How has the Batman film franchise been sustained and developed?

Abstract

This study set out to discover what aspects of the production, circulation and consumption of the Batman films have been responsible for the sustained development of the Batman film franchise over time. Using a combination of theories from various scholars that look at the franchise business development; the brand’s textuality; the films’ marketing campaigns; past and contemporary media theory and marketing strategy, this essay has concluded that equal responsibility between all three parties has allowed Batman’s success. It determines that with a foundation of High Concept ‘blockbuster’ strategy established with the early films, the industry’s harnessing of consumer control and interactivity in the current new media trend has facilitated a reciprocal relationship between producers, promoters and fans that allows a flow of information, feeding into one another and ensuring the continued proliferation of the brand. Seemingly, this flow in centred by a strong core brand, anchored by the adaptable mythology and iconography, that unifies this artistically fragmented franchise and ultimately creates a trust-worthy brand that conducts a timeless and boundless fan following.

 

Scholars have studied film texts, fan activity, and the film industry to explore the relationships between films and fans (Jenkins, 1992, 2006), films and industry (Owczarski, 2008; Scivally, 2011), and industry and fans (Meehan, 2000; Gray, 2010). Largely overlooked, however, is the attempt to articulate the complex, dynamic relationship between all three. Will Brooker appears unique in his investigation of the Christopher Nolan Batman films and their relationship to both audiences and producers, and yet his study focuses on the textual implications created by marketing campaigns and parallel narratives produced since these recent films. However, the articulation of this relationship more broadly is also particularly important in understanding the success of the Batman franchise, as it is the information flows between the film, the fan and the industry that allows longevity. Therefore, attention must be paid not simply to how audiences read the text, but why they continue to engage with the franchise as loyal fans. Indeed, technological advancements have developed not only the way films are produced and promoted, but also how fans interact with the franchise. This, in turn, means that fan interaction feeds into film production, and fan agency feeds into the direction of the industry, and the business development of the franchise through explicit consumer demand and participation. In his study of paratexts Jonathan Gray speaks of how paratexts ‘lay down deeper roots and both encourage and allow a substantially larger time investment from audiences’ (Gray: 176). Certainly, the burgeoning of new media has allowed both studio and audience-produced ancillary elements of franchises to proliferate globally and build brand loyalty. As Kimberly Ann Owczarski notes: ‘a franchise film is not so much about consumers’ relationship to the film text itself, but the film’s interaction with other media products that promote it as part of a brand’ (Owczarski: 25). Therefore, although most academics focus on business development and profitability of film brands (including Owczarski), this essay will focus on marketing and fan complicity in order to argue that the dynamics of the three-way reciprocal relationship allows efficacious informational flows between the consumer, the producer and the business executive.

Time Warner’s power as a major conglomerate has enabled it to be at the forefront of new medias and technologies, specifically in terms of its marketing and promotions, making the longstanding Batman franchise perfect for analysing marketing strategies and consumer behaviour in reaction to new media developments. With reference to evidence from the Batman franchise marketing campaigns, fan activity and audience engagement from 1989 to present, this paper will investigate apparent trends that marketers have harnessed to promote the franchise and ensure its longevity. The study will begin from Time Warner’s acquisition of the Batman franchise, as it is at this point that global promotion went into hyper-drive and began its mainstream success, and will follow an exploration of the business structure of Timer Warner; Batman’s pre-sold success; branding and advertising; technological advancements; fan agency and complicity; and contemporary marketing strategy.

Key scholars in this area are Kimberly Ann Owczarski, Bruce Scivally, Will Brooker and Jonathan Gray. Owczarski has written on the subject of Batman in the conglomerate era, focussing on the business structure and development of the Time Warner media conglomerate in the investigation of the profitability of the Batman franchise. Bruce Scivally’s Billion Dollar Batman documents the production and marketing processes of the franchise, as well as textual analysis and primary source responses that supply valuable insight into audience reaction throughout the Batman timeline. While these scholars analyse the business development and profitability or textual interpretation, this essay will argue that the artistic direction, marketing strategy and audience engagement are all involved in sustaining the franchise. Instead of prioritising just corporate incentive or textual interpretation, this paper will evaluate each element responsible for building the brand and fan base over time. It will also include reference to the newest films and the most cutting-edge forms of marketing to update the analysis of these critics. Through this, and with reference to media scholars’ theories on contemporary media and marketing (Jenkins; Gray; Bedbury; Serazio), this essay will argue that today’s marketers are utilising knowledge of consumer behaviour and exploiting brand textuality in order to develop and sustain film franchise fan communities, and that, therefore, all three corners of the triangular model are responsible for Batman’s success.

 

It is first important to understand the platform upon which film franchises such as Batman have been able to launch and flourish. Since market deregulation in the Reagan Era the power of media conglomeration has allowed ubiquity across a multitude of channels and consequently the facilitation of widespread brand promotion. In his study of Hollywood business practice, Douglas Gomery notes how the end of the twentieth century saw the accumulation of substantial vertical power in the blanket acquisition of cinemas and television networks. He claims that Hollywood’s durable prosperity is dependent on the controlling of these markets (Gomery: 53). Indeed, such overarching power has allowed the monopolies to circulate ubiquitous messaging to audiences at all media touch-points. However, he omits the breadth of the ancillary industries that have been monopolised by the media conglomerates across both vertical and horizontal modes of production and distribution, including merchandising, product tie-ins, theme-park attractions, gaming and so on. While in the early stages this incorporated merchandising and sponsorships, it has gone on to include new media outlets such as home video and the Internet. Indeed, the strategy behind such media mergers was one of establishing synergy, branding, diversification and expansion into new technologies (Owczarski: 24) and transformed the media marketplace into a power that develops alongside technological advancement, the importance of which will be subsequently explored.

Time Warner’s ability to supply its internal markets depicts how conglomeration has consolidated media industries. These methods of synergy and expansion have consequently created an almighty power that has allowed Hollywood to now stand ‘atop the pop culture hierarchy, able with a single film to initiate a true widespread popular-culture phenomenon’ (Gomery: 74). Undoubtedly, Batman is one of the most recognisable pop-culture icons of this age, despite its contradictory revisions and not solely dependent on the film texts themselves. Robert A. Daly, chairman of Warner Bros. Inc. justifies this phenomenon by explaining that Batman is ‘not just a movie, it’s an industry’ (qtd. in Weinraub, 1992). Evidently, the prosperity of the Batman franchise is fundamentally due to the corporate structure that supports it. Yet, this aspect represents just a single corner of the franchise triangle, as without the support of the film texts and audience reception the corporate foundation would remain redundant.

 

Time Warner’s conglomerate power enables the exploitation of many things at their disposal. Warner Bros. Picture Group President, Jeff Robinov, observed that there was immense profit to be made in the production of big-budget blockbusters, and that this would be achievable with the use of properties that already held mass brand recognition; for Time Warner, this meant DC Comics (Barnes, 2010). Such pre-sold success is key to the development of the Batman franchise, and indeed relies on the cultural memory of the audience, the producers’ ability to play on this memory and marketers’ success at targeting audiences with varied impressions of Batman in order to complement rather than distort existing engagement with the franchise. Batman’s profuse multimedia repertoire extends back to 1939 when the character first appeared in DC Comics. Since then, Batman has featured as family-friendly hero in Tim Burton’s films, camp caricature in Joel Schumacher’s versions, and darkly gritty crusader in the Christopher Nolan trilogy, and is thus understood as ‘inherently multiple’ (Brooker: 151). In fact, Batman entered the consciousness of many through Adam West’s cartoonish 1960s TV series, before Time Warner’s film franchise began. In his many forms Batman has become embedded in popular culture as a household name, and has ensured a sustained global presence of the franchise. However, as Pearson and Uricchio warned after the release of Batman (1989), the contradictions between the various Batmen ‘may threaten both the integrity of the commodity form and the coherence of the fans’ lived experience of the character necessary to the Batman’s continued success’ (Urrichio and Pearson: 184). Indeed, the franchise lacks continuity across film, television, comic book, literary and gaming platforms, thus producing a fragmentation that could confuse and dilute fan following. Yet, Batman’s prevailing success in spite of this divergence marks how the franchise has avoided a disjointed narrative of conflicting interpretations because of the fact that each version of Batman has its own homology of artefacts that relate to it- paratexts that build each one into a fully-developed character, as will be later explored.

