More on Veronica Mars’ “fan-ancing” and Netflix’s temporal approach to TV

29/03

This week, I was thrilled to participate in a conversation on Henry Jenkins’ blog about the Veronica Mars Kickstarter Campaign, and various other television revivals, like the upcoming season of Arrested Development on Netflix.  As I mentioned last week on the blog, while introducing Luke Pebler’s guest post on the Veronica Mars Kickstarter Campaign, I’m conflicted.

Meanwhile, how do I feel about the fact that Netflix Saved Our Bluths?  Exhibit A:

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Here’s the exchange on Henry’s blog, “Kickstarting Veronica Mars: A Conversation About the Future of Television”:

Collected below, here are some of my favorite recent blog posts and articles about…

The Veronica Mars Kickstarter Campaign:

Audience Measurement Metrics in the wake of Netflix and Twitter: 

 

Guest Post: My Gigantic Issue With the Veronica Mars Kickstarter

15/03

Below, you’ll find a guest post from Luke Pebler.  He’s blogged here before about the “douchegeek hegemony” ushered in when TechTV was revamped to become G4.

Per usual, my response to what is unquestionably a watershed moment in convergence-era fan culture is one of ambivalence.  I’m talking, of course, about the Veronica Mars Kickstarter.  I am a huge fan of the show, and my initial response was every fan’s response (namely, to immediately pull out the credit card to make it happen, and then sit back and gape as it did).  But what I really want is a Kickstarter to get Rob Thomas his IP back from Warner Bros.  Realistic?  Absolutely not.  But the idea of introducing, much less contributing, to a model of fan-ancing studio films has left me conflicted, particularly as it relates to broader trends in promotional fan labor.  And that’s not even getting into the logistics and economics of the Kickstarter rewards….

Over coffee yesterday morning, Luke was less conflicted.  Far from it, he made a fairly impassioned and compelling argument about why the Veronica Mars Kickstarter sets a dangerous precedent.  My response, per usual, was “You should blog it out.”  And, faster than you can say “Boom goes the dynamite,” he did.

The Veronica Mars Movie Project by Rob Thomas — Kickstarter

____________________________________________________________________________

First of all, let me state in no uncertain terms that this has nothing to do with Veronica Mars specifically as a property, or Rob Thomas & Co as people, or the show’s devoted fandom.  I have only seen a handful of episodes, but I liked what I saw and by all accounts it was a great show and should have gone longer than it did.

However.

I believe that the creation and subsequent success of the Veronica Mars Movie Kickstarter represents a troubling landmark in the emergent history of crowdfunding.  This campaign has stepped boldly over a line that established content creators have been edging towards on Kickstarter for some time, and I predict it will end up being a tipping point that leads to transformative changes in the way that crowdfunding platforms are regulated in the future.  They will have to be.  Under current rules, it is possible for media entities to exploit their fan bases in a way that is pernicious and ultimately unsustainable.

At first blush, it’s hard to see the problem, because no individual party is acting out of anything but genuine enthusiasm.  The show’s creators want to make the show, so they ask.  Fans want to see the show, so they respond overwhelmingly positively.  The studio sees everyone’s puppy eyes, and finally says “Oh, alllll right,” like a parent who’s just been harangued into a trip for ice cream by his kids.  According to these stats compiled by Myles McNutt, the average donation on the VM kickstarted is a bit over $50, give or take.  What’s $50 to resurrect your favorite show for one more glorious ride?  Certainly there are properties close to my heart for which I would consider $50 worth it.

But it’s very important to consider what sort of precedent is being set here.  If you force yourself to take a step back, you’ll realize this is a true breach of the traditional producer/consumer divide.  If you think about this campaign for what it ultimately is—a large movie studio crowdfunding a movie—questions start to emerge.

The first question might be: couldn’t this have been just a free-to-sign internet petition?  The answer you will get is that the studio doesn’t pay attention to that sort of crap. Talk is cheap, they say, which is true.  Networks and studios routinely ignore online outcry of fan communities and cancel shows because they simply don’t have enough viewers.  Doubtless this is what happened to Veronica Mars when it was canceled in 2007.  Rob Thomas obviously still feels jilted by this, and Rob Thomas is a smart, creative guy, so he thinks “I’ll convince the studio by using Kickstarter to make what is effectively a petition that costs money to sign.”  It’s an ingenious plan, actually, and sounds reasonable…but it doesn’t work for (at least) two huge reasons:

1) The rabidity of the average fan that donates skews the results.   That $3mil and counting isn’t a count of how many people want the movie so much as it is a measure of how desperately the people that want the movie want it.  Recall that the average donation across those fans is north of $50.  The reason this campaign seems so smashingly successful is that high average (combined with the fact that Thomas probably low-balled on the funding goal). At last count there were ~50K individual donors.  If those were a tally on a free web petition, Warner Bros would look at the number, times by $10 or $12 to get a gross of a under a million, and say “not worth the trouble.”  And from their perspective, they’d be right!  At this point, how many people do you think would realistically go to the Veronica Mars movie that haven’t already donated to this campaign?  Keep in mind that it would have to be many times this initial 50,000 to even make a small-budget movie financially successful.

And I just don’t think that’s realistic.  I think the studio let Thomas try this out because he’s passionate and they’re clueless, but what happens in a month, when they’re suddenly holding $4 million of our money, and Rob writes a script that budgets out to $6 mil?  Or $12 mil?  Do they pony up the rest?  Do they delay the shoot and insist on rewrites?  Do they scrap it all and give the money back?

Who knows?  Which brings me to…

2) If the studio is unable to take our word when we sign a petition, then why are we sending them money blindly and taking their word for it?  The money generated from this kickstarter is going into Warner Brothers’ bank account.   Says it right there on the page’s FAQ.   Let that sink in for a second.  I know you love your books/movies/comics/TV/games.  They’re your favorite way to have fun and pass your spare time.  They may be the most important thing in your life.  But making movies is the studios’ job.  That’s a big difference.  They’re large, for-profit companies with access to vast capital.  On a certain level the studio’s raison d’etre to bear financial risk, to float millions of dollars of this year’s box office money to make next year’s movies.  The reason they’ve merged with larger and larger parent corps over the years is that it makes their risk easier to spread around a bigger balance sheet.

