A Perfect Fanstorm
Reporting from SCMS in Los Angeles Mar 17-21.
The Society for Cinema & Media Studies was celebrating its 50th Birthday and having it large in the Hotel Bonaventure, the hotel where Frederic Jameson encountered the architecture of post modernity. How things might have been different if Fred could navigate circles; I loved living on the 24th floor and going to work in the lift where Schwarzenneger rode a horse in 'True Lies'.
So the Saturday lunchtime session at SCMS on transmedia storytelling with the industry panel was packed to the rafters, standing room only. This being L.A the USC Faculty can draw on the Hollywood 'Geek Elite' in the shape cutting edge writers and showrunners, Carlton Cuse & Damon Lindelhof (Lost), Tim Kring (Heroes)), Javier Marxuach (Day One NBC), Kim Moses (Ghost Whisperer CBS), and Mark Wishaw (Alchemists).
Henry Jenkins introduced the event with some knowing remarks protecting the speakers from requests for spoilers, which given that the Lost crew had just signed off the ideas for the end of the series seemed like a reasonable enough insurance. Jenkins was attempting to mark the event as scholarly rather than the domain of the comic convention. But the self appreciative laughter seemed key. I began to think maybe I cold be the only person in the room who couldn't be too bothered about how Lost finally ended, mystified that it had staggered on for so long.
The panel itself was exciting and inspirational - at least at the level of the pioneers of our transmedial worlds offering their passion and confusion; they don't know what's developing here any more than we (scholars) do - but we all know something interesting and new is cooking up between TV, and online, between performance, storytelling and puzzling.
The panels' sense of excitement at finding themselves on this wave is palpable. Great insights include, 'the Lost ARG was so great because it kept the buzz going between series, keeping the name in the press'; 'When you pitch a show now you don't jut pitch a story, script, talent and crew; you pitch an audience - cos you've been running it online for months so the network a) knows it works and b) has a demographic core that they can use to word of mouth the show when it gets up. 'Literally delivering bodies now not the promise of eyeballs in the future'.
Then the trouble with fans, 'They always want two contradictory things, first of all they always want to know that there's a complete story arc - and they want there to be one, they want a bible; so no matter how many times we tell them we don't know whats going to happened next they don't believe us. But they also want to know that we are listening to them - do we go on the boards and lurk, are we out there taking notice of them, can they effect the story?'
The general and somewhat unscholarly lovefest between the packed audience and the lionised panel prompted three liked insights. First off fans are not ordinary audiences. By their definition. Unusual, devoted, engaged, active, producerly.
Secondly the focus on fans in (some) areas of cultural studies derived media reception studies builds on the long tradition of our preferred active, subversive , perverse, creative spectator. The fan does work for the scholar. The fan is produced by our scholarship as an ideal subject. And lots of us are fans too (Though maybe of a wider range of experiences than geekworld's dominant technicities might recognise).
Third, and more obviously, the fan does work for the emergent industry as the comments above show. The fan keeps the buzz alive, drives word of mouth traffic, collaborates with writers and show runners on suggesting ideas and offering instant feedback. In the emergent conditions of the attention economy - massive competition for fragmented and nomadic audiences - the fan creates beacons of attention; both for the brand as well as for themselves, their own display of
fan virtuousity. The fan is thus produced as the ideal subject for the creative class working in this TV/online space.
So we have an elegant confluence between the interests of the industry and those of the academy. A kind of narcissistic loop that hardly suggests a critical or reflexive distance.
The following day I was back in the same room for a panel billed as a 'play/labour' presentation but in actuality a deeply downbeat description of the working conditions in RTV and Design industries. Here our graduates find themselves lucky to get a digital sweatshop job logging tape or doing the work of entire design teams where all the specialists have been laid off. There were five people in the audience.