In fact, far from decentralising, Batman’s ability to appeal to a wide range of markets has proven beneficial to the promotion of the franchise. Scott Bedbury acknowledges the importance of such fragmentation in the expansion of a franchise, using the analogy of ‘spokes on a wheel’ to depict an assortment of ‘niche’ products that derive from a core brand. Such a process of mass customization, says Bedbury, ‘enables large brands to build and retain relationships with smaller subsets of a mass market while growing the entire brand franchise’ (Bedbury: 3). Time Warner have utilized such a system of niche targeting alongside mass saturation in order to sustain cult and individual associations with the franchise, while simultaneously expanding the brand into the mainstream. In this way, Time Warner adhere to Bedbury’s theory that ‘every brand has at its core a substance that gives it strength’ (Bedbury: 28); Batman’s fundamental template and iconography of the entrepreneurial, self-appointed hero with Bat-themed gadgets retains immediate cultural recognition, therefore giving the franchise leverage to produce niche ‘spokes’ while remaining true to the ‘core substance’. Indeed, Batman’s universal appeal is owed to his intrinsic human relatability. Christopher Nolan claims: ‘Batman is appealing because of his human nature. He’s not a guy with super powers, he’s relatable because he has suffered greatly and tried to channel that into something positive’ (qtd. in Fleming, 2008). This fundamental quality that lies at the heart of the character and the franchise is what allows Batman to be so widely and diversely appropriated. Such a system of sub-branding, then, is additionally efficacious for the fan-base, all of whom may indulge in their chosen way with Batman- be it with psychological realism or rubber-nippled suits. Similarly, this gives producers freedom to create new adaptations, depending on social and cultural trends, without necessarily destroying previous incarnations.

However, this latter point is contestable. The intention behind the re-branding of the Batman films has openly been one precisely of destroying previous incarnations. Indeed, the franchise consists of a melange of receptions from a range of varied audiences. To this extent, each reprise exists in a ‘turbulent intertextual wake’ (Gray: 131-2), thus requiring it to answer in some way to its conflicting texts under the same franchise. For instance, Jay Carr of The Boston Globe described Batman Forever (1995) as ‘a marketing strategy, designed to purge the franchise of the darkness and weirdness that made the first two films interesting, and transform it into something more mainstream-friendly’ (Carr: 59)- just as the darkness of Burton’s films sought to ‘purge’ the franchise of the 1960s TV portrayal. Warner Bros. Worldwide Consumer Product President, Dan Romanelli, acknowledged this strategy of the Schumacher film, saying: ‘we knew that people felt the last film was kind of dark. We really turned around the feeling about Batman as a movie franchise’ (qtd. in Busch: 14). The blatant attempt to ‘purge’ past filmic portrayals and to ‘mainstream’ the franchise was to threaten the brand’s longevity with poor reception to the ‘lighter’ Schumacher films, for the very reason of digressing from pre-sold success and loyal fan following in the search for profit.

Ten years later Warner Bros. ‘rebooted’ the franchise with Nolan’s Batman Begins (2005), used as a tactic to eradicate the unpopular Schumacher films and essentially re-write Batman into the public imagination and into the mainstream. In his discussion of the franchise’s intertextuality, Jonathan Gray notes how Time Warner and Batman Begins desperately needed to ‘apologize for Batman & Robin and erase any semblance of an intertextual connection’ (Gray: 132). Certainly, the audience and critical reception of the previous film had been so poor as to threaten any future of the franchise. Therefore, this pre-sold intertext was in fact a hindrance to the development of the brand.

Production President, Jeff Robinov and Warner Bros. President, Alan Horne were both concerned with reviving the franchise with Batman Begins, and therefore dramatically opposing Batman & Robin (1997) (Scivally: 328). Consequently they formulated an origin story to build the mythology up from scratch; a re-birth of the character and the franchise. The first section of the film depicts Wayne as the hedonistic playboy that has deviated from his father’s legacy. When he retreats to the mountains to undergo training and conditioning, it seems that this symbolic cleansing of his past sins and initiation into a new, pure life mirrors that of the past life of the Batman franchise outside the diegesis- for Batman and Robin was similarly superficial and materialistic (Brooker). Here is an instance in which audiences had to be won back because of the intertextual memory of the franchise, and in which the studio was required to delineate itself from such intertexts to regain credibility.

Such a strategy worked as prescribed, as James Christopher, reviewer for The Times of London remarks: ‘I honestly thought we’d seen the last of Batman when Tim Burton and Joel Schumacher hammered wooden stakes through the hammy franchise in the 1990s…Batman Begins is a clever surprise’ (Christopher, 2005). This time Warner Bros. were able to draw on pre-sold success of mythology by sticking closely to the DC Comics Batman universe (the gritty urban realism of O’Neil’s 1980s comics), while rejecting the world created by the previous films. Thus, Warner Bros. was able to draw on a specific cultural memory of Batman, overwriting another, in order to regain an original and loyal following. Nevertheless, even though the intention was to expel any association with the previous films, the legacy of the Schumacher films lives on for those who most identify with them. Ultimately, Time Warner got the best of both worlds; instead of destroying the brand, the Schumacher films are able to hold a niche audience, while allowing the proliferation of a new, more widely popular version. Indeed, Bedbury claims that while franchise products will come and go over time the brand remains at the centre, therefore the brand will be defined by the cumulative value of the products and experiences rather than the individual products and services (Bedbury: 16). Evidently, the pre-sold foundations of Batman’s core folklore has such a strength that it may be re-shaped and adapted in a myriad of ways without weakening the franchise.

The Batman mythos is clearly central to the franchise’s longevity. As Brooker remarks, ‘‘myth’ captures…the sense that this Batman belongs to everyone; to the public, to popular memory, to modern folk culture’ (Brooker, 2000: 330-2). Thus, the production of the mythology as well as public consciousness of it means there exists a reciprocal relationship between the fans and the producers, in which they are equally responsible to Batman’s survival. Brooker takes this point further, claiming that Batman, as a ‘cultural virus, a folk icon, a popular fable’, in fact exists independently of its creators and would survive without the continuation of the franchise (Brooker: 218-9). Although the discontinuation of Batman products would cease any brand expansion and lessen the mass impact of the franchise, it is undeniable that the vivid cultural memory of the various Batman incarnations allows fans to create their own Batman from all the pieces of the ‘cultural mosaic’ (Brooker: 219). The significance of fan agency and complicity will be later discussed, yet from the outset the importance of pre-sold success provides the foundation for the development of the Batman franchise, and requires the fan, producers and promoters to form, shape and exploit this cultural memory.

 

The most conspicuous means of brand development is that of branding and advertising, which manifest in distinctive ways with blockbuster franchises. The media landscape during the genesis of the Warner Bros. Batman film franchise in 1989 saw the burgeoning success of High Concept in Hollywood. This tradition helped shape the marketing strategy for the early Batman films, including saturation advertising with a continued high presence throughout print, trailers and television commercials, as well as ‘maintenance’ marketing such as merchandising, music and corporate partnerships. All of this was bound by strong, impressionable images that were transferable across all media. High Concept blockbusters relied on extensive media planning; Douglas Gomery notes that since the Jaws phenomenon Hollywood had been convinced that television should be the foundation of a blockbuster launch (Gomery: 73). Gomery credits studio executive Lew Wasserman with inventing the system that allowed the proliferation of Hollywood blockbusters by coupling mass-saturated advertising on prime-time television with saturation bookings in mall cineplexes (Gomery: 73-4). Expensive television campaigns paved the way for supplementary print, radio and outdoor advertisements, ensuring an optimum number of exposures for the target audience. With this strategy in mind, the $10 million marketing budget for Batman (1989) allowed ubiquitous advertising and denotes the efforts to hype it as a ‘must see’ film (Meehan: 30). Evidently, an understanding of consumer exposure allowed the studios to reach their audience at optimum frequency with powerful, unambiguous messages about the film.

The creatives in this type of advertising were vital to its effectiveness. Since the success of films such as Jaws, the use of strong, reproducible images, saturation campaigns and product tie-ins became common marketing practice (Wyatt: 117). Indeed, the Batman (1989) advertising campaign features the distinctive Batsymbol, making it instantly recognisable across all promotional mediums while simultaneously capturing the fundamental essence of the film as an action hero blockbuster. Producer, Jon Peters, reportedly ordered production designer, Anton Furst, to ‘design a logo that would tie all the merchandising together’ (Scivally: 187). To this extent, they were able to saturate more areas of consumer culture with memorable branding. Furst claimed that the Batsymbol stamp design ‘became a sort of trompe l’oeil, it became ambiguous, so you had to look twice. But it was definitely the Batsymbol, so there was no problem with people identifying it’ (Griffin and Masters: 170). Mass ubiquity of the stamp ensued in the months leading up to the film’s release; producer, Michael Uslan remembers that ‘[it was] like every fifth person either had a Batman hat or tee-shirt on… How many movies are advertised without even putting the name of the movie on the poster? The symbol was so iconic’ (qtd. in Scivally: 189).