So, remind me why I need to give them starter cash up front, no strings attached?  Kickstarter has grown and thrived without needing to impose much regulation due to the noble intentions and honest dealings of most of its users.  Sadly, however, the honor system doesn’t scale.  As it stands right now, celebrities can make vague claims about how much they miss an old job and how much fun it would be to reunite, and then as a fan, I’m being asked to toss my money into a dark pit and then cross my fingers that I’m going to get something in a year (or more, all delivery dates “estimated”).  We fans have committed $3mil and counting.  We’re headed towards the territory where Thomas hasn’t even defined what the funds will be used for. (“We’ll figure out something cool,” he insists.)  The faith-based dynamic of crowdfunding simply breaks when faced with something as tangled and unpredictable as studio feature film production.  Based on my reading of his plan, Mr. Thomas is extremely (read: foolishly) optimistic about his movie’s chances of progressing smoothly through funding, writing, and production for release in Spring 2014.  One year.  That’s unbelievably fast by studio standards.  Studios plan their releases long in advance in order to marshal their marketing forces efficiently.  If, as Rob hopes, this Kickstarter convinces WB that a feature is worth their time, it’s going to take significantly longer than the stated year.

Now, surely, if it takes two years instead of one, that won’t kill anyone, right?  You’ll get the t-shirt and ninety minutes of orgasmic fan service you hoped for in the end, and that’ll make it all worth it.  But, again, in the meantime, WB is sitting on your $50 investment.  And they are basically not accountable to you in any way during that period. If they screw it up somehow, what recourse do you have?  Class-action lawsuit?  Boycott all WB properties forever? Good luck.

Small independent artists are accountable on Kickstarter because they can’t afford to alienate their fan base.  What does Warner care about whether Veronica Mars fans are happy anymore?  The show’s been off the air for years.  The disconnection between the project that is being sold and the entity selling it is the key here.  All the details of this campaign smell of the studio.  The donation premiums are all pretty boiler-plate studio swag (and not deliverable until 2014 or later, natch).  Your backer’s day-of-release digital copy?  Not a convenient, DRM-less file, but a license code for Flixter, the WB-backed online movie site.

I’ve never used Flixter, but I’m guessing it’s not DRM-free.

Compare this campaign to what I consider to be a much more equitable arrangement between a famous content creator and its fan base: Radiohead’s “In Rainbows” record.  Radiohead just made an album, then gave it away.  You could take it for free, or pay what you wanted.  That’s a spectacularly customer-centric way to run things, but moreover it’s a good deal for everyone involved.  Most people paid at least a little, which is a little more than they would have had they just pirated the album.  The fans know their money is going straight to the artist, so they’re more likely to pony up something, even if it’s just a few bucks.  Louis CK is another great example.  When he sold his comedy tour video he’d self-produced, he made it super-easy on the end user.  He scraped the initial investment together himself, then reaped a huge benefit in terms of both money and reputation.  I was delighted to Paypal him $5 to get his high-quality, easy-to-use, no DRM Quicktime file.  It felt like a utopian future.  It was like torrenting, only legal!

Artists going this route acknowledge that there is a necessary divide between creators and consumers.  As chummy as everyone can be on Twitter these days, the fact remains that successful artists have power over their audiences.  That is a great power, and it comes with an accordingly great responsibility: you shouldn’t use your influence to bum money from them as if they were personal friends or family members, especially in an uncapped environment such as Kickstarter. (The fact that you can raise more money than you set out to initially is my single biggest qualm with the platform.)  I’m not a particularly big fan of Radiohead’s, but what they did (and others have done) represented a risk, and I applaud them for taking it.  There were certainly guaranteed-money ways they could have spent the time in which they created “In Rainbows.”  They didn’t try to outsource the cost of something they wanted to make; they just went ahead and made it.

I will grant that, on average, it’s probably more expensive/difficult to make a movie than record an album, at least in terms of crew to pay.  But that makes accountability on such a venture all the more necessary.  It’s important to keep in mind how much money we’re talking here.  $2 mil is a very weird sweet spot for Rob to pull out of the air.  It’s exceedingly low for a feature film.  To produce such a movie would basically mean the cast & crew were all willing to work for union minimum. But if that’s the case—if everyone’s dying to do it and so excited and can’t wait—why can’t the producers raise the funds privately?  In this case, it’s because the underlying intellectual property is owned by the Warner Brothers, and therefore any movie that emerges is necessarily a WB studio venture.

Bear in mind that if Rob Thomas owned the IP for Mars, and this was a wholly independent venture, I would be mostly fine with it (though I would still gripe that he should raise the money himself privately).  Perhaps TV should or could or someday will operate on a IP-reverts-to-creator system as in some other media.  But that’s not the way the system works, and realistically it never will.  Television is the wellspring for the studios; it’s the steady income that serves as a backstop for their riskier feature film ventures.  TV also provides the bulk of steady employment for studio employees;  indeed, I am one of them.  I work for a show that is produced on WB lot, so I’m pretty close to all these workings.  Perhaps that’s why I’m sensitive to the bigger implications.  Setting a precedent wherein studio-owned IP gets seed funding from Joe-Schmoe-fifty-bucks-a-head terrifies me.  As it stands, the only way I see this as an ethical gambit is if Thomas uses this outpouring as leverage to get the movie green-lit by the studio…and then gives everyone their money back when he sends them their thank-you gifts.

Reinforcing IP that can be monetized across all media is the M.O. of all studios these days.  It’s easier to spread the losses around that way.  Theoretically there should be an upside to this.  Huge conglomerates ought to be able to take small risks with lower-budget stuff, because they’re so rich they don’t care.  What’s $2mil to Time-Warner’s bottom line?  But, of course, they don’t.  Instead we’re getting the opposite: the studio exploiting a loophole in order to shift (some part of) these risks onto their fans.

You may not care that you’re being exploited.  You’ll take any chance you can get to influence what gets made.  To which I sigh and wipe a tear from the corner of my eye and say: fine.  I realize that nothing I say here will stop anyone from chasing after the chance at more Veronica Mars, or Firefly, or [insert lost cult property here].  So, instead, I thought about what a Kickstarter campaign for a studio property would look like that wouldn’t make me want to vomit.  Here’s what I came up with:

Funding goal: $X, where ‘X’ is the total figure at the bottom of a reasonably detailed budget that is published on the Kickstarter site.  Not just “Piz is in, he’s really excited to do it!” (Recall that talk is cheap.)

