When Marvel Studios was founded in the summer of 1996, superheroes were close to irrelevant. Comic book sales were in decline, Marvel’s initially popular Saturday morning cartoons were waning, and the company’s attempts over the previous decades to break through in Hollywood had gone nowhere, with movies based on Daredevil, the Incredible Hulk, and Iron Man all having been optioned without any film being made. Backs against the wall, Marvel’s executives realized that their only chance of getting traction in La La Land was by doing the legwork themselves.
The company’s fortunes hardly turned around overnight. Marvel was forced to fire a third of its employees and declare bankruptcy a few months after launching its film studio, and the movie rights to Spider-Man—then the company’s most valuable piece of intellectual property—were sold off in the ensuing years in a frantic attempt to raise cash. It wasn’t until 2008 that Marvel Studios finally released an Iron Man movie—the choice of protagonist having less to do with that hero’s particular following than the ease with which the toy company that had taken control of Marvel during its bankruptcy could market action figure tie-ins. Against all expectations, Iron Man made half a billion dollars worldwide. Just over a year later, Disney purchased Marvel Studios for $4 billion. A decade after that, Avengers: Endgame would break the weekend box-office record—set by the previous Avengers installment—and net over $2 billion in less than two weeks.
New York magazine’s Vulture vertical was launched the year before Iron Man’s release, promising “a serious take on lowbrow culture.” A few months later, Chris Hardwick began a blog called “The Nerdist,” which quickly pivoted from its original raison d’etre of “palatable tech” to dispatches on ephemera from the original Transformers movie and guest posts about DC’s Silver Age reboot. Today, each site serves as a lodestar for overlapping fandoms, with Vulture hosting Game of Thrones, Stranger Things, and The Bachelor content, while Nerdist continues to concentrate on legacy franchises like Star Wars and Marvel. As their staffs crank out daily updates, prognostications, and YouTube clips on these and many other television and movie series, their success has pressured older outlets to shift from a more traditional, criticism-centric format to a menu of recaps and listicles, as well as inspiring newer, general interest sites like The Ringer and Vox to integrate fan-pleasing deeply into their pop culture coverage.
As the fandom press has risen, culture has been reorganized around a cluster of franchises that would have been dismissed by the critics of previous generations as the province of children, nerds, or—most especially—nerdy children. Success in Hollywood now has as much to do with the number of people who see a particular film or TV show as with how easily its intellectual property can be franchised. Why settle for one Iron Man when you could have over a decade of Avengers movies? For both Hollywood and the digital newsrooms of Vulture, Nerdist, and their imitators, the logic is obvious: cater to a readymade fanbase, and the dollars will take care of themselves.
Fishing for Eyeballs
In a 2016 Variety guest column, Hollywood’s shift from chasing viewers to pursuing fans was convincingly attributed to “digital empowerment” by the cultural anthropologist-cum-industry consultant Susan Kresnicka. Including herself among the new legions of fans, she writes that combining a capability for “consuming, connecting and creating on our own terms” with “access to multitudes of others who share our passion for a show, movie, book, story, character, sport, band, artist, video game, brand, product, hobby, etc.” galvanizes mere interest into a commercial force that drives enthusiasts to “watch more, share more, buy more, evangelize more, participate more, help more.”
“Marketing strategies are increasingly crafted to drive not just breadth but depth of engagement,” Kresnicka notes. “And the conversation has in large part moved from how to ‘manage’ fans to how to ‘relate’ to fans.” A classic example of this shift is the slow-drip of news that precedes every new Star Wars or superhero film, a process that typically begins more than two years ahead of a theatrical release. First comes the announcement about the movie itself. Next, rumors swirl about who will direct and star. In front of a ballroom of cosplayers at San Diego Comic Con, a teaser will ramp up speculation even further. The proper trailer will arrive months later, dropped online with no advance warning to incite delirium on social media. All the while, an armada of YouTube speculators cultivate theories, half-baked or coolly rational, about how this latest installment will fit into a sometimes branching, sometimes ouroborosian plot arc that spans decades.
