There’s a movie industry-related trend that’s been growing in recent years, and it’s become…alarmingly pervasive. While its causes aren’t hard to discern, all things considered it’s still somewhat baffling.
Let’s take a look at two recent examples. Ponder, if you will, the following headline:
“James Cameron Isn’t Worried About Avatar Trolls: ‘They See The Movie Again And Shut The F–– Up’ – Exclusive.”
Ah yes, that headline just flows, doesn’t it? I guess it got your attention, at any rate. (Or did it? F bombs are getting so passe nowadays.) Here’s a relevant portion from the article, with the language cleaned up because standards are nice on a lil’ blog like mine:
Speaking to Empire in the upcoming world-exclusive Avatar: The Way Of Water issue, Cameron hit back at the criticisms people tend to lobby at the first film. “The trolls will have it that nobody gives a s— and they can’t remember the characters’ names or one d— thing that happened in the movie,” he says. “Then they see the movie again and go, ‘Oh, okay, excuse me, let me just shut the f— up right now.’ So I’m not worried about that.”
Pardon me, I just read that F bomb and had to stifle a yawn. Anyways, let’s read on. Note what both Cameron (a famously temperamental guy to begin with) and the article writer are doggedly focusing on:
The original Avatar clocked in at 160 minutes in its theatrical version, while The Way Of Water is currently coming in at around three hours. “I don’t want anybody whining about length when they sit and binge-watch [television] for eight hours,” he says. “I can almost write this part of the review. ‘The agonizingly long three-hour movie…’ It’s like, give me a f—— break. I’ve watched my kids sit and do five one-hour episodes in a row. Here’s the big social paradigm shift that has to happen: it’s okay to get up and go pee.” Who’s going to argue against a filmmaker with this much form in turning three-hour epics into record-breaking box office behemoths?
Well, I will–but I’m not going argue against three-hour epics (although there’s a big difference between sitting in a theater and being able to pause a TV show at home and go do the dishes or something. I mean, you leave the theater briefly, you’re still gonna miss a scene. Also, you can’t always get as comfy as you can on your couch. Anyways.). I am raising an eyebrow over the combative tone towards criticisms that haven’t even happened yet, especially since it’s aimed at people who, you know, are supposedly going to pay to see your upcoming movie. Which is the whole point of it existing, yes?
Here’s the other example, pertaining to a show that I don’t particularly like (it could’ve been way more fun), but that’s not my point. Ponder again the dominant concerns of these particular show writers:
“She-Hulk Writers Predicted MCU Show’s Toxic Fan Reactions 3 Years Ago.”
Did they now!
Screen Rant had the opportunity to sit down for an exclusive interview with [show writer Jessica] Gao to discuss She-Hulk: Attorney at Law season 1. She revealed that she was proud of the show’s meta jokes about toxic fandom being the overall villain of the series, because she and the writing staff were able to “troll the trolls.” She revealed that they were able to be so accurate with their criticism of trolls, even though they were writing the series three years ago, because they are “just that predictable and boring.”
Oh lawdy–there’s no better way to let someone know they’re bugging you than to declare you find them “just so predictable” (so you’ve been thinking about them!) while also admitting you started fretting over their reactions years–years–in advance.
“We started writing the show three years ago; that’s how long ago this all was. The fact that we were able to very accurately, every single time, predict exactly what the toxic reaction was going to be is sad but also goes to show how tired and unoriginal these guys are. Three years ago, I could tell you what you were going to say because you’re just that predictable and boring. But the little troll that lives inside of me was utterly delighted that we were able to troll the trolls.”
One wonders why they wouldn’t just focus on writing a decent, fun show rather than bending into pretzels to try and outsmart “the trolls,” as they’re described. (As far as the supposed cleverness of this troll-outsmarting, you could always check out the series yourself, but I’m guessing you won’t exactly be blown away.)
Now, it’s true that both of these articles are specifically choosing to focus on a certain antagonistic relationship between these folks and the fans they’re supposed to be serving. But they’re just two examples of a dishearteningly pervasive trend to not just “clap back” at the “toxic fandom”–to whom you owe your career–but to even brag about doing so.
There’s plenty of troublemakers online, of course, but many of these fans aren’t even “trolls,” the most over-used word on today’s Internet. Back in the day, “trolls” were widely known as Internet pranksters and proudly antagonistic types who liked to jump into conversations with mean/inappropriate comments and ruin everyone’s good time. Now people seem to associate “troll” with “literally anyone who disagrees with me.” Even when the disagreement is actually perfectly legitimate criticism, which is how much of it looks to me. (Three hours is really long, and this enjoyer of Marvel thinks She-Hulk isn’t their most glowing work.)
