Fanning The Flames

Tuesday, September 21 2010
Fanning The Flames

The end of October will see thousands of people pouring into the Excel centre in London’s deepest, darkest East End. Where once were dockers and pearly kings, there’ll be superheroes, robots, cartoon creatures and a whole lot more. It’s for the bi-annual MCM Expo, offering up sneak previews of films, games, comics and loads more.

In the past few years, the event has grown and grown – its attendances have consistently been rising.

Elsewhere, Kick-Ass has been performing solidly on DVD and Blu-ray, while Scott Pilgrim V The World has become one of the year’s most talked about films.

Meanwhile, at this year’s FrightFest, one film, Fanboys, became the first non-horror feature to play at the prestigious event. And what do these things have in common? To put it simply, geeks.

Now geeks have long kept the video industry going, especially the retail side of the business – those with long enough memories will remember every subsequent Star Wars VHS release in the early to mid-1990s; each outdoing the other and exceeding expectations, driven by geeks. And pre-HBO and DVD, the TV market was driven as much by Star Trek and old Doctor Who as any vogueish US TV series.

And yet despite our business’ foundations being built on geekery and nerd-dom, it was still played down. No-one would admit to it, and, less so, thrive on it. If you played too much to this market you would, the feeling seemed to be, put off potential customers: “I can’t go in that store, it’s full of weirdos and anoraks.”

But in the last few years the emphasis has changed. The advent of DVD encouraged the collector in us all; the inexorable rise of Quentin Tarantino made it cool to be obsessive about films and TV programmes; the Internet celebrated people’s passion for movies and drew individuals together as communities; events such as Comic-Con grew and grew and comic book movies and their ilk not only became cooler but also more profitable… That latter element is arguably the most important, as Hollywood, from the major studios to the smaller independents, realised that geeks can not only make or break a film with word of mouth (usually delivered online), but can also return to multiplexes time and time again, propelling first box office and later DVD, Blu-ray and assorted merchandising sales.

The geeks, it appears, have taken over the proverbial asylum.

“Arguably San Diego ComicCon is now the most important public facing date of the year for the big studios,” said Anchor Bay’s Thom Leaman. “A film that creates a huge buzz at Cannes or even at the Oscars is not necessarily going to have the same financial impact as a film that creates a buzz at ComicCon.

“There are so many other revenue streams available to the types of films that feature at ComicCon, and the fans that attend it like to splash money across IPs they get excited about there.

“Personally I think it’s all down to Hollywood,” continued Leaman, currently working on Fanboys. “With the huge success of the Marvel movie adaps, Batman Begins, The Dark Knight and now the mad scramble to turn just about any comic book IP into a summer blockbuster, which has in turn lead to a renaissance of sci-fi product with stuff like Star Trek and Avatar, suddenly all these products which formally were the esoteric reserve of ‘nerds’ and ‘geeks’ now have mainstream acceptance. In turn therefore being a nerd or a geek arguably has slightly less of the stigma it used to.

“It’s all relative though – if you find yourself at convention you can guarantee that a lot of the stuff these guys will be getting most excited about is about as far removed from Scott Pilgrim as you can get.”

Fanboys, the first non-horror to air at Frightfest, is out on October 4 from Anchor Bay, and, as Leaman noted, it represents, along with the likes of Scott Pilgrim and Kick-Ass, a move into a different type of geekery.

“Partly as a riposte to comic book films that are concerned with deeper and darker issues – The Dark Knight and Watchmen – we’re now seeing comic book adaps like Kick-Ass and Scott Pilgrim about a thoroughly more average and relatable superhero, which also manage to poke a bit of fun at the whole oeuvre.

“This is all hot on the heels of the slew of films from the Judd Apatow stable, in particular the likes of Superbad and Knocked Up which made the awkward looking geek the star instead of the average cool guy. Fanboys sits nicely between all these factors. Given that we’ve got a cast full  of all the most popular current young comedy stars (Seth Rogen, Jay Baruchel, Craig Robinson, Kristen Bell etc) taking on a Star Wars themed road trip; it was never a hard sell.”

Fanboys is the perfect post-modern geek film, it pokes fun at itself and its audience, but rather than alienating or offending them, they can enjoy the self-depracating tone.

“It’s made by fanboys for fanboys (and girls). It pokes fun at them but always in a very self-referential manner. And beyond that, as well as carrying an hilarious and genuinely poignant storyline, it’s also got so many in jokes, knowing one-liners and Easter eggs that fans in the know will love. Director Kyle Newman is one of the biggest Star Wars fans out there and he’s packed the film full of nice little touches precisely for fanboys like him.”

That self-depracating tone has certainly helped in putting the marketing for Fanboys together. Anchor Bay has launched a competition to find the country’s biggest geek.

As Leaman explained: “We’ll have press and TV putting the message out to a broader audience, but from the get-go because of the type of film, I was really keen to have a portion of the media campaign that really engaged with the fanboys and fangirls themselves – after all it’s a film made by them and for them. It’s all very well having a straight forward call to action press ad, but I wanted to draw the fans in and allow them to feel they are actually involved themselves in the campaign and hopefully this we’ll do just that.

“The guys at SFX and Total Film, being a bunch of fanboys and girls themselves, were really keen to get involved and between us all we came up with this idea of finding the ultimate fanboy.”

You can see some of the entrants here but as Leaman noted, while we can laugh (and take it from us, we did), there is a serious element to it.

“The thing is, most of the entrants you see there will be doing this stuff week in week out. Fandom and cosplay is a way of life for them. That’s the beauty of it – we’re not asking them to do something completely out of their comfort zone. And as the competition is based on Facebook – they’ll be posting these photos up anyway, we’re just providing them with a means to win some fantastic prizes whilst doing so and support the campaign at the same time.”

The fun element and the ability to laugh at oneself is arguably one of the elements that has helped people celebrate their geekdom, rather than be ashamed of it. The Internet has helped bring communities together – small enclaves of lonely individuals have possibly realised, thanks to the wonders of the web, that there are loads more people like them out there. And that new-found enthusiasm has helped take things even further. As Leaman concluded: “At first it didn’t even cross my mind to suggest Fanboys to the FrightFest guys, due to it not being a horror, but you can’t underestimate how excited everyone gets about a film like this.

“And it’s been the same across the board – everyone who’s worked with me in some way on the campaign has been willing to give that little extra just because they love the film so much, and seemingly within this industry there’s a bit of a fanboy in everyone.”

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