Disney+, the Fan Industrial Complex, and Star Wars

I love this term: Fan Industrial Complex. Chris thinks he heard it from someone else, so I will need to investigate it. Because from a media ecology perspective, it’s very useful.

That’s what we have now with online mediated fan-producer networks. The technologies and economic systems require a symbiosis between more ardent fans and producers, and then secondary or tertiary fans can subsist based on their actions.

Also, it’s this distinction in fandom between consuming for information, affect, or sociality. And it may be that different levels of fandoms drive different reasons for consuming. Perhaps if affect is driving motivator, spoiler-free consumption is needed to emote the content.

Such affect-driven fandom could be a primary motivator. Sociality as a motivator would then drive fans to share their experiences with the content, necessitating the sharing of the content itself in some way so as to connect with others who have experienced it.

Then fans more interested in the information (i.e. spoilers, content, plot points, etc) could “feed off of” or subsist on this shared information as they are more concerned with “knowing” so as to be prepared for future interactions with the fandom.

This type of fandom ecology would be most likely in transmedia fandoms that occur around franchises and shared universes. Because not all fans can consume all aspects of that fandom, some will have to rely upon others to achieve what they want/need out of the fandom.

In marketing there is this idea of reaching primary and secondary audiences. Fans interested in affect and sociality would be more the primary audiences, whereas those focused on information would be secondary. And likely the secondary audience is larger than the primary.

Back when Disney+ announced the need for having the streaming system to experience all of the MCU, I theorized that this could happen. Now I think this isn’t a new phenomenon, but just how fandom as entertainment/marketing has always happened.

In November of 2019, Disney/Marvel announced the need for a Disney+ subscription to follow MCU Phase 4.

This is what I was afraid could happen in convergence culture, and an indication that transmedia storytelling privileges fans of higher class status who can afford the various platforms necessary to get the full story and fill the gaps. This is an exploitation of fandom.

At the beginning of convergence culture, it was “cool” to find instances where companies were experimenting with the new digital technologies and testing how those new platforms could become incorporated into their productions, and thus to give more “stuff” to their fans.

But back in my 2011 published article (https://ijoc.org/index.php/ijoc/article/view/803…) on gameplay marketing, it was clear that such experiments had the great potential to become exploitation, as such campaigns often relied on fan labor to succeed, all for the profit of the company behind the “stuff.”

And those companies were getting bigger at the same time they were recognizing just how much profit they could make on exploiting fans, by attending (and co-opting) fan conventions, by creating transmedia productions, by developing viral gameplay marketing campaigns.

The elevation of the “fan” from its maligned position as “fanatic” helped these companies justify their actions, because fans were now good, and the term came to replace the less well-received label of “loyal consumer.” Different label, same idea: hook the fan, and sell to them.

After about two decades of work, the fans have become hooked and very loyal to their fandoms — to the point of being willing to spend, to organize for activism, or to go to war (whether organically or triggered as a publicity stunt). And Disney has led the way.

Disney has been in the business of building an affective relationship with its loyal consumers and whisking them away to a special place, with escapism both physical and interpretive, since at least the 1950s. The business side of convergence culture means they’ve expanded.

The Magic Kingdom has expanded beyond the initial Disney creations to consume Pixar, Lucasfilm, Marvel, and now 20th Century Fox. When you control that much content with some of the most ardent fans in the world, then you can control how those fans express their fandom.

We used to talk about horizontal and vertical integration in the media industry to indicate the business holdings of production studios — vertical being all points from production to exhibition, and horizontal being various competitors merged into one.

Now, under Disney/Pixar/Marvel/Lucasfilm, vertical and horizontal integration include controlling the fans and their fandoms. So many different fandoms are now under one aegis, and Disney’s content ownership means they control the process from ideation to transformation.

Disney’s relationship with content producers and fans is becoming a closed ecosystem, where once one goes in, one stays in, as the system perpetuates the need to be in to be involved and be a fan.

Fans buy into the ecosystem through their media consumption, but to stay a true fan, it means continuing to consume for fear that one misstep could send the fan out of the fandom that has become important to their identity and their communal interactions.

Now, the idea about needing to subscribe to #DisneyPlus to stay abreast of what happens in the #MCU truly closes that ecosystem, as fans would be required to buy-in to understand all of the nuances (beyond fan service) of the stories so as to continue participating in the fandom.

In order to continue even basic fandom-based discussions of the #MCUPhase4 could be limited without that subscription, which hinders communal connections that depend on shared meanings. The “true fan” hierarchies could potentially worsen and #fracturedfandom increase here.

At the same time, this endeavor could also backfire spectacularly on #Disney and #Marvel. The whole strength of transmedia storytelling has been based on adding extra for the most ardent fans without disadvantaging the rest of the audience. It allows flexibility to the audience.

The audience gets to choose what they want to consume, when, where, why and how. That’s tremendous agency to the audience that reflected the emergence and reliance on online platforms. Requiring participation in transmedia storytelling is antithetical to that philosophy.

