May 18, 2005

fan fiction, fan film, and star wars

this is my first post on the detritus blog. and since today marks the premiere of star wars episode iii, why not post something tangentially star wars-related?

henry jenkins is director of comparative media studies for MIT and was one of the first in the academic community to research fandom and fan culture, in particular fan-generated art such as fan fiction, fan films, and filk (fan-generated folk music).

jenkins was recently interviewed on cnet regarding how companies such as lucasarts respond to fan films and similar phenomena. for example, lucasfilms recently partnered with atomfilms to distribute independent star wars-related films, and even had an official fan film contest, but with some fairly strict rules: "You can only use these sounds we provide you, you can't use copyrighted materials and appropriate or recontextualize it, you can do parodies, but you can't do dramatic expansions of the "Star Wars" universe."

some may note that these rules sound quite similar to the rules of recent "remix contests" held on sites like, where fans can remix big name artists like beck or madonna, but can only enter the contest if their remixes operate within specific narrow parameters.

in the cnet interview, jenkins continued:

But the reason Lucas has taken that stance is that parody has a much broader protection legally. They have much less right to say anything legally about parody than they do about other uses of their intellectual property because of the way that Supreme Court decisions on parody have come down.

The other thing they say is that you can do documentaries about "Star Wars" phenomena. There have been some very well-made documentaries which Lucas clearly is recognizing in making that decision. But again, a documentary is something that Lucas would never have the right to restrict to begin with. Any of us--you as a journalist--can write about Lucas just as you're doing, tell that story in the nonfiction mode, and Lucas has no legal rights to restrict that documentary production.

So essentially what Lucas has ceded to fans are the things that Lucas could never have controlled to begin with. And what it's asking for in compliance is that fans don't do anything that enters into the gray area, where fans might argue that it's critical commentary but Lucas is going to see it as encroaching on his rights.

jenkins goes on to state these sorts of policies create a "double layer" of fan-generated art: a "visible" layer of officially-sanctioned works and a separate, hidden layer of work that is "buried from view". perhaps the most notorious star wars fan film--episode 1.1, the phantom edit--is an example of a film that managed to garner much attention despite (or perhaps because of ) falling into this second layer. (this "double layer" phenomenon has been obvious within remix culture for some time now.)

the cnet article generated a lot of discussion and controversy, especially regarding some of his comments on the genders of these fan producers. after one such rebuttal on, jenkins was invited to post a rebuttal. (among other things, jenkins thought he was only being interviewed "on background" for the cnet piece.)

When I wrote Textual Poachers almost fifteen years ago, fandom was a very different place. The Internet was just emerging. Most fan fiction was published in zines and circulated underground within fandom with little public visibility. That book thus talks about fans as the most creative and engaged segment of the media audience. I celebrated our ability to take media content in our own hands and use it as a resource to tell our own stories. Yet, arguably, fans at that point were largely hidden from view and marginal to the overall production and circulation of media content.

Convergence Culture enters at another moment. The web has made fan culture highly visible. The media industries are reassessing their relations to their fans. Almost everyone at every level in the media system recognizes the value of participatory audiences. In the book, I talk about how the idea of fan participation has reshaped the thinking of advertisers and network executives, filmmakers and game designers, lawyers, educators, even politicians and church leaders. Everyone agrees that participation is valuable but there are still heated battles over what kinds of participation are desirable and acceptable. I spend time in the book looking at a range of media properties -- from Star Wars and Harry Potter to Survivor and American Idol -- and trying to understand how the media industry thinks about its fans and vice-versa.

The Star Wars chapter in the book opens with a celebration of fan filmmakers who I discuss in terms of the shift from an individually authored story into a larger mythology. I see Star Wars fans as doing the same kind of elaboration of the Star Wars saga that folk cultures have always done with the tales of great heroes. This is totally consistent with George Lucas's analogy between Star Wars and Joseph Campbell's notion of the Mono-Myth. Campbell's myth emerged through multiple authors over an extended period of time without a centralized author controlling what happened to the story. To me, it takes away nothing from Lucas's authorship to imagine the same process unfolding across the 21st century with his characters and I think this is precisely what fan filmmakers and fan fiction writers are doing.

In the chapter, I go on to use Lucasfilm's responses to fan creativity to illustrate some of the contradictions and uncertainties in the ways media companies are responding to their consumers. On some levels, there is no doubt that Lucas personally likes at least some form of fan creativity, especially those forms which most closely parallel his own experiences growing up as a Super-8 filmmaker. On other levels, the company -- and perhaps Lucas itself -- has wanted to exert some degree of control over what fans produced and circulated, fearing damage to his intellectual property. And the franchise has struggled with these issues from the 1970s to the present, desiring some zone of tolerance within which fans can operate while asserting some control over what happens to his story. In that history, there have been some periods when the company was highly tolerant and others when it was pretty aggressive about trying to close off all or some forms of fan fiction. At the same time, the different divisions of the same company have developed different approaches to dealing with fans -- so that the games division has thought of fans in ways consistent with how other game companies think about fans (and is probably on the more permissive end of the spectrum) while the film division has tended to think like a motion picture company and been a bit less comfortable with fan participation. I make this point not to say Lucasfilm is bad to fans -- in many ways, it seems more forward thinking and responsive to the fan community than most motion picture companies -- but to illustrate the ways the media industry is trying to find its way in response to fan creativity.

Posted by stAllio! at May 18, 2005 08:40 PM

You may enjoy my own Star Wars Mashup - 'Star Woz'

Posted by: Jonathan Cronin at May 29, 2005 07:41 PM