Fans vs Creators: The Problem of Fan Backlash
Are we becoming too protective of works of art that we love and have followed for years? Recently, fans have become more vocal in their disagreements with creators when a movie franchise, a tv-show or a video game, goes in a direction they don’t approve of.
Does the fans’ backlash stifle creativity in these mediums? Does it make creators less daring in exploring new directions for established franchises? On the other hand, is it misleading to ask fans to put their faith in a direction they believe was set clearly by the creators, only for them to discover that they were misled?
In this video, we will discuss this phenomenon by examining the examples of; the James Bond movies, Star Wars, The Last of Us Part 2, Alien Covenant, and Game of Thrones. After examining these examples we will try to examine the reasons behind the Fan backlash phenomenon, how it relates to the core of what makes us human, and in the end, we will give our honest take on the matter.
The earliest example we can think of, of a fan backlash in the modern era, is in 1893 when the author Arthur Conan Doyle decided that he should spend his time producing respectable historical fiction novels instead of detective stories. He called his twelfth story “The Final Problem” and imagined Professor Moriarty as the perfect antithesis for Sherlock Holmes.
For the modern-day fans of Sherlock, it might be shocking to know that this is Moriarty’s only appearance in the Sherlock Holmes stories. He was only created to end Sherlock Holmes.
Conan Doyle goes to great lengths in the story to make it clear to readers that this is it, Sherlock has had a good run, and that unquestionably everything will be determined by the end of the book.
The story ends with Holmes and Moriarty fighting over a waterfall and they fall off, fighting each other down. Conan Doyle wasn’t in the business of leaving the door open for a follow-up. No, for him Sherlock Holmes was dead and that’s how he died.
Subscription numbers to The Strand magazine, where the stories were published, fell to the floor. With no social media and Youtube for the fans to show their frustration with the direction the story took, fans used the only weapon they had; voting with their wallets.
The trick worked. Arthur Conan Doyle came back with a prequel story, The Hound of the Baskervilles. After that, he went fully in; producing four sequel books and 56 short stories.
Was Arthur Conan correct in his decision to surrender to the fans’ wishes? To ignore his other projects and focus on Sherlock? No one knows but one thing for sure: Arthur Conan Doyle himself believed that he could’ve written books of a higher value had he been given the chance to work on something other than Sherlock.
In the 1920s fans would also write thousands of letters to movie studios demanding that their favorite actors get more prominent roles.
Dynamics between fans and creators are not a new thing and traces can even be found in the 1700s when rival supporters of English theatre actresses would rally behind their team. Team Aniston vs. Team Jolie.
Before jumping to modern-day fan backlash, there’s an aspect worth examining and having a look at: interactivity with the medium. In his beautiful documentary series, How TV ruined your life, Charlie Brooker, the creator of the Black Mirror series, examined an important aspect of TV. Seeing people you assume are normal like you debating issues that you also have an opinion about, but you can’t participate in the debate, and as a tv viewer you are only at the receiving end of opinions,
subconsciously you think, I also deserve to have a seat on that platform, I also have something to say.
Socrates had a similar take on books and writing, he hated them. Like watching a debate on TV without being able to express your own opinion, a book does the same, the argument goes in one direction, from the author to the reader, something Socrates loathed. He preferred face to face debates instead, where ideas can move in both directions.
Socrates once said:
” the strange thing about writing, which makes it truly correspond to painting. The painter’s products stand before us as though they were alive. But if you question them, they maintain a most majestic silence. It is the same with written words. They seem to talk to you as though they were intelligent, but if you ask them anything about what they say from a desire to be instructed they go on telling just the same thing forever.”
Socrates’ idea applies to all forms of passive consumption, watching a movie, reading a novel, or even playing a video game.
We are passive receivers of the creators’ inventions. The only addition, that has happened for the first time in human history, is that we now have tools as individuals to make the communication go in both directions.