Funding will be capped at x.  There are no stretch goals.  Should the film run over budget, the producers would have to run a new, separate campaign to raise those funds.

There are two support tiers:

Tier 1- Donate $10.  You get:

  • A ticket to the movie when it’s released and a digital copy when that’s released
  • Your name in a list of crowdfunders in the film’s credits

Tier 2 – Invest $10,000.  You get:

  • Everything from tier 1
  • VIP invite to the movie’s premiere
  • Profit participation in the film

Now is this realistic?  Of course not.  But it’s the way that such a Kickstarter would have to be structured for me to consider taking part in it.  No individual within the current system (WB, Thomas, fans) has the impetus to impose any sort of ethics code on the process…unless they are forced to some regulatory body.  And when there are millions of dollars changing hands in these campaigns, that body has become absolutely necessary.  That’s why I think all this points toward the direction in which crowdfunding platforms must evolve.  If movie studios are too dense to realize that it’s not okay to manipulate their customers in order to foist financial risk upon them, then someone in charge needs to remind them.

These are investment markets at the end of the day.  They’re markets for something other than just boring money, which is what makes them so cool.  You put money in—real money—but the rewards you reap are the good vibes, or exclusive merch, or the knowledge that you helped resurrect Veronica Fucking Mars, your favorite TV badass of all time.

But even if it’s just $5, it is an investment, and as such crowdfunding platforms should be regulated like the investment markets they are.  We’ve outgrown the land of handshakes and crossing our fingers that everyone’s going to be honest and accountable.  If that wasn’t clear before, this Veronica Mars thing has certainly made it so.

Distanced Learning: SCMS as MOOC (massively open online conference)?

08/03

The Society for Cinema and Media Studies’ annual conference is an academic ritual, a rite of passage, a key site of professional advancement, and the social event of the season if you’re a media scholar.  This year, it’s in Chicago, and in media res as I sit here typing this blog post from my desk at Occidental College’s Center for Digital Learning + Research in Los Angeles.  But, I feel like I’m virtually there. Or, perhaps more to the point, I am virtually there.

Visualization of networked knowledge communities, tweets from #SCMS12.

Numerically, at least, I was one of the “top tweeters” at SCMS last year, and it’s been both fascinating and frustrating to function exclusively as a virtual participant this year.  And, given my current position as a Mellon Digital Scholarship postdoc, I can’t help but process this experience through contemporary debates around distanced learning and MOOCs (Massively Open Online Courses), and consider what it means to experience and/or conceptualize SCMS as a MOOC (Massively Open Online Conference).  SCMS has had the “massive” part down for years now, and just this year it has begun to venture into creating “open” moments (notably the two workshops livestreamed this year, which I’ll discuss below) to accompany its recent commitment to developing online content (Cinema Journal’s new Aca-Media podcast, the SCMS blog and official twitter feeds that launched over the  past few years, etc.).  But, it’s still a conference, with all of the traditional affordances and limitations of a conference.

I have begun to document my virtual, social media(ted) experience of #SCMS13 on Storify, and I’ll continue to edit that over the weekend as the conference continues and eventually link it out in this post. For now, here are some initial takeaways on how my distanced learning experience with SCMS this year aligns with my ambivalence about MOOCs, and how we might actually make SCMS an incredibly productive MOOC:

  • All SCMS workshops should be livestreamed (on an opt-in basis)

I can imagine some pushback on why panels shouldn’t be streamed, arguments in the vein of the conference being a relatively “safe” and intimate space to test ideas at various stages in the writing process.  But I can’t think of any reason why we shouldn’t be livestreaming SCMS workshops.  If the rousing success of the Teaching Media Facebook group indicates anything, it’s that media studies needs more collective intelligence spaces, especially as pedagogies and paradigms adapt to emergent technologies.

This year, the SCMS IT Committee livestreamed the workshop “Scholarly Social Media: Successes, Failures, and Future.”  The experiment led to the impromptu decision to livestream a workshop on the following day, “Digital Humanities and Film and Media Studies: Staging an Encounter.”  While I have been following myriad panels/workshops on twitter (including one on “Gender, Networking, Social Media, and Collegiality” that I was absolutely gutted to miss, and was counter-programmed against the livestreamed social media workshop), I only experience their limited digital residues, often filtered through disciplinary lenses or with an intertextual frame I don’t have direct access to.

When Jason Mittell tweeted me to ask if I was remotely attending his Digital Humanities workshop this morning, a fortuitous typo occurred, and was quickly corrected:

In some sense, these two instances of livestreaming have been more akin to “lifestreaming” for me.  They’ve animated the conference proceedings for me in a way that Twitter alone cannot.  They’ve offered the closest approximations of my life experiences as an attendee at SCMS.  And, perhaps most vitally, they have the capacity to give the conference’s proceedings a life beyond the conference.  As I write this, it’s unclear if there are any archival plans for these two workshops, but to adapt a point made by Eric Hoyt during this morning’s workshop about the importance of shifting the Digital Humanities debate to consider best practices of consumption, not just production, we need to develop a sustainable way to spread, cite, and archive these resources.

Importantly, I think the optimal way to ensure that we’re advancing conversations from conference to conference, year to year, is to ensure that prior workshops on similar issues are openly accessible.  The best way to avoid rehashing old material, and actually push for substantive change (whether the debate is around social media in the classroom or tenure and promotion concerns for digital projects), is to take ownership over collectively creating a space where these conversations and live and evolve.  SCMS is a space to test our new ideas, and learn from old ones, and it makes sense to develop a corresponding digital space that evokes those same principles that we embrace for 5 days a year in perpetuity.

This isn’t just for people like me, who are occasionally unable to attend the conference, but also for those who are sitting down the hall in another panel.  We have the technological capacity to never again say “Oh, that sounds like such an interesting workshop, I wish I could have been there, but I had to see X present on Y.”  We have the technological capacity to expand conversations about pedagogy and process that we can all benefit from beyond a hotel room that seats 25 people to a global audience of not just scholars, but students as well.  And, I would contend that we have the obligation, as critical media scholars, to do so.

