Everlasting cultural ubiquity stands as the holy grail of any creative endeavour. This tantalising achievement so often seemingly within reach is more often than not beaten down by the bulwark of a society whose tastes change and whose fickleness is monstrously incurable. The Simpsons though continues to find new paths to cultural relevance; the latest of which is through internet memes.
People have been clamouring for a Disney princess that embodies LGBT traits for some time, but the latest #GiveElsaAGirlfriend campaign is misdirected, misguided and will ultimately fail to accomplish the very outcome it desires. Why is this so, and why do fans tend to believe otherwise? The answer is troubling and undermines all efforts aimed at increasing representation in the media.
Being in development for some time, Miraculous: Tales of Ladybug & Cat Noir has been through a convoluted development process that wound it’s way through various countries and formats before finally landing on the kid-friendly, 3-D CGI production we have today. It’s the type of show that’s becoming increasingly rare, but for a variety of reasons that are worthy of discussion.
Fans and fandoms are recurring themes here on the blog, and for good reason. They form an essential, and ever more critical part of a successful cartoon or animated feature. They are marketers, advocates, customers, and above all, appreciative individuals. However, fans have long been held at length by studios, and for good reason as the latest Steven Universe drama unfolds.
Bronies and Bronyism has long solidified itself into the broader cultural consciousness as a phenomenon with a lot of positive, inclusive qualities that have also been a contributing factor in the success of My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic. But has the fandom of Bronies ruined the enjoyment of the show for others and could a similar phenomenon have negative connotations for a different show?
It’s a long-held tradition that fan-art is one of those things that’s just going to happen whether a studio like it or not. From the professional to the downright weird, fans love to show their love and passion for something by making their own version of it. Apparently, that no includes replicating an entire episode, but what kind of copyright questions does this throw up?
Over on Indiewire, Eric Kohn has written a very interesting (and comprehensive) piece on Adventure Time and how the show has grown far from its simple roots by expounding in all sorts of weird and nuanced directions. What Kohn touches on, but does not completely explore, is why the logical, complimentary relationship that should exist between creators and fans has gotten somewhat out of step and why that’s a thing that should be a concern.
Published a while back was a post over on Fast Company by Andrew Reid that’s all about fans, or rather, fans and influencers and the ease at which both are interchanged and confused. The concept of fan and fandom is often used on this blog, but when it comes to culture, it is harder to distinguish between fans and influencers because they are essentially one and the same. Nobody proclaims love for an animated property for the sake of influence unless they’re paid. Reid brings up many interesting points, but he also lists a few rules that animation studios would be wise to consider. Let’s Take a look.
What Fans Really Define
When we discuss fans and fandom within the confines of animation, we really mean the vast majority of people who just happen to like a particular show or film. In our minds, they are as much advocates as they are fans, and the vast majority of them accept criticism that is warranted.
While Reid uses the term ‘advocate’, it’s hard to see where such people fit into the world of animation. Jeffrey Katzenberg is an obvious advocate, but he’s clearly got something to gain by doing so. Can ordinary people be advocates for animation? Arguably, bloggers are to an extent, but where to draw the line between them and pure fans? It’s blurry, complicated and unlikely to be resolved any time soon.
Coaxing Influencers, or Rather, Fans
Where Reid’s article is wholly appropriate to our cause is in the guidelines it gives to giving advocates a nudge, or the coaxing they need to be more efficient. For animation, (normal) fans would fulfil the role of the advocate. They’re quite accurate; let’s dive in!
Don’t fake the funk
Fans of Sonic the Hedgehog have been caught by this trap far too many times. Pixar is the role model; promising on, and delivering stellar films continually delight fans. Walt Disney was also aware of it; he aimed for, and demanded, perfection with every picture. The brand and company he built with the results are a testament to its mportance.
How are animation fans incentivised? Well, freebies constitute and incentive and while it can fool kids, adults are wise. A once-off or exclusive is a form of incentive, and they can have similar results. Ever buy an item with an ‘exclusive’ or ‘limited-edition’ extra? That’s an incentive. A real incentive is something that a fan can truly value but it likely won’t substantially grow your brand or revenues.