Studios have come to understand that by lengthening each film’s advance publicity cycle, fans are given more opportunities to demonstrate their fandom, amplifying the FOMO of casual viewers such that they, too, are driven to see what all the fuss is about. Each new crumb of information becomes a reason to post on Facebook, a kernel of brand awareness to drive the decision to buy an overpriced hoodie at the mall. Multiplying that effect is the fact that the lead times for these films are now so long that there is never not a new movie to talk about. Solo: A Star Wars Story didn’t live up to your expectations? Good news, the cast for Episode IX has just been announced!
Complementing the shifting calculus of the studios is the willingness of Vulture, Nerdist, and their ilk to provide around-the-clock content to fans of these franchises. After the announcement in May that Robert Pattinson would play Batman in the upcoming creatively titled The Batman (set for 2021), The Hollywood Reporter ran a tick-tock about the decision wherein anonymous sources revealed the stunning news that the casting process had been “quicker than normal” and that the director “knew what he was looking for.” The Hollywood Reporter’s steely-eyed reporting led to all manner of blog posts and YouTube clips: Gizmodo relayed their scoop that this Batman film will be “neither another rehashing of his origin nor the tale of a seasoned crimefighter ruling Gotham City” and Nerdist highlighted the revelation that the film will portray “Batman as the world’s greatest detective . . . an integral part of his character that we haven’t really gotten a chance to see much of on screen.”
Such mining of the smallest news drops for content is everywhere in the fandom press. But what really sets these outlets apart from buttoned-up operations like the New York Times and CNN—each more than happy to crib a few clicks by throwing a link to the newest Star Wars teaser up on their website—is the length to which they’ll go to dissect the utterly banal. The release of the Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker trailer merited not only a quick embedded video post from Vulture but also a thousand-word follow-up analyzing its title.
Titles, as it turns out, are irresistible to the fandom press. Last December, Netflix released a clip that did nothing beyond reveal the names of each episode in the third season of Stranger Things, which flashed briefly onscreen while spooky music played. The one-minute video merited a blog post on Vulture. And Nerdist. And Entertainment Weekly. And Variety. Once a fandom has been identified, every piece of content, no matter how inconsequential, becomes an excuse to go fishing for eyeballs.
The power of fan interest to drive a media ecosystem is nowhere more obvious than in sports. Yet it is only relatively recently that sports reporters and commentators have begun to acknowledge their own fandoms in their work: for most of the twentieth century, columnists and embeds alike abided by the custom of “no cheering in the press box,” which held that acknowledging any sort of rooting interest in a team was tantamount to an admission of bias.
That norm has degraded substantially over the past twenty years, as most exemplified by the rise of Bill Simmons. After a successful run as a columnist on the early AOL Digital Cities network, the self-proclaimed Boston Sports Guy found a national audience at ESPN by writing about sports from a “fan’s perspective.” Sticking his thumb in the eye of the traditionalists, Simmons’s gimmick, he would later write, was that “I like the Boston teams and dislike anyone who battles them, I pretend to be smarter than every GM, I think Christmas should be changed to Larry Bird’s birthday.”
However entertaining his performance as the obnoxious Bostonian you might fall into a surprisingly insightful conversation with at some Charlestown dive, it wasn’t until Simmons began integrating pop culture into his columns that he became a star. Over the years, he compared Theo Epstein’s departure from the Red Sox to David Caruso leaving NYPD Blue, wrote that the New York Knicks and Toronto Raptors were “embroiled in a Fatal Attraction-type relationship,” and described Anthony Davis as having “Freddy Krueger arms.” His fluency with films, television, and celebrities made Simmons a paragon of Gen-X relatability, and it earned him enough clout at ESPN to get his own standalone site off the ground—Grantland—that for four years used a stable of bloggers and heavy-hitting longform writers poached from GQ and Esquire to merge sports, television, film, and music coverage into a unified vision of entertainment. With Grantland, Simmons made a grand bet that there was no substantial difference between following the Lakers and following Mad Men. Fans are fans.
Complementing the shifting calculus of the studios is the willingness of Vulture, Nerdist, and their ilk to provide around-the-clock content to fans of these franchises.