During the Social Media panel, I was able to engage directly and instantaneously with comments from the panel and the audience.  I was able to do what I normally do at conferences, which is livetweet, both to mark key points and archive my response to those points, favorite any relevant links and ideas being shared, and push back on points that I  found problematic:

While I was not physically present to pose questions, there was a platform available to do so and, in many cases, just like when physically attending, my questions were asked before I had an opportunity to (in this case, responding before I had a chance to follow up the above tweet with another about Storify and other datamining/curation tools):

Workshops are (at their best) designed to provoke and promote conversation, and I’m happy to see that these “conversations” are now being conceptualized in more open, accessible terms.  At their best, MOOCs make a compelling case for a learning process that is both widely accessible and participatory, and as the most openly “participatory” programatic element of SCMS, it is simple common sense to me to make them open as well.

  • The virtual SCMS experience has performatively solidified my ambivalence about MOOCs

I don’t really want to get into the great MOOC debate here, but never have I been more conscious of the experiential pros and cons that are being bandied about on myriad blogs on this topic than over the last few days.  Here are just two examples…

1.  It’s been really nice and rewarding  to have a strong, tangible sense of my presence and impact on the conference space, especially because I can’t experience it as a physical space:

There are a couple more good citational examples like this, but I’ll save them for the Storify, lest I come off like an egomaniac.  If anything, I think because people know I’m not there, they’ve been more attentive to mark the moments in which my presence (or structuring absence) is acknowledged.  In MOOCs, participants might be similarly conceived as “disembodied” presences, but the evidence of their haunting/learning are made visible in ways that they can’t always been made tangible in a physical classroom.

2. Conversations can be limited by digital spaces and literacies just as frequently as they can be enabled by them.  I’m lucky that my fields of interest (fan culture, television studies, the digital humanities, etc.) align neatly with the most active SCMS and media studies twitterati.  MOOCs function only if the participants are digitally literate (in the Lessig read/write culture sense), and there is a serious, discplinary participation gap that exists at SCMS when it come to digital presence of the organization, and media studies broadly.  Another frustration with my distanced learning experience this week is that I am unable to organically continue conversations with people. Take the conversation below: I would have loved to snag Liz after the panel, or maybe in the hotel bar later tonight, to tell her more about my project and get her feedback, but that’s not going to happen.  This is not to place a value judgement on in-person vs. virtual interaction, as I’m often an advocate for the power of the latter.  A MOOC will inevitably take on it’s own trajectory that can’t be entirely planned, and while that’s a potential strength it can also derail productive conversations mid-stream.

 

  • Conferences may function as MOOCs, but they also function as  conventions

Last year, I wrote a somewhat cheeky blog post about the striking similarities between media studies conferences like SCMS and pop culture conventions like SDCC (San Diego Comic Con).  Already, some have been noting the convergence of cons that will be taking place in 2014, when the SCMS conference will be taking place in Seattle immediately after Emerald City Comic Con:

In addition to the similarities I noticed last year, I’m experiencing another con-specific phenomenon this year (and one I just went through with ECCC), namely that reading all of the tweets and blog posts only make me want to be there more.  Because, though I am eternally grateful to those of social media who give me a sense of the key events and ideas presented, the (often intangible) benefits of presence are lost.  Experiential learning can be lost, when you don’t get to see you “con friends” (or, for the less geek-inclined of you, your “camp friends”) and stumble upon and synthesize important ideas over the course of casual conversation.

One of my primary concerns about MOOCs is that they can never fully replicate the social experience of a class, or the social dynamics of a class cohort.  I may be wrong about this, and certainly there are networked learning benefits to moving beyond a meatspace vision of a “classroom,” or I wouldn’t routinely have my students blog and tweet for class credit.  But as my twitter feed dwindles down to a (relative) trickle as the panels for the day come to a close, and friends head off to try the local cuisine and coalesce in watering holes and karaoke bars, I’m incredibly aware of where this experience ends for me as a remote learner, and what I’m missing.  I am posting this at 4:45pm PST, 6:45pm local time for everyone at SCMS.  Many won’t see my tweet announcing that this post is up, because they’ll be in the hotel bar or at dinner, and rightly so.

These thoughts are still evolving, so I’d encourage you to comment (if you’ve stuck with me this far) to help work through or nuance this analogy!  I’m especially interested to hear from others who are experiencing #scms13 this way.

 

ARG Course: Professor, Puppet Master, or Project Manager?

17/01

I’m really excited to launch my spring course at Occidental College next week, as it represents a series of firsts: my first opportunity to teach within Oxy’s Media Studies department, the department’s first course offering in gaming and play, and the first gaming course I’ve taught that has an extensive design project attached to it.  If you’d like to learn more about the course, ArtM 348 Topics in Digital Culture: Games, Play, and ARGs, you can download the syllabus, or visit our course blog (which will begin to be populated in the coming weeks with play journals and other posts, the bulk of the game design update will begin appearing in late March).

I taught two iterations of an Introduction to Video Game Studies course at UC Santa Cruz in 2010 and 2011, but both of these courses were limited by departmental context (hence an emphasis on representations of games, both fictional narratives and video documentation of live gameplay), resources (I had to rely on students’ gaming systems and library resources, so a “lab” component was out), and my own position as a commuting lecturer, which meant I wasn’t in a space to radically reinvent the aforementioned issues.

 In the same way that players use “This is not a game” or “TINAG” as shorthand to differentiate between the experiential play of ARGs and other game genres, I feel compelled to preface the description below by noting that “TINAC”…or, rather, this is not just a class.  This course, in part, is designed as an exercise in collective intelligence in the classroom.  Occidental College is beginning to think about what a campus-wide pervasive game to develop digital media fluencies might look like, and this course is one of the first steps in that process.  Thus, students will be designing a pervasive game both as an exercise in applying and exhibiting mastery of course concepts (as they would in any media studies course), but they will also be bringing their experiences as Oxy students, their spatial understanding of the campus and surrounding neighborhood, and knowledge about their peer’s use of mobile technologies, to bear on the design process.

Because TINAC (or not just a class), I’m also grappling with being not just the instructor, a role I’m exceedingly comfortable with.  The course’s intensive game design/praxis component means that I will be wear the respective hats of Professor, Puppet Master, and Project Manager simultaneously once we move into the design unit.  As a professor, we never enjoy it when our students hand in assignments late, but as the de facto Project Manager, who knows that missed deadlines might have a horrific domino effect on the design project as a whole, I need to think through more structured modes of tracking assignments.  Do I use Basecamp?  Our CMS, Moodle, because they’ll be familiar with it?  Do I model the sort of agency players experience in ARGs and let the students collectively take ownership over these decisions?  Where will what they create ultimately “live,” and how do we archive experience?  These sorts of internal questions and debates have been invigorating, not just because they’re different from the normal minutiae of finalizing syllabi, but because they’re helping me re-think what it means to teach (digital) media studies.  Based on my own research interests in participatory culture, I have long embraced the benefits of a more participatory pedagogical model, but this project will realize (and potentially complicate) these values in ways I can’t yet predict.