Evidently, the Batsymbol became a charged signifier that was ingrained into the mass psyche, allowing viewers to recall various pre-sold elements that enhance their identification with the material: for instance, stars, remakes, sequels and series (Wyatt: 125). Indeed, the branding logo has been central to the unification of the franchise over time, supposedly transcending criticism, bearing Batman’s ‘widest cultural currency…unthreatened either by textual challenges to the Batman’s role…or by the centrifugal forces of commodification’ (Uricchio and Pearson: 211). In this way, the brand is seemingly independent from commodification, instead becoming the intellectual property of the fans. Consequently, it is clear that the fans, in their capacity to recognise the Batsymbol, play a vital role in unifying the brand across the implicit redesigns of the symbol across the various films.

The logo redesigns demonstrate that the Bat-logo has such resonance that it can be divided into sub-categories ‘in a dynamic of similarity and distinction’ (Brooker: 83); that is, of acknowledging that Batman is more an encompassing brand than an individual product, that he retains his core essence despite his multiplicity. Brooker uses the example of the Nolan ‘sub-brand’ that bears the shuriken bat design and distinctive colour scheme across the films’ products. This design differentiates the Nolan films from the previous editions, though even each of these are further divided into the rusty ocre of Batman Begins and the ice blue of The Dark Knight (Brooker: 85). Since the time of Brooker’s evaluation there has also been the grey palette of The Dark Knight Rises. Brooker’s survey results showed that fans were able to distinguish Batman Begins within the Batman matrix as ‘Nolan’s Batman’ (Brooker: 84). His argument here is that even with such diffusion of the Batman brand across its filmic career, it has posed no threat to fan comprehension or commercial achievement. He owes this to ‘the long-established themes of branding and sub-branding within the Batman diegesis’ (Brooker: 85). Indeed, looking at the Batman storyworld, saturated by Bat-products such as the Batmobile and the iconic utility belt, and Wayne Enterprises branding with the distinctive ‘W’ infiltrating the Gotham narrative, it is clear that the Bat-brand is equally perpetuated in the fictional world and is therefore reinforced in the consciousness of the audience.

Audience ability to consume their own Bat-products is almost a gateway into the diegesis, and therefore strengthens fan engagement. Consequently, Warner Bros.’s strategy was to reproduce consistent imagery across all Batman products to create a cumulative impression on the audience. Indeed, the film texts are merely a single component of the multimedia brand products, which, as is so important for franchise film, infiltrate every aspect of consumerized culture. Synergy across these media, merchandise and experiential platforms provides intertextuality that enriches consumer brand experience. Henry Jenkins asserts that marketers seek to mould brand reputations through an on-going process across a range of media touch-points to produce a cumulative impression of the brand, and hope to ‘expand consumers’ emotional, social and intellectual investments, with the goal of shaping consumption patterns’ (Jenkins, 2005: 63). This theory explains the importance of merchandising synergy that essentially acts as advertising across music, toy, gaming, home entertainment and clothing platforms. Meehan goes as far as to claim that corporate imperatives represent the principal criteria in the formation of Batman’s narratives and iconography, and merchandising and licensing intertextual products becomes necessary for a global Batman ‘mania’ (Meehan: 24). Indeed, in their attempt to create a successful brand, Time Warner encompass in their strategy saturation branding and advertising- typical of High Concept cinema- in order to create this commodified ‘mania’. Corporate partners have included high-profile brands such as MacDonald’s, Pepsi, NASCAR, Burger King, Domino’s Pizza, Dell and many more. This manic branding becomes ‘hype’, which Gray refers to as a public relations strategy that uses synergy across medias (Gray: 4-5). Indeed, hype itself creates meaning and value, with mass ubiquity creating trust and consequently brand loyalty.

However, Gray problematizes this cross-promotional synergy, citing the example of Domino’s ‘Gotham City Pizza’ campaign as an example of fragmentation rather than synthesis. Claiming that the partnership added nothing to The Dark Knight narrative, he found this paratext likely to diminish the text’s opportunity to reach a wider audience by expanding the storyworld (Gray: 210). Yet, while Gray makes note of the textual implications, this brand sponsorship was able to increase branding ubiquity, consequently feeding the franchise’s reputation. From a marketing perspective, any circulation of the brand name and image is likely to increase fan association and word-of-mouth promotion, regardless of textual concern. Ultimately, the durability of the Batman brand is sustained by the designers who create the imagery perpetuated across film texts and ‘Bat-mania’, the advertising executives that saturate mass media and commodity culture with these images, and the audience’s cultural memory and image-brand association.

 

This strategy of branding across all platforms links to Henry Jenkins’s theory of media convergence that has allowed brand circulation across old and new media touch-points that ‘collide’ to create a mass power that involves both the producer and the consumer (Jenkins, 2006: 2). Certainly, Time Warner were early adopters of this trend, using the 2000 AOL Time Warner merger to create the first major coalition of old and new media corporations (Owczarski: 157). Gerald Levin (then CEO) addressed stockholders in the 1999 Annual Report to emphasise that the merger would ‘achieve…what neither company could have achieved on its own: media-savvy, Internet-intelligent, customer-focused company with multiple revenue streams from branded subscriptions, advertising and commerce, and content’ (qtd. in Time Warner: 5). The Nolan rebooting of the franchise saw the business of Internet advertising growing in earnest. In 2004, $86 million was spent on Internet advertising by movie companies, which targeted the coveted 12-to-24-year-old audience (Friedman: A1). Warner Bros. then became the first Hollywood studio to sell and rent films via Facebook- an attempt to offset the diminishing DVD revenue (Fritz, 2011). This diversification into new media technologies and synergy across new branding opportunities is key to Time Warner’s power to so effectively circulate the Batman franchise. Additionally, this ‘Internet-intelligent, customer-focused’ strategy allowed the company to reach and sustain a wider audience with the development of paratexts.

Jonathan Gray evaluates the use of paratexts as intertextual agents that create and develop meaning of the (film) text. Instead of merely looking at the implications of textuality, this essay will explore how this, with the agency it gives the audience in the creation of meaning, increases engagement with the franchise, as well as increasing the significance of new medias and technologies in the proliferation of the brand. Unlike other scholars (Owczarski; Scivally), Gray evaluates synergy in terms of textuality rather than profit, regarding it as something that creates meaning as well as revenue. The observation of both perspectives will illuminate why fans stay loyal while providing means for the brand to expand. Teamed with the meaning derived from the film texts themselves, this will create a full picture of the triangular relationship responsible for Batman’s success.

Paratexts include advertisements, trailers, promotional videos and events, star interviews, merchandise, videogames, spin-offs, tie-ins, partnerships, DVD bonus material and more. It is the paratexts, as elements of marketing strategy, that encourage audiences to view the films and indulge in the franchise, and are therefore essential in the circulation of the brand. Whether they address casual viewers, for whom the paratext may be the only engagement with the franchise, or loyal fans that indulge in every Batman text, paratexts represent an essential part of the interpretive process, and therefore dictate the reputation of the brand. Providing a context within which the viewer interprets the film texts, they allow textual references to enhance association with the various Batmen by further building the storyworld, as well as providing interactivity in the fictional world’s diegetic space. Gray notes the importance of play in a storyworld to ‘gain more ownership of it, to personalize it’ (Gray: 187). Through this, fans are able to connect more with the brand and develop an emotional, unique attachment to the world created, while simultaneously securing a larger time investment. For example, one fan may play the Arkham City video game and read the Arkham Unhinged comic series, which follows a parallel narrative of the Arkham Asylum inmates. Meanwhile another fan may watch the blockbusters and the talk-show circuits that feature the starring actors speaking about their characters and the films. Each fan will have a distinctive engagement that dictates a unique emotional connection. This concept of generating emotional capital will also later be explored with the discussion of experiential marketing as a paratext.

The synergy of paratexts across medias is an example of how convergence culture is producing a ‘complex set of viewing environments and modes of interaction that nurture the cult experience, fan culture and the worship of the text’ (Ndalianis: 185). Undeniably, Batman’s status as a cult object justifies the franchise’s devoted following and continued success, rendering a ‘cult experience’ vital to its survival. Therefore, spin-off Batman merchandise, comic books, celebrity and brand partnerships and videogames such as Arkum series create a kind of 360 degree storytelling environment that fully immerses the audience. Umberto Eco corroborates this point, writing: ‘in order to transform a work into a cult object one must be able to break, dislocate, unhinge it so that one can remember only parts of it, irrespective of their original relationship with the whole’ (Eco: 197-8). This highlights Time Warner’s need to facilitate a smooth flow of textuality and meaning between the film text and the paratexts, the effectiveness of which has allowed extended, immersive fan engagement.