Don’t sweat NPS
For an animation studio, feedback from fans is much more valuable.
Give them a voice
This is something that studios excel at relative to other industries. There are fan sites all over the internet, and corporate efforts like D23 illustrate how studios can get in on the act too and succeed. It also pays to listen. While you don’t have to blithely agree with everything you hear, fans can give honest feedback that can steer decisions and make them work in your favour.
Ambassador programs are underutilized
Do animation studios even have ambassador programs? Well, sort of. While they don’t have the kind of programs outlined in Reid’s article, they do utilize their characters as ambassadors t great effect.
Could humans fill a different void? What about adult fans? Consider again the service Tugg and its goal of setting up screenings that are essentially organised by fans for their own benefit. The link between it and this point is that whoever organised the Tugg event is an ambassador; they want to entice others to see the film they love. The fact that they are doing it honestly is what prevents them from being mere salespeople.
Animation studios could fo a lot more to have local fans advocate for them in some official way. (They’ve been doing it unofficially for decades with group screenings and conventions.) What could they be?
Fans of animation are, in a way, essentially forced into being advocates thanks to the marginalisation of the technique in mainstream entertainment. Anything that can be done to help them from an official standpoint should.
Where does the line between fandom and serious escapism lie and what risks do fans undertake by crossing over it? The Brony phenomenon and its popularity brings a contemporary focus to this topic.
Two Sides of the Same Coin
When it comes to fandoms and the properties on which they are based, there is always a range of levels when it comes to deovtion. There is the casual fan who watches occasionally, the more serious fan who will watch devotedly and may/may not buy the DVDs when they come out. From there, it’s a pretty quick graduation into serious fandom, where watching is not only considered mandatory, it is considered the gateway into further show discussion, which can consists of much more than just character and plot theories, but expand into philosophical musings on things like the deeper meanings behind the show to backstories for the characters. Fanfiction also comes under this grouping.
Even those top level of fans are capable of separating their fandom from their daily lives however. From there, we slide into a degree of fandom where the distinction between the universe within a show and the real world become quite blurred.
Just to note, cosplay doesn’t fall under this; it’s a method of expression and an outlet for creativity that resides either within the confines of conventions or photo shoots. That said, there exists fans for whom it is considered acceptable to either replicate, or mimic many characteristics of a show of character in their daily appearance who would.
So if regular fandom is one side of the coin, what is on the other?
Again, I need to emphasise that the line is a blurry one, and it’s easy to mistake an escapist fan for a very serious one. Escapist fans operate on a much deep psychological and physiological level. For them, their chosen show/film, is so much more than a source of entertainment, it is, in effect, a potent source for some, most or all their morals, decision-making and outlooks in life.
Escapist fans engage in much more than simple roleplay, cosplay (see above) and displays of their affection. Rather, they act and behave in ways that display heavy degrees of influence by the show(s) in question. They respond (or fail to respond) to problems and conflicts in ways that are based upon characters in the show. Again, this can occur in varying degrees/levels and even the vast majority of fans engage in a “what would X do if…” discussion. What this post is concerned with are the fans who base every dilemma on what a character would or would not do.
The Blurry Borderline Between Normality and Escapism
So where exactly does the borderline lie, and how can we tell when it’s been crossed? In the case of bronies (just to pick an example, but plenty of others exist out there), escapism would be somewhere in and around the point where My Little Pony becomes more than just a show. When we cross into looking at the show for advice and guidance, that’s when we’re either very near or over the line.
The influence of shows on kids and younger people in general has been known about for decades. Kids reenacting scenes, quoting characters and creating their own adventures has been part and parcel of televised entertainment and toys since the dawn of television. The introduction of various educational and informational programming (what it’s called in the US, but similar programmes exist around the world) were intended to ensure that kids not only took away the correct meaning from a show, but were also able to make a connection between the show and real life but still be able to draw a line of distinction between the two.
