Yesterday was a watershed day in the movie world, a day like a heart rate monitor that beeps even louder if we’re not paying close attention. It may not have felt like it, but it was the kind of day that clearly defined cinephile culture. Two events let us know exactly where fandom stands, and both happened far away from any studio lot.
After hanging out with him at Comic-Con, Alex Pappademas published his feature on Umberto “El Mayimbe” Gonzalez’s alpha superhero scooping skills within hours of Devin Faraci’s wild, mystery Twitter feed speculation about what 1mm of the new Spider-Man might look like.
In both situations you have prominent cinema culture writers predicting the far future of the biggest tentpole franchises because that’s the professional activity that brings sub-cultural prominence. Consider these articles’ appearance just weeks after the dissolution of The Dissolve, and the message in the crystal ball becomes clearer.
Now, there’s no use pretending like there was ever a critical golden age or that dissections of all kinds of cinema have ever been more than a niche crew rowing in the sea of a populist art, but there’s also little point in denying that the movie fandom of 2015 is one of rampant, gleeful sleuthing and prognostication. We care more about 2018 than we do 2015.
Over the past few years, movie fandom has broadened enough to support a dozen major film websites and a dozen more dinky sites like ours who only pull in a few million readers a month, and it has also become deeply fascinated by the siren-sweet ululations of The Possible. The Possible is unblemished by production realities. The Possible is shiny and chrome. The Possible is a blank slate for us on which to write our fantasies. What might happen in cinema is now more broadly important than what happened on screens over the weekend, let alone two weekends ago or (gasp) a year or fifty ago.
I understand why. There are a lot of reasons. Loving something involves curiosity and the explosion of mainstream movie sites has allowed even hobbyist curiosity to flourish, which has proven itself to mean gigantic traffic for sites that depend on gigantic traffic, which has led to even more movie news, which has led to even greater consolidation of what gets to be news. At the end of that rope, there’s no surprise that the movies that rate highest on the anticipation scale and ultimately bring in the most box office tend to bring in the most web traffic, too.
The funny thing about movie news is that it doesn’t really exist in the same sense that traditional news does – where something happens and someone on the scene reports on how the something happened. Most of what happens in filmmaking has been purposefully kept secret to protect information, protect careers, protect deals and protect the magic until it’s ready to be delivered to fans. That’s no longer the case, as studios wrestle yet again with how much information they’re willing to give out and when. The spy network scoops of Aint It Cool took a long aught nap before reawakening with a vengeance with the new culture site boom. Now, even J.J. Abrams is delivering metric tons of imagery and information about his latest, which makes me wonder how Cloverfield (not based on a comic book, shrouded in mystery) would fare just seven short years after its release. Would the mystery pique interest or earn apathy? It’s hard to say.
For what it’s worth, Mayimbe is smartly and shrewdly responding to the marketplace – one that practically aches for even the tiniest bit of information about properties they know. Make no mistake. Like V chiding Dystopic Londoners for letting England succumb to fascism, it is Fans who have given studios the keys to the franchise-mobile, joyously erupting every time A Thing We’ve Heard About makes its way onto screens. We are the reason everything is getting a 16th minute of fame.
That goes in both directions – whether trumpeting Han and Chewie returning home or forehead-slapping their way through a comments section on an Emoji movie (whatever that could even be), Fans are more than readily happy to offer an opinion. That instantaneous connection to the news, whether scooped by Mayimbe as Marvel shakes its fist or announced on a Hall H stage in front of thousands, is vital to the way modern Fandom relates to movies.
That’s because, in order to have an opinion, you have to have at least a passing knowledge of the thing being reported on, and we want to have opinions years in advance of seeing the thing. Thus, studios keep pinging back to recognizable names in order to avoid the uphill battle of selling A Thing We Haven’t Heard About to a crowd thirsty to debate which shades of red and blue Spider-Man’s newest newest newest costume should be.
Maybe this isn’t you. Maybe it’s only sometimes you. If so, you’re in the minority. The majority has spoken, and it wants any crumb of potential information about the Possible that it can get.
Spider-Man’s new goggles or A great movie most people have never heard of?
That’s why Mayimbe is currently thriving. He’s one of the few writers out there who actively seeks out news to break in a crowd of aggregators who refresh the front page of Reddit and the trades for hints of news, pleased to copy and paste without any added value while watching the traffic dial spin.
Depending on where you’re sitting, Devin’s question mark-filled article questioning whether a little-followed Twitter account may be The Russo Brothers sending out obtuse images from Captain America: Civil War is either the pinnacle or nadir of movie culture writing. It has every element of get-out-of-thinking-free prognostication. There’s a puzzle to be solved, but there’s no incentive to really solve it or even pretend to have lifted a finger to solve it. It potentially involves an upcoming Marvel blockbuster where a popular Marvel character will appear in the MCU for the first time, so even if it’s all a smoke screen, it allows Fans their daily opportunity to weigh in on the minutia that acts as Shibboleth for true believers.
