July 28, 2006


- Editor's Note
- Opening Note: Grant McCracken on Pirates of the Caribbean and Middle-Sized Motion Pictures
- Glancing at the C3 Blog
- Closing Note: Henry Jenkins' Guide to Fan-Friendly Television, Part I

--------------- EDITOR'S NOTE ---------------

Welcome to this week's Weekly Update from C3.  This week's opening note features a piece by C3 faculty advisor Grant McCracken looking at the recent success of Pirates of the Caribbean: Dean Man's Chest and the implications the film's history has on the importance of mid-level Hollywood ventures versus small indy films and summer blockbusters./tmp/temp_textmate.ILE88H:5:in `initialize': No such file or directory. In the closing note, Henry Jenkins writes the first of a two-part series on fan-friendly television and its implications for the upcoming fall lineup.  In this first part of the series, Henry presents the five criteria for fan-friendly television.  The second part of this series will appear in next week's opening note.  If you have any questions or comments or would like to request prior issues of the update, direct them to Sam Ford, Editor of the Weekly Update, at samford@mit.edu.

--------------- OPENING NOTE ---------------

Johnny Depp and the Dead Men's Chest Called Hollywood

By: Grant McCracken

It is now clear that Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest is a smash hit, and everyone connected to it is an absolute genius. (Bill Murray's joke here: "I'd like to thank everyone connected to Lost in Translation, but so many people take credit for it now, I wouldn't know where to begin.")

It's worth remembering that the striking thing about the film, and the thing that most surely saved it from being fiber free, Nutrasweet pap, is the performance by Johnny Depp.  And this is worth remembering because Disney came close to canning his performance

[T]he eccentricity of Depp's approach sent ripples of panic through Disney's executive suites. Frantic phone calls were placed to Verbinski, Bruckheimer, and Depp's agent: Why is he walking funny? Why is he talking like that? Is he gay? Is he drunk? And it wasn't only the suits who were concerned: ''The first scene I did with Johnny, I was like, What the f--- are you doing?'' Knightley says. ''None of us knew if it was going to work.''  

Depp was not to be deterred. ''It was just fuel to go further,'' he says. ''Not because I wanted to piss Disney off, but because I believed it was the right thing to do. Finally, I said, 'Look, you hired me to do the gig. If you can't trust me, you can fire me. But I can't change it.' It was a hard thing to say, but f--- it.'' (Rottenburg)

 Whew!  Talk about dodging a bullet!  Imagine if the lead actor didn't have clout or courage.  Imagine a director (Gore Verbinski) who was not prepared to retire to a life as a "goat cheese farmer."   Imagine if this was a bigger bet for Disney, and not a movie based on a ride from it's theme park.  Depp might well have been deterred.  Disney might well have prevailed.  All of a sudden, it's no longer an opening weekend of $132 million or a ten-day-take of $258 million.  "I can't change it."  When was the last time these 4 words made a studio this much money?

Hollywood, one of the places culture and commerce combine spectacularly in our world, is having a hard time of it. 

1) costs are going up.  The Motion Picture Association of America says that it now costs $96 million dollars on average to make and market a film.  This is up nearly $20 million from 2001.

2) ticket sales are still flat, and hover at what they were 4 years ago.

3) DVD sales are beginning to slow, after years of double-digit growth.

The industry, once famous for its big spending ways, is changing.

1) new cost discipline is in effect at the studios, not least because they are now owned by large multinationals.

2) big stars are dropping their salaries.  Tom Cruise did for Mission Impossible 3

3) the studios are, in the opinion of Stephen Prough of Salem Partners, "absolutely less fun" to work at. 

4) There is even talk of a "death of the middle" strategy embraced in other markets.

Hollywood executives have also opened a debate about the proper size and composition of a studio's film slate.  One theory is that studios should do away with mid-sized films--say, with budgets in the $50 range--and instead focus on the blockbusters, such as Pirates of the Caribbean and niche products.  (Chaffin)

 The "death of the middle" strategy is straight forward.  It says, spend massively to guarantee hits at the top, and fund lots of little films to fill niches (and find sleepers) at the bottom.  The middling films, the DOM stategy says, are too small for marketing muscle and too big to connect to anyone.