Where escapist fans inhabit is an area where there is little if any distinction between a show and reality. Sure the characters do not exist in real life, but they may as well given their influence.
Where Escapism Becomes a Concern
Escapsim itself can be a concern on many levels, but for most people escapism is temporary. It lasts only as long as they watch TV, play videogames or read a book. Temporary escapism can be beneficial; helping people relax and whatnot. It can be social too, in the case of Dungeons and Dragons. Where it becomes a concern is when it infiltrates real life and potentially affects a fan’s ability to function in it.
Coming across this Mashable post by Jessica Goodman, I read these few paragraphs:
“Our generation has a lot to deal with in life,” Marlow said, “We’ve had to deal with the cruddy-ness of progress, the changing economy. The early two-Ks have a gutter of pop cultural gross-ness. It’s post-9/11. Everyone’s been diagnosed with chronic depression, ADD, an eating disorder.” She paused and touched an emerald streak that stood out against her dark hair. “We like to pick up and go to a different world.”
With the growing popularity of Pixar movies and adult-oriented cartoons, it’s become easy for people her age to “extend our adolescence,” said Marlow, especially online. Her first fandom love was Harry Potter. A tattoo on her left forearm pays homage to Severus Snape, one of the series’ main characters.
While the part about escapism as a method of dealing with reality is a concern, her declaration that Pixar films and cartoons are a method for ‘extending adolescence’.
Look, the lure of youth and its presence in animation is as old as Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (look up Michael Barrier’s excellent Hollywood Cartoons if you are in any doubt) and the emphasis on youth within the wider [American] culture is almost overwhelming. However, using animation as a tool to extend the immature and quite frankly, suffocating period known as adolescence is certainly an example of the kind of escapism mentioned above.
Anyone looking to extend their adolescence should realise that succeeding in the real world demands that you leave that period of your life behind. Sure you can keep your hobbies and interests (on a different level of course) but if you are relying on an animated show to sustain whatever exuberance you feel into adulthood, you will be in for a rude awakening.
One cannot but worry that escapist fans (especially younger ones) will face an even tougher time getting to grips with life than others. Plenty of geeks already inhabit their parents’ basements (and I’ve met plenty of them) and it is always sad to see a person invest more in an entertainment property than with real people.
Escapism at its deepest level certainly does permit a fan to withdraw from reality and inhabit a world that is comfortable and friendly (this includes online forums by the way) but it does so at the expense of their social responsibilities and connections. Conventions only come around so often and last for so long. Online forums and message boards provide communication and friendliness, but there remains the physical disconnect that will never be able to be replicated over a telephone line. Content itself is only so much and lasts for so long and one can only extract a finite amount of meaning from it.
Where Creators Play a Role
Needless to say, without creators, there is no content and without content, there are no fans or fandoms. The question is, what, if anything, can creators (individual and otherwise) do to either assist and promote social interaction by fans and ensure that escapism retains an undesirable taint?
Personally, it comes down to emphasising the temporary nature of entertainment and how it is certainly capable of playing a role within a fan’s life, but should remain a relatively small one. When content starts to dominate someone’s life, they are in trouble not matter what age they are.
Escapist fans who define who and what they are by a singular TV show have essentially sold themselves to whatever corporation creates it. Such people and those who tolerate it, contribute, in a meaningful way once they are numerous enough, to a degradation in overall society and a decline in overall quality of life, including their own.
Fans are known for being a bit, well, fanatical about their chosen shows but what happens when the show in question doesn’t even exist? Well, they make it up as they go along instead! A short commercial released by Kyoto Animation managed to inadvertently spark some reactions among tumblr members that could only be considered explosive:
The fandom that popped-up in a matter of hours consequently went to town fleshing out the characters and the story. As the Daily Dot reports:
In the 2 days since the 30-second spot landed on YouTube, Tumblr has been in a frenzy of yearning for what it has dubbed “the swimming anime.” Tumblr fans have given the nameless boys in the videos character identities and backstories, they’ve picked favorite relationship pairings, drawn fanart, made GIFs, created character roleplaying blogs, confessionals, and Texts from Last Night parodies. They’ve written fanfic.
