What Turns a Film Into a Fandom?

A lot of the best geeky film/television/book franchises have launched massive fan communities, some of which have endured for decades: Star Wars, Star Trek, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Doctor Who, Harry Potter, to name a few. And of course there are huge followings for specific animes as well, and many, many more. But when something new comes on the scene, what is it that makes it go beyond mere consumption to fan creation? Is there some X factor about a piece of media that inspires fan fiction, fan art, conventions, cosplay, etc., sometimes with startling speed? We know that it isn’t necessarily proportional to the amount of time a franchise sticks around – Firefly is proof enough of that, among others. And even single films can spark a massive community, whether mainstream or a cult following.

I was thinking about this largely because of the explosion of love for Inception I’ve seen in my online social circles – and not just discussion of the movie (what does it all mean!), but also fan fiction, world building, roleplaying, and the like. It might not be the kind of film to inspire tons of cosplay (I think that takes a special sort of aesthetic), but if the enthusiasm to send fan fiction writers immediately scribbling is any indication, this fandom might have legs. Seeing how many fan communities pop up on Livejournal is usually a pretty good metric. So what was it about Inception that really worked in this regard?

My theory is that the X factor has something to do with world building. If fans are going to be inspired to really play in someone else’s sandbox, then it has to be an awfully big sandbox. I think Inception is successful in this regard largely because of unanswered questions and the opportunity to really dig in and figure out how things work. The ensemble of characters probably doesn’t hurt either – and maybe it’s because we don’t know a whole lot about all of them that makes people want to fill in the blanks. And of course, it’s also true that having a lot of pretty people probably helps.

So what do you think? Any ideas about what might make a film a fandom? And do you think Inception will stick around, or is the enthusiasm just a flash in the pan? Though if you ever want proof that there is fan fiction for pretty much anything you can think of, just have a look around Yuletide.

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7 Responses to What Turns a Film Into a Fandom?

  1. I think you've pretty much nailed it. The breadth and richness of the world is very important for the fandom. It's the big reason HP has such a following. Rowling has a real gift for merely referencing an ancillary character (say, Eloise Midgen), and giving that character life. You get a real feeling that the other characters are continuing to live lives off camera.

    Now compare that to Matrix. As amazing as the concept is, and as amazing as the movie is, it just doesn't have that depth. You don't care about any of the other people in Zion. There's no real sense that there are a couple dozen other ships out there dipping into the Matrix, even after they're referenced. You aren't drawn to ask where these people came from. If you want to write fanfic or RPG material about it, you have a pretty big hump to get over.

    One of the other elements to the X factor is how much "ordinary" people get to make a difference. In HP, there's nothing special about Ron, and most of the other characters are rather ordinary. But, they pluck up their courage and engage the adventure. This is also the factor that makes Buffy stand out. While Buffy may be "The Chosen One," Xander and Willow get to get involved as well. Compare to James Bond, Die Hard, or even Superman (leaving out the rest of the DC universe). There's no place to attach a hook for a secondary character, and certainly not a way for a secondary character to take the spotlight. If you aren't writing about the main character, you aren't writing about the 'verse.

  2. I would think for something to turn from, just another piece of fiction into a fandom you need several things.

    Like you said, the most important would have to be a huge world already built that can be expanded on and explored. But not also that I think without interesting and entertaining characters it can't go into full fandom. Also it needs to feel like there is more going on in a specific world then we are seeing, without that fan fiction writers and role players would have no where to go.
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  3. I feel as though the breadth of the world is only part of it. The world also needs loose ends, an opportunity to change, and believable realistic characters. As a fanfiction writer myself, the most enjoyable thing to write about is the loose ends and minor characters.

  4. I think it isn’t just the world, but the characters. Look at Leverage, which isn’t scifi bu has a really large, surprisingly voracious, fandom. It isn’t a fancy world — it’s this world, for the most part. It’s the characters that inhabit Leverage, and that back story, those corners to open up and explore.

  5. I have to second your comment about the questions we're left with.

    In all of the series you mentioned, the film or the book that STARTED the fandom left large swathes of unanswered questions for the viewer/reader to explore.

    I often use the example of Star Wars for this. I think we can agree that the real fandom was sparked by the original films, rather than the prequels (I also use this same argument for why people enjoy the originals more than the prequels).

    Using on LIVES OF DIALOGUE from Star Wars IV A New Hope, tell me about the Force. Now tell me about lightsabers.

    Only dialogue, remember. Descriptions are out, because you can't help but borrow from outside experiences.

    You hardly know anything from that, do you? It's still mysterious! And that lets your imagination play there without concern. There are arguments about what a lightsaber can or can't cut apart. That's a good thing! That sparks fan fiction, and cosplay.

    The real kicker there is that how a lightsaber works is irrelevant to the movie. Ditto the Force. It doesn't matter! It's only needed to push the story along. and it does.

  6. Besides that, you also need to set up some rules that can later be built on top of.

    For example in Star Trek the Warp drive, warp speed levels, that it uses Dilithium crystals, and so on.

    A quick example from Inception would be the "Create a secure location, like a bank. Your target's subconscious will put information important to them in it."