In the history of cinema, few films have existed entirely on their own merits. At some point, a group of fans – however large or small – has lifted it up, recommended it, argued for its place in the zeitgeist. Just as filmmakers are essential to a movie’s creation, so too are fans essential to its success. Simply look at global icons such as Bollywood giant Salman Khan or American actor Angelina Jolie, whose devoted fan bases are as important to their star power as their box office success.
It’s no surprise, then, that entire films have been willed into existence by fans who either weren’t ready to say goodbye, or who demanded a final product that more closely aligned with their expectations.
Case in point: Zack Snyder’s Justice League was digitally released worldwide last month, but this new incarnation of the 2017 project has its roots in fan power. #ReleaseTheSnyderCut became a potent movement across the Twitter and Vero social networks when it became clear that the theatrically released Justice League was very different from the vision of Zack Snyder, the original director who left the project due to a personal tragedy and was replaced by Joss Whedon. Fans demanded that the ‘true’ version of the film be made, and the campaign gained so much momentum over the years that Snyder eventually received the backing to bring this new four-hour edition to life.
While this is the most direct example, fans have been ‘creating’ movies for decades through letter-writing and digital efforts. In fact, it’s likely that some of your favourite films have been greenlit, altered or even outright financed by enthusiasts who care deeply about a franchise or performer.
Where No Fan Has Gone Before…
The earliest and most famous instance of this kind of devotion was when a beloved sci-fi show went from the small to big screen.
For many, Star Trek was the paragon of the superfan – ‘Trekkies’ or ‘Trekkers’ were the first fandom to get mainstream attention, and eventually set the standard for many fan cultures of today. Back in the 1960s, however, Star Trek was a small TV show that wasn’t faring well in the ratings. With rumours that the show would be cancelled after two seasons, a mass letter-writing campaign organised by fan Bjo Trimble resulted in hundreds of thousands of letters flooding into the studio. The letters were written by office workers, scientists, students and people from all walks of life – and they eventually saved the show.
Had the campaign not succeeded in providing evidence of the show’s fanbase, it’s unlikely the series would have survived. What’s more, the evidence had a hand in the creation of the first Star Trek movie in 1979, the first offshoot of a franchise that continues to this day with the JJ Abrams-inspired reboot. In that sense, the Star Trek letter-writing campaign didn’t just create one film, it inspired 13.
Joss Whedon, for his part, may have been on the wrong side of the Justice League story, but he has certainly benefited from fan support in the past. His 1999 series Firefly is one of the great “what if?” stories of TV, having been cancelled after less than one full season when scheduling issues resulted in low ratings. Fans were watching, however, and once the show was released on DVD, the huge sales encouraged Whedon to conclude the story as a film. The result was 2005’s Serenity, which provided fans an ending for characters they had grown to love – and cemented Firefly’s place in sci-fi folklore.
Prepare For Backlash
Just as fans have asked for movies to continue as they are, the instant nature of the internet age has given them the power to affect movies already – or still – in production.
The most recent example came in 2019 when the original design of Sonic the Hedgehog was derided by online observers, who demanded that the big-screen adaptation maintain an aesthetic more closely resembling the game. The reaction was so strong that the release was delayed to redesign the character – but, given that the film was a huge success, it appears the fans were onto something!
Questions of accuracy were also raised with the portrayal of characters in 2019’s Hellboy and 2018’s Ralph Breaks the Internet. In the former, actor Ed Skrein stepped aside from playing Ben Daimio after fans pointed out that the character is originally of Asian descent. Daniel Dae Kim played the role in the finished film. In the latter, a cameo from The Princess and the Frog lead Tiana was altered after fans noticed her skin tone was a lot lighter than it had been in her original film.
One more amusing example of fans changing a production is a cameo by boy band *NSYNC in 2002’s Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones. Members of the band were due to play Jedis in the background of battle scenes, as director George Lucas’ daughter was a fan. The scenes were shot but ultimately cut from the film as a result of negative fan backlash, following a news report about their casting. While they’re not officially involved in the film, online theories suggest a small snippet of their work still remains in a very short shot.
Putting Their Money Where Our Mouth Is
As the nature of online interaction changed over the years, so too did fans’ involvement in what was seen on screen. The 2010s saw the rise of crowdfunding, where people could donate to a project in exchange for rewards or credit in the final product. The equation then became simple for fans: if you want to see something made, fund it yourself! Zach Braff followed up his directorial debut Garden State with 2013’s Wish I Was Here, partially made with over $3 million generated on website Kickstarter through fans of his previous work.
While initially controversial (crowdfunding is generally seen as a way for artists outside of the industry to get their work made), other filmmakers also appealed to their fan bases for filming budgets. Oscar winner Spike Lee raised $1.4 million to make his horror film Da Sweet Blood of Jesus in 2014, revealing that director Steven Soderbergh (Ocean’s 11, Contagion) was one of the donors. Twin peaks legend David Lynch made a documentary about his own career, David Lynch: The Art of Life, through similar means.
All, however, were dwarfed by the over $5 million raised to bring back the Veronica Mars TV show as a movie. The first project to fund a mainstream franchise, the cancelled Kristen Bell series still retained a large fan base who were eager to see the continuing adventures of the teen detective in her adult years. Not only did this campaign get the film made, it managed to inspire a revival of sorts, with sequels, novels, a spin-off and a TV continuation all arriving in the following years.
In the past, studios and movie stars held all the power in Hollywood. Nowadays, it’s the audience that calls the shots. Not every campaign project gets its day in the sun (a website dedicated to remaking Star Wars: The Last Jedi has thus far received no traction). But if Zack Snyder’s Justice League is evidence of anything, it’s that movie history can be rewritten if enough fans unite.