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'Star Wars' and the fracas over fan films

Media scholar says game industry is adapting to fan participation. So why can't George Lucas?

Henry Jenkins is perhaps the most prominent scholar in the country devoted to examining pastimes often deemed profoundly frivolous.

As director of the Comparative Media Center at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Jenkins has played a leading role over the past two decades in studying manifestations of popular culture such as video games and fan communities. His conclusions have helped put them squarely into a historical context of artistic and creative activities.

Much of his latest work, including an upcoming book titled "Convergence Culture," deals with the shifting relationship between audiences and big content producers like Hollywood studios. Aided by new digital production technologies and the distribution power of the Web, fan communities are increasingly creating their own sophisticated works--fiction, films and games--based on the big content producers' original characters.

Historically, women have created fan fiction.

This is uncomfortable for some in the culture industries, which aren't accustomed to this two-way street. While the game business is adapting fast, Hollywood is still profoundly conflicted about how to deal with the creative fan armed with a digital video camera, a Web site and his or her own ideas for a new story, Jenkins says.

George Lucas and Lucasfilm, which is just weeks away from launching the latest installment in the "Star Wars" series, have naturally been at the center of the debate over fan productions. Fan films based on the "Star Wars" universe are now popping up online in advance of the release, some with Lucas' blessing and some without.

Lucas has had a complicated relationship with his fan base, one of the oldest and broadest communities in popular culture. He has allowed some fan creativity but also quashed it in some instances--sometimes in ways that had strong gender-biased implications, Jenkins argues.

News.com spoke to Jenkins about the evolving relationships between big media companies and their active online audiences, and focused particularly on the relationship between Lucas and his fans.

Q. Fan productions seem to be growing in sophistication, both in the game business and in the movie business. Is there a benefit to the corporations from this activity?
Jenkins: Let's look at the game industry. Will Wright, who created "The Sims," has a prediction that about 60 percent of content in the game will be created by consumers. When there is amateur-generated content, companies can monitor for the top talents, who can be pushed to the next generation, who are the amateurs who can go pro. And for companies like BioWare, the amateur games extend the shelf life of the commercial games, because in order to play those games you have to buy the commercial game as well.

So the game industry has a fully developed pipeline where amateur production plays a very central role in driving innovation, in driving professional development, driving market outreach and driving new content at a lower cost.

But it's different in Hollywood.
Jenkins: When you go to Hollywood, none of that is in place yet. Hollywood has been deeply suspicious of amateur productions, has largely read it through the Napster lens of saying all this stuff is piracy. If we don't control this it's bad for us. There has been real resistance to the emergence of a public culture around movie content. Many of the studio executives have had a hard time distinguishing between downloading movies and making your own movies, for example.

Historically, Lucas and Lucasfilms have been really undecided as to how to respond to the emergence of fan communities. In my new book, "Convergence Culture," I spend a lot of time tracing the history of Lucasfilms' relationship to its fans, continually trying to incorporate them, but at the same time being nervous about them and ultimately regulating them to control what can and can't be said.

In the case of "Star Wars," they formed an official partnership with AtomFilms to be this core distributor of "Star Wars" independent films. AtomFilms does an official contest, gives prizes, and the filmmakers who come into that site have permission to make their expansions to "Star Wars."

But they're limited to certain types of films.
Jenkins: That's right. They set up restrictions. The restrictions they set up are: 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.

That has a gender implication. By and large, most amateur parodies have been done by men. Most dramatic expansions have been done by women.

Now I think the reason for that we can get into. 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.

Lucas has never quite realized that women constitute a sizable chunk of the surplus audience for the "Star Wars" movies.

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.

Do you think that's affected the overall direction of fan films? Has that channeled people into the kind of activity Lucas wants, or is there still a vibrant area of production outside that area?
Jenkins: I think it definitely has an implication. It creates a double layer. There is the most visible layer, what's going to be out there on the Web that people can find. And there's stuff that is made but is hidden from view, that maybe gets shown at face-to-face gatherings but can't be publicly distributed. It doesn't mean the stuff isn't made, but it means that certain stuff gets a lot of press, attention and visibility, and a lot of stuff is buried from view.

As I said, one of the things that troubles me is that there's a real gender implication to that.

Why is this? Why have you seen women moving towards the area of dramatic expansion, as opposed to parody?
Jenkins: Historically, women have created fan fiction. Fan fiction gets inside the head of a character and begins to explore the world from their point of view, and leads to a dramatic expansion. Men have been much more uncomfortable historically with acknowledging that level of emotional engagement with the characters. They've been much more comfortable expressing their fandom through parody, which holds (the characters) at a distance and sort of makes fun of them, says, "I don't really take it that seriously." So there's a different level of emotional connection to the material that's expressed between those two modes of production.

Is there any authorized outlet that's more geared toward women?
Jenkins: No. By and large, "Star Wars" has tried to shut down fan fiction, which has historically been an outlet for female expression, and has tried to shut down non-parody fan video, which is another outlet for fan female expression.

A smart media producer looks at a central audience and a surplus audience--a surplus audience is made up of people who are not the core address of the product but who you want to hold on to because they round up your bank account. Lucas has never quite realized that women constitute a sizable chunk of the surplus audience for the "Star Wars" movies. I think he has undervalued the kinds of grassroots creativity that women have brought to bear on that fandom, at the expense of creating a zone of tolerance around those parts of the fandom that are most like what Lucas himself would have liked to do.

