Henry Jenkins


Serenity Now

How fan culture is reshaping the business of entertainment.

How fan culture is reshaping the business of entertainment.

When writer Joss Whedon's science-fiction film Serenity made its debut in 2005, much of its media coverage centered on the passion of the so-called "Browncoats." Serenity was Whedon's attempt to revamp the television series Firefly, which had been, many felt, prematurely cancelled by its network, Fox. The Browncoats, the show's most hard-core fans-named for the costume worn by the show's protagonist-were actively trying to build public awareness and attract media attention to the franchise, hoping that a successful release would get the series back into production for TV broadcast. As the release date neared, fans tried everything to raise the film's profile, from holding bake sales to selling amateur-designed T-shirts.Once the box office returns were collected, Universal Studios (who produced the movie) sent out a series of cease and desist letters to the fans and, in some cases, sought to collect retroactive licensing fees for the production of T-shirts featuring Serenity icons. The fan community responded by tallying up the time they had spent in promoting the show and then sent Universal an invoice for more than $2 million (28,030 man-hours). Universal quickly backed down.Finally, the benefits of fan culture had been put into a language Hollywood could understand-the bottom line. Over the past few years, spurred on by anxieties about file sharing and declining revenue, the media industry has declared legal war on its consumers. Yet, in doing so, it has cut itself off from the viral marketing power of its fan base. The producers fear they have lost control; they worry that fans may damage their intellectual property through their unauthorized use of copyrighted materials. But they're missing the bigger picture. With a little help, production companies can turn the fans' emotional investment into a source of new income.
What fans do is a labor of love.
Consider, for example, the case of Doctor Who, a newly thriving media franchise with a successful spin-off series, Torchwood. The show was off British television for almost a decade, but during those dark years fans helped keep interest in the series alive and then helped support its relaunch. Their campaign to restart the show was so successful that many of the producers of the new series themselves emerged from the ranks of the hard-core fans. The result is a hit.This embrace of user-generated content is making a difference in the ways that old-media companies-the television networks and the film producers, but not yet the recording industry-think about their fan bases. Behind the scenes, the studios are issuing fewer cease and desist letters to fan websites and spending more time figuring out how to court these grassroots intermediaries.Fan culture is valuable (read: profitable) to the studios in many ways: it sustains interest in media franchises even when viewer loyalty is declining; it generates public awareness at a time when emotional connections are essential to break through the clutter of a media-saturated society; and, as the Doctor Who example suggests, it provides a training and recruiting ground for future media professionals.Fans may also be functioning as canaries in the mine, warning studios when the profit motive poisons a once valuable franchise and starts to turn gold into crap: Because fans are at once committed and vocal, they will be the first to tell producers what they think and the last ones out of the room after the series jumps the shark.Fandom represents a way of asserting grassroots concerns in the face of the commercialization of our culture. And this is part of how fandom opens up media franchises to alternative markets: fans are often what the industry calls "surplus viewers," viewers who fall outside the targeted demographic for a particular property (male fans of soap operas, adult fans of Harry Potter, American fans of Japanese anime). They suggest new fantasies that stretch the characters and stories in new directions and provide early warnings about a series in trouble. Think of this as the application of collective intelligence to cultural production: A thousand fans can see potential in material that might have escaped the attention of a small team of professional writers.While this isn't reducible to billable hours, it does represent a considerable investment of time and energy that improves the quality of our contemporary cultural landscape. What fans do is a labor of love. They aren't trying to make the studios rich-though they may do so in the process of ensuring that a series is successful enough to stay in production. The question is when media companies will fully embrace this fandom.Here's hoping that check is in the mail.
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