Is Hollywood overestimating the clout of the geek?


Everywhere you go these days, Hollywood is heralding the hard-core fan.

Michael Bay producing partner Brad Fuller told a Comic-Con audience last weekend that filmmakers were "terrified" about how the franchise's superfans might feel about their upcoming "Friday the 13th" reboot.

Paramount was nervous enough about geek reaction to its "Star Trek" prequel that it didn't even show footage at Comic-Con out of concern that it wasn't yet ready for discerning eyes.

Reaching the most devoted segments of entertainment consumers months or even years before a film or series debuts was once a luxury; now it's a priority. The hard-core fans are so powerful, the thinking goes, that they not only should be targeted but also allowed into the process, their voices shaping marketing campaigns and even creative directions.

But what if fan reaction bears only so much on a project's ultimate performance? And even if reaching fans can significantly move the needle, what if reaching them in the right ways is so elusive and inefficient that it's not even worth trying?

"I think some studios go to something like Comic-Con mainly because they're afraid that if they don't go, and their movies don't work, someone above them will say, 'Why didn't you go to Comic-Con?' " says one producer who's had movies with large fan campaigns.

Studios also have had a tough time figuring out what the prize is even if their campaigns are clearly laid out and completely successful.

"Our marketing strategy with fall release 'Choke' is to get all the Chuck Palahniuk fans in," says Fox Searchlight publicity chief Michelle Hooper, referring to the author of the book on which the movie is based. "The problem is there's no real way to measure how big that base is."

Marketing to the grassroots wasn't always this important. For years there were two tiers of marketing, usually arranged in a clear hierarchy. There were the traditional elements -- media, trailers, promos, teasers, sampling, reviews, television appearances and all the things studios have always done -- aimed at parts or all of the general public. Then there was the more niche art of appealing to the hard-core -- the well-placed insider reference, the early footage, the surprise guest appearance at fan gatherings. Where most marketing went broad, the second type trafficked in details; where mass-media marketing tried to stoke enthusiasm, this kind assumed it and cultivated it.

Most important, it spoke mainly to the people already inclined to like a product. (For all these common traits, it should be noted that the group referred to as the hard-core fan is hardly a monolith: The thirtysomething men that turned up for the "Office" panel last weekend were a far cry from the screaming teenage girls at the "Twilight" event.)

But a few years ago, some time after showrunners started quietly checking out catty TV blog and some time before Comic-Con became the calendar's biggest corporate marketing destination, a funny thing happened: The second approach became primary.

On its face, this shouldn't be the case. A brand's cult following isn't a very large number, and it's also a group already inclined to like and spend money on a product, which by most marketing logic is exactly the group you should spend the fewest resources on.

The thinking, though, grew out of a crucial tastemaker argument -- the idea that the movie and television business functions as a series of concentric circles, with the tastes of a relatively small group on the inside radiating to the larger -- and more lucrative -- circles outside it.

But a few years of experience have yielded enough anecdotes and data to suggest that the nerd-herd strategy might not matter as much as the hype has suggested.

For starters, the science of these tastemakers is a soft one; there's just no simple way of knowing when and how it might work.

"Sometimes that small group can be loyally fanatical and will never grow to the point of critical mass," says NBC marketing chief John Miller, noting his own network's fan favorite "Journeyman" and CBS' "Jericho." "There are some shows you're never going to find profitability with no matter how much a fan base loves it."

And if the tastemaker effect doesn't happen, the strategy loses its teeth. One director who's had repeated visits to Comic-Con noted just before he went to this year's convention that "the total number of people in the blog world is probably only a few hundred thousand, and as much as they might hate to hear it, for most movies that's not going to make the difference between a success and a failure."

Possibly even more problematic is that in tracking the effects of fan campaigns, there's a tendency to emphasize success. Pundits tout how the warm Comic-Con reception to "Iron Man" last summer served as prelude to the hot blast of boxoffice that followed. But for every movie or TV show with encouraging early indications among the fancore, there are examples of movies that caught on with the grassroots and went no further. Think "Snakes on a Plane" or "Grindhouse," which was the toast of Comic-Con 2006 before becoming the fiasco of 2007. The Wachowskis' footage from "Speed Racer" was cheered last year before sputtering at the boxoffice this summer.

Even the happy endings are hardly cut-and-dry.

"Iron Man" is now regarded as a smash in large part because of the shrewd choice to cast Robert Downey Jr. -- but Downey Jr., like many a superhero casting, was initially questioned by many rabid fans.

For fans to impact the bottom line, the movie or show increasingly has to be niche-y enough that a small group can affect the numbers. That means big network series and studio tentpoles stand to benefit the least.

"Jericho" was canceled and revived based on fan protests, but when it returned -- after execs made a point of noting to fans the network's responsiveness to their pleas -- its ratings actually decreased significantly. The fan group simply wasn't large or influential enough (though that hasn't stopped them from trying again recently, with stunts like shipping large boxes of peanuts to media outlets).

On the movie side, "The Dark Knight" drew a quarter of its audience on opening weekend (or about $40 million in boxoffice, the difference between a strong opening and a spectacular one) from women over 25 -- not exactly the core Comic-Con audience.

Ironically, though, it's the tentpoles that studios often try hardest to push to the fans, as Warner Bros.' "Terminator Salvation," Disney's "Bolt" and other presentations showed last week.

It might be that the fan revolution is being driven not so much by compelling data or a clear strategy but a more intangible psychological factor. In the echo chamber of a fan campaign, it's hard for execs and creators not to get caught up in the hype.

"You sit there and think 'Six thousand people are cheering for us; we must be doing something right,' " one Comic-Con presenter says. In the end, though, the market might be less generous.