Not What You Expected – When Expectations Affect the Responses to Movies

I think that a lot of people outside of the industry don’t quite realize the enormous risks that are undertaken when making a movie.  And I don’t just mean financial wise, even though that is a significant factor in most cases, but in storytelling as well.  When setting out to make a movie, one has to consider first and foremost, is this something people will want to watch?  Movies are not meant to indulge the artistic tastes of their creators, and those who think that they are will find themselves in a significant financial quagmire.  Movies are first and foremost entertainment, with the intention of finding an audience that will justify the costs of making it and hopefully generate a profit in order to move forward another project afterwards.  We are only lucky to have this very commercial enterprise also be capable of creating art in the process.  Now, when the stakes are lower when it comes to storytelling, then so is the financial risks.  Small movies have small costs so that they can make the most of a smaller audience.  But, with Hollywood, the stakes are significantly higher because of the industry they have built up over the years investing in epic scale productions.  There is big money to be made in big films, but the industry also has the greater risk of having to manage the greater risks that come along with that.  Thus, we get a heavier reliance on tent-pole films, because of the way that they can rely on a built in audience to help reduce the risk of not getting enough back in box office returns.  But, every so often, game-changing movies shake up the established order of Hollywood and those sure-things are not so reliable anymore.  This has been the case with movies like The Matrix (1999), The Lord of the Rings trilogy, and The Dark Knight (2008), which not only broke new ground in Hollywood, but also raised the bar for what the industry would have to follow in the years ahead.  And in this rapidly evolving business, the industry finds itself having to live up to expectations that are no longer within their control.

Audience expectations have become a very problematic thing in recent years for the film industry, as social media and online chatting have made it almost impossible to gain a consensus on anything in the pop culture.  Traditional film criticism from media sources has sadly lost most of it’s pull on the industry, as anyone with a Twitter account or a YouTube channel with enough followers can suddenly become a film critic.  In many ways, it’s nice to see something like film criticism become so democratized, but the sheer volume of voices out there has made conversations around movies in general a little bit chaotic and in some areas, hostile.  In response, Hollywood has tried to cherry-pick whatever fan response best makes them look the best, but when opinions become so diverse and divided, favoritism often breeds contempt.  And this has made the film industry more susceptible to backlashes from general audiences.  As voices online have grown louder, so have their demands on the industry.  Now, making some demands on Hollywood from the online world has been a good thing, as most of the #MeToo movement has demonstrated, but that’s in the case where vocal outrage is justified.  Other cases, like when a film studio decides to move in a different direction with one of their intellectual properties, or when a movie makes a bold cinematic choice that contradicts what it’s set out to do before, tend to fall more in the inconsequential to petty reasons to show outrage online.  And yet, Hollywood is increasingly finding themselves walking more and more into a minefield of online criticism that often comes their way regardless of what their movies ended up doing.  And this is leaving a very problematic effect on how movies are made now and what kind of movies get made.

One of the most recent examples of Hollywood facing such a backlash from it’s audience is with the reactions that resulted after the release of Star Wars: The Last Jedi (2017).  When one takes a look at the movie by itself, it has all the hallmarks of a typical entry from the franchise.  But, the movie also took risks as well, particularly when it came to the plot.  It didn’t extend the lore of the Star Wars cinematic universe, it completely dropped plot elements that were teased in the previous film, and it fundamentally changed the status of the world it’s created going forward.  Now the movie still did very well at the box office, and many people (including myself) were satisfied by what we saw.  But, a significant portion of the audience were not happy with the results, and they made their dissatisfaction known.  One critic went as far as to create a petition to strike The Last Jedi from the official Star Wars canon, deeming it unworthy to even exist.  And that was not the most severe reaction either, as some people even tried to scapegoat their frustration on certain players involved in the movie, as the horrible racist comments made towards actress Kelly Marie Tran (who played Rose in the movie) showed in a very extreme way.  But what is interesting is the fact that most of these complaints were made by people who proclaim themselves as fans.  The reason for The Last Jedi to be singled out for such a reaction is peculiar because it is by no means the worst thing we’ve seen from the Star Wars franchise (these guys must have clearly forgotten about the prequels).  What’s changed is the fact that our world today is so wrapped up in responding both positively and negatively to pop culture, and as a result, things like Star Wars are now held up to a higher and some would say an unrealistic standard that it must apply to.