Contrary to his somewhat fratty persona, Simmons executed that vision thoughtfully, giving quixotic, maximalist pieces like Amos Barshad’s report on the Boston gutter punks who originated the “Yankees Suck” T-shirt top billing against more run-of-the-mill daily blogging. “Everybody was saying, ‘Articles have to be short, because people have short attention spans,’” Simmons told Rolling Stone about building his website. “I felt like the opposite was true.” Grantland imploded after Simmons had a falling out with ESPN in late 2015, but within a year, the Sports Guy had reemerged with a core of loyal editors as the publisher of a new, independent site called The Ringer.
While The Ringer’s reporting has occasionally made splashes (most notably when Ben Detrick’s investigation into the general manager of the Philadelphia 76ers’ apparent use of burner Twitter accounts led to his resignation from the team), outside of its generally excellent sports analysis, its focus has drifted toward largely disposable content that taps into a handful of fandoms. One of The Ringer’s original initiatives was After the Thrones, a post-game recap show for the HBO hit, and in the intervening years the website has devoted immense digital real estate to Game of Thrones, along the lines of a “definitive” ranking of every episode and an article breaking down the “winners and losers” of Season 7.
Obsessive coverage of Game of Thrones is so central to The Ringer’s identity that it was difficult not to raise an eyebrow when one of the site’s television writers, Alison Herman, authored a long essay proclaiming it “the last vestige of the monoculture” in 2017. “It feels inadequate to discuss Thrones as a simple TV show,” Herman argues. “Game of Thrones makes an event out of seemingly minuscule details like premiere dates and episode descriptions. Unlike other TV shows, Game of Thrones’ actors risk their jobs by updating their résumés. And unlike other TV shows, Game of Thrones has ballooned into the flagship of an entire industry. . . . As both a phenomenon and a carefully managed machine, Thrones has more in common with Star Wars than Veep.”
Undiscussed in Herman’s article is the role that sites like The Ringer have played in creating that “carefully managed machine.” In an article for The Outline about how the media was prepping for Thrones’ final season, James Yeh found The Ringer had published seventy pieces of content about the show in the four-month period between the debut of its first trailer in January and when the season actually began. Seventy pieces, mind you, without any new episodes to write about.
In fairness, The Ringer’s coverage of Thrones pales in comparison to what larger outlets managed during the show’s run. Doing a couple of “casual” searches around the web, Yeh found that Vulture had written 797 posts on the show, while the New York Times had published 2,459. Thrones fans were so thirsty for content, apparently, that it was possible to make a living almost exclusively by talking and writing about the show. Yeh points to Vanity Fair’s Joanna Robinson, who at the time was hosting not one but two Game of Thrones podcasts in addition to writing about the show for the magazine. By Yeh’s count, Robinson had published over eight hundred “recaps, cast interviews, explainers, and news write-ups” for the show since it debuted in 2011.
While many writers surely came by their adoration of Game of Thrones honestly, it’s difficult to look at those numbers and not see a calculated grab at some sliver of the audience of millions that Thrones commanded during its run. Especially in The Ringer’s case, all that Thrones talk seems to have driven a serious rise of fortunes for the site, with Simmons telling Adweek just after the show’s finale, “for four straight months, we’ve had our best months.”
On and On and Onanism
The success The Ringer has found in engaging various fandoms mirrors, in many ways, Simmons’s career. His ability to speak the fan’s language—or, to borrow Kresnicka’s word, “relate” to them—led to the cultivation of a loyal core of readers based on a shared passion for the Red Sox and Celtics, a core which was then steadily broadened through the incorporation of other forms of entertainment. By all accounts, none of this was done cynically—say what you want about the Sports Guy, the man has an encyclopedic knowledge of basketball history, cable movies, and celebrity ephemera. Still, the way The Ringer has honed this impulse comes dangerously close to sidelining the fine work done by many of its writers. Readers may have to hunt for the thoughtful music criticism of Rob Harvilla and Lindsey Zoladz, while Stranger Things fans seeking out the site’s innumerable podcasts and blog posts on the show have only to click into a vertical on the site’s navigation bar, launched when the latest season of the show was released.
