25 May, 2007

Corporate ownership vs Value added by fan community

After several decades of struggle fans have finally gains some recognition among the corporate intellectual property owners. But the situation is still much fogged in the grey area – not only are the fans confused of what and how much they can do with the original material, media companies also seem undecided where to draw the line.

The top-down process

On some superficial level, the dilemma faced by media companies is whether to please the fans and lose a profit now, or anger the fans and lose a profit in the long run. In some cases, arms of even the same media company (such as filming and game development) exhibit different levels of tolerance. Henry Jenkins suggests a division between Old and New media companies (or in the above case, segments) in their treatment of fan participation: Old media industry (e.g. film, television and music) tend to treat fan creativity as a threat to their profibility, thus filed law suits and cease and desist letters to bring down those most active fans; New media industry (e.g. game and internet) on the other hand has increasingly engaged with the fan community and some have even go so far to produce tools to lower technological barriers to encourage fan participation (Jenkins, 2006). Indeed, the New media industry draws much similarities with the Web 2.o model, which participation and convergence are quite central to their success.

The mind-map pictured above (constructed by Markus Angermeier on November 11, 2005) sums up the memes of Web 2.0, with example-sites and services attached. (Cited on Wikipedia)

The cause of mixed response is thus largely economical, diverged of Old and New business models. In such light we propose the following question - if the majority of media companies continue to move towards convergence culture in the next five years or so, will the Old media companies eventually extinct as their business model become so intolerable of the then level of fan participation?

It appears that Old media companies had a even chance to survive. On the one hand media convergence may continue to stimulate this process by merging media platforms, extending the reach of New media industry; on the other hand Old media industry seems also to find ways to engage with the fans in controable manner. One example being setting up official fan clubs, which the companies seems to encourage fan culture but at the same time they gained more control through compulsory terms & conditions - such as claiming copyright over fan produced work and restricting publishable material. Whether these official fan clubs are supporting or damaging fan participation is still unclear at this stage, some fans welcomed the idea to be ‘official’ while other didn’t.

In the New media industry, game companies have consistently pioneered the support for fan culture. For more than a decade they have developed tools which can be used by both the modding community (modify in-game characters and environment) and machinima community to utilize their game engines with more comfort. More recently game companies also start to sponsor machinima competitions that are based on their games, including big names such as Atari, Blizzard (World of Warcraft), Bungie Studios (Halo3) and even Microsoft.

Unsurprisingly however commercial incentive is still the key motivation in the New media industry– fan generated in-game content prolongs the shelf-life of games; machinima competitions become excellent marketing campaigns for newly released games since one must first own a copy of the game to create machinima. But fans responded much more positively to the modding software and machinima competitions as they greatly enhanced fan creatively compare to the restrictions imposed by offical fan clubs. For machinima advocates ‘it’s all a part of it having cultural and commercial significance as a medium.’(Marino, 2007)

The bottom-up Process

In 2004 when a group of machinima producers gathered in New York City to prospect the future of machinima, one suggested to set up a set of standards to be used by game developers to ensure future games being ‘machinima-compliant’.

This suggestion is highly appreciated by peer machinima producers. 'Initiatives of this nature bring structure to the movement. Filmmaking relied upon standards to assist in its development (the 35mm format is nearly 115 years old). By constructing standards for creative needs, this helps us match feature sets and creates a foundation for this new medium. A combination of focused efforts from both the software developers and the Machinima community will bring continued promise to this already groundbreaking medium.’ (Marino, 2004)

Three years later we are yet to see any implementation of the machinima standard. It was after all too difficult to convince game developers to follow strict guidelines during their production to cater for such a small market. Compared to other kinds of support offered by the commercial media industry, a grassroots driven initiative is much harder to realize due to their lack of commercial incentive.

Possibility for commercialization

Despite all possible kinds of encouragement from Old or New media industry fans are still totally prevented from commercializing their work due to copyright restriction. This would be the last forbidden ground of the mainstream media since commercial incentives are simply the central most consideration for how they engage with their fans.

One exception would be the machinima production team Rooster Teeth, which its well-known series Red vs. Blue has gained support from Bungie Studios to commercially release DVDs; its another series Strangerhood has become the first machinima to be commissioned for broadcast. While being noteworthy, commercialized fan production still remains a marginal practice and one shall not expect many more of them to spawn in the foreseeable future.

Read the next section: Narrative Structure and Storytelling

Further Readings

Transforming Fan Culture into User-Generated Content: The Case of FanLib


No comments: