Is fandom the future? Orlando Jones and Veronica Mars think so

In the emerging media landscape, what one group of people might hold the most power? After last Friday’s Transforming Hollywood, the tempting answer is “the fan.”

The conference known in previous years as Transmedia Hollywood cast its eye towards the future of the industry. What emerged was a sense of how fans, and more importantly, fan communities are about more than just a group of people who are passionate about a particular TV show or film.

“There are more ways [today] for fans to express everything they love about content and create a culture,” Television Bureau of Advertising chief research officer Stacey Lynn Schulman said, musing that in a connected era where even basic errands can be handled online, “We can pretty much function without interacting with another person. Which means we need something to connect around — pop culture works pretty well for that.”

Even those from the more traditional side of the industry were taking it seriously. “We look at fans as a multiplier effect,” BET Networks chief marketing officer Vicky L. Free said. “Fans are more likely to like, forward and share than the more casual consumer, and embracing that fan is absolutely critical in the current environment.”

“It’s really delicate when you have a lot of fans who have created a community,” she added. “How do you nurture that and not intervene?”

kristen bell veronica mars movie

“Fandom is not just about expressing to the object of your fandom that you love it — it’s also about connecting with other fans,” Ivan Askwith, who was lead strategist on the Veronica Mars Kickstarter campaign, said.

Askwith credited the Mars fandom with the film’s eventual existence. “For Warner Bros, the concern wasn’t the money — what they were interested in was whether there was any meaningful audience for a Mars movie,” he said. The enthusiasm demonstrated by the community ended up more than making the case for the film.

This isn’t the first time fans have successfully brought back a series — Askwith also cited the fan-driven campaign to save Chuck by directly engaging with potential sponsor Subway — the sandwich chain came on board as a major sponsor for the show’s third season (literally saving it from cancellation).

Because the fans were the driving force behind the Subway sponsorship, they didn’t mind the subsequent product placement: “It wasn’t something the audience resented. It was something the audience loved,” Askwith said.

For Askwith, the Mars movie doesn’t represent a success for the old ways of doing business, but a triumph for evolving models. “It’s proven under the new system,” he said. “[Mars] established that things can succeed when people can pay more to get what they want.”

In order to enable this, though, Askwith and the campaign were careful in how they engaged with that community. One key element was Warner Bros.’s level of involvement — or lack thereof: “Warner Bros stayed out of the way,” Askwith said. “They didn’t pretend that anyone had signed up for a relationship with them.”

There were caveats given about overemphasizing the power of the fan — while Askwith said that “From the business side, fandom becomes a useful metric,” he did caution against relying heavily on things like Facebook likes to quantify the passion of an audience. “A follow doesn’t mean love,” he said.

And Free said that while “social media is important to understanding where the buzz comes from,” she and BET still focus on ratings as the key metric by which they judge success.

But fandom’s biggest champion came in the form of Orlando Jones, who brought the day to a close in a conversation with USC professor, conference co-director and “aca-fan” Henry Jenkins about his engagement with fandom.

Jones speaks at Transforming Hollywood 2014.
Jones speaks at Transforming Hollywood 2014.

Jones, who’s built a reputation for embracing fan culture on a level most actors wouldn’t even dare, doesn’t see anything revolutionary about his level of online interaction, which spreads from Twitter to Tumblr.

“Why use digital to do anything but be truthful, to be honest, to get back to some notion of civil discourse?” he said. “I aspire to have a civil discourse with people, make them laugh, and communicate. I don’t think it’s that weird. People talk to me, and I talk back.”

Jones originally connected with Jenkins on Twitter, after one of Jenkins’s students noticed Jones tweeting about how he was reading Jenkins’ 1992 book Textual Poachers, which covered the early years of emerging fandom.

“I went beyond thinking about fans as individuals to thinking about fans as a culture, so I did what anybody would do — I found the smartest person in the room,” Jones said.

Does the future contain a point where all media properties, no matter what, will have to have a fandom in order to exist? Jones said yes: “But no one is combing the data that way to make that case. That case is already there, and it’s going to be interesting when that becomes the truth, because a new evil master will emerge… Artists will complain about having to engage with the mainstream.”

Jones wasn’t worried about that kind of data-driven approach to developing content, though. “You’ll end up with Honey Boo Boo, but also This American Life,” he said. “I’m not going to talk down to them — I watch both.”