To whom does a movie belong: the people who watch it or the people who make it?
How about a stage play? Or an opera or a ballet? You buy a book, but who owns the contents? You respond to a painting or a sculpture, but do you get a say in how it came to exist?
Of course not. So how about a TV show? “Game of Thrones” aired its final episode last week — maybe you’ve heard — to sizable discontent from viewers who wanted something, anything, different from what the eighth and final season of the HBO series had delivered. The news that an online petition at Change.org titled “Remake Game of Thrones Season 8 With Competent Writers” has amassed nearly 1½ million signatures is the latest sign that: a) at least 1½ million people have entirely too much time on their hands; and b) the notion of “fan service” has reached a pinnacle of absurdity.
What’s “fan service”? The belief among a subset of audiences that their wishes, preferences, and needs as consumers should be respected and even enacted by the creative personnel behind the stories they follow. It’s the idea that, because they pay the bills, fans have the ultimate say on which way a beloved series or franchise goes: who lives or dies, who gets to be king or queen, which characters end up riding into the sunset together.
There’s a wing of this phenomenon that’s just straight-up preemptive misogyny, like the Marvel fan-boys who drove down online user ratings for “Captain Marvel” before the movie even opened because it starred, like, a gurl. On a slightly less annoying level, it’s the pushback against 2017’s “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” for various sins against the franchise, including having young heroine Rey (Daisy Ridley) not turn out to be the secret daughter or sister or step-cousin of a major character. She’s just . . . Rey.
I liked that changeup myself; it felt unexpected and interestingly messy. It wasn’t neat in any sense of the word, which is why the people who didn’t like it flat-out hated it. They’d put in the time and they wanted the payback they felt was their due. A similar aggrieved sense of ownership could be felt, too, in the responses to the final ”Game of Thrones” episodes, which, to be fair, seemed less daring and more predictable than the earlier seasons, based on George R.R. Martin’s source novels. But is there a difference between voicing one’s dislike and feeling that your rights have been betrayed as — what: a viewer? a participant? If the latter, how are you participating in ways that are not inherently passive?
That’s a much easier question to answer in an era of social media, comics conventions, and cosplay, when true believers can take their passion for a corporate entertainment property off the shelf and actively subsume it into their lives. One reason that the notion of “fan service” didn’t exist in the days of classic Hollywood (although David O. Selznick surely paid it lip service when casting “Gone With the Wind”) was because there were no social spaces for audiences to gather outside of theaters and fan clubs. Today, the online chatter around a movie or TV show can be more entertaining than the thing itself.
The other telling difference between then and now is that movies in the old days were one-offs rather than sequelized “extended universe” theme parks predicated on keeping the customers in a Pavlovian feedback loop of stimulus and reward. After a few decades of such training, is it surprising that some of the dogs hear the bell and want the biscuit they‘re wired to expect?
Let me say it now: Fan service is the enemy of art. Less obviously, it’s also the enemy of entertainment. You cannot crowdsource creative inspiration, although the development process through which many Hollywood screenplays get written and rewritten certainly represents an attempt. So do test screenings, which have notoriously changed the endings of more than a few movies over the years. It’s well known that the original finale of “Fatal Attraction” (1987) had Glenn Close’s psycho career woman killing herself with a sword that had Michael Douglas’s character’s fingerprints on it, thus sending him to prison. Test audiences rebelled and, voila, the ending was rewritten and reshot for maximum vigilante satisfaction.
Would that first ending have been truer to the arc and intent of the film as a whole? Arguable. But let’s be thankful that test audiences didn’t get their mitts on the devastating finale of, say, “Chinatown” (1974), on which Roman Polanski insisted over the objections of just about everyone. The bad guys with the money and the power win, and anyone watching the movie understands that’s the way it often is and thanks for not lying this once. The final scene of “The Godfather” (1972) has to be a corrupted Michael Corleone shutting the door on his wife for the film to be the masterpiece it is. Anything else might have been “better” but far worse.
But audiences often felt such downbeat endings were “real” in the 1960s and ’70s, before we learned to prefer the lies again. Now, when a project deviates in form or content from the expectations of the newly-empowered ticket buyers, online threats of violence against the filmmakers can and have ensued. Predictably, it’s the more risk-taking and idiosyncratic directors like Rian Johnson of “Last Jedi” who prompt the most fiery blowback. The hate rises from discomfort, which rises from expectations unfilled, which comes from an entertainment hype machine that curries fan involvement from first announcement to last Happy Meal. The studios that have sold audiences on the predictable push-button satisfactions of franchise universes may be just as responsible for the fury when the results don’t play to those set expectations.
In a real sense, that’s what written fan fiction and cosplay are for — a way for the devotees to create the versions they want to see. And some entities in Hollywood have learned to straddle the line in ways that reap profits while minimizing disruptive surprise. The folks behind the recently concluded (for now) “Avengers” series have proven to be masters at giving audiences what they want while delivering narrative curveballs that don’t upset the apple cart too much. Those movies may be the ultimate in fan service, good enough to almost make the concept palatable.
Disney has also just released “Aladdin,” the latest in its “live-action” remakes of the studio’s classic properties. A new version of “The Lion King” lands in July. The studio is canny enough not to fiddle with these leftovers too much, lest the audience that first experienced them in footie-pajamas throw a tantrum (or simply not show up, as was the case for the recent “Dumbo,” which did take chances but never quite lifted off). The problem with fan service as a long-term business plan, though, is that it benefits shareholders while embalming creativity and treating audiences like children. And if you treat audiences like children, don’t be surprised when they act that way.Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.