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Network executives weigh in on fans' influence on TV, movies

By
Fred Topel
Fans started a petition to persuade HBO to reshoot the final season of Game of Thrones. It's not happening. File Photo by John Angelillo/UPI
Fans started a petition to persuade HBO to reshoot the final season of "Game of Thrones." It's not happening. File Photo by John Angelillo/UPI | License Photo

LOS ANGELES, Aug. 19 (UPI) -- Game of Thrones fans want HBO to refilm the final season of the show. The Sonic the Hedgehog movie postponed its release as the filmmakers redesign the title character after a vocal backlash. Fans are still demanding Warner Brothers release the Zack Snyder cut of Justice League.

Some of those things will never happen. HBO is not redoing Game of Thrones and the Snyder cut was never assembled, according to Snyder. The Sonic fans got their way, though.

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When do fans have the power to influence movies and television, and should they? Network executives and creators weighed in during the 2019 Television Critics Association summer press tour.

Petitions won't change anything

In the early days of television, the only way to tell a network what you thought was to write a letter. If enough fans of a show wrote to the network, perhaps executives would keep a show on the air. Star Trek fans persuaded NBC to renew The Original Series for a third season.

In 2019, fans can collect signatures for online petitions, but no number of signatures will persuade HBO to reshoot the final season of Game of Thrones.

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"The petition, I think, shows a lot of enthusiasm and passion for the show, but it wasn't something that we seriously considered," said Casey Bloys, president of programming for HBO.

In fact, Bloys saw the extremes to which disappointed fans would go as a positive.

"There are very, very few downsides to having a hugely popular show," Bloys said. "One I can think of is when you try to end it, many people have big opinions on how it should end and how they should see the characters' stories come to an end. I think that just comes with the territory."

Damon Lindelof, the co-creator of Lost, has experience with vocal fans. Even after the show ended, Lindelof still heard from angry fans on Twitter. Now producing Watchmen for HBO, he says it is important to recognize that fan petitions don't represent a majority of viewers.

If the network isn't going to cave in to fans, the creators certainly won't.

"My job remains the same, which is to make something that pleases me and the people that I'm making it with," Lindelof said. "If I woke up every morning saying, 'I need to make creative decisions based on something that's going to make the fans happy,' I don't think that I could be successful in that endeavor."

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Jack Bender directed some Game of Thrones episodes and Lost episodes, including the finale. He's not worried about fans setting the course, either.

"That will never happen," Bender said. "We're storytellers and we do the best we can. Sometimes we make something great and sometimes we make something less great, but I think undoubtedly they made [Game of Thrones] the way they wanted to and now they're moving on and that's the way it should be."

Arrow executive producer Marc Guggenheim, who is working on his own series finale this year, thinks a petition is only a gut reaction, and that time will be kind to the Game of Thrones finale as it has been to other series finales.

"The Sopranos series finale infuriated people," Guggenheim said. "To the same extent that Game of Thrones did, it infuriated people, and now I think it is considered generally beloved. The thing that frustrated people so much is now considered visionary. As far as Game of Thrones is concerned, I'm like, 'Check back in five years.' I think it'll be a different answer."

Do fans influence the box office?

Sonic the Hedgehog director Jeff Fowler listened to the social media reaction when Paramount released the first trailer for his film. Fans hated the design of the computer-animated Sonic so much that Fowler is completely redesigning it, and the film was delayed from November to Feb. 14 while animators furiously go back to the drawing board (or computer screen).

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"It's become this kind of monster at some point, right?" live-action star Jim Carrey said. "I don't know quite how I feel about the audience being in on the creation of it while it's happening.

"I'll have to see what that entails because sometimes you find the collective consciousness decides it wants something, and then when it gets it, it goes, 'OK, I just wanted it. I didn't care about it.' It's either going to be a good thing or a bad thing."

Even if Sonic the Hedgehog is a huge hit in February, will it be because of the improvements or would it have been a hit, anyway, with the original computer-generated imagery? Carrey sees fan involvement as a bigger element than just one aimed at movies and television shows.

"I think, basically, ownership of anything is going out the window for all of us," Carrey said. "Just like everything else in our world, we're feeling out of control in the process. I believe in auteurism. I believe in creatives. As far as something like a Sonic character, that's something people have a sense of ownership from their childhood, so of course they're going to get involved if they can."

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Fans alone can't save shows

Fan campaigns to save canceled shows have worked. Netflix rescued Lucifer and Designated Survivor; Amazon is airing a fourth season and producing a fifth season of The Expanse; and NBC gave Timeless a second season, though fans were not powerful enough to get it a third.

The big success story this season is that Pop will become the new home of One Day at a Time. Netflix canceled the show after three seasons, but Pop saw a show that fans still wanted to watch. However, Pop President Brad Schwartz was careful to specify that fans were only one component of a package that can rescue a canceled show.

"The fan passion that the show had is certainly one part of it, but there are many parts that go into making a decision like this," Schwartz said. "First and foremost, we love the show. Second of all, it was a show that really felt like it fit on our network."

Lindelof credits fans with persuading HBO to give The Leftovers a second season. Some 50 fans dressed up as the show's Guilty Remnant and stood outside HBO's offices. Over on the broadcast side, fans weren't enough to save Scorpion on CBS.

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"You hope to get to the point where fans are so engaged that they take time out of their day to write a letter or to tweet," CBS President of Entertainment Kelly Kahl said. "Fans of Scorpion are killing me on Twitter right now wanting to bring the show back. You hope for that kind of passion from your fans. A lot of what the fans want is not always practical, sadly, but I think we're always mindful of our audience."

They do listen to fans

That's not to say fans should just sit back and let the creators work. Many creators, including Lindelof, said they value the feedback fans give them. Star Trek: Discovery showrunner Michelle Paradise pays attention to the fan reactions to episodes.

"We want to hear what people think of the show and want to hear what people like, but ultimately what it always comes down to is the characters themselves," Paradise said. "What are the best stories for these characters? We love people's feedback. We always are looking to hear that."

Warren Littlefield was a network executive at NBC, so he has fielded feedback from all sides: his creators, the fans and stockholders. Now that he is a producer of shows like The Handmaid's Tale and Fargo, he has a healthy perspective on fan feedback in the Internet age.

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"First and foremost, I think as producers, we should embrace how passionate our fans are," Littlefield said. "They care about every, every move, every word, everything that we present. They study it. So we celebrate their support, their passionate support. Does it hurt when they don't like our choices? Sure, absolutely. But we try and listen."

Be kind

Fans should be excited to learn that many of the creators of their favorite shows do listen to their feedback. The best way to get a message through to the creators of a favorite show is to be kind. The quickest way to get tuned out is to be mean, industry executives say.

When Ruby Rose was cast as Batwoman last year, most of the feedback was supportive. There was a backlash for making Kate Kane gay and casting a bisexual actor. Negative feedback like that only empowered showrunner Caroline Dries in her conviction that this inclusive version of Batwoman was necessary in 2019.

"I think any time you face those voices, it's like, 'Yes, exactly. This is exactly why we need this,'" Dries said.

Guggenheim faced his share of angry Arrow fans online, too. Some were angry that he departed from the comic books and romantically paired Oliver Queen (Stephen Amell) with original character Felicity Smoak (Emily Bett Rickards). Fans of Oliver and Felicity ("Ollicity" to the shippers) were then angry when he followed the comics and paired Oliver with Laurel Lance (Katie Cassidy, and that's "Lauriver" to shippers).

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"What it really tells me is the negativity you read on Twitter is really just a function of people just caring about the show so much," Guggenheim said.

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