Fanfiction: The Untapped Marketing Opportunity for Cinemas and Distributors

March 25, 2023
Martin Berg
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But what IS fanfiction, exactly? And what sort of marketing opportunity does it present to the cinema industry today?

In its primary definition, fanfiction is any form of writing by amateurs that places characters from a well-known film, book, cartoon, comic, anime, or franchise into a new, original story. 

Today though, fanfic is a vast, world-building community populated by millions upon millions of fans creating entire universes based on the characters they love through multiple media: writing, art, video, comics, cosplay (dressing up as characters), and music. It’s also a world with its own jargon and chat forums, conferences, and festivals, podcasts, and merchandise shops.

The potential of fanfiction is enormous. 

It's not just for major franchises either; fandoms are built around smaller, niche films and genres too. The publishing industry has already capitalized on fan power, with #BookTok becoming a serious multi-million dollar business, and publishing houses reading fanfiction to scout for new authors to invest in. 

Now, film studios are even optioning novels based on fanfic stories with several slated for streamers this year (look out for Anne Hathaway in a Harry Styles fanfic adaptation: The Idea of You on Prime Video).

Fanfic power in numbers: 

On the fanfic repository Archive of Our Own (AO3), there are currently over 8 million works, serving over 12.7 billion page views. It is an entirely donor-supported open-source portal, by the fans, for the fans. 

There are 854,000 original fanfiction stories based on Harry Potter on alone. 

Fanfic writers even host their conventions, attended in their thousands, usually multi-day events with speaker panels, workshops, meet and greets and costume competitions, with attendees flying in from all over the world.

Major studios and distributors are already embracing the opportunities to engage and collaborate with the massive fan bases created around their associated works, especially at the top end of the scale. The likes of Disney, Marvel and co. have long traditions of Cons (Comic Con, Star Wars Celebration, etc.) themed events and global, interactive gatherings where fans can share ideas, ask questions and meet with writers, actors, artists, crew, etc. demonstrating that this is a field ripe for exploration by smaller players. 

Several recognised, best-selling books, comics and artistic works have developed off the back of these interactions and become part of the “canon” - for example author Claudia Grey’s hugely successful novel Bloodlines for Star Wars.

These positive examples highlight the possibilities for expansion, growth and audience-building that happens when film distribution marketing stops operating in a silo, separate from the fan communities that develop around a work. 

By collaborating and communicating with the fans that promote them organically, distributors, and cinemas can play host to, develop ambassadors through, and bridge marketing gaps that prevent them from reaching these groups. 

While legitimate copyright questions arise when it comes to adapting existing worlds, the publishing world has worked through this, and the film studios are starting to develop connections - below are ways distributors and exhibitors can take advantage of these connections to take their marketing and brand development further.

Fan Collaboration to Create Brand Ambassadors and Co-Creators.

Fanfiction is one of the sincerest forms of flattery and free publicity a film can get. The dedication and hours it takes to write a story and to build a community of fans around it, demonstrate true commitment to a film or book and act as a powerful loopback channel to the original work. 

Fanfic writers don’t just post the story, they build Twitter and Tumblr platforms to promote it, building communities around their story through content marketing (dropping teasers, engaging in forum chats, commissioning artwork from other fans). It is its own marketing machine built around original work. Small businesses are even creating a wide variety of products based on fanfics, the “merch” spin-off. A fanfic industrial complex.

As a distributor, imagine leveraging writers and artists with the biggest followings to create collaborative works around your intellectual property (IP), then partnering with cinemas to show them. 

This collaborative approach can build bridges between distributors, fans, and audiences, opening new experiential marketing avenues. By analyzing fanfiction networks and channels, companies can use social listening tools to understand sentiment and perception, leading to more successful IP development.

Fanfiction as a social listening tool.

When Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker killed off main character Ben Solo / Kylo Ren in the sequel trilogy’s closing chapter, an entire fandom rose up in protest. Thousands of “fix-it” storylines appeared, with fans airing their frustrations directly at Disney on social platforms and developing their own comic books and Youtube video edits that rewrote the story’s ending (the “Bendemption”) to suit their desires.

Whilst cinemas and distribution companies are increasingly turning to data analytics, using audience analysis software and sophisticated test screening tools to gauge the likely popularity of a film’s tropes and themes, and determine the direction of marketing campaigns or spin-off series and merchandise, the fandom world remains untapped. 

If the same listening tactics can be applied to the wealth of data and information provided through fanfiction networks and channels, this could serve as an equally useful tool to understand audience sentiment and perception and adapt marketing or storytelling accordingly. Like a hyper-sophisticated version of the “choose your own adventure” book.

Web3 and NFTs are revolutionizing the fan/creator relationship. 

The Bored Ape Yacht Club is a massive fandom platform redefining the connection between fans and creators. 

At the start of 2023, BAYC developed the Dookey Dash, an play-to-earn, interactive video and gaming experience exclusive to BAYC members to unlock new NFTs. The game was teased through a video, which - when unlocked with a Sewer Pass that only BAYC members could claim - let users in to play the Dookey Dash game, gain high scores that allow them through to the next stage of play: The Summoning. 

This combination of rich storytelling, fan interaction, game play and video is just the tip of the iceberg for how web3 and NFTs can bridge the gap between fan communities and artists.

Music band Avenged Sevenfold uses NFT technology to build their fan community with a holistic approach, offering Deathbat holders (the band’s NFT) exclusive access to a Discord channel where fans can chat directly with the musicians, access backstage passes and meet and greets, hear new music first, and share in royalties down the line, aligning fan priorities with the artist’s and fostering a healthier connection.

How can cinemas benefit from playing in this arena?

Firstly, cinemas can be the physical space that brings together the distributor and the audience on collaborative, rather than single-directional terms: Distributor to consumer. 

Secondly, by using cinema systems such as ticketing or memberships, cinemas can engage directly with fans and producers beyond the merely transactional function of ticket purchasing and exhibition.

Imagine a scenario where a major cinema space hosts Con-fabulation, one of the largest fanfiction conventions in the US. The opportunities to bridge the world between writer and screen, fandom and film would be vast. 

Or a step further, cinemas owned by fans through NFT crowdfunding systems. Start with metaverse-based cinemas created to show the works of fans of a particular fandom in partnership with existing cinema groups to develop new, experimental work, or workshop original storylines as a sort of crowdsourced IP development project. This process is already beginning with film production as we’ve shared here, but why not also in the bricks and mortar space of cinemas themselves?

Producers are working with cinema ticketing systems to explore ways they can build relationships with fan communities. 

NFT ticketing is a potential funding source that can benefit from Web3 technology. Movie producers can create tickets and distribute them on a cinema or movie website, giving them more control over how they interact with their audience. This could include gated premieres, loyalty programs for future releases, and ticket-based access to other services. NFTs have the potential to transform the movie business by creating new access points.

The intersection of fandom, web3, and cinema presents a unique opportunity for creators, distributors, and audiences to collaborate and co-create in new and exciting ways. 

By leveraging the power of fanfiction, fan communities, and NFTs, filmmakers and producers can gain valuable insights into audience sentiment and preferences, while also fostering deeper connections with their fan base. 

Cinemas, as physical spaces for exhibition and collaboration, can play a key role in bridging the gap between creators and audiences, and in creating immersive and experiential marketing opportunities. 

As the film industry continues to evolve and embrace new technologies and platforms, the possibilities for fan engagement and participation are truly limitless, and we are only beginning to scratch the surface of what is possible.

If you’re interested in the topic of new technologies and cinema, watch our debate on Web3, NFTs, and the Future of Cinema

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