By comparison, The 100 gave their fans what they wanted: a kiss between the characters Clarke and Lexa (the “Clexa” pairing). But in the same episode, Lexa was killed, taking away the long-anticipated relationship. From a writer’s perspective, this sort of twist builds tension and engagement. From the fans’ perspective, though, it was just another example of the “bury the gays” trope — there have, to date, been 160 bi, lesbian, or queer female characters killed on TV, and just 29 who actually got a happy ending.

Clexa: Lexa (left) and Clarke (right).

Fans’ sense of betrayal was doubled because they knew the writers had been listening to how much they loved Clexa. In that light, Lexa’s death seemed like a slap in the face. The commonality between these two examples? It’s not that fans were upset when they didn’t get exactly what they wanted. It’s that fans believed they had been promised something — a relationship, a story line — and then, the showrunners broke the promise. Would the showrunners of The 100 and Teen Wolf say they promised anything? Probably not. But it’s funny: when someone believes you’ve promised something, it almost doesn’t matter if you have or not. They’re still going to be angry if you don’t follow through on the commitment.

So fandom isn’t broken. What’s broken is the way that fans and the entertainment industry communicate with each other.

Teen Wolf didn’t have to hype Sterek to be a successful show. The fans wouldn’t have been baying for their blood. What they had to do was not tease and seem to promise storylines they weren’t going to actually consummate. Even having hyped the Sterek pairing, there were many avenues they could have taken to satisfy the fans which would allow the show to pivot back in the direction they needed or wanted to head.

Why is it so hard to find a common language with fans? For one thing, the entertainment industry has kept its inner workings more or less secret for many years. We don’t want to spoil the magic, so we don’t tell people how the sausage gets made. Fans don’t know the wheeling and dealing that makes their favorite franchise go. They don’t know who’s really responsible for story decisions; they don’t know which actors are great and which actors are such a pain they’re getting written off the show pronto.

This knowledge gap goes both ways. If you’re busy trying to make a project work, it’s nearly impossible to keep track of online slang — ships, OTPs and OT3s, life-ruiners, trash, cinnamon rolls…? It’s even harder to keep track of the shifting groups that make up your audience and to understand the complex psychological drivers that make your story so compelling to them.

But fans expect a relationship with the team behind their favorite franchises, and that means that it’s obligatory to get to know them.

You can’t just trust they’ll take whatever you give them, and you can’t assume that they’ll interpret what you say generously, unless you’ve already created an atmosphere of trust.

Marketing departments track interest and awareness, which is key to what they do: getting people to initially engage. Their mission doesn’t require them to track the ongoing conversations inside a fandom that are key to the long-term health of an evergreen franchise. Social media departments can’t do everything necessary, either. They have to handle day-to-day tactics and don’t have time to engage in long-term strategy with regard to audience. As a result, their tools are usually one-size-fits-all.

Every fandom is unique, featuring different types of people with differing — sometimes even warring — expectations and desires.

Instead of relying on these tools, it’s necessary to synthesize them with other approaches. A quantitative understanding of the way people talk about a project — how often, on what websites, featuring what themes most frequently — is only the beginning. Then one must explore that data through qualitative methods, developing profiles of each individual gathering place, getting to know fans well enough to describe the emotional drivers that motivate them to take part. Then it’s back to the hard data, seeking new insights, crunching the numbers to understand the acupuncture points where a little engagement on the part of the creative team can make or break a project’s success. It’s about getting to know a fandom, coming to understand the types of relationships they have to their favorite show or film franchise and therefore being able to speak their language and anticipate any potential issues far before you’re staring at a ratings problem.

The entertainment industry’s relationship with fans doesn’t have to be antagonistic.

Throw out the metaphors of sieges and ritual sacrifice. To unbreak the relationship with fandom, we must stop thinking of it in negative ways. Instead of thinking about it as a siege of our castle, let’s think about it as a dinner party. We can cook fans a meal with a variety of dishes that appeal to their differing needs. After all, we invited them over, and they’ve brought dessert.