The days are gone where consumers had to be invited to TV studios as a member of the audience to express their frustration with a work of art, or be lucky enough to have a journalist in a prestigious publication happen to share their opinion and write about it.
If you are mad at the direction Neill Druckmann took with The Last of Us part 2, with a click you could write him directly on twitter, dislike the videos featuring him on youtube and express your anger in the comments section in any corner of the internet that discusses the game. Fan backlash is nothing new, but the width and volume that internet tools have provided are something new to us as human beings and we are still taking baby steps with them. Social media has amplified fans’ voices and changed the audience from passive receivers to active participants in debates about these works.
Something that might make Socrates less critical of the written word today.
Fans and TV
Henry Jenkins, a leading media scholar, whose book Textual Poachers is considered the founding text of fan studies, writing on the internet’s impact says: “it has merely increased the scope and scale of the fan community, allowed for ongoing interactions amongst fans, and made the entertainment industry more aware of the kind of fan responses which have been occurring all along”.
In general, this development is very positive and enriching for all creators. It exposes them to a wide variety of opinions from all over the globe and gives them the chance to see how their creation is being interpreted and seen by people from different backgrounds and cultures. The two biggest achievements of this internet democratization of opinions are; first, it made it easier for creators to instantly measure fans feedback, on that Jenkins adds “Television, as it exists today, is largely a response to modes of engagement that fans have modeled”
Second, it bursts the bubble and comfort zones of traditional art critics who might suffer from group-think. Alanah Pearce, a former reviewer for IGN, who I highly admire and respect, once confirmed my opinion about professional game-critics: they write for each other. Group-think is a real issue in video-game journalism, and here is exactly where I welcome fan-created content and criticism of video games, the fans are less likely to suffer from group-think.
Now that I mentioned what I like and admire about fan-created content I’ll move on to what I don’t like.
It is not good for creativity in general when we dictate to creators how to make their works.
Fan backlash has become a real fear for creators and it is stifling their creativity.
Sam Mandes who arguably created one of the best James Bond movies, Skyfall is aware of the issue. In an interview with GQ magazine, he says about the Bond movies: “When I think of them my stomach churns, there are simply too many fans across the world to please. Everyone has their own version of it in their head”
The fans put shackles on any creator of a bond story: the girls, the cars, the gadgets, the martini drinks, the clothes, flirting with Moneypenny, M, Q, and so on. Even the structure of the film leaves no room for creators, the chasing scene, the love scene, the betrayal scene, and so on. This is no healthy way for any creative mind to work and I’m afraid that as fans we go to these experiences with bags full of expectations, assuming obedience from creators. Something Barbara Broccoli, the producer of the series is strict about, we give the fans what they want.
Danny Boyle, the director of Slumdog Millionaire and Trainspotting, was supposed to direct the twenty-fifth installment in the James Bond film series, but for a creative mind like Danny’s, being restricted by all these shackles was no way to work, so he wrote, together with John Hodge, a fresh and daring script that was rejected by Barbara Broccoli. As a producer, she doesn’t want to upset the fans. I’m sure that if we, as fans, were more forgiving and open to new takes, we would’ve got a fresh, unique interpretation of what makes a James Bond movie.
The fan backlash culture makes producers less likely to take risks and we end up having the same 007 movies again and again.
Star Wars Episode 7 was a carbon copy of episode 4 to please the fans.
-a droid carrying valuable information who finds himself on a desolate desert planet.
-a force-strong desert dweller who dreams of more.
-an unseen supreme evil that’s pulling the strings from the shadows
– a massive spherical weapon that’s used to destroy a planet
JJ Abrahms wanted to play it safe, so he gave fans the same old story in a repackaged form, the alternative would’ve been a backlash and hatred as we’ve seen with Rian Johnson in Episode 8.
I highly respect his fresh take on the franchise and refusing to surrender his creative mind to a long list of fans prerequisites. The credit also goes to, and I know many of you will hate me for this, Kathleen Kennedy, the president of Lucas Film, who took the risk of creating something fresh and new. I wish Barbara Brocolli could do the same to the James Bond franchise.