Want more swimming anime? Here’s a Tumblr theme. Want your swimmers genderswapped? Got that too. There’s also swimming anime cosplay in the works. This parody of the “swimming anime” has over 11,000 notes, while this PowerPoint slide deck on how to ship characters of a nonexistent anime has over 22,000 and counting.
What has prevented the entire saga from being swept under the carpet has been the decision by the studio to announce an official series based on the short to be called Free.
Is This Good Or Bad?
Ultimately, there is nothing necessarily good or bad about something like this. Sure Tumblr has a reputation for juvenile stunts such as this, but its harmless for the most part and at least spurs some creativity on the part of the users rather than keeping them in the passive state.
The notion of pop-up fandoms is nothing new since the internet has attained widespread usage. PBS’ (quite excellent and highly recommended) Off Book took a look at whether fandom can change society and concluded that it could; citing numerous (including one infamous) cases where fandoms appeared out of thin air after major events and noted that they can create both good and bad results.
The case of swimming anime is fairly benign although one has to wonder why people would even devote such effort to something that doesn’t even exist?
Short Term Effects and Pitfalls
Swimming anime/Free highlights a number of issues with its rapid rise to public consciousness. Firstly is the fact that it became so widespread so quickly; 48 hours after its release and the internet had proliferated with creativity. Secondly is the fact that such a rapid rise could harm it in the long term.
Starting with its rise, social media, YouTube, frictionless sharing and so forth all contributed to getting the show as much coverage as possible. Long gone are the days when you maybe had to search out something on the internet after the fact. Tumblr’s dashboard means that you are likely to see the same thing pop up over a prolonged period of time as people you follow gradually reblog it. (The service also encourages, and has, a high percentage of daily users.)
The second issue is much more troubling. A rapid rise is great, sure, but we all know that animation is not a race. Shows take time to develop, create and distribute. Six months for a decent half hour is the norm so even if the show was begun today, we wouldn’t see any completed episodes until the leaves have fallen from the trees (see below). That in and of itself is not what’s problematic though, that lies with the very fans that made it a success in the first place.
You see, as rapidly as fans attached themselves to this show they will also attach themselves to the next one that comes along. The initial explosion of interest will naturally fade as those on the periphery fall away, but even the core will shrink until new content is available when it will increase again. The issue, and question, is how big will it expand again?
Shows with large following such as The Legend of Korra have relatively stable fandoms but still see rises and falls in their activity between seasons. Those shows though, have devoted followings that have built up over time. Swimming anime/Free is starting from scratch, and the possibility that fans who came for the fun of creating something won’t stick around forever (see below) and may never return once they leave. That’s a major pitfall and is something that studios need to anticipate and mitigate.
Shifting Development Efforts to the Fandom?
Another question this raises is whether or not studios will consider the benefits of essentially having fans develop the show for them. The benefits would certainly be there:
- vastly reduced costs to the studio
- content that is proven to resonate with fans
- may be much faster than undertaking it in-house given larger numbers contributing
- Promotes greater interaction and communication between the studio and fans
The disadvantages though, are equally obvious:
- Copyright issues and the legal thicket large-scale creativity can create
- Compensation-related issues (who did what) and how much they should receive
- Rebellion of fanbase to studio-issued ideas, even if they are best
- Loss of structure that in-house development provides
While many studios would love to shift the costs of development away from themselves, the reality is that the current business model prohibits it due to the many legal constraints surrounding creativity and artistic creations. Identifying and compensating every creator would be a nightmare and once you factor the cross-border nature of the internet, you’re in for an impossible task.
That means that as much as the fandom would like to see their ideas incorporated into Free, the reality will preclude it.
A Model To Follow?