But what are we assuming here?  We're assuming that the block busters are manufacturable, that the studios can manage their way to sensational numbers.  Really?  It looks like Disney came this close to refusing the essential ingredient of this summer's blockbuster.  (Is he drunk?  Is he gay?  Please.  It's called acting.)  Were it not for Depp's refusal to rework his foppish Jack, this block buster might well have been a middle weight, and no block buster at all.

I wonder if it isn't time for Hollywood to get chunkier.  Maybe the real opportunities lie in the middle ground.  A chunky approach to marketing says go for the sweet spot, the place with money enough to hire real talent, and enough freedom to set them free.  (Freeish.)  There has to be a habitable space between the deeply eccentric, entirely self indulgent freedoms of the indie and the "fear of falling" rigidities that understandably beset the studio when spending $160 million.

Maybe the next move for Hollywood should be managers who can manage the middle.  I mean most anyone can spend their way out of risk...except when they can't (which is now much of the time).  And just about anyone can max out their parent's credit cards in the creation of the next great indie act of film school nicherie.  

More easily said than done.  Managing the middle, looking for chunky markets, this takes people who really know the interface between culture and commerce, people who can read consumer taste and preference, who can work a fragmented culture because they know that culture, AND bring the project in on time and budget.  It takes people who know their culture and their commerce.  I don't doubt there are people in Hollywood who qualify as centaurs, but I'd be very surprised if these people were industry standard.

Hollywood's problem is everyone's problem.  Every packaged goods brand face the problem of the vanishing middle.  Every marketer must learn to speak to a turbulent marketplace.  One of these days, a business school or an industry association will rise to the occasion.  In the meantime, we'll just have to hope that the actors will save us.  (And when you are relying on Johnny Depp to save you, well, God save you, too.)


Chaffin, Joshua.  2006.  Hollywood's blockbuster budgets leave the chests bare.  Financial Times.  July 17, 2006.  [source for all data reproduced above in point form]

Rottenberg, Josh.  2006.  The Piracy Debate: the rough seas of the upcoming "Pirates of the Caribbean" films.  Entertainment Weekly.  July 07, 2006.  here. 


Bill Murray quote approximate.

Grant McCracken is a faculty adviser for C3 and the author of various books on brand management and cultural consumption.  He holds a Ph.D. in cultural anthropology from the University of Chicago and has been a senior lecturer at the Harvard Business School, in addition to director of the Institute of Contemporary Culture at the Royal Ontario Museum.  He is also currently an adjunct professor at McGill University and a corporate consultant on brand management.

----------- NEWS FROM THE C3 BLOG -----------

Marvel Civil War Series Demonstrates Power of Comic Book Medium.  The umbrella series shows both the ability of popular culture to produce quality work with meaningful content and how comic books can promote a storyline across multiple series.


The U.S. Marines on MySpace.  America's Marine Corps has begun recruiting new members through the social networking site, drawing the attention of the media, other branches of the military, and scores of potential marines.  The site has already drawn in over 400 potential recruits.


AETN Signs Deal for Engagement Measurement.  The parent company of A&E and The History Channel joins scores of other broadcast and cable networks in measuring audience engagement with programming, advertising, and product placement through their deal with IAG Research.


Red Velvet Cake Only Possible with Cheap Ingredients.  Sam Ford writes about the recent independent film recorded in Hartford, Ky., which indicates the ways in which the easy availability of filming and editing equipment are opening a potential market for regional film markets.


E! Launches Shows on iTunes.  E! Entertainment has put many of its most popular shows on Apple's distribution service, including The Simple Life, The Soup, and Dr. 90210.


Verizon Fiber-Optics Television Service Launches Local Programming.  The FiOS service from Verizon is delving into local programming in the Boston, Manchester, Baltimore, and Tampa markets, through Hearst-Argyle television affiliates.