The golden footnote is that, if this Twitter account turns out to be some high school student in Ohio trolling the internet, there’s no consequence for anyone on any movie site for having explored it. If it turns out to truly be The Russo Brothers being playful, then Faraci was ahead of the coolness curve. There is no downside to spending five minutes to post it.
It’s mysterious, but it’s also about a famous property. This is a perfect recipe for rampant speculation. The key question is, if this turns out to be real, and the directors of a huge property are sharing enigmatic “first looks,” what have we – as movie fans – really gained from it?
Spider-Man or car seat cover? You be the judge.
The upsides to all of this are obvious if you’re the kind of fan who loves scoops, behind-the-scenes rumors, set photos, and every element of The Possible. The downsides are less obvious, but there are at least two big ones.
The first is that conversations about older movies (including stuff from way, way back in 2014) are muted, and, in some cases, harder to find. They’ve been cordoned off into a safety zone, discussed only within the context of anniversaries and the most recent lists of The 10(0) Most Best Movies Of All Time.
The second is that we’re all asking to be lied to. In the past decade, movie news has devolved from done deals to rumors that are either:
- True but way too premature to be considered legitimate.
- True but so premature that it will soon become untrue.
- False because a studio wanted to feed misinformation.
- False because an employee with wrong information wanted to seem cool.
- False because someone who should know better got it wrong.
- False because someone is sharing super outdated information.
- False because someone not even in the industry gave a scoop to a writer who has no need to get a second source or fact check.
- False because it’s total horseshit invented to drive traffic.
There is now a great incentive for websites without scruples to invent stories about big budget movies, score the traffic and links they bring, and then laugh as exactly zero consequences come their way post-debunking. What’s worse is that there’s a similar incentive for websites who generally have scruples to treat the rumor seriously or lose out on the traffic. Fans have told us what they want to read about, and a lot of it is totally fake.
That may be because Fans are more interested in launchpads for their own theories, but I honestly don’t know what has made speculation so popular. To be honest, while I can’t fault anyone for focusing on those fuzzier parts of cinema, it’s a brand of movie fandom I can’t easily relate to. I don’t like being spoiled. I like surprises. I struggle to care enough to form an opinion on what subplot from what obscure comic run of what Marvel series they’re trotting out next, and how they’ll change it, and how those changes will affect future movies, and how those future movies will affect future movies, and what child who was born today will direct Untitled Marvel Movie 2052.
This all matters because Fan culture doesn’t exist in a vacuum. There are many ways in which Fans are powerless against the corporate machine of blockbuster movie-making, but we’re crawling more and more into a world where Community being saved and Deadpool springing back to life are normalized events. They dismiss it when they want to, but studios are paying attention to the roar of Fandom, and the message overwhelmingly has been one of nostalgia and the safety net of known quantities.
Which leads us back to The Dissolve. I agree with every positive thing everyone said following the site’s demise, and while there’s room to criticize that they didn’t balance the crazy popular stuff with the niche stuff very well, the harsh truth behind the scenes of most movie websites is that it’s growing harder and harder to find that balance because it’s tipping heavily in the favor of blockbuster speculation coverage. This goes triple for independent sites. It’s also why a site like IndieWire (it’s right there in the name) covers every single blockbuster movie paraded into theaters. Ultimately, it’s difficult to justify to an editor why an interview with Joshua Oppenheimer about The Look of Silence should run when it will only get 1/1000th the traffic of the new Star Wars rumor.
That’s not a knock on IndieWire, either. I get it. There’s no chance it could survive if it only covered the independent cinema scene.
Such is the state of movie fandom in 2015. The situation will most likely feed more into itself in the coming years unless something catastrophic (read: highly improbable) happens. The good news is that there are still engaging, challenging, dynamic films within reach to enjoy between heavy Marvel meals. It might be slightly harder to discuss them online afterward, but they are still out there, giving us a robust spread of styles, genres and budgets. That’s why it’s hard to be too broken up about all of this. We probably have greater access to more types of movies from more countries than ever before.
Still, I find it telling that Grantland – an important taste-maker on the cultural scene – wrote so passionately about Mayimbe’s growing empire of spandex scoops and wrote nothing about the end of The Dissolve’s thoughtful repository of cinematic conversations. You don’t need a crystal ball for that one.
Update: Phil Nobile, Jacob Knight and Dave Chen have rightfully taken me to task on the tacit dismissal of Birth Movies Death in the article. While I wanted to focus on Devin’s speculation piece (and its timing), it’s also important to note that
- I’m regularly in awe of BMD’s ability to write longform, insightful articles about movies of all stripes and eras – particularly now with The Dissolve gone.
- Bottom line: it was shortsighted to cast BMD solely in the shadow of ephemera when it does such great work on a regular basis.
Correction: A previous version of this article misrepresented Devin’s editorial output as “only occasional.” He writes weekly editorials (both speculative and not) and reviews, and regularly posts interviews and festival coverage. I regret the error.