Clay Liford is an independent filmmaker living in Austin, TX. He has written and directed several shorts (such as My Mom Smokes Weed and Earthling) and the features Earthling and Wuss, and shot/edited over 20 other features, including St. Nick and Gayby. His latest feature, Slash, world premiered at SXSW 2016 and is currently on the festival circuit. You can follow him on Twitter here.
When I was a kid, I went to the movies to experience something either I’d never seen before, or something that revealed certain unspoken truths about my own life, something I was perhaps too myopic to see in broad daylight. Either way, I felt a certain duty as an audience member to rise up to the filmmakers’ level. Going to the theater was, for lack of a better word, “experiential.” Today it seems the primary reason people watch movies is either to have their preconceived notions validated or, more nefariously, for the opposite effect. To feel vindicated in their righteous indignation. In all fairness, my childhood came before the advent of the Internet, which completely altered the way people digest all media. Still, when did we as consumers decide we need to dictate not only the type of movies that get made, but the actual manner in which their associated stories unfold?
Movie criticism has existed just as long as the movies themselves, but this phenomenon is quite distinct from simply panning a bad movie or, more to the point, explaining why something simply doesn’t work in the manner it was intended. There’s a far more modern sense of ownership involved, which seems to have originally sprung from the community of hardcore genre movie fans. But with the way fans currently connect via social media, an empowered (if not falsely entitled) claiming of intellectual properties has pervasively spread to also casual fans of many shows and movies. This is not criticism. This is not that oft-misunderstood notion that “once a creation is publicly released, it belongs to its audience.” It is an entirely different creature. And despite what I’ve said up to this point, not always a bad creature.
More than four decades ago, when Star Trek was cancelled at the end of its third season, it was the fans that kept it alive, at least in the cultural zeitgeist. Indeed it remained so alive that in the mid ’70s Paramount nearly relaunched it as a new series, Star Trek: Phase II. The success of Star Wars changed Paramount execs’ minds, though, and made them decide to retool the pilot episode into the Robert Wise-directed Star Trek: The Motion Picture. If it hadn’t been for the fans and their letter-writing campaigns, though, Trek would never have been on the minds of those execs when the opportunity for another Star Wars presented itself. Fans indeed have power, and the best genre filmmakers and showrunners have known this for years. George R.R. Martin often speaks about this in reference to his time as a writer-producer on the ’80s show Beauty and the Beast, and how the series’ fans, often called “helpers,” were instrumental in securing the show a third season. (Ironically, Martin is now constantly being harangued by fans of his most popular book series telling him to finish the next installment.) See, although this piece may seem like a bit of a “get off my lawn” rant, I wanted to start by talking about the good, the “get on my lawn” aspect of fan culture and ownership, before I get all Clint Eastwood. (I am, if anything, a man of dualities.)
But now a tiny bit of vitriol: I dislike superhero movies. Strongly. They don’t offer me any version of the theatrical experience I’m looking for, and I don’t understand what people over the age of 12 see in them. My dislike is furthered because, as a filmmaker, they tend to clutter the already crowded theatrical field I hope to occupy. Though on the plus side, they (allegedly) create a need for counter-programming.
As a side note from my own studies (and a nod to my new movie, Slash), superhero stories and characters tend to provide some of the best fodder for slash (erotic fan-fiction) stories. I have to assume it’s the relative lack of detail given to the characters’ interior lives and desires by way of their canonical authors that leaves so much to be improved upon (and yes, I do mean improved upon, in this instance) by fan-fiction writers with a predilection for more, um, complicated interpersonal relationships. I also want to make it clear at this juncture that none of what I am speaking about is delving into “fair use” waters. I fully believe in the value of fair use. Some of the best works of fiction have been derived from older properties. What you are free to do with pre-existing materials is vastly different from what you expect the original authors to do with the same tools.
I was initially spurred to write this piece after reading a series of tweets spewing bile about Batman v Superman, and it seems the people who railed hardest against BMvSM (which sounds like a bondage acronym) came to it with a pretty particular agenda. And to be fair, the movie already had a very public agenda of its own. Finally, DC fans would have their own shared “cinematic universe,” and with it, their very own Avengers. And from what I understand, the movie pretty much fulfilled the necessary part of its job. It got Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman to play nice together and decide to make the Justice League so they can invite Aquaman and the Flash and whoever else to come play. But fans are pissed. Of course they are pissed with what has generally been accepted as poor filmmaking. I mean, critics are still ripping it a new one, but that’s just business as usual. Fans care about plot and execution, sure, but rarely have they been so demonstratively aggravated that a film didn’t play out the way they expected or – even more bizarre in its implied telepathy – intended. To which I ask, what did you expect? You’ve seen Zack Snyder’s work. You’ve seen even his previous Superman film. And on top of that, there was a pretty spoiler-y trailer setting all this business up. Where did the communication break down?
