I came across an article where James Cameron said he is working on (or at least wants to see) glasses-free 3D and thought it might be a good springboard to talk about engagement.
(Forgive me before I go into this because if this relates to any aspect of showbiz, it’s mostly business, and then psychological. It’s not really a review per se.)
James Cameron has only produced one sequel to one of his own movies, that being Terminator 2. It came out seven years after the original Terminator, very long for a sequel. What helped fuel it, however, was Cameron’s own career ascension.
When it comes to Avatar, however, I feel that Cameron has done a poor job of maintaining fan engagement. The first mistake he made was the botched release of the actual 3D blu-ray of the film, originally bundled only with certain players, and then never (to my knowledge) releasing the extended cut in 3D. Now, however, we’ve gone as long waiting for Avatar 2 as we did for Terminator 2, and the first of the sequels is still probably a year or two away.
It may seem hard to remember, but back in 2009 there was a real Avatar MANIA the likes of which we haven’t seen since the first Matrix movie or maybe Return of the Jedi. Avatar single-handedly ushered in the 3D era, and since then 3D has gone on a similar fad-like trajectory as it did back in the 50s (or the 80s when it came back mostly for slasher films). I still cherish my 3D TV and blu-ray, but the audience has grown tired of it.
From a business perspective, the best time to have released Avatar 2 would have been no more than three years after the first, which is the length of time between the original Star Wars films. It’s enough time for fans to feel an excruciating sense of anticipation, keep them searching for leaks and rumors, but not so long that they effectively give up and shift their focus to the next shiny thing. That is what I mean by the shelf-life of engagement.
What James Cameron now needs to do when Avatar 2 nears release is to reinflate the balloon all over again. He can probably do it, but he wouldn’t have had to had the cadence of the sequels been properly spaced.
Because of the pattern of late with reboots and continuations after long gaps, like with Jurassic World and the newest Mission Impossible sequel, you can’t say that a franchise that was once huge can completely die due to extended gaps, but it does increase the level of effort to rebuild interest rather than to hold onto the tail end of the original wave.
Another of my favorite movies is Enchanted. The core cast were contractually obligated to come back for a sequel, but despite on again off again rumors, it never materialized. Now they’re finally working on one for 2017, which will have been 10 years since the original. I can’t say it will suck, but waiting 10 years isn’t really a sequel in a classic sense of the word.
Speaking of Disney, the Frozen sequel is taking its time to get off the ground. You’d think Disney of all companies would know how to kick into sequel gear, but they’ve really dragged their heels on that one, with the news outlets are spending more time musing on whether Elsa should be a lesbian than covering anything actually happening.
Pixar seems to make sequels with long gaps by default. Finding Dory made good money over the summer but personally, I found the story kind of unnecessary and I had long lost interest in those characters. Incredibles 2, however, I’m looking forward to, but it’s still two years away!
Where I feel engagement shelf-life plays out more rapidly is with television series. The typical TV series of yore would get first-run episodes in the fall and run out sometime in the spring and go into summer re-runs. The re-runs tended to coincide with a time of the year when people were more likely to be away from the couch. It also provided opportunities for season-level cliff-hangers like “Who shot JR?”
Now with everyone on DVRs or netflix, production cycles are completely out of whack. Things get released at totally unpredictable times and sometimes there are annoying production gaps smack dab in the middle of what used to be first-run times. Since so many of these stories are serialized, this gap causes the loss of engagement. If it seems like I’d like to rant about a particular show, yes I am. I’m talking about Steven Universe again.
Steven Universe went through a very long break last year and then returned with a ton of back to back episodes (known a Steven Bomb) literally every day. Then it began flipping back to “Season 4” in early September with a few new episodes on a weekly schedule. Then…THUD. Nothing. The messaging from Cartoon Network is so piss-poor that people are starting to fear that it’s actually been canceled. This should never have been allowed to happen, folks.
Let me tell you why this slapdash way of producing something sucks rocks…
Watching a series, especially a serialized one where the story continues like a soap opera, is similar to the pattern of, let’s say, sitting down every once and a while with a friend and hearing about what’s been going on with their life lately. You begin to care about them more and more and you cherish the time you spend keeping up-to-date with them. It becomes an important ritual.
Now imagine your friend goes incommunicado…
It’s a little disturbing, right?
Let’s say they come back after a month. Now you’re back to your weekly ritual of keeping up to date with them again. You might just forget the fact that they disappeared for a month. Now suddenly instead of every week they show up EVERY DAY.
See what I mean?
The pacing of television is similar to the pace of maintaining a social life. “Engagement” is really just a codeword for caring what happens to the characters. You care about them because you’ve suspended disbelief to the point where on one level they occupy the sort of space reserved for loved-ones.
As embarassing as it is to admit, fandom is driven by strong emotions. While yes, no work of art is ever finished, only abandoned, those who produce content should take pacing seriously.
My daughter has already diverted her attention away from Steven Universe and while you can say that she’s aged out of it, I think the erratic scheduling has played a factor. For me…I am sort of emptying my brain of thoughts of the Steven Universe characters simply by virtue of the fact that there’s nothing new to see. It begins to feel like they died or moved away. So where once I was very interested in the ongoing rehabilitation of Peridot and Lapis, I just don’t care that much anymore.
If new episodes come out, they have to win me back by reminding me why I cared in the first place. That’s kind of where these things go in the end: they become like old photo albums of people we used to know.
Likewise, the last time I saw Avatar in the theater was in Imax with my sister and I cried on the way out to the parking lot. But I can’t remember the last time I really thought about it with anything close to that level of emotional engagement, and since the extended version isn’t on blu-ray 3D I don’t own it on blu-ray as I won’t contribute to the eventual double-dip.
The moral of the story is that since fans are fickle, the only way to maintain your passionate fanbase is to establish a trust relationship where fans can rely on new stuff coming out reliably. If you keep dicking around with floods and droughts then they’ll tune out.
I suppose the same is true of building blog readership. I guess if I really wanted a large readership I’d make a point to write more regularly 😉