Though the “three P’s” here evoke a certain amount of authority or control, we all know that in ARGs, the players are anything but “puppets,” and shape the gameplay to a large degree.  They aren’t “servants” to the game or their puppet “masters.”  Likewise, students in this class are still students (they still need to complete work that will be graded), they will have unprecedented agency to shape the course, and its outcomes.  The also have an opportunity to shape the pervasive game that Occidental ultimately develops.  My position as a Mellon Digital Scholarship Postdoc has only made me more committed to using these moments to open up conversations about collaborative labor and credit on large scale, or iterative, digital projects, and this course will afford an interesting opportunity to raise these concerns with students.

You’ll be able to follow along via our course blog over the coming months, and I encourage you to weigh in on the students’ narrative design ideas, engagement strategies, and artifacts as they emerge.  I’m especially interested to hear from those who have designed similar project-based game design courses, or participated in these courses on what’s worked and and hasn’t.

#sixseasonsandamovie (and a documentary)

28/11

A few months ago, I was contacted by Andulka Wilkes and Evan Koehne about appearing in a documentary about a (fan) art show celebrating NBC’s cult comedy Community.  I am thrilled to be a part of this project, and its release fills some of the void left by NBC pulling the season 4 premiere of Community.  All Wingeresque shameless promotion aside, if you’re similarly sad about the “indefinite delay” (or, February 2013, close enough…) I’d encourage you to watch this doc, it’s a real testament to the fan culture surrounding the show, and the creators’ embrace of fannish textual production:

I find it somewhat amusing that Dan Harmon opens the documentary by remarking that Community began as “a crass, non-creative effort to make money.”  The remainder of the documentary understandably dismantles that idea, celebrating the fans and artists that have coalesced around the show, and exploring the increasingly fluid boundaries between the cultural labels of “artist” and “fan.”  But, because I was brought in specifically to offer some scholarly background on fan studies, I thought I might use this space to express some of my remarks that didn’t make the cut.  Nothing against the filmmakers, I think they did a bang-up job, and anyone who knows me knows I can be a bit skeptical about monetizing fan production and sensitive to hierarchically privileging some forms of fan expression over others.  That wasn’t the story the filmmakers set out to tell, and accordingly this blog post strives to reclaim some comments from the cutting room floor and pose some broader questions about the trend towards “fan art” gallery shows.

First, a confession: I am an avid collector of art (originals and prints) from Gallery 1988, Los Angeles galleries that specialize in thematic collections around particular (cult) media properties and genres.  The “Six Seasons and A Movie” art show at PixelDrip was similar to Gallery 1988 shows, in fannish scope and audience, but further played up the “art show by/for fans” angle by including a costume contest and more interactive offerings (a playable version of the video game from the episode “Digital Estate Planning,” for example).  I don’t have exact numbers, but the show appeared the feature a mix of professional artists who are fans of Community, and Community fan artists.  What’s the difference?  Increasingly, it’s difficult to gauge, but this doesn’t mean the hierarchies that underpin this distinction (both between “artist” and “fan artist,” and within the category of “fan artist” in terms of who was selected to participate in the gallery show) evaporate.

Fan art is, of course, nothing new, nor is the intersection between art and popular culture (see: Lichtenstein, Warhol, Banksy et. al.).  What is novel is the legitimizing discourse that occurs when “fan art” moves into the gallery space, and begin to be sold.  I often return to the dialogue created by Karen Hellekson’s and Abigail De Kosnik in the In Focus section of Cinema Journal 48, No. 4 (Summer 2009).  Hellekson’s article, “A Fannish Field of Value: Online Fan Gift Culture,” argues for both the legal and social necessity of fan works being exchanged within a gift economy. Meanwhile, De Kosnik’s essay, “Should Fan Fiction Be Free?,” makes a compelling case for why fans, and female fans in particular, might find it empowering (or, simply preferable) to profit from their fannish labor.  Both Hellekson and DeKosnik are concerned with the media industries’ encroachment on fan culture and practices, and their attempts to commercialize fan fiction.

So, my central question is, can we neatly apply these same concerns to fan art?  Does its designation as “art,” and the growing popularity of liminal spaces like deviantART, facilitate a smoother transition for these forms of fan production into more “professional” spheres, or allow it to be monetized without the same blowback within fan communities?  My own experience within fandom is that, while I would balk if someone charged me to read their fan fiction, I wouldn’t blink if I saw a fan selling their art (particularly if it was commissioned).  While I am absolutely giddy that shows like “Six Seasons and A Movie,” or gallery spaces like Gallery 1988, acknowledge the immense talent of fans, I wonder if they truly acknowledge the lineage of fan art, or adequately reflect its sensibilities.    What are the implications of call this a fan art show, when primarily professional artists are participating?

Generally, I feel there’s some important work to be done on the disconnects between contemporary fan culture (or the interpellation of fan culture into industry, high art, etc.) and histories of fandom and fan studies.  Fan art has always been under-theorized (to my mind), despite the fact that, second to vidding, it has perhaps benefitted the most from digital tools and platforms.  I would also suggest that fan artists have historically presented the most slippage between “amateur” and “professional.”  So, do we call these “fan art” shows?  Is it important (or even possible) to demarcate between artist/fan and fan/artist?  I’m still working through my take on this…with Grant Searcey’s “Raiding Ft. Tusken” on canvas and Bruce White’s “Wet Hot Velvet Coop” looking down on me…

[Side note on the above video: I admittedly stumbled in the moment I was asked about my favorite Community quote.  In a panic, I fell back on my dual loves, The Warriors and "Modern Warfare." Here's my actual favorite...from Abed, obviously: "We've lost our Cliff Clavin. Our George Costanza. Our Turtle...or Johnny Drama...or E.  Man, that show is sloppy."]

Considering the “bad object”: fandom and/as social justice

08/08

Fellow fans and aca-friends, lend me your ears and send me your comments!