P. David Marshall notes how DVD is able to produce this 360 storytelling effect, with its ability to ‘encircle, entice and deepen the significance of the film for the audience’ (Marshall: 69). DVD bonus material can include: trailers, documentaries, interviews, ads for merchandise and videogames etc., thus allowing the viewer to engage with the text in a variety of ways and further building the fictional world along with other paratexts. Indeed, film text interaction is merely one metric of fan engagement with the franchise, and as Charles Acland observes, ‘the influence of individual texts can be truly gauged only via cross-media scrutiny’ (Acland: 65). Certainly, viewers have their own personal experience with the material they are exposed to, which can be made up of any amalgamation of texts and paratexts. Thus individuals will construct their own meaning based on a personal hierarchy of textual proliferations. This links to Roland Barthes’s theory of the death of the author, which claims that only the reader creates meaning (Barthes: 78-9). Although this ostensibly has the potential to fragment this already diverse franchise with varied readings, it seems that the diversity of paratexts and readings is essentially what makes the franchise so adaptable and relatable to such a multifarious audience. Julia Kristeva writes that ‘any text is constructed as a mosaic of quotations’ (Kristeva: 66); in this case a composite of various engagements with Batman promotional paratexts, film texts and fan activity produces long-term, personalised compound relationships between fans and the franchise.

While other scholars focus on the profitability of promotion (Owczarski; Scivally), this section has found that promotional paratexts denote not only the commercial promotion of the core film texts, but also the enhancing of their textuality. Therefore, paratexts play a fundamental role in both the monetary value and the popularity of the film texts, a balance that grants the franchise extended success. Evidently this success depends on the quality of the film texts, the promoters that design the paratexts, and the fans who piece together their own Batman ‘mosaic’ from the assortment of branded texts.

 

Fans clearly represent one of the vital components that keep the film franchise alive and thriving. Jenkins highlights this joint relationship, stating that ‘far from marginal, fans are the central players in a courtship dance between consumers and marketers’ (Jenkins, 2006: 73). However, he excludes the importance of the textual producers in this courtship. This section will draw on elements of Jenkins’s theories to argue that the role of the fan is essential to both the marketing and production of the film texts, which create a recipe for such a successful, long-standing franchise.

In the advent of new media, the Internet has become a platform for consumer participation. Jenkins observes how this ‘participatory culture’ has existed below the radar, yet ‘the Web has pushed that hidden layer of cultural activity into the foreground, forcing the media industries to confront its implications for their commercial interests’ (Jenkins, 2006: 137). Ultimately, this fan agency and interactivity with the media industry has affected the textual production and consequently allowed prolonged brand loyalty by satisfying consumer needs.

Batman fans’ use of the Internet began in earnest in 1995 when Time Warner launched the first website for a single film alongside Batman Forever. It became a site for fans to voice their thoughts and concerns, which undoubtedly affected the way the films were marketed. Thus the power of the consumer began to grow, providing them with a more direct relationship to the producers and ultimately more responsibility in the development of the brand. The most vocal criticism was certainly that of the Schumacher films, which spawned the ‘Anti-Schumacher Site’, the ‘Anti-Schumacher Society’ and ‘Bring Me the Head of Joel Schumacher’. With the burgeoning of the Internet in the late 1990s, such discontent was universally visible and therefore inescapable; thus determines the hiring of Christopher Nolan to transform this sentiment towards the franchise. Independent filmmaker Kevin Smith remarks: ‘the online audience is…actively fucking involved in the Batman movie Chris Nolan is making. That’s their movie, man…Whether it’s because they’ve read a lot of press that says these people can sway an opening, or whether by writing something in cyberspace, they have a sense of authorship’ (qtd. in Hayes and Bing: 354-355). In this sense, participatory culture provides fan agency. As new media therefore provides a site for ‘consumer activism’ (Jenkins, 2006: 278), fans become complicit in the construction of the franchise with their voiced opinions on the direction of the Batman films. Owczarski states how ‘focus groups, fan conventions and online sites like Ain’t it Cool News have an impact on what emerges on screen’ (Owczarski: 341). Agreeably, such conspicuous commentary is able to provide a blueprint for Warner Bros. to follow in order to continually please its audience.

Christina Spurgeon notices a transition from ‘mass media to the new media of mass conversation’ (Spurgeon: 2). Indeed, since the Web entered the fandom equation after the first two films, the public have had access to pre-production information, pre-release press, and more ability to impact the direction of the franchise (Owczarski: 348), while their ability to communicate amongst themselves has meant word-of-mouth has never been more vital to brand success. The Internet has facilitated the formation of ‘brand communities’ that share peer-to-peer information, and are thus becoming a powerful force in the marketplace. Time Warner, acknowledging this ‘ecology of memes’ causing a bottom-up tectonic shift and attempting to capitalize it from the top down (Serazio: 23), are now obliged to cultivate brand loyalties by responding to fan demand in the attempt to establish purchasing habits. Meehan notes negative reactions to Batman casting were featured on the first page of the Wall Street Journal along with assurances that content would be modified to secure fan attendance (Meehan: 27). Later, fans posted positive reactions to Christian Bale’s casting on sites such as Superherohype.com and Joblo.com, while speculations over Batman Begins casting, characters, plot and production designs were daily updated on sites like Ain’t It Cool News, Batman on Film, Dark Horizons, and Chud (Dunkley and Bing: 71). Writing earlier in 1992, Jenkins notes: ‘fans lack direct access to the means of commercial cultural production and have only the most limited resources with which to influence entertainment industry’s decisions…Within the cultural economy, fans are peasants, not proprietors’ (Jenkins, 1992: 26). Since then, social media has given fans agency and status, and thus ensured the longevity of the franchise by creating a level playing field between producers and consumers, mediated through the media industry.

 

Fan-generated content such as criticism, reviews, fan fiction, films, songs, art, spoilers, recaps, wikis, websites, and campaigns depict how audiences engage with the franchise. In this way each are important elements of word-of-mouth promotion, given authority by their grassroots origin. Again we are witness to the democratising of the media industry, in which scholars such as Pierre Levy mark how the distinction between consumers and producers, spectators and creators will ‘blend to form a ‘circuit’’ (Levy: 58). This circuit (which this essay argues includes the media industry as integral mediators) has meant that responsibility for the franchise’s success has become shared between the three parties. Although Gray notes that industry-produced paratexts seek to monitor textual interpretations by enforcing their own readings of the film texts (Gray: 79), fan creative freedom is clearly vital for this circuit to blend smoothly. Certainly, while the industry at times attempts to protect itself from the rise of ‘prosumerism’ by policing its textual parameters, Constance Penley described fan activity as giving a text a deep massage that might hurt but is best for the long run (Penley: 3). In other words, relinquishing intellectual property saves the brand from dictating to their audience; fan engagement, now more visible, creative and purposeful with new media, helps to bring brand longevity by enabling personalisation and appropriation, which allows the brand to adapt through time and place.

Michel de Certeau used the term ‘poaching’ as a metaphor the complex nature of cultural consumption. He claimed that ‘readers are travellers; they move across lands belonging to someone else, like nomads poaching their way across fields they did not write, despoiling the wealth of Egypt to enjoy it themselves’ (de Certeau, 1984: 174). In participatory culture, fans are finding new, multimedia forums to ‘poach’ popular culture narratives such as Batman and constructing their own works that somehow voice their personal concerns, which are otherwise neglected by mass media. Indeed, Jenkins uses de Certeau’s analogy to highlight how popular narratives must be deconstructed and adapted by individual viewers or communities so as to better speak to their cultural interests and desires (Jenkins, 1992: 24), which may often be unrealised by the original text. Indeed, with such cult objects as Batman there exists an encyclopaedic fascination with the storyworld that entices fans, encouraging them to create their own subtext. As will be subsequently discussed in the study of experiential marketing, this intrigue enables a deeper connection and commitment to the personalised storyworld of the franchise.

Writing in 1990, Michael Budd et al. claimed that nomadic readers ‘may actually be powerless and dependent’, with ‘a subjectivity that must, perforce, wander here, wander there, as the media spotlight beckons’ (Budd, Entman, Steinman: 176). Yet the rise of new media has allowed popular culture readers more autonomy with their ability to ‘poach’ popular narratives made available across our networked society. Certainly, the Internet has provided an apt forum for multimedia realisations of Batman, allowing fans to create and circulate their own multimedia products as well as discussion across the global Bat-fan community. Matt Hills describes this fan appropriation as ‘an act of final consumption’, which transforms the public value of the text into a private one (Hills: 35). Indeed, as earlier discussed regarding Barthes’s ‘death of the author’, this ‘final consumption’ of Batman rests on each fan’s individual cultural memory of the franchise. In this way, fan-generated content may be viewed as a form of audience research by depicting how the viewers are making sense of the texts. Therefore, the proliferation of the franchise relies on the adaptability of Batman mythology, fan ability to mould or personalise Batman content, and the studio’s efficiency in reading and responding to fan content as market research.