While its certainly likely that Kyoto Animation considered the possibility that viewers would overreact, it’s interesting to note that they made an official announcement quite soon after the initial release. Five characters now have names and traits that have been disseminated throughout the fandom and the official launch date is in July; an indication that the studio has had this in the works for a while and completely negating the notion that fan efforts caused an official pickup. Given such circumstances this model isn’t really one to be followed.
Current internet rumblings consider Little Witch Academia as a prime target for similar moves given that it is already a fully-fledged 23 minute short with fully developed characters.
As desirable as it is to see that short receive a more substantial treatment, Kyoto Animation clearly sees a profitable opportunity in what it has, whether Trigger sees the same in their property is something that only the studio can decide. Simple outpouring from fans is not match for the numbers that studios will run, and you can be sure they all do, not matter what fans think of their efforts.
Sprung up over the past month is a new website that deals with everything Disney, and in ways that are familiar to many fans out there. GIFs, top 10 lists of things, and other silly posts that appeal to the funnier side of Disney characters and films (for example, Damsels Not In Distress). However, for all the joviality, there is something that appears slightly off about Oh My Disney, which is not surprising since it’s the corporation itself that’s calling the shots.
If you visit the site, everything appears innocently enough:
Sure the Disney Company makes no attempt to hide the corporate signage, but it doesn’t display them as prominently as you might expect them to either.
The posts themselves look appealing, even enticing with such titles as:
But what’s this, right at the top?
O…K… Maybe a contributor is a bit of a fan of that godawful show?
With another round of The Bachelor coming to a close today (at 8|7c on ABC), we found ourselves asking the question on everyone’s mind: Who would win if all The Lion King men were pitted against one another on The Bachelorette?
Hmmm, that’s an all-too-subtle-yet-painfully-obvious “hint” that the show is on ABC tonight isn’t it? How many fan sites do you know crow about other properties within the Disney empire in such a blatant display of corporate synergy? Well, uh, none. (No, the ‘advertisement’ flags don’t count, they’re so ubiquitous on the web these days, they blend into the background.)
A bit further down the page we get the marketing schtick for the latest Oz movie that [oh so conveniently] just hit cinemas here in the US.
These blatant promotional posts are not slammed down users’ throats, but they are dispersed just enough to make them appear to be of similar thread than the less serious ones.
The Problems With The Oh My Disney Model
It would be all to easy to point out and discuss the rash of commercial posts on the site, but that would be the obvious (and therefore, easy) choice. No, what Oh My Disney represents is a company attempting to subvert the very fan culture and trust that sustains it.
You see, fans and fandom help support studios, but more often than not, they reside outside of the studios control. Sure, there is some communication (one-way most of the time) but if a studio tries to pull the rope, fandoms can react in the most unpredictable ways (just look at how many ‘reboots’ have been needed over the years.)
With Oh My Disney, the company is attempting to, not so much manufacture, but certainly to control how fans interact with the company and its content. It is trying to not only dictate which content is appropriate, but it is also attempting to dictate how fans react with it.
Just look at the Lion King post, who the heck isn’t going to click on that? Everyone likes the Lion King (except me). The same goes for all the other ‘original’ posts that give fans a few golden nuggets of joy.
The problem is that OMD remains a corporate entity, and thus, it also retains the one-way communication. You can share posts wherever you want, but if you disagree, you won’t be able to air your dissatisfaction on Disney’s website.
Ultimately, Oh My Disney subverts fandom because it strives to prove that the company itself can do it better. That they can create better, funnier posts and that they can sneak in some advertising while they’re at it. That’s a betrayal of fan’s trust, who have already been doing so for years without any help and still remaining loyal to the company.
How are they expected to feel when they learn that not only is Disney muscling in on their turf, they’re trying to sell to them as well? You know the answer as well as I do. At the end of the day, it’s dishonest, but then what else are we to expect from Disney these days.
These should be pretty obvious, but just about everywhere not connected to the Disney Company. They’ll even be real fans, just like you on the other side of the computer screen doing it for the love, not a marketing employee doing it for the money.
Is Oh My Disney a corporate wolf in sheep’s clothing? Let us know with a comment!