Social media allows fans to maintain an unprecedented degree of up-to-the-minute discourse with creators across a wide swath of creative works – many who respond to fan praise or critiques arguably more than they should. This engagement can imply a social contract. And it’s a contract you enter into, willingly or not, the moment you make yourself known to your audience. If I am your customer, and you acknowledge that you can indeed hear my thoughts, then by the nature of free commerce, you should adjust your product to my stated whims. Except this is obviously a fallacy. I think simply stating it plainly makes that apparent, however easy it is to get caught up in the illusion. Especially because fans should have a voice, and it’s been proven many times that voice has an impact. It can save shows or movie franchises. Shows with less than stellar numbers, such as Supernatural, basically troll their own fans in order to affect ratings. Though this sometimes backfires, it’s only now that we’re beginning to see fan engagement used in an attempt to actively trample intellectual properties.
As I’m writing this, some shit is going down within the fan community surrounding the Fox series Sleepy Hollow, a show raised from relative obscurity by its devoted fans, at least partially due to its progressive casting of an African-American female co-lead. After several seasons of mixed reviews and mediocre ratings, its fate remains uncertain. And during the season finale, they [SPOILER ALERT] killed off the aforementioned co-lead, causing a huge clamor within the show’s fandom. I want to be clear that I’m not saying they didn’t have a good and fair reason for their anger; this is strictly about the response. Now, similar to the way Star Trek was revived due to a letter-writing campaign, fans are attempting to take down Sleepy Hollow through petitions (mostly in the form of a Twitter campaign) on social media. In my admittedly old-fashioned world, if you don’t like something, you turn it off; you don’t give it your 10 bucks, whatever. And today there’s so much signal-to-noise, so much “content,” that simply rejecting inadequate material should be the obvious option to take. And the way our economy works, that should be enough to let nature take its course.
But it’s not enough. Because turning off or opting out is the response of an audience member who only invested time or a scant few dollars into their experience. It’s not the response of someone who feels ownership. Not the response of someone who feels a connection with the creators of the property they spent their time ingesting. Someone who feels their creative opinion is, at the least (but certainly not at the most), on the same level as the author they are absorbing.
Right now I am dealing with my own issues along these lines. Slash, my latest feature, centers on a teenage boy who writes erotic fan-fiction in an attempt to come to terms with his own sexuality. The movie premiered at SXSW to really pleasant reviews, but is beginning to drum up a small amount of controversy amidst the fan fiction community it is tangentially “about” – the vast majority of which hasn’t even seen the movie. Their issue is one of assumed misinformation, perpetuated by the fact that the slash writing community is predominantly female. This is something we don’t in any way obscure, but also something we don’t significantly explore, as it is the story of two particular characters (a boy and a girl) and not meant to be anything larger. In making the movie, we also decided to take minor shortcuts in presenting the inner workings of the community and certain codified slang. These decisions were made to simplify the storytelling, and in no way misrepresent either the passion or intelligence of anyone within fandom. The spirit is very much intact. Not unexpectedly, this did not sit well with everyone, particularly those who have only read about the movie. But here’s the thing: I made a fiction film, not a documentary. I’ve never pretended otherwise. I’ve read tweets and Tumblr posts that say I failed in my responsibility to present the facts properly. But, frankly, I do not have a responsibility to present any truth other than an emotional truth, the degree to which I deem necessary to the story I am telling. Period. And likewise, they don’t have a responsibility to either like the movie or pay to see it.
That may seem harsh, and it’s honestly not meant to, but we are on the edge of a slippery slope here. Movies are a game of telephone. They are a mass transmission of concepts and ideas that can fall apart in the process of getting from the brain of the creator to that of the audience. Writing, production issues, editing. We streamline, we seek to transmit our messages in the simplest, cleanest way possible. But we need freedom to do so. I’m not saying creators are hamstrung by their consumers. That would be nonsensical. We need audiences to survive. They are our very lifeblood. But there seem to be no boundaries anymore.
So my central question to fans who assume this high level of narrative authority is, what do you get from your experience? What do you get versus what do you want to get? What’s the takeaway? I’ve plainly stated my reasons for watching movies and my desired endgame. I have to assume there is no real pleasure, no true epiphany in seeing exactly what you expect to see unfold before your eyes in a manner you preordained as acceptable. On what planet, and with what species, is this enjoyable, cathartic, enlightening, emotional, or any of the multitude of remaining adjectives I associate with my moviegoing (and also television-watching) experience. I’m a lifelong atheist. The cinema is my church. Always has been, always will. But if I didn’t go there to rise up, if I only went there to feel righteously validated at the expense of true experience, I’d be the type of religious fundamentalist my parents always warned me about.