 

The abundance of new media interaction with fans has forced marketers to adapt marketing strategy to incorporate immersive, sensory experiences that consumers now demand for their attention. Indeed, new media technologies- including computers, mobile phones and tablets- have transformed storytelling into a transmedia process that requires an active audience to construct meaning. The saturation of new media into today’s world has created what Manuel Castells called the ‘networked society’, in which spatio-temporal boundaries are broken down and informational technology becomes the basis of our social structures and ‘the processes of production, experience, power and culture’ (Castells, 2000: 500). Essentially, new media has changed the way we live our lives, and therefore demands marketing strategies to adapt to this social trend. As Mark Deuze observes: ‘technology is the skeleton around which advertising has formed’ (Deuze: 124). Thus, in this era of new media, strategies that provide consumers with control and complicity are most effective, including multi-device, viral, transmedia, guerrilla, and experiential marketing. Each of these tactics requires a process of interactivity and collaboration between marketers and consumers, ‘with the marketer helping the consumer to buy and the consumer helping the marketer to sell’ (Peppers: 12), notwithstanding the films as textual roots. Together these three parties create an entity that facilitates the extended promotion of franchise film.

Angela Ndalianis has written about the sensory experience of interactive and experiential marketing, though while she focuses on the consumer experience this section will incorporate the industrial perspective to understand how these new forms of sensory engagement with the franchise have enabled an extended following. Along with theories of Michael Serazio on guerrilla marketing, this section will argue that the relationship between the industry, the fan experience and the filmic text creates a sustainable franchise.

Ndalianis notes contemporary marketers’ exploitation of the ‘Experience Economy’, which involves the use of multimedia networks across time and space with the goal of engaging in sensory play (Ndalianis: 165). Indeed, with emphasis now on consumer control and complicity, there is a demand for immersive, multisensory interaction that produces an emotional response and connection to the brand that leads to long-term loyalty. As Brian Lonsway puts it, the Experience Economy is ‘literally an economy of branded emotion’ (Lonsway: 1). As the dictatorial flows of traditional media become replaced with the two-way dialogue of new media, there is a greater demand for experience-based marketing, and Ndalianis observes how the strategies of the Experience Economy have adopted theatricality and performativity within the public sphere (Ndalianis: 192), which allow consumers to become sensorially and emotionally involved actors in the marketing campaign.

Evidently, fans are complicit in the creation of their brand experience, and the Why So Serious? campaign perfectly exemplifies this joint relationship at work. This viral campaign for The Dark Knight involved active fan participation both on the Web and in the physical city space, using their collective intelligence as a community of fans to unravel clues. Participants were invited to partake in the role-play election of Harvey Dent and could choose to support Dent by subscribing to WeBelieveInHarveyDent.com, while others followed the Joker on WhySoSerious.com. They were contacted via telephone, the Internet, television and in public spaces, each involving elements of dramatic play. Crowds showed up to meeting points in their thousands sporting branded paraphernalia. Henrik Ornebring argues that the primary purpose of such alternate reality games ‘is not to create new opportunities for interaction, networking and audience participation in mediated narratives, but simply to create an enjoyable experience that will build the franchise brand in the minds of media audiences’ (Ornebring: 449-50). Certainly, the game experience is a product in itself, a sensory memory that involves the participants in the construction of personalised meaning and ultimately an emotional connection to the brand. From the perspective of the participant it is simply an interactive, pleasurable activity. Indeed, this trend of growing consumer control has led to guerrilla marketing techniques, which denotes the attempt to inconspicuously surround the empowered, autonomous subject. Michael Serazio notes that ‘advertising based on that invitation (i.e. pull) rather than interruption (push) presumes to flatter the capacities of a free subject more conspicuously and then utilizes subsequent contributions to more effectively and individually tailor a message to that subject’ (Serazio: 3). Thus, the alternate reality game was strategically adapted to participatory culture logic by fragmenting a narrative that fans must decipher. The marketers (in this case 42 Entertainment) sought to create a storyworld outside of the film text, which the fans were complicit in constructing through the act of discovery. Serazio observes that discovery, ‘in Foucauldian terms, [is] a mode of governance set upon an active subject, not a form of domination that has stereotypically defined the exercise of power’ (Serazio: 4). As such, instead of the advertisers taking on the didactic dictatorial approach of traditional media, they seek ‘to stage a process of commercial discovery, engineer participation’ (Serazio: 16) that ultimately produces a more natural and therefore emotionally powerful bond with the brand. As co-producers of this complex storyworld, Why So Serious? participants developed an encyclopaedia interest that produces further curiosity, further exploration, and ultimately a deeper attachment to the franchise. Ndalianis corroborates this, finding that the enjoyment of such activities stems from a ‘meta-appreciation’ of the fiction (Ndalianis: 170). That is, with an active, multisensory role in the unfolding of the narrative, the participants feel part of the story and therefore develop deeper appreciation for not just the film texts, but the franchise as a whole. Indeed, as Batman steps into the real-world, fans are so intellectually and sensorially involved that they forget that the game is a marketing technique with the objective of selling a product, which therefore allows a more natural, trusting and emotional brand loyalty.

Kevin Roberts, CEO Worldwide of Saatchi & Saatchi, labels these connections ‘lovemarks’ and argues that successful brands will command ‘love’ as well as ‘respect’ of consumers. In 2004 he advised marketers to develop multisensory experiences for consumers, as only a small amount of them will make purchase decisions based on rational criteria (Roberts: 170). This concept of building emotional capital certainly explains the effectiveness of the Batman franchise, particularly the Why So Serious? campaign: 42 Entertainment claim that ‘playing out the events of Gotham City in real time, the [alternate reality game] provided the opportunity to explore the strong characters, themes and backdrop of the world’ (AlternateRealityBranding.com, 2008). For example, participants were invited to ‘Write and perform a ‘Take Back Gotham’ song; Turn your own car into a ‘Dentmobile’; Arrange a Dent parade down Main Street’ (qtd. in Ndalianis: 52). Involving the fans in the textual construction and inviting them to leave their mark on the Batman mythology gives the fans the autonomy they now demand, as well as gifting them Batman as intellectual property. Stephen Dinehart notes that transmedial play is able to decentralise authorship (Dinehart, 2008). Undoubtedly, this creative freedom in play has produced a dual authorship between producers and consumers. This indicates that the fans have an intellectual stake in the franchise, which creates a deeper attachment and therefore a more sustainable continuation of the brand. Therefore, while the film text represents the product of initial interest, and the marketing invites a profounder engagement with the franchise using ‘a regime of governance that accommodates yet structures participatory agency’ (Serazio: 2), it is the fans that complete this sustainable model with their intellectual and emotional investment in both the text and promotion.

 

It is therefore conclusive that emotional attachment is vital to the timelessness of the Batman franchise. This is achieved through the creative freedom of play and adaptation, facilitated by new media technologies and interactive promotion. At its core, Batman’s versatile mythology allows this diversification and adaptability that enables the franchise to cross through time and space and continue throughout the generations, defying fragmentation by relying on individual fan loyalties. This sustainable model is structured on an equilibrium between the producers of Batman texts, the marketers, and the fans, who rely on one another for informational flows and proliferating forums to not only sustain but expand the brand throughout networked society. Only with the participation and exploitation of each of these parties has Batman survived and thrived over time. To progress this study would be to conduct empirical and ethnographic quantitative and qualitative research of fan engagement[1] with the franchise alongside an evaluation of Time Warner’s production and marketing strategy for Batman. Combined with conclusions drawn in this paper, such research would determine exact examples of informational flows between the parties involved that have resulted in the enhanced proliferation of the brand, and ultimately provide explicit evidence for how the franchise is effectively sustained and developed by the media triangle.

 

Cited Sources:

Acland, C. (2003). Screen traffic. 1st ed. Durham: Duke University Press.

Alternaterealitybranding.com, (2008). 42 Entertainment 2008. [online] Available at: http://www.alternaterealitybranding.com/tdk_sxsw/ [Accessed 27 Apr. 2014].

Barnes, B. (2010). A Studio Head Slowly Alters the ‘Warner Way’. [online] Nytimes.com. Available at: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/02/10/business/media/10warner.html?scp=405&sq=batman&st=nyt [Accessed 27 Apr. 2014].

Barthes, Roland. (1977). ‘From Work to Text’, Image/Music/Text, trans. Stephen Heath. Glasgow: Fontana-Collins.

Bedbury, S. and Fenichell, S. (2002). A new brand world. 1st ed. New York: Viking.

Budd, M., Entman, R. and Steinman, C. (1990). The affirmative character of US cultural studies.Critical Studies in Media Communication, 7(2), pp.169–184.

Busch, A. (1995). Batman Lightens Up. Daily Variety, p.14.

Brooker, W. (2012). Hunting the Dark Knight. 1st ed. London: I.B. Tauris.

Carr, J. (1995). Wholly Hollywood, Batman! Stepping Out of the Stylish Shadows, Caped Crusader Goes Commercial. The Boston Globe, p.59.

Castells, Manuel. (2000). The Rise of the Networked Society, 2nd ed. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers.

de Certeau, Michel. (1984), The Practice of Everyday Life, trans. Steven F. Rendall. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Christopher, J. (2005). Batman Begins. The London Times.