It’s saying that everyone has to be an ardent fan who is willing to consume all of this additional material at a cost or else be left potentially confused and out-of-touch with perhaps the largest cultural enterprise on the planet. That’s beyond exploitative. That’s oppressive.

That type of institutional imposition is new but it is not alone. Facebook’s actions regarding news and digital currency present another type of closed ecosystem intending to keep people in and not let them out. Apple’s requirements for their branded technology is another.

We seem to be increasingly moving away from the “global village” perspective of online culture/society and toward a “walled gardens” approach that reifies the tribalism emerging around the world.

Instead of seeking out new things (including people and ideas), people seem to be further retreating into what is familiar and known, and companies that control those spaces and platforms are benefiting from this mentality, and even expecting it, such as Disney’s #mcuphase4.

It’s as if convergence culture has gone so far down the road of convergence that it’s resulted in psychological convergences as like-minds focus on finding like-minds and fortify their in-group/out-group borders. Perhaps we need a divergence culture approach to online life now.

It may seem middling to found such apocryphal ideas on Disney, but it reflects a worrying trend. These #streamingwars and #platformfandom strategies align with larger issues about tribalism, oppression, and discord around the world. And we need to be mindful of it where it is.

Because here’s the things, fans: no matter how powerful it seems we’ve become, we will never be as powerful as the companies owning these IPs and profiting from them. Ultimately they are the producers and we are the consumers. We can bitch and moan or cheer and celebrate, but it doesn’t change this power dynamic. As long as we are fans or even anti-fans and we repeatedly return to what they offer, that is all they care about. We work for them. Our affective labor benefits them financially even if it benefits us in far more important ways.

And in our current world run on profit-driven capitalism, all they care about is the financial outcomes. They don’t care if it is love or hate or morbid curiosity or boredom driving our engagement as long as the end result is money in their bank.

The only true power we can have over them is by not being a fan. And that sounds very weird, but the only way they will change is if they no longer make money. And the only way they don’t make money is if we don’t give it to them.

But maybe that doesn’t require relinquishing fandom. It just means not being the kinda fan they want us to be: the loyal consumer. We cannot just mindlessly buy anything they give us. If we don’t like it, we speak louder with our wallets than our mouths or social media accounts.

Yet there in lies the problem of #fracturedfandom. Any large enough fandom, like any large religion or political party, has fractured into different sects with differing interpretations of the primary text. The more we come together, the more we find ways to differentiate.

This paradox means that large fandoms lose power over time as they lose cohesion and unity. That’s what we are seeing in the #StarWars fandom right now, which Disney helped foster.

It also makes me think of this thread from Jan 2020 on #ROTS, and how my #StarWars fandom has changed from affective to informative, without ever really being socialtive (neologism!):

Let’s look at the trajectory of this fandom: it started with a one-off movie in 1977. #ANH wasn’t supposed to be a big thing. But then it became a big thing. And Lucas helped to ensure it — not just with the amazingly horrible holiday special, but with the toys.

He helped produce the ancillary goods that ensured the movie would remain in the public consciousness and thus create incentive for more people to see, out of perhaps morbid curiosity, what this thing driving the youth crazy was. And he could sell others on more movies.

Not just #ESB (still the best, but divisive when it came out) and #ROTJ (I love the Ewoks), but the Ewok movies (yeah, but I don’t love’em that much). And the games. And the books. And oh my so many toys. But through the 1980s-1990s, all we had as a fandom were the first trilogy.

Everything revolved around that first trilogy. All the follow-up materials flowed from it — until we start going back in time, to the Old Republic and the old Sith stories. And then we get into the prequels. And now in the late 1990s we are starting to see the fractures occur.

So many of the original “true” fans did not like the prequels (and for good reason). I walked the line: they weren’t technically great, but I like the heart of them (plus, sexy Obi-Wan). But a lot of newer fans grew up on those like the originals grew up on the first trilogy.

Lucas, perhaps unintentionally, produced another primary text for a specific sect of the fandom to revolve around. It’s Old Testament versus New Testament time, with more ancillary goods coming out around the new trilogy; primarily the animated series dealing with the Clone Wars.

Disney’s purchase of the franchise further fractures the fandom, because they declare the books that followed the first trilogy null and void as they are going to produce the “true” follow-up canonical trilogy. So now if you like those books (like me), you’re a different sect.

All of this happened as social media emerged, adding to the online discussion spaces that fueled fans’ political-economic power, and allowed different sects to come into contact, and conflict, with each other.

When Disney released the first of the new trilogy, it didn’t just create one new sect: it impacted all the previous sects and how they relate to each other. #TFA was very similar to the first trilogy, so it pleased some originals and upset others.

But it had better representation for women and black men, which angered other originals and pleased newer fans. #TLJ further fractured things: it upset those who like the fan service of #TFA while pleasing those who like the originality (me), and, of course, made bigots madder.