Most online media types would call this common sense: the content that drives the most traffic gets put in front of readers most often. This editorial internalization of the logic that drives Facebook’s algorithms is also the formula ESPN used to become the so-called worldwide leader in sports: take your viewer’s interest and keep reflecting it back to them with highlights, talking head shows, and endless analysis, and voila, they develop a greater and greater appetite for not only the games you’ve purchased the rights to air, but the programming you use to fill the intervening hours.
The difference between such brand saturation and what plain old advertising strives for is marginal. In many ways, the current state of sites like Vulture, where the digital version of what little criticism still appears in New York magazine is swamped by fan-service journalism à la “Every Pop-Culture Reference We Spotted in Stranger Things 3,” recalls the way many newspapers were choked with advertisements in the 1960s and 1970s. As Matthew Pressman wrote in last year’s On Press, the Los Angeles Times was the worst offender, with page after page featuring “a single skinny column of type hugging the edge of a massive seven-column advertisement.” Unless you’re a fan, reading most pop culture websites today feels much the same—laser-like focus is required to track the one column of type you’re actually interested in against the seven columns screaming at you about the live-action Lion King reboot.
The difference between such brand saturation and what plain old advertising strives for is marginal.
Similarly, when media companies treat a show like Game of Thrones or Stranger Things as a unifying cultural touchstone and relentlessly devote coverage to them, readers can’t help but be pulled in. And once they have been, the viewership of the show itself goes up, and outlets feel ever more justified in devoting an outsize share of attention to them. This is the cycle that converts viewers into fans; it’s distinct from that old journalistic conundrum—cover what’s popular, or cover what you determine to be worthwhile?—only in its potential for self-actualization, which, before too long, bleeds into onanism.
Chasing fandoms, then, risks corrupting editorial perspective, skewing decision-making about which shows or movies are worth attending to such that only those properties that have fans become worthy of notice. The live ratings of The Big Bang Theory regularly topped those of Game of Thrones during the respective shows’ final seasons, yet the former goes entirely unmentioned in Matt Zoller Seitz’s wistful postscript to the Thrones finale in New York magazine, in which he remarks, “Game of Thrones may be the last show we all watch together the way we used to, on such a tremendous scale.” Though CBS’s blah sitcom had a sizable enough fandom to justify Vulture recapping its every episode, Seitz’s choice to ignore The Big Bang Theory suggests his belief that its viewers’ apparent ambivalence toward speculative riffing proves it was less of a cultural watershed than HBO’s bloody drama.
Herman, in her essay arguing for Thrones as “the last vestige of the monoculture,” explicitly dismisses this attention discrepancy by writing, “The comforting rhythms that make a well-executed sitcom popular in the first place also work to mute any novelty-driven conversation around it.” Herman neglects to mention that, historically, the televisual monoculture has been utterly dominated by similar shows—Friends, Seinfeld, etc.—but nevertheless, she is hardly alone in the belief that the zeitgeist is beholden to “novelty-driven” social media exchanges. She writes that online culture “silos us into perfectly personalized microclimates—a pattern that transcends media, but feels especially disorienting when it spreads to a true mass medium like TV .”
Seitz picks up there, declaring that “television, as it existed from the 1950s until recently, was the ultimate incarnation” of serialized, week-by-week storytelling, a format that streaming services have chosen to circumvent. The result is that television is now “more of a solitary experience”—even if millions of people are watching Stranger Things, they’re doing so out of sync with each other. Hence, presumably, Herman’s disorientation.
It’s obvious that today’s monoculture is beholden to the conditions of fandom.
Under this view, pop culture hardly exists at all. It has been replaced by a free-flowing marketplace of ideas, wherein some blue-tinted Swedish crime drama on Netflix has just as much of a chance at finding a mass audience as the latest ABC single-cam. Yet here we are, with a particular set of franchises that always seems to succeed amid a myriad of other options. No, there’s no single piece of intellectual property that constitutes the monoculture, but that was never really the case—at least, not since the heyday of Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In and Top 40 radio. Monoculture has more traditionally revolved around a set of self-similar properties (such as network sitcoms in the 1990s), and today’s iteration is no exception. Set aside the peculiarities of each franchise, and it’s obvious that today’s monoculture is beholden to the conditions of fandom.