Deuze, Mark. (2007). Media Work. Cambridge: Polity.

Dinehart, S. (2008). Transmedial Play: cognitive and cross-platform narrative | The Narrative Design Explorer™. [online] Narrativedesign.org. Available at: http://narrativedesign.org/2008/05/transmedial-play-cognitive-and-cross-platform-narrative/ [Accessed 27 Apr. 2014].

Dunkley, C. and Bing, J. (2003). …WB Casts Next Caped Crusader. Daily Variety, p.71.

Eco, Umberto. (1986). Travels in Hyperreality. London: Picador, pp 197-8.

Fleming, M. (2008). The Groundbreakers: Chris Nolan. Daily Variety, p.A30.

Foucault, Michel. (1979). The History of Sexuality: Volume 1: An Introduction. London: Penguin.

Friedman, W. (2005). Dollars Go Digital: Emerging Platforms Like the Net Growing the Fastest.Daily Variety, p.A1.

Fritz, B. (2011). First movie on Facebook: Warner Bros.’ ‘The Dark Knight’. [online] Latimesblogs.latimes.com. Available at: http://latimesblogs.latimes.com/entertainmentnewsbuzz/2011/03/the-dark-knight-first-movie-available-on-facebook.html [Accessed 27 Apr. 2014].

Gomery, Douglas. (2003). ‘Industrial Analysis and Practice’ in Stringer, Julian (ed.) Movie Blockbuster. London: Routledge.

Gray, Jonathan. (2010). Show Sold Separately: Promos, Spoilers, and Other Media Paratexts. New York: New York University Press.

Griffin, N. and Masters, K. (1996). Hit and run. 1st ed. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Hills, Matt. (2002). Fan Cultures. New York: Routledge.

Iampolski, Michael. (1998). The Memory of Tiresias: Intertextuality and Film, trans. Harsha Ram. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Jenkins, H. (2006). Convergence culture. New York: New York University Press.

Jenkins, H. (1992). Textual poachers. New York: Routledge.

Kristeva, Julia. (1980). Desire in Language: A Semiotic Approach to Literature and Art, trans. Thomas Gora et al., ed. Leon Roudiez. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.

Levy, Pierre. (1997). Collective Intelligence: Mankind’s Emerging World in Cyberspace. Cambridge, Mass.: Perseus Books.

Lonsway, Brian. (2009). Making Leisure Work: Architecture and the Experience Economy. New York: Routledge.

Marshall, P. David. 2000. ‘The New Intertextual Commodity,’ in Dan Harris ed., The New Media Book. London: British Film Institute.

Meehan, E. (2000). ”Holy Commodity Fetish, Batman!’: Political Economy Of a Commercial Intertext. The Film Studies Reader, pp.23-33.

Ndalianis, Angela. (2012). The Horror Sensorium: Media and the Senses. Australia: McFarland Pub.

Ornebring, Henrik. (2007). ‘Alternate Reality Gaming and Convergence Culture: The Case of Alias,’ International Journal of Cultural Studies 10.4: pp 449-50.

Owczarski, K. (2008). Batman, Time Warner, and Franchise Filmmaking in the Conglomerate Era. Ph.D. University of Texas.

Penley, Constance. (1997). NASA/TREK: Popular Science and Sex in America. London: Verso.

Peppers, D. (1999). Introduction. In: S. Gordon, ed., Permission Marketing: Turning Strangers into Friends and Friends into Consumers, 1st ed. New York: Simon and Schuster, p.12.

Roberts, Kevin. (2004). Lovemarks: The Future Beyond Brands New York: Power House Books.

Scivally, B. (2011). Billion dollar Batman. 1st ed. Wilmette, IL: Henry Gray.

Serazio, Michael. (2013). Your Ad Here: The Cool Sell of Guerrilla Marketing. New York: New York University Press.

Spurgeon, Christina. (2008). Advertising and New Media. London: Routledge.

Time Warner, (1999). Annual Time Warner Report.

Uricchio, W. and Pearson, R. (1991) ‘I’m not fooled by that cheap disguise’, in R. Pearson and W. Uricchio (eds) The Many Lives of the Batman. pp. 182-213. New York: Routledge.

Weinraub, B. (1992). Two at the Wheel of the Batmobile. The New York Times, p.A5.

 

Films:

  1. Batman. (1989). [DVD] USA: Tim Burton.

Batman Returns. (1992). [DVD] USA: Tim Burton.

Batman Forever. (1995). [DVD] USA: Joel Schumacher.

Batman & Robin. (1997). [DVD] USA: Joel Schumacher.

Batman Begins. (2005). [DVD]: Christopher Nolan.

The Dark Knight. (2008). [DVD]: Christopher Nolan.

The Dark Knight Rises. (2012). [DVD]: Christopher Nolan.

 

[1] See: Brooker, Hunting the Dark Knight Survey, 2010.

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Exploring Objectivity in Docufiction Filmmaking through the Concept of Hybridity.

As a result of ever-advancing new medias and technologies (from the development of the portable camera and synchronised sound to contemporary self-publishing) and in the advent of postmodernity, reflexive awareness of documentary modes of production have become part of the discourse in factual representation. Documentary has been perceived as fundamentally objective; ‘truth-telling- benign in intention, beneficial in effect, and demonstrably real’ witha certain cachet and a claim to artistic purity’ (Lipkin et al., 2006: 12). Yet, as film production becomes more conspicuous it provokes questions of objectivity in the search for ‘truth’ on screen. Mock-documentary, then, is a symptom of this growing viewer consciousness of documentary form, and is able to explore and provide commentary for the issues raised regarding the relationship between the filmmaker and the subject with its use of reflexivity. Using the practical research of our short film, Firebox (Forder, Jennings, Stead, 2014), this essay will reveal how hybridity[1] is particularly interesting in this experimentation, as it deploys contrasting techniques to bring attention to the production process in order to experiment with how the audience’s interpretive process may change. In order to articulate how Firebox explores objectivity, this essay will establish that, with the amalgamation of Jane Roscoe and Craig Hight’s three ‘degrees of mock-documentary’, alongside observational techniques from the cinéma vérité tradition, and with the implementation of ethnoficition research and performance strategies, Firebox becomes a dense hybrid that distances the audience to a critical, and potentially more objective position.

 

Mock-documentary is an extremely complex form that provokes equally complex, layered readings from its viewers. Indeed, its reflexivity encourages questions of authorship as well as readership; in its subversion of the Classic Objective Argument, the form is able to expose the crisis of representation, while familiarising audiences with the discourses surrounding the ethics of ‘truthful’ documentary representation. This ‘knowing’ audience is essential for critiques to be absorbed, with their ability to distinguish between fact and fiction allowing them to engage with the critical reflexivity and ‘inherent playfulness’ of the form (Lipkin et al., 2006: 17) that challenges common-sense notions of representation, and experiments with ideas of perception and interpretation.

Although these texts are fictional, which in itself is a deliberate manoeuvre away from reality, Michelle Citron argues that fiction actually ‘allows for more authenticity by giving voice to that which we both consciously and unconsciously know. Yet at the same time, it works by deception, which ironically, by opening up a space of safety, may ultimately lead to honesty and truth’ (Citron, 1999: 282). Thus, the fictional nature of mock-documentary allows for the satirising of the proliferation of ‘reality’ production, which Lipkin, Paget and Roscoe observe is increasingly welcomed by audiences in the advent of ‘Reality TV’ (Lipkin et al., 2006: 24). The more sophisticated fusing of fiction and non-fiction forms, therefore, allows experimentation with this search for ‘honesty and truth’, as will be subsequently discussed in relation to Firebox and the non-fiction research process involved.

 

The aim of our short film, Firebox, was to critique the distorted and unethical nature of media representation. Therefore, using a hybrid of aesthetic techniques we intend to draw attention to the superficiality of this kind representation by contrasting what the fictional filmmakers want the audience to see with behind-the-scenes view of the production process and the conflicting motives at play. We used obvious reflexivity, with one of the crew members, Lily, being complicit in the action, in order to break the illusion of the popular culture representation, as well as to parody the form with moments of naturalistic awkwardness and dramatic irony that contrast with the slick images of the stereotypical tabloid-style video opening. To add authenticity that adheres to the documentary aesthetic in addition to increasing realism we used non-actors and on-location shooting, meaning a lot of the footage is observational filming of training sessions that we have edited into the narrative, in addition to improvised scenes that we devised in collaboration with the boxers themselves. Ultimately, by combining varied techniques in our creative approach we hoped to produce a less cohesive film that calls into question audience identification with the documentary form and its perceived objectivity.