This weekend, I’m headed to Geek Girl Con to participate in a roundtable with Anita Sarkeesian and Alejandra Espino titled “Let’s Get Critical: Fans, Creators, and Social Justice.”  Here’s the official description:

As fans and creators interested in gender equality and social justice, there are times when our political views seem to interfere with media engagement and media creation. Actions like acknowledging one’s privilege or discovering the systemic misogynist/racist/ableist structures prevalent in our favorite shows, movies, comic books, and video games can be a source of tension. This panel will address the complexities of engaging with media through the lens of social justice, both as fans and as creators.

 As I’ve been thinking through this topic as an acafan, and considering my personal “bad objects”…of which, I’m quickly realizing, there are many…

Smart is the new sexy…unless you’re a woman. Then you should rub your boobs on a chalkboard.

A couple of questions popped immediately to mind, and I’d love to crowdsource some feedback on any of these issues before heading into the roundtable:
  • What is your personal “bad object,” or text (maybe one you abandoned and one you still consider yourself a fan of despite finding it problematic)?
  • Where do we “draw the line,” and how we draw them (e.g. do we just stop watching/playing/financially supporting?  Do we avoid future work from those creators?  Do we create/disseminate critical commentary and/or advocate for others to “draw the line,” etc.).
  • Transformative fan texts are powerful devices to express one’s own personal politics, and speak back to problematic media representations, but how might we accomplish a broader transformative shifts within media industries?  What are the most effective channels/platforms/tactics for raising these issues and encouraging systemic change?
Even better, if you attend this panel, I’d love to hear from you!

CFP for SCMS 2013 Panel: Women in/and Comic Book Culture

17/07

Hey aca-friends, are you or is someone you know interested in being part of a SCMS panel on Women in/and Comic Book Culture?  If so, read on…

Reading the recent (and excellent, I might add) In Focus section of Cinema Journal focused on the state of the field of comics studies, I was struck by a remark Scott Bukatman made about “the predictable parade of concerns that played through in other fields decades ago” (Smith et. al. 2011: 138), that he viewed as currently weighing down comics studies as a developing field.  Representation (e.g. women in comics, African Americans in comics, etc.) was used as the primary example, but the other male comics scholars in conversation with Bukatman (Greg M. Smith, Thomas Andrae,  and Thomas LaMarre) agreed that the emphasis should be on the “how,” rather than the “what” of comics.  Because I firmly believe that, as the past year in comic book culture has made abundantly clear, questions of the “what” of comics (representation), cannot be easily divorced from broader studies of industry and audience (what we might dub the “why” and the “who” of comics), I felt compelled to put together a panel on women and comic book culture, both to raise the visibility of female comic creators, readers, and scholars, and to consider how gender impacts the study of comics more broadly.

Some potential topics for this panel include:

  • Representations of women in comics
  • Fan reactions and transformative responses to women in comics and comic culture (Women in Refrigerators, New 52 representation and/or Neilsen survey fallout, Mary Jane meme, Batgirl of San Diego, etc.)
  • Female comic book auteurs
  • Female superheroes
  • Gender and ethnographic studies of comic book readership and fandom
  • Crowdfunding/Kickstarter comics (e.g. Womanthology or similar) [Fair warning, I may call dibs on this one]
  • Women and Indie Comics
  • Niche marketing and the history of “girls” comics
  • Gendered spaces of comic book fan culture (LCS, conventions, etc.)

I cannot stress enough that the topics above are just some initial ideas.  Ideally I’d like to collaboratively decide on the scope with others to create a cohesive panel that still represents a variety of viewpoints and topics.  This panel will hopefully be sponsored by the newly formed SCMS Comic Studies SIG (which, even if you aren’t interested in submitting to the panel, you should join if you’re an SCMS member interested in comics studies, they’re a fine group of folks).

If you’re interested, please email me a brief abstract (300 words) by August 1, or just contact me with any questions: suzannescott[at]oxy.edu

__________________

Greg M. Smith et. al., “Surveying the World of Contemporary Comics Scholarship: A Conversation,” Cinema Journal 50, No. 3, Spring 2011 (135-147).

Gender/Genre (or why I’m about to Hulk out on Moviefone)

02/05

We have a new, vile example of the marginalization of fangirls (or the general treatment of women as a surplus audience), courtesy of Moviefone.  I have written about the “Princess Naked” and/or “Dr. Girlfriend” gendered Comic-Con stereotypes forwarded by the popular press on this blog in the past, but articles like this one are part of a more persistent and pervasive trend.  Written by Jessie Heyman, “A Girls’ Guide to The Avengers” (since retitled “One Girl’s Guide to The Avengers,” which makes it all better, except that it doesn’t), begins with “As your boyfriend probably told you, ‘The Avengers’ is hitting theaters this Friday…” and somehow manages to go downhill from there.

In addition to reifying the generic pink ghetto (“But you hate action movies and you’ve never even read a comic book,” followed quickly by a Bridget Jones/romcom reference to make us womenfolk feel more comfortable), and offering swoony heteronormative incentives to attend (both of the “Thor’s hammer” and “feign interest to please your boyfriend” variety), the article offers the following helpful advice:

What NOT to say:
“Do you think Scarlett Johansson is pretty?”
“Oh, so it’s like the ‘New Years Eve’ of superhero movies?”
“Who could concentrate on the story with all those biceps?”
“Boys are so weird.”

What to say:
“Thank GOD someone did the Hulk correctly.”
“I can’t wait for ‘Thor 2.’”
“Joss Whedon is the man.”
“Yeah, you’re definitely Iron Man. If he were buffer.”

Now, I’m not going to quibble with the fact that the author of this article failed to decode the acronym S.H.I.E.L.D. correctly, or mistakenly identified Pepper Potts as Tony Stark’s assistant (that’s *former* assistant, thankyouverymuch).  What I will quibble with is the fact that I read one of these articles almost every damn day.  True, they’re not all as blood-boilingly heinous as this one is, but as a point of comparison, let’s go back to a 2009 article in the Los Angeles Times titled “The Girls’ Guide to Comic-Con.”