The toxic part about fan backlash is when Kennedy is attacked at a personal level and fans dig into the depths of the internet to find anything denigrating about her.
Did I personally like the conclusion of the last star wars trilogy? No, not at all, but it’s toxic when we as fans transform our disagreements with the creators into full-blown war and character assassination attempts.
Angry fans started to score-bomb the ratings of all of Rian Johnson’s movies including Knives Out, an excellent film that came out almost two years after Star Wars episode 8, just because they had creative differences with him about Star Wars.
The problem with modern-day internet backlash culture is that it’s becoming harder to distinguish between backlashes that are backed by the silent majority and those that are the product of a loud minority.
The Last of Us Part 2
Big youtube channels have been crying and promoting a boycott campaign against The Last of Us 2 even before playing it.
The criticism of the game focused on two aspects. First, the game has a political agenda that made some YouTubers lose their minds and go on to Metacritic within the first five hours of release to score-bomb the game.
Forbes has put it brilliantly in an article by Paul Tassi. “The Last of Us Part 2 has been out for exactly seven and a half hours in the US… But it’s a 25-30 hour game, so unless people are doing blitzing speed runs and then immediately going to Metacritic to post angry 0/10 reviews, these scores are made up of people who are either only a few hours into the game, or more than likely, have not purchased or played the game at all yet.”
Having a look at the user-reviews that arrived in the first five hours, one thing is common: “agenda, feminism, SJW, woke, pandering or political correctness”. By reading these meaningless words I knew that they didn’t play the game and sadly these actions represent the worst in the fan backlash culture.
The second aspect of gamers’ criticism of the Last of us part 2 is its story.
Although I think it was a masterpiece in storytelling and structure, I can understand why some didn’t like it.
Some valid points were made in Polygon’s critical review of the game by Maddy Myers, including points about robbing the player of agency in some of the choices. I’m sure Neil Druckmann himself, the creator of the game, would happily discuss any valid points with the fans. But I’m afraid the way some of us treat those creators, we are burning all the bridges between us.
Months ago some story spoilers about the last of us 2 leaked online in the worst possible way.
Some fans started to throw all kinds of antisemitic abuse at Neill Druckmann.
This is no way to treat those creators, even if we disagree with them. After pouring their heart and soul into these games, it’s a shame that some of us are treating them this way.
The game sales were phenomenal which assures me as a fan of the studio that Sony won’t interfere and micromanage Naughty Dog in fear of fans backlash. However, had the backlash produced the result some of the YouTubers hoped for and led to poor sales of the game, I’m afraid that creative studios like Naughty dog could cease to exist in their current form.
The Core of the Problem
Now let’s discuss the core of the problem, I think at the heart of the Fans vs. creators issue is who owns the story. Both sides have a sense of ownership. This attachment to stories is key,. Some might even argue, stories are what make us human:
“We are, as a species, addicted to story. Even when the body goes to sleep, the mind stays up all night, telling itself stories.” — Jonathan Gottschall, in his book The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human
he continues: “When we hear facts, it activates the data processing centers in our brains, but when we hear stories, it activates the sensory centers in our brains”
So we deal with stories through emotions. At the heart of fan backlash is always a story. The phenomenon occurs less in music, for example. A bad album leads to bad sales, end of story. In my opinion backlashes in the music industry also often revolve around stories, something in the lyrics, a quote by a singer, or events depicted in a video clip.
We as human beings have a strong emotional attachment to stories. Understanding this feature in us is key to understanding the internet backlash culture.
Fans feel robbed of the story they’ve engraved in their hearts when a creator decides to kill a loved character for example. Before the moment of death comes, the fans have invested a lot of mental and emotional effort in constructing a narrative of how things will and should play out. This is no fault of their own; it’s in our nature to interpret and explain things around us through stories. That’s why we have such a strong bond with narratives.