If I were a pessimistic type, I might even start to suspect that trying to “own” the “toxic fandom” is becoming a dark new way to drum up publicity, considering how many new releases have been jumping on that bandwagon. Why, it’s also a way to deflect from weak writing!
Now, I am but a curious observer of the modern-day movie industry, who can only compare and contrast its decisions with overall observations of human nature. But as a movie fan and especially as a lover of film history, three thoughts spring to mind:
- There’s such a thing as being Perpetually Online–to the point of tunnel vision. To the point where you’re not only limiting your own creativity, but making your work perpetually linked to the online squabbles of the 2020s. In other words, your work is going to be remembered for being dated, and not in the charming “oh look, that silent comedian actually stepped on a banana peel!” sort of way.
- Some folks in the industry seem to be forgetting that no one’s obliged to like or even to watch every film and series that gets released. If audiences do enjoy their work, that’s an opportunity for gratitude, especially if they’ve been entrusted with a franchise with a built-in fanbase. They don’t like it? Address criticisms sincerely, or take some notes and try again. Humility and professionalism are important.
- Look to the past for examples of that kind of humility and professionalism–the people who paved the way for today’s movie careers. The great directors and stars of the silent era had to deal with a lot of public scrutiny too (on an easier-to-digest scale, admittedly), but if they could see the type of snarkiness and disdain for fans leaking from some corners of Hollywood today I bet they’d be shocked.
If you want a perfect example of humility and professionalism, look no further than Mary Pickford, a name that never comes up often enough. She was the first global female superstar, a consummate actress and director, and an immensely powerful person in the silent film industry–who never forgot that the public came first and foremost. She would even refer to the public as “my friends.”
Here’s a Pickford quote from 1917, merely describing how she made her screen characters come to life. You can feel the respect in her words:
Study human beings constantly you must, in order to do good film work. I find myself studying the policeman on the corner, even the street cleaners. You cannot work effectively into a picture where you are surrounded by all sorts of people unless you comprehend them. It is, after all is said and done, a case of living for your work, and making that work as human as possible.
It’s almost hard to describe how beloved Pickford was back in the day, and what an “everywoman” she was to countless people. Much of her success can be certainly attributed to her deep respect and affection for her audience, which influenced every aspect of making her films. Here’s a quote from her in 1928:
People have asked why audiences have loved me, and I can only say that it must be because I love them. I always have…I went on stage before I was five, but long before that I can remember praying to God to make people love me…Love seeks response to love. Nothing is more pathetic than half a love affair.
Now, even America’s Sweetheart wasn’t immune to negative fan reactions, especially when she tried to grow beyond the “little girl” characters she was often associated with. When she finally bobbed her famous golden curls in 1928, there was a very public outcry–even though she was now in her thirties and couldn’t reasonably be expected to play young girls forever. Following this, and especially once talkies took over with their different style of filmmaking, her career began to peter out.
Now, was Pickford publicly bitter about this? Did she try to “clap back” at those unreasonable fans? Quite the contrary. In later interviews, after decades of observing Hollywood’s evolution and seeing her beloved silent era become a relic of the past, Pickford displayed the same love for the public she always had. In a prescient quote from an interview with Kevin Brownlow for his book The Parade’s Gone By, she recalled:
What do people go to the theater for? An emotional exercise. And no preachment. I don’t believe in taking advantage of someone who comes to the theater by teaching him a lesson. He can go to church, he can read the newspapers. But when people go to a motion picture they want to be entertained. It is not my prerogative as an actress to teach them anything. They will teach me. And that’s how it should be, because I am a servant of the public. I have never forgotten that.
Now, being subjected to barrages of online criticism is a downer, and I would never pretend that it wouldn’t take a toll on someone–especially if they already have the stressful task of working on the latest film in a very, very popular franchise. But there’s a difference between receiving criticism and openly inviting criticism in hopes of getting to “clap back.” And there’s something mindboggling about deliberately causing rifts among fans when you have such a rare opportunity to work on a beloved franchise. The scale of that kind of behavior is truly unprecedented.
Not everyone in Hollywood today is like that, and hopefully this is a trend that will soon start a merciful downturn. But to that end, more folks in “the industry” might find more peace and satisfaction to simply put down their phones, focus on writing good stories (The Mandalorian was sure incredible, just saying) and ask themselves occasionally, “What Would Mary Pickford Do?”
Sources for the Pickford quotes:
Brownlow, Kevin. Mary Pickford Rediscovered. New York: Harry N. Adams, Incorporated, 1999.
Brownlow, Kevin. The Parade’s Gone By. New York: Knopf, 1990.