Featuring a collection of blurbs from online journalists claiming that SDCC was “not just for nerdy guys anymore,” but rather a “smorgasbord for female fandemonium,” the article details 22 lures for female attendees, based on predictions about SDCC’s then-yet-to-be-released programming schedule.  Of these 22 supposed draws for female attendees, 15 (68%) revolved around the promise of “eye candy” in the form of male celebrities, 3 (14%) focused on historically “feminine” genres such as soap operas and weepies, 3 (14%) focused on television series or films featuring strong female characters, and there was 1 (4%) token example of demographic and gender neutral programming (Toy Story 3).  In the rare instances that the article acknowledged a desire for fangirls to see themselves depicted as strong women by the media industry, this “strength” was defined exclusively in terms of fashion sense (regarding the television reboot of The Witches of Eastwick…remember that?!  Of course you don’t.), and empty celebrations of “girl power” (literally empty, as Echo on Dollhouse was described as “airheady”).

Here are a few choice quotes from that article (and trust me, they’re all deeply offensive, and written by male and female journalists alike):

This is all to say that fangirls (and female audiences generally) deal with this marginalization on a daily basis, the Moviefone article is just one example of a pervasive discursive trend that has accompanied the celebration of fanboys as an emergent power demographic.  Newspaper stories put on gasping/fainting airs when it was revealed that women comprised 48% of the opening weekend audience for The Dark Knight (2008).  The articles that emerged didn’t recognize that fangirls were always already part of the “fanboy” demographic.  Rather, they framed The Dark Knight’s large female audience as an anomaly and attempted to deconstruct the film’s appeal for women.  The film’s executive producer, Thomas Tull, cited the “female appeal” and the acting pedigree of stars Christian Bale and Heath Ledger. Other journalists simply wrote off the large female audience as a manifestation of “rubberneck curiosity” to see Ledger’s posthumous performance as the Joker.  The notion that fangirls had long circulated around Batman as a property was never broached as a potential explanation for the film’s success.

We wouldn’t stand for articles detailing “appropriate” careers for women, and so it’s unsurprising over the outcry over the Moviefone article, which suggests “appropriate” genres for men and women to circulate around.  Derek Johnson has done some excellent work on gendered franchising discourses, a “complex and contradictorily gendered phenomenon in which the feminized narratives of seriality [are] revalued through the economic logics of industrial rationality.”[1]  If franchises aim to position themselves as  “seemingly gender-neutral,”[2] the popular press’ coverage of them is anything but.

When I go see The Avengers this weekend (with a bunch of female friends with varying interests in comics and action films, I should note), even my soda selection at the snack bar has an opinion on whether or not I’m the intended audience:

The Dr. Pepper 10 ads have been (justifiably) criticized to death, but the “intended” audience for Marvel properties is also implicit in the majority of the partnered ads between Marvel films and Dr. Pepper.  Hey, check it out, Black Widow has been reduced to Stan Lee’s hot secretary!

A few more things:

- Go read The Discriminating Fangirl’s excellent response to the Moviefone article debacle.

- Keep getting outraged when these articles appear.  They’re not satirical, they reflect the pervasive and persistent devaluation of female spectators by media industries.  Keep tweeting and blogging and commenting (a big “Excelsior!” those commenting at Moviefone, you are all articulate, hilarious people.) and let the popular press know that this discourse is unacceptable.

- Go buy/support Womanthology, or GeekGirlCon, or go read any number of kickass blogs that deal with fan culture in a thoughtful way (I’m looking at you, The Mary Sue!)

- Congratulations, Moviefone, you’ve just made it into my book revisions (hint, it ain’t gonna be pretty…and I know that will disappoint you, because that’s how you like your ladies, pretty and silent and complacent).  Also, on behalf of female comic book fans everywhere, maybe you should stop telling us what to say and what not to say, and hold yourself accountable for what YOU do and don’t say, and stop hiding behind your crappy cardboard Capt. America shield of “satire.”


[1] Derek Johnson, “Devaluing and Revaluing Seriality: The Gendered Discourses of Media Franchising,” Media, Culture, & Society 33.7, 1080.

[2] Ibid., 1091.

“More Cowbell”: My Avengers Remix Video

30/04

You know what this toolkit needs?  More explosions.

As I noted in my prior post about Disney/Marvel’s partnership with YouTube to facilitate the creation of Avengers remix videos, it appears the available clips are changing daily, thankfully offering more character-driven clips.  When I made the video below  (full disclosure, I made this in about 5-10 min, not my finest or most contemplative work), a solid 37.5% of the available clips were all explosions, and another 40% featured men doing things to cause explosions and/or attempting to evade said explosions.  It immediately gave me flashbacks to the Battlestar Galactica videomaker toolkit, which also heavily favored things exploding/careening through space:

I’m always interested in how the clips included these “authorized” video remix toolkits suggest appropriate uses/creative directions, or which sorts of fan narratives they pointedly constrict.  My aim with this video was to reflect on those decisions:

I fully intended to go back in and spend some time making a proper video, as opposed to this dashed-off, knee-jerk response.  I hope others do the same, prodding at the boundaries of what can or can’t be created, the argumentative capacity of the toolkit, and which strains of remix culture are encouraged or elided (fan vids? parodies?  slash?  fake trailers? etc.),

To give you a sense of the editing/remixing interface:

I didn’t take full advantage off the capabilities here, as the goal was to create something quick-and-dirty that might still be contemplative about my gut response to this gesture from Marvel and Disney.  The song I selected, “Shake the Ground” by Cherri Bomb, was notably the only offering performed by women, but more importantly it struck the tone that I wanted.  Lyrically, I think it actually works fairly well as a commentary on how these “legit” fan video initiatives have a tendency to leave pre-existing vidding practices unacknowledged, or shift the form’s logics back towards the promotional visual language that the industry is comfortable with. Quoth the chorus:

I won’t do what I’m told

I will wear you break you down, take you down

Shake the ground

Your dark sun leaves me cold

I will burn it out, wear you down

Shake the ground 

The image I kept coming back to, and loop repeatedly at one point, is that of a woman being hurled against a cafe table.  The image is quite clearly about the impact of the explosion on this woman’s body, and I suppose I wanted to ruminate on the “impact” of these video remix outreach efforts on female fans and vidders in particular.  The shots of Black Widow at the end hopefully also speak to this, moving from a look of horror, to fighting back, and ultimately a reclamation of the explosion.

I also wanted to use the toolkit in an unintended or unexpected way (cutting to black before the song concludes, rhythmic repetition of images, and so on).  Given more time, I think that making metavids about the limitations of various remix video toolkits offered by the industry could function as a wonderful running commentary on how these sanctioned initiatives are (or aren’t) slowly beginning to engaging with pre-existing fan video practices and aesthetics.  Likewise, I like the idea of speaking back to those developing these spaces through the form itself.