 

Roscoe and Hight propose three degrees of mock-documentaries: parody, critique and deconstruction (Roscoe and Hight, 1988). Firebox amalgamates elements of each degree in order to create a compound that most effectively draws attention to the issue of objectivity. The paradoxical complexity of this compound distances the audience, with similar intention to that of Bertolt Brecht’s alienation technique, verfremdungseffekt (Brecht, 1964). Indeed, it is through the fragmenting hybridity of aesthetics that alienates the audience from the narrative in order for them to establish an objective, critical perspective. As in Epic Theatre, some mock-documentaries, including Firebox, juxtapose action, dialogue and commentary to force the audience to make moral judgments (in this case about authorial objectivity). This strategy adheres to post-structuralist claims that textual meaning is generated through interaction with an audience. As Edward Said claims: ‘the reader is a full participant in the production of meaning, being obliged as a moral thing to act, to produce some sense’ (Said, 1983: 41). Therefore, the hyperconsciousness of some mock-documentary demands that the viewer reflect on the author’s and their own subjectivity in the interpretive process, especially in this less cohesive hybrid form which seeks to break empathetic bias to certain characters.

Firstly, Firebox’s satirical presentation of tabloid-style non-fiction programming borrows techniques from parody mock-documentaries. While parody mock-documentaries bear less explicit critique of the form itself, they utilize documentary aesthetics to emphasise comedic elements, often using the sober form to contrast with an absurd subject. For example, The Office (2001-2003) is a perfect example of documentary parody, using numerous signifying documentary conventions such as shaky camera footage, quick zooms, soft-focus shots, obstructed views and eye contact with the camera, all giving the impression of spontaneous ‘on-location’ action . It is structured as a typical television documentary with the use of ‘talking-head’ interviews, which audiences are taught to read as a non-fiction convention. Similarly, Firebox includes the use of talking-head interviews against symbolically establishing backgrounds (for instance boxing competition photographs to show the successes of the boxer), as well as coded ‘imperfections’ of focus, microphone distortion and sight of the film crew in certain shots to create a sense of authenticity and realism. By playing with the audience’s screen literacy, The Office and Firebox both challenge audience expectation of reality. Indeed, ‘the audience must be a ‘knowing’ audiences that recognises the object of the parody to be able to access critiques on offer’ (Lipkin et al., 2006: 24). To this extent, these films rely on the audience’s ability to recognise documentary aesthetic conventions in order to comprehend, in these cases, the humour that derives from the contrast between the (perceived) rationality of the form and the absurdity of the subject, which ultimately arouses questions of form and content of ‘realistic’ documentary portrayal.

 

While the parody in mock-documentaries such as The Office does not necessarily make explicit criticisms of the form (instead using the conventions for comedic purposes), Firebox also uses its parodic humour to critique media practices themselves. ‘Critique’ mock-documentaries, according to Roscoe and Hight, are those that address an ‘underlying documentary agenda’ (Roscoe and Hight, 1988: 236), and which problematise the appropriation of documentary codes and conventions in media representation (Roscoe and Hight, 1988: 235). This acknowledgment of implicit subjectivity in documentary production means that critique mock-documentaries ‘engage more critically in the form’s inherent reflexivity towards factual discourse’ (Lipkin et al., 2006: 16-17). In Firebox this is achieved through the tensions presented between the subjects (members of the boxing gym) and the filmmakers (represented in the diegesis by one of our team), who strive to ascertain scandal and add incongruous subtext to the images. For example, Lily’s voice-over illustrates a deliberately melodramatic and falsified narrative that seeks to add drama to the fairly sober action. These contradictions between the producers and the subjects dramatises the inherent conflicting intentions or subjectivities and undermine ‘the pretence that a documentary filmmaker necessarily adopts a neutral and non-interventionist stance towards his/her subject’ (Roscoe and Hight, 1988: 236). This is exemplified when Lily attempts to construct ostensibly ‘natural’ scenes in the gym.

Peter Watkins’s Culloden (1964) similarly critiques the inherent bias of representation. By presenting documentary-style interviews at the time of the Battle of Culloden in 1746, Watkins aims to reveal the constructedness of typical historical melodramas to emphasise the subjectivity of historical documentation. Watkins negotiates the ‘alienation coefficient’ (Lajtha, 1981: 9); similarly, Firebox does not adhere exclusively to Brechtian alienation techniques to achieve critical commentary, instead, like Culloden, allowing emotional identification with the characters, since a complete lack of empathy ‘can distance us to the point where we dismiss or lose sight of the essential issues’ (Lajtha, 1981: 10). In both cases this was achieved through improvisation that generated emotional involvement through the performers’ real connections to the action (some of the performers are descendants of real soldiers from the Battle of Culloden). Yet, the intention was not realism. Instead the emphasis on authorial bias is brought to the fore in Culloden through the presentation of the journalistic Classic Objective Argument, in which various members of each side are interviewed by a BBC-style news reporter. This generic form relies on expositional, interactive and observational modes of representation (Nichols, 1991), all of which require some degree of subjective interpretation. Therefore, the adoption of this documentary style is able to critique the effort to produce a balanced view, which we acknowledge would not have been provided during the time of the Battle of Culloden or noted in the records of the event. Certainly, the idea of a ‘balanced’ view implies a ‘fair’ judgment that derives from a given perspective of society, which is inevitably the perpetuated hegemony of the dominant class that control the media. Therefore, as R. Ericson, P. M. Baranek and J. B. Chan observe, these adopted political stances predicate the allegedly ‘apolitical’ nature of journalistic practice (Ericson et al., 1987, 1991). Critical mock-documentaries such as Culloden are then able, through their exposition of previously unexplored investigative method, to display the artificiality of representation and the discriminatory nature of perspective and interpretation in documentation.

Furthermore, during the battle scene in Culloden, a hand-held, shaky camera is used, which adds a sense of authenticity, while the editing and narration signal that it is a reconstruction (Lajtha, 1981: 11). With similar effect to Firebox’s mixture of non-interventionist, observational filming and edited sequences, the combination of aesthetics reinforces this negotiation between emotional involvement and critical distance that leads the audiences to question ‘balanced’ representations.

 

‘Deconstruction’ mock-documentaries scrutinize documentary form, essentially making the form the subject of the film. In so doing, such films challenge documentary’s relationship to ‘truth’, thus critiquing the perception that audio-visual representations have ‘a direct, unmediated relationship with reality,…based upon a specific ethical relationship between the filmmaker and subject, and that the filmmaker is capable of adopting an objective, balanced, non-interventionist stance toward his/her subject’ (Roscoe and Hight, 1988: 237-9). This is largely achieved through the use of conspicuous reflexivity, which is presented in Firebox through the visibility of our crew member, Lily, and her motives that attempt to orchestrate on-screen drama, which ultimately cause the downfall of the protagonist. A canonical example of deconstruction mock-documentary is Man Bites Dog (1992), which presents the story of a documentary film crew filming a serial killer and eventually becoming implicated in the on-screen action. The crew are made visible throughout the action, including, for example, the flashlight getting in the way of the murder of the child. This text undermines the very foundations of the documentary form as it challenges the ethics and limitations of documentary filmmakers and deconstructs ‘the value system constructed by audience expectations of such texts’ (Roscoe and Hight, 1988: 239). As with Firebox, the fictional film crew, played by the actual film crew, use their real names, which further blurs the boundary between fact and fiction. This breaking down of barriers makes the audience feel more complicit in the action, which forces them, like with Brecht’s breaking of the fourth wall, to question how they are responding to action. Indeed, the comedic portrayal of tragic events seeks to create what Lipkin, Paget and Roscoe describe as ‘ethical unease’ that will lead to critique (Lipkin et al., 2006: 16-17). For example, the fairly sympathetic and humorous serial killer makes the audience question their identification with him as he commits his murders. Similarly, in Firebox the humorously hyperbolic voice-overs evoke comedy at the protagonist’s expense, though when shown alongside the juxtaposing quiet images of him looking lonely and awkward the audience become unsure of how to react. Additionally, Lily’s ambiguous character, at times polite and innocent, at others melodramatically wicked, makes the audience unsure of how to perceive her and the film crew. This confusion is advantageous to the ethical messages of both films as the uncomfortable relationships to the texts force the now critical viewers to question their own relationship to media representations, making them participants in the commentary of their own statuses as consumers of popular culture. This critique deconstructs the ‘mainstream behaviour’ of ‘seeing as believing’ in the face of mass media which blurs the boundary between journalism and entertainment, and thus begins to proliferate questions of accepted documentary objectivity.

While Man Bites Dog subverts the non-interventionist cinéma vérité style, another deconstruction mock-documentary, David Holzman’s Diary (1967), uses that very style in its own dissemination of the form. Based on the claim from Jean-Luc Godard’s Le Petit Soldat (1963) that ‘film is truth 24 times a second’, David Holzman’s Diary (1967) comments on the assertion that documentary is able to access and depict ‘truth’ by exploring the relationship between film and reality, as the protagonist films himself in his daily environment in the search for his own truth. Through its exploration of voyeurism (perhaps a pre-emptive comment on representation in reality TV), McBride’s film seems to question ‘the customary notions of representation, of how we see and know the ‘reality’ of the world around us and how we communicate those perceptions’ (Sklar, 1987: 52). Indeed, the character’s frustration with the lack of ‘truthful’ insight from the camera creates a parody of cinéma vérité by drawing attention to the formulaic artifice of any documentary.