Lucas is a fanboy filmmaker and likes to protect those types of fan participation that he grew up with, that he's familiar with and comfortable with. But (he) has been surprisingly intolerant of some of the other modes of fan production.

How does that translate to "Star Wars" gaming?
Jenkins: What's happened there has been very interesting. With the "Star Wars Galaxies" (massively multiplayer) game, they hired Raph Koster, who's a noted advocate of player rights, who is himself a MUD (multi-user dungeon) and MOO (MUD object-oriented) to head up a design team that was incredibly open to consumer feedback at every step along the way.

So the idea was, (present) the ideas while they were still being conceived, get feedback from consumers, build in consumer investment, turn a lot of the game over to consumers once it was out there and being played and build a community around the game. Again, it's like what game companies do with their consumer base, but it's not what movie companies do with their consumer base.

So if you're a "Star Wars" fan, you're being treated very differently depending on whether you're a gamer or a "Star Wars" filmmaker or a "Star Wars" fan fiction writer.

At this point in time, not to take seriously that fan base is a total lack of gratitude.

To me, Lucas is interesting in embodying the contradictions of where modern companies are. Where it's one franchise across media, and you're a fan of the franchise, your level of engagement is regulated to different degrees depending on which section of Lucas is dealing with you. Because even though it's an integrated company, in a way, these different parts of the company work with differing ideas and logics.

No one inside the media industry really knows how far they want to go with a participatory audience. They don't know how much they want to trust consumers to be more actively involved in the creation of the content, more actively involved as evangelists for the content, bringing in new people, stimulating interest and so forth.

You've written a lot about what it means to engage with this kind of material as a creative fan. If you could sum up, what does engaging with a work in this way do for a fan?
Jenkins: Well, let's look at this at the most basic level. As human beings, stories matter to us. We want to tell stories about great heroes. This is something Lucas understands very well. He likes to talk about Joseph Campbell and that tradition of heroes that emerged through the folklore or the mythological process. For thousands and thousands of years human beings have told stories about their shared heroes. The ancient Greeks told stories about shared heroes. The African-American slaves told stories about Brer Rabbit. The railroad workers told stories about John Henry. So these stories are deeply embedded in our culture.

So the need to tell those stories, and to connect those stories didn't disappear just because we decided we were going to privatize storytelling in our country, commercialize it, turn it into a commodity and put it in the hands of massive corporations. People still want to connect to those stories, they still want to tell them and they still want to imagine possibilities that the primary storytellers never thought of.

And that's the way to think of fan creativity in general. It's a creativity that's basic human nature, it's something that's gone on for thousands of years. What's shifted is not that people want to tell stories about heroes. What's shifted is that we now have corporations who believe they can own those heroes lock, stock and barrel, and prevent anyone else from telling their stories.

So fandom is a place where people who care deeply about these characters can go to participate in that story. The "Star Wars" saga becomes not just something that Lucas and his contractees produce, it becomes something that the public adds on to, expands, enriches, pushes in new directions and can feel a part of.

But there's a practical side to it, too.
Jenkins: Beyond that, it's a way for young artists to get experience making stuff that will get an audience. We've got this vast distribution system, the Web now, which theoretically allows anyone to make anything and put it out there and get it seen. But how do you grab anyone's attention on the Web? If you made your own science fiction movie and there was no reference to anything else in popular culture, it might have a limited distribution among science fiction fans, because it fits the genre.

But if I make a "Star Wars" film, there are lots of "Star Wars" fans out there who care about those characters, who want more content or who are interested in what's being done in the space. There are newspapers like yours who are going to write about them if they're "Star Wars" films. And you don't write about them, frankly, if it's an amateur guy making a science fiction film with no ties to "Star Wars." It gets sucked into the orbit of this big mass-media phenomenon.

Now, it doesn't drain that phenomenon, it's not depreciating the value of "Star Wars." It's appreciating it, in every sense of the word. Both appreciating in the sense of we like it, we appreciate it, but also appreciating in the sense that it adds value, it gets people interested in it, it prolongs the shelf life of the film franchise. It creates new buzz and new excitement.

What if companies don't encourage those fan bases, or actively discourage them?
Jenkins: You can damage that excitement. The classic example is Viacom going after "Star Trek" fans. And what happens to your franchise? "Star Trek" is going off the air. They killed their golden cow by being so aggressive in going after their fan base, and people went elsewhere where they found fan systems that were more accommodating. So "Star Trek" fandom has been dying over the last decade because Viacom was so aggressive in trying to control its intellectual property, closing off any chance of participation or engagement.

So Lucas doesn't have to worry, this is his last "Star Wars" film. But the books and other "Star Wars" products continued to sell during the period between when the first trilogy films were made and the second trilogy films were made. There was a period of time where "Star Wars" was still alive in our culture, and it was kept alive by the fan community as much or more than by Lucas. And the fan community was what helped force Lucas, in a sense, to come back and make the second trilogy to begin with.

At this point in time, not to take seriously that fan base is a total lack of gratitude.