The fandom around such things like Star Wars has become more and more ingrained in the pop culture and much of it now actually shapes the lives of the people who makes up it’s audience.  Star Wars, throughout it’s 40 year history, has grown beyond just a cinematic experience.  People devote their lives to the fandom of Star Wars in some pretty extreme ways.  For the longest time, the original trilogy was all that fans had to base their love of the movies on, and then creator George Lucas expanded upon the lore with his prequel trilogy, and then eventually the sale to Disney really opened the floodgates for this cinematic universe.  Now, George Lucas’ previous attempts to tell the story his way ended up causing fans to react negatively to his movies, because they felt that it tampered with the thing that they fell in love with in the first place.  Though it was a severe backlash, it was still not something that fans just had to learn to deal with.  Lucas was the creator of this world, and despite fan’s dissatisfaction with the movies, they knew there was nothing to be done because it wasn’t their story.  This is why The Force Awakens (2015) was given so much leeway, because fans overlooked any flaws it may have has as long as it felt like the Star Wars of old again.  Force Awakens also renewed fan interest in the lore of the universe, which would end up backfiring in time once Last Jedi premiered.  J.J. Abrams established new mysteries to get fans interested, like who Rey’s parents were and who this Snoke guy really is, which were immediately dropped once Rian Johnson took over in the director’s chair.  The result feels far more of a personal betrayal than before for Star Wars fans, because of how extra invested they’ve become in the years since the prequels.  Just go on YouTube and see all the many fan theory videos that started after The Force Awakens, and how so many of these same fans are now The Last Jedi’s most vocal critics.  Many of them mistakenly look at the movie as wasting their devotion and dismissing their opinions, when in reality, The Last Jedi is actually trying to challenge their perceptions and think about the lore of this universe in a different, more unexpected way.

That has become the biggest challenge for all filmmakers that are trying to great mass appeal entertainment in Hollywood today.  All audiences are more culturally aware than they were decades ago, and most of them are going to carry their own pre-conceived notions of what to expect going in to the movie.  For some of these high stakes properties, it’s come to the point where you have to make a movie that’s better than the one that the audience member has thought of for themselves.  And this falls into two forms; people who are familiar with the source material on which the movie is based on, or people who are well versed in the universe that has been created thus far.  Any cinematic adaptation based on a literary source often has to be subject to this.  You’ve all heard the common phrase, “The Book Was Better,” which indicates that the movie did not live up to what they imagined in their minds as they read the original book.  Film plays by a whole different set of rules than the written word, and what plays well on the page may not work as well on the screen.  Time is condensed, characters are excised, and whole plot threads are ignored because a movie needs to contain a story in a short, two hour amount of time.  Some movies have exceptionally managed to do this, sometimes by changing so much that it becomes it’s own unique thing, like Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (1980).  But, you’ll find even the most dedicated critic who holds it against a movie because it didn’t fit their own imagination.  That’s something that affects franchises that are still writing their own lore as they go along, like Star Wars, more dramatically, because people with such a strong feeling towards this universe are imaginative themselves and will come up with their own takes on how they would tell the story.  And when fandom becomes so intense as that surrounding Star Wars, people become more defensive about their own vision for the universe and more upset when the rules change so much regarding the direction the story is headed.

One interesting phenomenon that has occurred in this era of heightened pop culture is the rise of fan fiction and fan made films.  In many ways, this is a far more positive outlet for the disgruntled fan than shouting outrage online.  For some people, it’s a way to show their devotion as a fan while at the same time “fixing” their perceived problems with what Hollywood did wrong.  Fan fiction can be self indulgent, but interesting new ways to look at the fictional worlds that they are revisiting can spark more interesting story-lines that deepen the worlds as well.  Fan films are also a great way to express something about a franchise that some people believe has lost it’s way.  Some can be amateurish, but others are done with such love and care that they even gain the notice of Hollywood.  One online demo reel made showing an actress in a Wonder Woman costume fighting in a World War II setting helped convince Warner Brothers to use that as a basis for the time period of their well-received big screen adaptation of the famed super heroine.  Fans even go as far to re-cut films to their own liking, using their own editing tools at home.  One story came out recently that actor Topher Grace dealt with the frustration of playing notorious Ku Klux Klan Grand Wizard, David Duke, for Spike Lee’s BlackkKlansman (2018) by taking the 9 hours of Peter Jackson’s Hobbit trilogy and editing it into a tighter 2 hour run time, all on his own.  That’s certainly one way to occupy yourself, but it’s indicative of a lot of people who can create the version of a story they want now that the tools are more easily available to them.  No one can profit from such things, obviously, but it is interesting to hear how different ways of watching a movie can change your reaction to it.  Even things like alternative cuts or canons are interesting to look at.  Star Wars has one called the Machete Order, which goes in the order of Episodes 4, 5, 2, 3, and 6 (Phantom Menace is wiped from existence in this canon) which does change up the story quite a bit).  Even in frustration, some creativity can still flourish, and is not altogether worth dismissing.

