• Our Obsession With Fan Theories Is Ruining Pop Culture
    Mar 12, 2018

    This isn’t a problem exclusive to the Internet age, either. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle famously killed off the world’s most famous fictional detective because he was, by his own admission, sick of his own creation distracting him from moving on to more “serious” writing. His devoted readers, however, were outraged, and Doyle eventually gave into public pressure; finding just enough wiggle room in Sherlock Holmes’ death-dive off of the Reichenbach Falls to resurrect him in “The Adventure of the Empty House.”

    Over one hundred years later, creators Mark Gatiss and Stephen Moffat recreated this infamous “death” in the BBC’s ongoing TV adaptation, swapping a waterfall for a London tower block. Just to double-down on the cyclical history, they then spent a year watching the fan theories on how Benedict Cumberbatch’s Sherlock survived flood the Internet in between seasons, and then — clearly amused by the reaction — actually incorporated it all into “The Empty Hearse,” giving us a slideshow of “What Ifs..?” that felt like the TV equivalent of sifting through /r/FanTheories rather than bothering to provide any concrete answers. Doyle, if not begrudgingly, at least obliged his loyal readers with a vaguely plausible explanation to Holmes’ miraculous death cheat.

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    Though it was a nice (if not patronizing) gesture of Moffat and Gatiss to make “Sherlockians” feel noticed, inclusivity like this can also exacerbate the problem we’ve been talking about. This is the third contributing factor: once the characters on your TV screen starts winking and nodding directly at you, that glass wall becomes a two-way mirror. And with casual forth-wall breaks becoming more and more commonplace in mass media — from Ms Marvel gushing about her Wolverine/Storm fanfiction, to an episode of Supernatural that saw Sam and Dean Winchester playing Jared Padalecki and Jensen Ackles in a Supernatural TV show, to just about any episode of Rick and Morty — the constant stream of theorizing and dissection of pop culture is incentivized by the knowledge that creators could actually acknowledge it in the work itself. This only makes us even more frustrated when our favorite theories don’t pan out, not because we feel like we’ve not been heard, but because we feel like we’ve been wilfully ignored.

    Not only are creators aware, and sometimes actively part of, the fan conversation, but there’s pretty compelling evidence to suggest that companies behind our mass media are too. Think about how much more important the marketing of a movie has become in the past decade. Just before the release of 2001’s Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, Paramount’s then-chief, Sherry Lansing had concerns about the quality of the film. (And if you’ve seen Tomb Raider, you’ll understand why.) The company’s marketing expert wasn’t so bothered though, telling her spending more money to improve the picture “won’t make the tiniest difference to how much money it brings in.”

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    He was right — the film made $275 million on a $94 million budget. But Lansing confessed in her 2017 memoir that she was left “feeling empty” at what this meant for Hollywood’s future. 15 years later, almost half of the budget for Suicide Squad was spent on marketing. The film currently has a dismal 26% critical approval rating and a mere 60% with audiences on Rotten Tomatoes, but grossed $746 million worldwide. It seems that Lansing’s empty feeling was right on the money.

    Page 3: Fans Need to Stop Obsessing Over 'What If...?'

    What these marketing budgets don’t account for, however, is the hundreds of thousands — maybe even millions — of dollars worth of free promotion that we, the fans, contribute through our traceable, documented discussions. This is the fourth and final contributing factor.

    The industry absolutely feeds the beast, too. Instead of one theatrical trailer for a film, we’re drip-fed slices of it through endless teaser trailers and even trailers for teaser trailers long before any actual trailer-length trailer is even released, which, when it is, it’ll be the first of about a dozen to wet our appetite sometimes a full year before the movie’s release date. It’s the Hollywood equivalent of being asked what you want for dinner tonight before you’ve even had a chance to brush your teeth in the morning.

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    What this continual stream of clues does is turn us from patient fans into an army of Sherlockian pop culture detectives; racing to be the first to figure out every part of a story as we piece together each promotional image, background detail from a trailer, tie-in toy reveal and leaf through the source material. Not all fan theories are created with the expectation that they will become reality, but the “AH-HAH!” fervor that they foster is real.

    Their existence is objectively benign and, at best, indicative of an engaged and passionate audience. But at its worst, obsessing over “What If..?” more than “What Is” creates a fandom culture that sees the next big release as not an adventure yet to be taken, but a mystery to crack open, which fundamentally changes how these stories are being told. What we’re left with is an audience trapped in a contradictory state: not wanting to be surprised, challenged or shocked by a story while, at the same time, wanting new and fresh takes on old favorites.

    Its a conundrum that can make an industry very rich and an audience, much like Sherry Lansing, feel very empty.

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