Finally, I must point everyone to the wonderful current issue of Transformative Works and Cultures, edited by Francesca Coppa and Julie Levin Russo, on Fan/Remix Video.  It’s a great starting point for thinking through these industrial efforts towards authorized forms of remixing.  In particular, I had Kathleen Ann Williams’ article, “Fake and fan film trailers as incarnations of audience anticipation and desire,” in mind while playing around with the Avengers toolkit.  To pull from her conclusion:

“Although trailers are often thought of as advertising an end product, these [fan] trailers function beyond the realm of the advertisement and instead suggest that the trailer lasts beyond the release of the feature, not only as an artifact but as a cultural object that can be integrated into new spaces and as a form in which to enact desires for future texts.”

I’ll be curious to see how I respond to the aural and visual elements of my video when I see the film theatrically this weekend- I somehow doubt I’ll look at that women hitting the cafe table the same way.  The temporal experience of creating the video from promotional materials prior to being granted their narrative context is also interesting, as the videos fans are creating this week are inevitably about the the expectations and desires that have been strategically cultivated by promotional paratexts, inverting the conventional production and reception process for fan vids.

Are you planning on making anything with the Avengers video remix toolkit?  If so, please let me know, I’d be curious to hear about others’ experiences.

The Avengers Remix video toolkit

28/04

This week, Variety ran a story about Disney and Marvel’s partnership with YouTube to create a video remix toolkit, including 32 short clips from the film and excerpts of 4 songs from the film’s soundtrack (each track under a minute long), along with clips of dialogue, and a variety of SFX and transition options.  The title of this article?

“Disney, Marvel offer do-it-yourself ’Avengers’ vids: YouTube software allows fans to craft legit remixes from pic”

There are myriad problems with both the toolkit and Variety‘s legitimization discourse that I’d like to get into, but first let me say this: Generally, I love the idea of giving fans HD raw materials to create their own remix videos.  I love that these tools might allow some fans who tend to think of themselves as consumers rather than creators an entry point into other forms of fan production.  I love that these “authorized” remix contests/tools at least begin to acknowledge both the creative and promotional value of fans to the success of media franchises.

Here’s what I don’t love:

- Of the 32 clips provided to me to work with (and they appear to be changing daily), here’s generally how they break down in terms of visual content, with the Misc. category composed of things like the obligatory group shot, Loki looking menacing/sexy, etc.:

Clip content breakdown for Disney/Marvel's Avengers remix video toolkit

I get it.  I do.  They wanted to stick with images from the trailer (hence, no spoilers for fans to get testy about), and the trailer is designed to sell the generic action of a superhero blockbuster.  These are clips of promotional materials from which fan-produced promotional materials are designed to be generated.  As the Variety piece championing the move by Disney and Marvel tellingly notes:

“[This] marketing move is seen as the latest way to make moviegoers, especially younger ones, feel as if they’re part of a film’s campaign.”

Not part of the film, or a community surrounding the film, but part of the campaign.  Thus far, many of the remixes made with this tool are quite impressive in terms of their professional polish and their ability to mimic the aesthetic language of promotional paratexts, but the lack of any character interactions provided as raw material inherently limits what’s produced. More diverse clips would inevitably lead to more diverse creative uses, and while the diversity of explosions offered here is laudable (Jets!  Buildings!  A Cafe!  Taxis!  More Taxis!  And hell, why not make a taxi explosion clip trilogy while we’re at it!), it also feels like a none-too-subtle attempt to overdetermine what “narratives” people use the tool to tell.  At its core, The Avengers is about relationships, but you wouldn’t know it from the range of clips provided.  Save for a pair of nano-second long clips of various male members of the team exchanging blows (not enough to construct anything slashy, trust me, I made a valiant effort), there are virtually no shots where two characters interact, and the limited character shots that are provided tend to be interrupted immediately by those pesky explosions, making it difficult to create a video that ruminates on the relationships between members of the team.

[NOTE: I just checked back on the site and they seem to have swapped out some of yesterday's clips with more character clips, so perhaps some of these complaints can be dialed back depending on which stable of clips you've been given.]

- The obligatory terms of service stranglehold, which as usual forces the remixer to waive all rights to their creation.  To wit, see the load page for the remix interface, and a selection from the terms of service this main pages links out to:

Remixers, ye be warned...

Mickey seems awfully pleased with himself...

My central concern is one that won’t surprise anyone who has read my work, or Julie Levin Russo’s excellent work on Battlestar Galactica‘s videomaker toolkit.  Not only do these “authorized” efforts fail to meaningfully reach out to pre-existing fan vidding communities, they seem to aggressively dissuade the forms of remix that have been historically created by women.  This isn’t to say that many female fans aren’t using (or enjoying using) this new Avengers remix platform, simply that if this is a model towards “legit” fan remix video that implies that this is a potential effort to displace or dissuade those “illegitimate” forms.  Those that stage an argument or a counter-reading, ruminate on the dynamics between characters or queer them, or take the narrative in a new, unexpected (e.g. unsanctioned) direction.

There is also something to be said here about the fallaciously gendered construction of both comic book readers and the audience for franchise films.  In both cases, women continue to be treated as surplus audiences, and perhaps are considered surplus remixers here as well.  Efforts like these from Disney and Marvel are tend to be discursively framed as a decisive break from the industry’s prior prohibitionist response to fan production (commonly manifesting in the form of cease and desist letters and other methods of legal censure), taking a more collaborationist approach to fan culture and fan production.  While this might mark a step in the right direction, we need to continue to be critical of what modes of creative censure come attached to these collaborationist gestures, and which audiences they court.  The big issues here: industrial cooptation of fan labor, ownership/authorship within copyright culture, ideological censure, seem to recur with the release of each new video toolkit, and to my mind mark an ongoing need to consider how prohibitionist efforts evolve, become more covert, or create legitimizing discourses around “sanctioned” modes of fan engagement.

The Avengers video remix toolkit ultimately speaks to the growing popularity of remix culture, and the shifting cultural and technological landscape that is facilitating it, without meaningfully engaging with those communities of practice.

In my next post, I’ll show you what I created with the Avenger Remix video toolkit, and discuss what I hoped to convey…

Spoiler alert: I didn’t skimp on the explosions.