The question remains, however, if Hollywood should listen to all this and take it seriously.  The one thing that should be noted is that the internet magnifies everything, so taking into consideration all the grievances made online by fans should be taken with a degree of caution.  Still, fan input is integral, and it matters to have a pulse on how the world is responding to the work you put out.  The only thing that matters is that it be constructive criticism.  Lashing out in a hateful way towards a member in the cast for example is the wrong way to express frustration, and honestly anyone who does that should honestly take more of a look at themselves than what they thought about a simple movie.  The last thing that I would want to see Hollywood do, though, is take fewer risks.  I think that’s what I appreciated about The Last Jedi; it broke new ground and unshackled itself from traditions of the past.  I guess the reason this caused such a backlash in the Star Wars fandom is because the series doesn’t have the footing yet to deviate from it’s established lore.  Even as it begins to open up to exciting and endless possibilities, Star Wars is still a brand with it’s own singular identity and because of that, fans expect more out of it that feels true to what they’ve always seen it as.  One place where I feel the company has managed to perfectly balance delivering on expectations and then subverting them is at Marvel Studios.  The comic book giant has decades worth of lore to draw from, and yet the movies take chances that you wouldn’t expect.  Sometimes with specific story-lines from the comics, like Civil War (2016), they use just the basic premise and little else.  I think that it’s because they’ve remained true to the spirit of the characters, and turned them into the focus of their Cinematic Universe, allowing for fans to be more forgiving of the plot lines that are dismissed.  By stating up front that this is their mission with the movies, they’ve found that gentle balance, and it allows them to take liberties that make sense in the long run, like Thanos’ motivations in Infinity War (2018) or the dissolution of S.H.I.E.L.D. in Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014).  The Last Jedi seemed to be pushing for a similar dramatic change for Star Wars, but the fan base just wasn’t ready to make that jump again.

With the coming years ahead, as social media continues to drive up anticipation and disappointment to fever pitch levels, Hollywood is going to find it a little more difficult to manage.  I would say the most positive thing to come out of The Last Jedi’s contentious reaction is that it made us more aware of the positives and negatives of thinking about these movies too much.  I do think healthy speculation about what we’ll see in an upcoming movie is something worthwhile; I honestly have done it myself many times here on this blog.  But, we all must understand the fact that not all of us get to make these movies, and the ones who hold the responsibility are often put into a very hard position.  There are times when I had wished that a movie had been done much better, and I sometimes hold some things to an impossibly high standard.  It’s probably why I’m extra critical of some of the Disney remakes that have been made recently, because I hold the originals in such esteem.  But, I try to keep my reactions civil and not try to lash out at the people involved in an unreasonable way.  The only times where I show real disdain is if a movie was made for cynical reasons, like either to make money and nothing else or if it’s purely there to push a problematic agenda that cares little for the entertainment value.  The Last Jedi found itself in the precarious position of having to fulfill the promise of more adventures in this cinematic universe while also laying out new paths for the future, and part of the Star Wars community was not happy with it.  At times, I think that the people who made the film were expecting this backlash and tried their best to prepare for it.  Snoke actor Andy Serkis, for instance, was seen in the publicity circuit one time wearing a sticker that said, “Your Snoke Theory Sucks.”  It is hard to please everyone, and we’ll probably see more divisive movies in the future that face a similar high profile backlash, warranted or not.  It’s the price of having more voices heard in the discussion around movies.  Everyone brings their own baggage with them into a film, and one hopes that any movie inspires more creative thinking and criticism, instead of just vile anger.  After all, the message of the movie is that our strength is best used not to destroy the things we hate, but to protect the things that we love.

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