#ROTS returns to the fan service to appease the original fans, undoes some of the things that made bigots made, and fulfills the desires of Reylo shippers, but also is a mess of a story that was too ambitious for one movie, thereby accomplishing nothing in the end narratively.

And that’s not even bringing in #RogueOne (good), #Solo (eh), or any other new series Disney has produced — all of which become their own canonical primary texts for their own sects of the #StarWars fandom.

Is it any wonder why there is so much disagreement about if “Star Wars” is good? What even is “Star Wars” anymore? In 1977, it was one movie — it wasn’t an episode of a trilogy or the beginning of an immense transmedia franchise. It was just one movie, flawed yet beautiful.

Now when people refer to “Star Wars,” what are they referring to? Is it a specific trilogy? A specific movie? Is it a TV series? Is it the franchise? Is it all the ancillary goods as well? Is it an idea? An ideology? Because it can be all of those things, yet something specific.

For each fan, Star Wars can be something specific. And between people, it can be something very different. And there is nothing wrong with all of this. Having different takes on something is great. It means you are personalizing something to have it mean something to you.

That’s what fandom should be at it’s core: something that means something to you. But just because it means that something to you doesn’t mean it has to mean the same to each person who calls themselves a fan. Yet many times we think it should mean the same for everyone else.

And we think that, especially when we are younger, because we want to be reassured that we are not wrong in our thinking. That we are not weird because of what this thing means to us. So we seek out likeminded folks to get that reassurance. I know. I’ve been there.

And that makes complete sense! It’s part of identity development: figuring out who you are, embracing that, and being confident enough about it to show others. It’s an immensely scary process, and we need support to do it, especially if our identity is deemed inappropriate.

But — and this is the most important thing — at some point you have to come through that process and recognize that other people, going through their processes, will be different from you, and, as long as they aren’t hurting anyone nonconsensually, it is completely fine!

And I say all this as someone who has been so upset with what Disney/Abrams have done to the most important fandom in my life. I did not like #TFA, I loved #TLJ, and I refuse to pay money to see #ROTS.

And it’s been hard for me to hear people liking things that I don’t think are good. Because I couldn’t understand how we could see the same thing and have such different emotional reactions to it. But that’s life. That’s fandom. We are going to differ. And that’s okay.

What’s not okay is if the company producing the primary text for the fandom is intentionally manipulating the fandom to make money. If they are taking advantage of the fractures and pitting the sects against each other by producing goods for specific sects and not others.

With everything I have heard about #ROTS, it seems that Disney did so with this movie. They made a movie to appease specific sects: originals, Reylo shippers, bigots. And maybe it’s more complex than that. Please let me know if I am missing something, as I haven’t seen the movie.

What worries me is that such a movie embodies certain sects and legitimizes them as having the “correct” interpretation of the text and thereby being ordained as the “true” fans by the producers. Anyone who studies political or religious fundamentalism should recognize this.

Fandoms should not have fundamentalism. There should be no “correct” or “true” way of being a fan. Being a fan means something matters to you. It’s not a way of understanding reality. It’s a way of understanding yourself. It shouldn’t be imposed on others as “The Way” of fandom.

Your true power as a fan is in understanding yourself and having something to talk to others about. When we start thinking we have power beyond that, we open ourselves up for exploitation by the corporations that control the texts we love. And then we can also be exploited.

In the end, we need to stop thinking of ourselves as ever going to be powerful enough to control the producers. It is ultimately their choice about what they produce, and if they see an ability to make more profit off a specific sect, then they will ordain that sect.

As long as we continue to see being ordained as important to our identity, we will let them exploit us and use our affective labor for their profit. So, we need to step away from that idea of fandom. From seeing being a fan as being a loyal consumer.

But we can keep the idea of being a fan as being about making sense of yourself and being able to talk to other people about a shared interest — as long as we go into both with the idea of recognizing the differences between us and wanting to learn more about them.

That’s where our real power as fans has always been: gaining confidence in ourselves and being able to build bridges between people given a shared interest.

And the highly cynical and even suspicious part of me wonders if corporate foci on sects is meant to keep us from this great unifying power at the heart of fandom. Because the more we fight among ourselves, the less we challenge them and their power. And perhaps they want that.

Even if they are not maliciously keeping us divided, we still need to do better to unite. Fandom can unite people, but for too long has divided us. We the fans need to change that. We need to stop fighting each other and start working together. That’s what Star Wars means to me.

#StarWarsIsGood when people from different walks of life come together to rebel against an evil homogenous empire or resist a fascist terrorist regime. The Force should unite us together. Early drafts even suggested The Force as the power of the many coming together.

In early drafts, Lucas wrote it as “May the Force of Others be with you all.” That is an immensely unifying way to think about this power that exists in the universe, that goes through us all, that needs all of us being alive to work. Only in working together can we thrive.

So, that’s what we need to remember for any fandom. Only by working together can we thrive. That’s the truth for our whole world. That’s why #StarWarsIsGood to me. And I hope the #ROTSvsTLJ debate helps us get back to that. Because we need it in this world. /end

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