This is something even religions understand very well, most religious teachings come in the form of stories.
So powerful is our impulse to detect story patterns that we see them even when they’re not there.
In a landmark Heider and Simmel 1944 study, 34 Massachusetts college students were shown a short film and asked what was happening in it.
Let’s see a bit of the film they saw.
The students were asked to tell what they saw.
Everyone came up with complex stories to describe what the moves were about. Typically, the students viewed the triangles as two guys fighting and the circle as a lady trying to escape the bigger, bullying triangle.
They imagined humans with rich emotional lives. The circle was “annoyed.” The circle and the little triangle were “innocent” The big triangle was “blinded by rage and frustration.
Only one of the test subjects saw this scene for what it was: geometric shapes moving across a plane.
Fans develop an attachment to stories and feel combative about them, it’s in our nature to feel attached to stories but does that entitle fans to dictate the direction of a story? I’m afraid that if we take that path, then works of art will become products designed to serve the consumer in the first place rather than a means of free artistic expression. In that hard choice, I would still prefer to let the artist have ownership of the narrative, even if it leads to me being disappointed and disagreeing from time to time with the choices they make.
Our Messages to the Fans and Creators
My message to creators is to believe in their vision and make the product they’ve envisioned. Please don’t let internet backlashes on youtube be your compass in deciding which way to go. Ridley Scott did it with Alien Covenant after the backlash he got for Prometheus. The fans wanted the usual cat and mouse movie between the Xenomorph and the crew, Ridley Scott wanted to explore new themes and expand on the Alien universe. In the end, Covenant ended up making less money than Prometheus did, which must have made Scott wonder why all those angry fans didn’t show up at the box-office.
My message to the fans, it’s a blessing that we now have the tools to communicate directly with creators and tell them about our dreams, ambitions, and disagreements for and with the beautiful worlds they’ve created. It’s a miracle that now, unlike anytime before in history, the debates are a two-way street. Anyone from any corner of this planet can have a direct discussion with any creator, author, director, or actor. Something even Socrates would have dreamed of. Let’s not abuse this privilege, please.
And my brutally honest opinion is that we, the fans, are not entitled to anything. If a story-teller wants to take the story in a certain direction we disagree with, then it’s his or her right. We can respectfully express our disagreement with it but that’s all.
Like many of you, I didn’t like Game of Thrones Season 8, but I don’t get the point of demanding a reshoot and remake of the final season like many people did.
Here is a point that needs to be made about being upset about the direction a story takes or disagreeing about an event in a narrative.
It’s so easy to pick one part in a long story and say this part is wrong because of a or b and it should’ve been like this or that. By doing that you’re leaving the majority of the story as it is and only asking for one or two changes somewhere in the middle.
Before criticizing one part in the middle of a story I try to ask myself, can I make a better story as a whole and not just make “better” the one part I picked to criticize?
If the answer is no, then I should be more humble in accepting that the story as a whole is better than anything I could’ve written myself, even if it contained one small part that I could’ve written better.
After Season 8 of game thrones, tons of videos popped up on YouTube, with the same idea, here is how episode x and y should’ve been. My question to all these videos is, could you have written a better TV show from Beginning to End?
This is something even mainstream critics seem not to get.
In their criticism of the movie Joker, many critics wrote something like, the scene should’ve been like this, this character should’ve done this instead of that.
Our egos are at play here in my opinion, and we think we know how things should’ve been in a story.
Like most of you, I didn’t like the decision that Neill Druckmann took at the beginning of the Last of Us part 2, but then I ask myself, could I have written a better story as a whole? And the answer is no, not even in a hundred years. And most importantly, do I love, care, and know these characters more than the creator does? Not even close, and God knows how much I love the characters in the Last of us.
Talking about this topic is like walking in a land-mine, but we hope that we were able to make you reflect on the issue and see things from a different perspective.
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