Most fans, I imagine, would reject such a proposition. Being a fan is supposed to make you distinct from an ordinary person—fans have deep wells of knowledge that casual viewers could never hope to match, as well as a potent understanding of the milieu within which their favored franchise exists. This idea of the fan as a rarefied viewer has grown so pervasive that critic Wesley Morris cast himself as a hopeless naïf in comparison to Game of Thrones fans in his Times essay about bingeing the show ahead of its finale. Despite having devoured Thrones for over a month, he writes, “I still feel kind of apart. Five weeks is enough time to achieve familiarity but probably not enough to become a true fan.” He expresses “chagrin” at the fact that his quick dip into the bottomless lake of Thrones content can never compare to the emotional baggage fans brought to the final episode, “the hope and dread and glee of a multiyear investment.”
The idea that the devotion of fans to a franchise gives them some special access to it is commonplace, but what does all that Easter egg-hunting, symbolism-decoding, and blind speculation actually translate to? Fandom is a closed system, one in which meaning is derived from a belief that deep, repeated readings of a text will reveal some truth about it, even as that truth remains of interest only to fellow-travelers who bring similar discipline to their pop culture studies. For a critic to view this sort of relationship to a television show as anything other than delusional is perplexing, and only bolsters the sense among fans of the righteousness of their obsession.
In truth, there is nothing particularly special about being a fan of Game of Thrones, or Disney movies, or The Real World. As the success of Grantland demonstrated, fans are fans. Longtime Mets partisans are as apt to moan about Syndergaard’s latest trip to the disabled list as they are to rattle off the team’s 1986 lineup with pride; Bachelor fans can remember in miraculous detail during which episode of Season 17 Ashley H. exited and why. Such esoteric knowledge is the currency of fandom, and all fandoms have their own version of it. At the end of the day, though, there’s no real difference between showing up to a movie screening in Princess Leia buns or an Iron Man suit. You’re still just rooting for laundry.
The reluctance of critics to skeptically examine fandom’s dominance in today’s pop culture has allowed for the construction of a grand apparatus of fan service journalism, one that leaves its practitioners with no choice but to perpetuate franchise monoculture, even as their content seeks to reassure readers, again and again, that there is something unique about liking Batman. Moreover, these websites now find themselves in a position where their editorial judgement is in danger of being thrown out the window. No matter how ham-handed HBO’s planned Game of Thrones prequel ends up being, aren’t Vulture and The Ringer incentivized to make sure it’s a hit? If the Avengers movies gave Nerdist a decade’s worth of content, why wouldn’t the site do everything in its power to ensure the planned sequels to Doctor Strange and Black Panther break the box office? As long as networks and studios keep rehashing the same intellectual property, pop culture journalists seem poised to keep fans as engaged as possible in order to garner a few crumbs off of the studio execs’ banquet table. Meanwhile, original programming, unless it can drum up a Stranger Things-style fandom out of thin air by riffing endlessly on nostalgia and franchises of yore, is poised to slip ever further out of vogue.
Let’s return, for a moment, to 1996 and the nadir of Marvel’s cultural influence. The films that made over a $100 million that year? Mission: Impossible, Independence Day, The Birdcage, Jerry Maguire—all the blockbuster explosions, aliens, and bombast summer audiences could stomach, plus a dash of humor and humanity thrown in for good measure. Most importantly though, every title was, in some way, novel. This year? Avengers: Endgame, Captain Marvel, Toy Story 4, Spider-Man: Far From Home. For the fans, it’s a banner year. For anyone who wishes to meet a new character, or, who knows, maybe even just watch some human beings talk to each other—for anyone like that, there are Netflix shows in Swedish to catch up on. The monoculture, I regret to report, is alive and well. The only difference is that now it wears spandex.