Shrinking Distance from Producer to Consumer.  Sam Ford writes about how the blogosphere is giving producers new avenues to gauge fan response but how fans cannot expect public conversations can be guarded from cultural producers, based on a recent commentary from the BBC News Web site.


Marvel Jumps Aboard Comic Book CreatorThe comic book company and Planetwide Games come to an agreement so that fan-generated content using the software can now include some of the most popular characters from the Marvel Universe.


Amazon Competing with iTunes in Digital Television Content.  The new Amazon Digital Video program will launch using tie-ins with Amazon pages advertising actual DVDs, but will that be enough to be competitive with the already-established iTunes?


Self-Expression Powering the Internet.  Sam Ford reacts to a recent blog post by Lydia Loizides.  Loizides writes that self-expression is powering the Internet and providing cultural producers with real-time response to their programming.


CBS Advertising on Egg Shells in Grocery Stores.  Sam Ford writes a bad-pun-filled look at how the network will be promoting its fall lineup by putting egg-related slogans on grocery stores and debates whether it will be considered clever or intrusive by shoppers.


Nobody's Watching Being Considered by NBC.  After gaining a strong following on YouTube, the ditched pilot show is generating strong interest from NBC and is now under consideration for a future spot in the NBC line-up.


Journalist Robert Tur Sues YouTube.  The independent journalist has sued the video content distributor because of a violation of copyright through the posting of some of his videos.  YouTube has removed the offending content, but Tur wants $150,000 in damages for each instance that his work has been posted.


ABC Drops Temporality from Title of Evening News Program.  Now that ABC News is offering continual online content streamed through ABC News Now, the network has dropped the "tonight" from its evening news broadcast title and is shifting to a continuous news transmedial focus incorporating its Web site.


Henry Jenkins Asks What Happened to Star Wars Galaxies?  C3's director looks in-depth at the life of the Star Wars online game and its implications for convergence culture, based on his observations of the game's successes and failures.


--------------- FOLLOW THE BLOG ---------------

Don't forget - you can always post, read, and carry out online conversations with the C3 team at our blog: http://www.convergenceculture.net/weblog/

--------------- CLOSING NOTE ---------------

Professor J’s Guide to Fan Friendly Television: Forecasting the Fall TV Season

Part I

By: Henry Jenkins

First, let’s define “fan friendly.” By fan friendly, I mean programs that attract strong, committed and highly visible followings as manifested in such activities as fan fiction writing, convention discussions, and online forums. Such programs may or may not enjoy ratings success by traditional standards. So, the CSI franchise consistently ranks in the top tier of the Nielsen ratings but doesn’t generate anywhere near as much interest within the fan communities as a lower rated show such as Veronica Mars. Indeed, historically, fan favorite shows enjoyed a marginal position on the schedule, having strong niche appeal but struggling to stay on the air. That’s why there have been so many letter writing campaigns through the years to keep their favorite shows on the air.  It is only in recent years where cult shows like Lost also happen to be ratings leaders that the line between the two has started to blur.  

Yet, even if fan favorites are not top ratings earners, they serve other vital interests for networks. They are “must see” tv at a time when appointment viewing is in decline. They tend to rank higher in terms of  paid downloads or digital video recording than many shows that do better in the ratings. And early research suggests that people watching their favorite shows are more engaged with the advertising as well as the content. They are also more willing to seek out further information about the series, resulting in more touchpoints and a greater receptiveness to convergence-based strategies. And for lower ranked and cable networks, a strong niche audience may make or break a program.

For my current purposes, I am really talking about two different but sometimes interrelated fan communities: one mostly female and focused around the production and consumption of fan fiction and the second, mixed gender and focused on online speculation and discussion. Keep in mind that there are other possible fan communities – sports fans, soap fans, music fans, etc. who will have their own criteria and interests.

So, what kinds of shows are most apt to attract strong fan followings. I will first lay out a set of criteria and then use those criteria to pick some likely leaders in the new shows announced by the major networks for the fall. I am hoping that in doing so, I will also suggest some criteria that cable networks might use to tell how fan friendly their own programming is. Keep in mind that at this point I am discussing these shows based on the short descriptive materials available to the general public – though in a few cases, I have seen previews or other released content.

