MIPCOM: TV's Sci-Fi Explosion Credited to the Power of Geeks

M. Night Shyamalan
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"They've been given the keys to the kingdom," said M. Night Shyamalan at the "Cult to Mainstream" panel

Geeks and comic book fans have been the driving force behind the proliferation of sci-fi shows on the airwaves, including The Walking Dead and the recent international success of the rebooted 51-year-old Doctor Who, said panelists at the "Cult to Mainstream" session at MIPCOM Wednesday.

Director M. Night Shyamalan, The Refugees executive producer Ben Donald, Intruders showrunner Glen Morgan and Doctor Who executive producer Steven Moffat agreed the "geeks" have given television a push to open up to a genre once considered "fringe" and make it wildly popular in the mainstream.

Shyamalan, who is executive producing his first TV show with Fox’s Wayward Pines, remembered the difficulty marketing his 2000 film Unbreakable, which had a comics-inspired storyline.

“I remember distinctly the marketing conversations saying, ‘We can’t mention that this is a comic book movie, because that’s just some geeks at some convention,’” he recalled. “It was so limiting at that time. It was ‘fringe.’ That group had no authority anywhere and didn’t have any economic power.”

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“With the internet they were given the keys to the kingdom and now they are the door keepers,” Shyamalan added.

Morgan said the move to sci-fi themes has been less of a shift and more of an about face in the halls of networks. Executives seek to replicate hits or have strong source material. “In 1990 we went to NBC with a pitch and said this will be like a graphic novel, and they said 'Is that a comic book?' They had no idea. Now it’s a tyrant. Now in a pitch they ask, ‘Is it based on a graphic novel?’ You can’t go in with an original idea.”

The generation of executives that shunned sci-fi is no longer holding the purse strings. The Twilight Zone and Star Trek proved in the 1960s that the genre could be a hit, and despite hoards of devoted fans that would gather at conventions, low production values still made it seem “silly” to networks. Added Morgan, “You had a generation of studio heads and people that greenlit projects that were uncomfortable with the geek thing. They didn’t believe there is an audience for it. Now the guys that are making decisions grew up on The X-Files and Doctor Who.”

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Current executives see the dollar potential as these shows become massive global hits. “I’m not one of the world’s sci-fi geeks,” said Donald. “But we are acutely aware at BBC Worldwide that this is a genre that sells increasingly well around the world.”

Higher production values have moved the genre away from “silly explosions” to make the shows more appealing to audiences. The shows also address pressing global problems such as climate change and immigration, as well as society’s discomfort with modern technology, in a way that doesn’t turn off audiences with a specific political point of view, the panelists agreed.

However too many shows on the air and the proliferation of festivals like Comic-Con could turn the public off to the genre once again, warned Donald:  “Brands are about belonging to a community. But it doesn’t take too long for everyone to belong to that community and for it to become uncool again.”

He added, “I think it is ironic when you are talking about ‘cult to mainstream’ that maybe there’s another flip to come.”