Friday 15 June 2018

Entitlement Issues Redux

I've been thinking about entitled fans, in relation to George RR Martin and Star Wars.

Where is the next book, George?

Martin's fans have awaited his next book with growing impatience, ever since A Dance With Dragons was published seven years ago this week. With admirable bluntness, Neil Gaiman once pointed out George RR Martin is not your bitch.

(Gaiman was writing in 2009, two years before A Dance With Dragons was published. Plus ├ža change.)

Here is a less combative analogy, which may help make the point:

Let's suppose Jane Smith is a renowned heart surgeon. She has pioneered new techniques, won many awards, and saved many lives. One day, she decides to quit medicine and do something else.

Now imagine Fred Jones has a rare and serious heart condition, of a kind Jane has specialised in treating. Other doctors are either less skilled, or not available. She is his best hope for survival; but she is leaving medicine for good without operating on Fred.

Is Fred allowed to be disappointed, upset, and angry? Of course he is.

Is Jane a bad person, because she has left Fred to be cared for by other doctors? No, she is not.

Can we make Jane stay in her job, forcing her to practice medicine until the authorities decide she can stop? Thankfully, no. In North Korea, maybe, but not anywhere we'd recognise as a free society.

The same applies to Martin and other writers, with the obvious difference that lives are not at stake here.

You're impatient for the next book? Unhappy it's not here yet? Fine. Nobody's trying to police your feelings. Martin is well aware his fans are eager to read the next book, and will give that information whatever weight he sees fit. He will write (or not write) at his own pace, and for his own reasons.

Publicly berating him for writing too slowly is not cool. Framing it as concern for his health and longevity is even more not cool. George RR Martin has finite time on this Earth. If he chooses to spend it with his family or planting a garden or going bowling, that is his business and not yours.

Martin is an individual writer, accountable to nobody except himself and his publisher. Star Wars is different; it's now owned by Disney, a publicly owned corporation with an obligation to make money for its shareholders.

Certain Star Wars fans have latched onto this. They argue Disney would make much more money if only it made Star Wars movies to their exact specifications:

I find this line of argument baffling on several counts. For one thing, it assumes the so-called core fans are a unified group, with well-defined and consistent preferences, who are capable of making or breaking any Star Wars movie. I'm somewhat skeptical this is the case.

For another, it assumes these disgruntled fans are the only possible explanation for the drop-off in box office, between The Force Awakens ($937 million in the USA and Canada) and The Last Jedi ($620M). The trouble is, there was an even greater drop-off between the original releases of A New Hope ($1307M, adjusted for inflation) and The Empire Strikes Back ($722M).

While fans are divided on the merits of TLJ, I'm not aware of any such division on TESB, so there must be something else at work here. Just to confuse matters further, The Phantom Menace was critically panned; it was hated by the fans; its plot makes no goddamned sense; and it's the third highest grossing Star Wars film ever ($777M, adjusted).

At times like this, I take to heart William Goldman's dictum:
NOBODY KNOWS ANYTHING. Not one person in the entire motion picture field knows for a certainty what's going to work. Every time out it's a guess -- and, if you're lucky, an educated one.
As screenwriter of The Princess Bride, All The President's Men, and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Goldman has some experience in these matters.

After all, what is most likely?
  • The marketing department at Disney has somehow overlooked a clear and obvious path to immense riches. (That is to say, even more immense than the hundreds of millions raked in by TLJ.)
  • The famously ruthless and pragmatic decision-makers at Disney have chosen to reject this path, in order to be mean to a particular subset of Star Wars fans.
  • Disney executives are no more clued-in than the filmmakers Goldman observed; they're just making their best educated guess as to what will bring in the punters.
All things considered, I'm going with the third one.

Other movie series are a pretty good illustration that nobody knows anything. In the case of Indiana Jones, it's generally agreed that only the ones with Nazis are any good. But adjusted for inflation, the box office totals don't reflect this at all:
  • Raiders of the Lost Ark: 1981, Nazis, $708M.
  • Temple of Doom: 1984, no Nazis, $490M.
  • Last Crusade: 1989, Nazis, $453M.
  • Kingdom of the Crystal Skull: 2008, no Nazis, $405M.
This is fine with me. I find it reassuring that even Disney, with effectively unlimited resources, can't engineer a movie into a hit every single time. The magic and mystery of the movies lives on.

Writers and filmmakers are in the entertainment business. In the ideal situation, the creators are happy, the punters are happy, and the punters make the creators rich, so everyone wins. If some part of the equation isn't in place, it's safe to assume the creators are not sabotaging the whole enterprise just because they're big meanies.

Then again, maybe they are. Maybe George RR Martin and Disney do what they do out of pure evil, and delight in the anguish of the fans. It seems improbable, but I can't rule it out. But if that's the case, complaining about it is even more counterproductive. So the fans might as well keep some dignity and courtesy, and remember that artists are not their personal storytelling machines.

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