Fan Friendly Programs:

1. Focus heavily on characters and character relationships.  In some cases, fans will pull secondary characters from the margins of a series if they are not interested in the central protagonists. In particular, they are looking for the following:

--Strong emotional bonds – especially partnership,  mentorship, and romance (probably in that order if you are talking about the female fan writing community)

-- Strong focus on the formation of alternative or utopian communities (again, this is especially true with the fanzine community). 

-- Intelligent characters who use their brains to solve problems

-- Outside characters or characters with strong internal conflicts.

--Strong, competent, and active female characters

We can understand each of these traits as in some ways reflecting how fans see themselves and their social network. Fans see themselves as intelligent, strong, independent, socially committed, and nonconventional and they are drawn to characters who share those characteristics. They contrast themselves to what they call “mundane” viewers. These traits also reflect the genres that have emerged in fan fiction. Given the presence of a strong fan tradition about male partners becoming lovers, for example, there is a tendency for fans to be attracted towards shows that have strong partnership themes. So, a show like House meets all or most of these criteria including intelligent protagonists, a focus on friendship, romance, and mentorship, a strong sense of community, etc.

2. Focus on genre entertainment. While many fans watch realist or quality dramas (such as The West Wing) or sitcoms, these programs rarely cross over into their activities as fans. They  do not generate the same level of discussion online or at cons nor do they inspire the same amount of fan fiction. Historically, organized fandom started in response to science fiction but with each new series that fits the other criteria but does not fall into the science fiction genre, the tastes of this community has broadened. So, at the moment, fan favorites can include crime dramas (Prison Break), mystery (Veronica Mars), adventure (Lost), science fiction (Battlestar: Galactica), historical drama (Rome), westerns (Deadwood), Buddy shows (Entourage), medical shows (House), etc.

3. Provides a strong sense of continuity. Even before there were fully elaborated story arcs on television, fans were inclined to read the episodes as if they formed some larger continuity. Series which rely heavily on continuity tap the collective memory of the fan community and allow them to show the kinds of mastery that comes from systematically watching a particular series. The management of continuity in turn becomes a favorite activity in online fan discussions.

4. Contain secrets or problems to be solved. Take this back to a distinction I make in my book, Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide between attractors (that is, shows that draw together like minded individuals) and activators (shows that give the fan community something to do – some roles and goals they can pursue together in relation to the content). The power of a show like Lost is that it is continually opening up new secrets, posing new mysteries, and creating new opportunities for fans to pool knowledge (see the much-discussed example of the map this season). This also accounts for how reality television programs such as Survivor, Big Brother, or American Idol find their way into the emerging fan cannon – because they offer either plenty of room for speculation between episodes or explicit opportunities for evaluation and participation.

5. Often have strong pedigrees. Shows by creators of previous fan shows (such as Abrams or Whedon) can more or less insure that their fan bases will turn out and give a first look at any new series they produced. Since part of the challenge is to produce a series that will be an attractor, this is a huge advantage going in. Despite the focus on characters within fan aesthetics, the same has not always proven to be true for actors. While there are fans for specific actors who will follow them from series to series, fans of a character may or may not be interested in something else from the same performer.

These are traits we can judge from advanced information about a series. There are other elements that are harder to read. It is not enough that a show operate within a well defined genre; it has to respect those genre conventions and satisfy the audience demands that draw them to the genre. It is not enough that characters be compelling on paper but there’s an element of chemistry that emerges as these characters are embodied by specific performers that can make or break a series. 

Next week, in the second part of this essay that will appear as the opening note of the Weekly Update, Henry Jenkins applies these five criteria to the networks' fall lineups.

Henry Jenkins is the chief faculty investigator for the Convergence Culture Consortium and is Director of the Comparative Media Studies program and the Peter de Florez Professor of Humanities at MIT.  His book, Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide, is due for release at the end of the month.  His blog promoting the book is available at http://www.henryjenkins.org.


Compiled and Edited by Sam Ford (samford@mit.edu)


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