A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, a young filmmaker named George Lucas made what was easily the smartest decision of his life. He negotiated a percentage of the merchandizing for the little space opera he was about to film; you know, the one the studio didn’t believe in that was a laughing stock until it became an industry unto itself. As the writer-director, George, like every other creator in Hollywood at the time, received a flat fee for his services, $150,000. So if he hadn’t negotiated that vital percentage of the merch, he would have watched the studio print money off his ideas and imagination (and that of all the other genius craftsmen who worked on the film).
Instead, he opened his own film studio. Almost 40 years later, he sold that studio and all its sub-companies, Lucasfilm, for $4 billion. That’s billion with a “B”.
That one savvy business decision way back in 1973 not only shaped George’s life, but it was the genesis of one of the high tenets of geek culture: you must love stuff. I don’t have any hard data, but I think it’s a fair educated guess to say that before Star Wars, geeks didn’t collect merchandise quite as lustily as they do now. It has become a fundamental part of the pop culture experience.
In geek circles, our passion and loyalty is unparalleled. Whether you’re the kind of geek who buys the occasional T-shirt or box set, or the kind that has every single FunkoPop figuring and spends months perfecting your cosplay outfit for the next con, a very real and very necessary sense of belonging is fuelled by your buying choices.
Good old George opened something of a Pandora’s box when he unleashed those first twelve Star Wars action figures into the world, which celebrated their 35th anniversary this week. [Full disclosure: I owned them all.] Merchandise for our favorite fandoms is everywhere we look, from the grocery store to the library, in big box stores and specialty comics boutiques, from Amazon to Etsy to Think Geek to a zillion other online retailers. If you have the cash, someone somewhere will be able to sell you the piece of memorabilia you crave the most—the more obscure, the more jacked the price. Fans themselves are knee-deep in the merchandizing game, and why not? We all dream of turning our passion into profit.
I know you’re all waiting for the “But…”. An anecdote instead. Two autumns ago, I attended my first every con. I hate large crowds, so I tend to avoid those kind of events, but it was amazing. The costumes bedazzled. The devotion of the fans touched me. The incredible feeling of peace and camaraderie. Everyone was respectful of others. Everyone was accepted. We were all geeks, and we all belonged.
For a price, though. Since I had never been to a con before, I had no idea that if I wanted one of the celebrity panellists’ autographs, I would have to pay $40-$60 dollars for the “privilege”. For a five-second photograph with said person, where you’re not even allowed to say more than ‘hello’, closer to $100 when all was said and done. Group shot with four members of the cast of a famous sci-fi show that the con was staging a reunion for? The bargain price of $160.
Let’s take a moment to do the math on this one. You’ve already paid $40 just to step in the building, invested who knows how much in your costume, and haven’t even bought a T-shirt yet, let alone any of the really outstanding pieces in the marketplace, like a sword or a board game or a life-size replica of Han frozen in the carbonite. Not to mention all the companion books, posters, DVDs, etc, that you have at home. Or the blog you started to celebrate a particular show or character. So by the time you’re standing in front of Fourth Lead Who Only Lasted Two Seasons, you could easily have invested north of a thousand dollars in your convention experience (especially if you want your photo taken with more than one celeb guest), and they want you to pay for their autograph.
Friends, things have gotten out of hand. The film studios and financial backers, not to mention the marketing firms and the companies that make the merchandise, have us by the pocketbooks, and they are not letting go until they rob us blind.
I know that the above spending breakdown does not represent the average geek. I know that it’s damn fun to fly your colors. I’m not saying never buy merchandise. At this very moment, I hotly covet a Star Labs sweatshirt. I have my share of posters, companion books, and action figures. This past December, I spent an inordinate amount of money on U2 tickets. I probably spend more on books than I ever have before because I believe in paying for art. I also applaud any geeks who are out there making and marketing merch for their own creative work or fan art, or trying to fund ambitious projects through kickstarter campaigns. But we need to remember that the money we spend is power, and we need to spend it wisely.
The thing that triggered this post was the announcement by Warner Brothers this week that they would release the trailer for Batman Vs. Superman in IMAX theaters. In order to see a trailer that would be online in a matter of minutes after the screening, you would have to pay for an IMAX-priced ticket. Just for a trailer. Two and a half minutes of screen time, $18.
This is the kind of exploitative corporate stunt that really gets my blood boiling. [The trailer leaked today. Take that, executive scumbags.] And it’s only going to get worse unless we take a stand. The only power we have as fans is the money we spend and where we spend it, and we need to use it to send a message. We need to show the studios that this kind of cash-grab is unacceptable. I am all for paying for art—even commercial art—but I don’t support outright greed.
A better example of how to do a major trailer release was demonstrated by the team behind the new Star Wars film. They showed the trailer first to a hall full of convention attendees, making it worth their time and money by inviting most of the stars of the new and old films to do a panel for them. The trailer was released simultaneously online, and the world roared. Because they knew what we wanted. Which wasn’t to wait in line for hours for a good seat at an IMAX cinema for two and a half minutes of meaningless footage that revealed little to nothing about the film or the plot. It was to feel some sort of connection with the characters and exotic worlds we’ve visited and loved. It was to be reassured that this time, they didn’t screw it up. It was to see an image we had been waiting over thirty years to see again: motherfucking Han Solo and Chewie back home on the Millennium Falcon!
In other words: priceless.
I think we all need to take a step back and remember what’s important, what we love about fandom and geek culture. The characters. The fantastical worlds. The friendships. Great art made by great artists, whether they be the creators of the work or fans responding to it with their own art. That feeling you felt when you first entered that magical otherworld. When you realized that someone else actually likes the same rare or obscure work that you do, and how you talked for hours after you finally found each other. The oasis you found from your loneliness, or shyness, or social awkwardness, or otherness.
We need to make careful, conscious choices about where we spend our very hard-earned money, and how much of it we are willing to spend, because being able to do so is a privilege. Geekdom is a privilege in many ways, but none more so than financial. In my own life, I make sure I offset these kinds of pleasure expenses by donating at least as much each year to a worthwhile charity. Because I do not need a Star Labs sweatshirt more than someone below the poverty line needs to eat.
It’s a golden age of geekery out there, and there’s enough room for everyone in the sandbox. But that doesn’t mean we should be taken advantage of, and that doesn’t mean we get to take advantage of others.
Those are my rules of geekonomics. To me, it’s a simple equation.