Firebox combines both cinéma vérité observation and reflexivity, used respectively in these two examples, to create less self-conscious realism and more alienation for a critical reading. Indeed, Terry Lajtha notes how Brecht ‘can use Epic and Dramatic theatre devices in the same production. Everything evolves around his desire to eliminate empathy’ (Lajtha, 1981: 14). Similarly, Firebox uses the logic of contrasting aesthetic styles to provide critical distance, though, like David Holzman’s Diary, retains allowance for some identification through the realism of non-interventionist techniques, most notably through the observational scenes of the boxer naturalistically interacting with his peers. In his uninterrupted state the boxer is visibly gentle and kind, despite the label of ‘aggressive and dangerous’ given by the voice-over. This immediately challenges the credibility of the film crew’s depiction.

 

What adds a new dimension to the commentary we present through Firebox is the hybridisation of mock-documentary conventions with ethnofiction research and performance techniques, along with observational filming strategies borrowed from the cinéma vérité tradition. While ethnofiction is used as an anthropological research method, such a method can be exploited to add authentic realism to a film. By using real people, improvising scenarios that directly correlate to their lived experience, ethnofictions are able to depict indefinable reality. In relation to Jean Rouch’s ethnofictions, Peter Loizos describes ‘the use of improvisation and fantasy as projective methods in the exploration of people’s lives’ (Loizos, 1993: 46) that serve ‘to convey something fundamental about real lives’ (Loizos, 1993: 50). These ‘projections’, presenting unconscious, implicit feelings through the explicit act of performance, dramatise fundamental truths that could not be discovered in any other way. Indeed, our research process for Firebox involved extensive interviews with our actors, in which we put forward relevant questions and hypothetical scenarios. We then instructed the actors to internalise the thoughts and feelings that these discussions provoked, and subsequently improvise scenes that we outlined with a stimulus or turning point. From this process we developed the broad themes of aggression in sports and boxer-coach relationships; themes which the actors were able to speak about more freely through improvisation, and more knowingly than any scriptwriter could articulate.

Peter Watkins uses similar research techniques in Punishment Park (1971), a mock-documentary about counterculture figures being put through brutal trial for their crimes against the USA. Many of the amateur cast related their performances directly to their own lives, expressing their true political views in their improvisations. Even the perpetrating police officers and the prosecuting panel held, to some degree, the opinions they argued in the narrative. Indeed, complete control of dialogue was given to the actors after a rough outline of narrative sequence was given by the director, meaning ‘no two takes were the same’ (Gomez, 1979: 10). Dr. Joseph Gomez notes how the camera woman, Joan Churchill, would simply weave in and out of on-going action and circle the actors in a spontaneous manner (Gomez, 1979: 10). We used a similar technique during Firebox shooting, both in improvised and observational scenes. The fictional set-up of both films is able to construct a framework environment that, as Johannes Sjöberg observes, ‘triggers the associations of the protagonist and allows for a creative flow through the improvised acting’ (Sjöberg, 2009: 3). Such improvisation, with its roots so connected to reality, is able to provide a deeper level of realism. For example, our actors were able to bring into discussion their relationship as boxer and coach, making the implicit respect more explicit through the dramatic play, while the cast of Punishment Park were given fictional platforms on which to debate their true beliefs.

The resulting realism in Punishment Park adds credibility in conjunction with the documentary conventions, and emotional investment in the subject matter. However, in Firebox, the realism of some of the performances works less in conjunction with an more in deliberate opposition to the stylised editing and the melodramatic performance and voice-over of Lily, the crew member. This is most obvious during the musical montages, and the final scene in which a series of naturalistic shots are un-naturalistically edited together in quick succession to artificially add tension. The contrasting styles draw attention to the distorted representation being constructed by the fictional filmmakers, while also making the film less fluent and harder to watch, thus reinforcing the Brechtian-style critical distance. This jarring incongruence is reinforced by observational cinema techniques. For instance, in the direct cinema style of figures such as Frederick Wiseman, among others, we spent a significant amount of time simply filming our subjects in their natural environments (the boxing gym) without necessarily recording. This meant the presence of the camera became increasingly normalised, and we were able to capture something closer to reality and further from conscious performance. The non-interventionist, non-fiction sequences are layered with Lily’s voice-over, which makes blatant attempt to impose fabricated meaning onto the images in the plight to deliver a scandalous news story. Consequently, the seemingly unmediated representation set beside obviously stylised and edited material challenges any previously discernable objectivity; the viewers are lead to question whether they can trust any of the varied representations delivered.

 

In conclusion, given that mock-documentaries provoke questions regarding ‘the permissibility, usefulness, and even danger of mixing the functions of documentary and drama’ (Lipkin et al., 2006: 14), we chose to mix numerous documentary and drama aesthetics and genres in order to provoke further questions about the form, as well as broader queries regarding the crisis of representation. The contrasting styles of both fact and fiction draw stark attention to the artifice of representation, which through any filmic portrayal are inherently subjective despite any roots in reality. To this extent, such a hybrid mock-documentary achieves a more hostile critique than a straight-forward Christopher Guest-style film, which exploits the form more to add to the comic or satirical value of the subject, and aims to entertain rather than challenge per se. We have taken the hyperconscious, deconstructive, critical mock-documentary form further by creating a more complex hybrid form that simultaneously features aspects of reality and stylised construction to confuse and confront, eliciting interrogation of authorship, motives and interpreted textuality. Had we made our film longer, we may have had the opportunity to experiment with additional aesthetics, such as disorientating jump cuts or incoherent layering of sound and image. Using these non-linear tropes reminiscent of French New Wave Cinema- which is itself a postmodern hybrid of Italian Neorealism and ‘Golden Age’ Hollywood[2]– and implementing them into this mock-documentary composite would yield greater audience disorientation and ultimately a more analytical position, which would produce further scepticism over the concept of objectivity.

 

Bibliography:

Brecht, B. and Willett, J. (1964). Brecht on theatre. New York: Hill and Wang.

Citron, Michelle. (1999). ‘Fleeing from Documentary: Autobiographical Film/Video and the ‘Ethics of Responsibility’ in Waldman, D. and Walker, J. (eds). Feminism and Documentary. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Ericson, R. (n.d.). Visualising deviance, negotiating control and representing order. Open University Press.

Gomez, J. (1979). Peter Watkins. Boston: Twayne Publishers.

Lajtha, T. (1981). Brechtian Devices in Non-Brechtian Cinema: Culloden. Literature/Film Quarterly, 1(1), pp.9-14.

Lipkin, S. N., Paget, D. and Roscoe, J. (2006). Docudramas and Mock-documentary: Defining Terms, Proposing Canons in Rhodes, G. and Springer, J. (eds). Docufictions. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland & Co.

Loizos, P. (1993). Innovation in Ethnographic Film. Manchester, Manchester University Press.

Nichols, B. (1991). Representing reality. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Roscoe, J. and Hight, C. (1988). Building a Mock-Documentary Schema in Rosenthal, A. (eds). New challenges for documentary. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Roscoe, J. and Hight, C. (2001). Faking it. Manchester: Manchester University Press.

Said, Edward. (1983). The World, the Text and the Critic. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.

Sjöberg, Johannes. (2009). Ethnofiction and Beyond: The Legacy of Projected Improvisation in Ethnographic Filmmaking. Available at: http://antoine.chech.free.fr/textes-colloque-JR/Sjoberg.pdf [accessed 20.05.4]

Sklar, R. (1987). When Looks Could Kill: American Cinema of the Sixties. Cineaste, 16.1(2), pp.50-53.

Filmography:

  1. Culloden. (1964). [DVD] UK: Peter Watkins.

David Holzman’s Diary. (1967). [DVD] USA: Jim McBride.

  1. Firebox. (2014). [DVD] UK: Eleanor Forder, Jemima Jennings, Lily Stead.

Man Bites Dog. (1992). [DVD] Belgium: Benoît Poelvoorde, Rémy Belvaux, André Bonzel.

The Office, (2001-2003). [DVD] UK: Ricky Gervais, Stephen Merchant.

Punishment Park. (1971). [DVD] USA: Peter Watkins.

 

[1] Although a highly contestable term, this essay will use the working definition of ‘hybrid’ as the combining of disparate elements; in this case, the fusion of differing dramatic styles that work with opposing artistic theories. For further reading see: Homi Bhabha. (2001). The Norton anthology of theory and criticism. Leitch, V. (ed.). New York: Norton.

[2] See: Greene, N. (2007). The French new wave. London: Wallflower.