On “Fan Ownership”

Doing PIONEER ONE was an eye-opening experience for many, many reasons. One of the most interesting was the huge lesson we got in the dynamics of creator/viewer relations. We were thrown off the deep end when we released the pilot, receiving dozens of emails and tweets and Facebook messages daily for weeks afterward. It was an incredible feeling to know that people were watching and enjoying the work we had done, and to all of a sudden be on the other side of the fan/producer divide. We courted this engagement, as one does, but were unprepared for when it actually happened. It was a hell of an adjustment going from an idea in your head, living with it 24/7 while struggling to make it a reality, to all of a sudden being dissected and discussed by people you’ve never met.

Something that’s happened with content creators’ access to and participation in social media is that the boundaries that traditionally separated producers and fans have broken down. As a fan myself, this is a great thing. More than ever, people know what it takes to make a TV show or movie because they have regular access to those who make them. It’s great for creators too, because for the first time, they are able to get real-time, unvarnished feedback from their audience.

Well, mostly great. In some cases, this increased access creates a sense of “fan ownership” of the work. Sometimes, fans feel because they’ve been given a glimpse of the process, they’re experts on that process. Or because they’re so invested in the work, they somehow have a say in the direction that the work takes.

That can be problematic. Especially when fans get nasty. And, as anyone who’s ever read a YouTube comment or a message board can attest, people can be pretty nasty. And the nasty ones are usually the ones with the loudest voices.

I don’t think most people actually want to have a say, even those who would argue otherwise. At several points while we were making Pioneer One, there were suggestions that we open up the writing process and allow viewers to contribute to the story. I understand that impulse, especially since we had already broken ground by crowd-funding and crowd-distributing the show. But what people who had supported us, either by donating money or spreading the word, were really doing was giving us was freedom to make the show we wanted to make the way we wanted to make it. They were allowing us our creative freedom. And, at the end of the day, I think most people still want to sit down and be told a story, and have confidence that that story is coming from a specific point of view and the people telling it have a specific vision. To open up the creative process to the masses would dilute that vision.

We always encouraged fans to engage with us and we always tried to give them a glimpse “behind the curtain,” as it were, on the theory that showing the process would help them understand where we were coming from. But it was always to a point. I think there has to be a space where creators feel free to create without taking into consideration the whims of every Twitter follower or YouTube commenter. And the audience has to be willing to allow the creators to make mistakes, because having the freedom to take creative risks is how you end up with great work.

I think it’s a net-gain. It’s a good thing that people are more aware of how a show or movie is made. The price is that you sometimes have to deal with people who feel like you owe them something and are nasty about it. How you respond is a case-by-case thing. You can tell by the tenor of the comment whether or not its worth engaging that person. I’ve generally tried to stay above the fray, but sometimes, something gets under your skin and you have to weigh in. Most of the time, the person takes a step back and the hyperbole falls away. But not all the time.

It’s amazing that we’ve had this experience, and we owe it to all the fans who have followed us. It’s flattering because it means we’ve successfully engaged people enough that they are chomping at the bit for more show, and want to know every little thing that’s going on with it. If we could do it over again, I would have tried to be a little more transparent about what our plans were. But the simple fact is, back in 2010, there was little precedent for a project like ours. And, more to the point, we didn’t know exactly what it would take to make the show, how much it would cost, or how long it would take. Obviously, armed with this knowledge, we would have done things differently.

We still get the errant irate fan demanding to know what’s going on with the show and chastising us for our radio silence. I understand their frustration. We share it. But, at the end of the day, we’re just a group of dedicated people who shared a vision that was Pioneer One and did everything humanly possible to make it a reality. What are our obligations beyond that?

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Thoughts on Pioneer One, plus five.

It was exactly five years ago that I started writing the first documents that would form the basis of PIONEER ONE, the “TV on the web” series that I created and produced with my partner Bracey Smith. (Along with so many, many others who provided invaluable support and resources along the way that I hesitate to name just one because this post will become a list of acknowledgments too long to bear. You guys know who you are.)

Five years. Ancient history in internet time. When we crowdfunded the budget for the pilot on Kickstarter, every plea for a donation had to be followed by an explanation of what Kickstarter was. Today, everyone’s brother and cousin is crowdfunding something on Kickstarter. Lots of things have changed.

Bracey met his wife while making the show, and just welcomed his second daughter into the world last month.

I moved my life from Astoria, New York to Los Angeles, California to pursue a career writing for television. Or film. Or anything with a screen, really. (Fuck it, I’d be happy writing for the Tuscaloosa Community Players if I’m being honest.)

I’ve wanted to write for television since I was 19 years old, but I never had the stones to make the move to LA. Pioneer One got me out here. We were courted by producers of varying stripes trying to reboot the show for television. We’ve had many false starts, and came extremely close a couple of times, only to have things fall apart at the eleventh hour. But then, that’s Hollywood for ya. The odds of the show continuing in any form, either on the web or on television, become increasingly slim with each passing day. But that’s okay. It’s what finally got me to make the leap that I needed to make for my career and for my life.

I do think we were really on to something. The six episodes of that first season still hold up (even the pilot, though it does make me cringe in places). You can see us learning how to make the show with each successive installment, and the finale episode, I think, is as solid an episode of dramatic television as any.

At the 2010 New York Television Festival, where we won for Best Drama Pilot, the show was praised for its originality. But, again, a lot has changed since 2010. Maybe there was something in the ether, who knows. But there have been a lot of shows and movies and books since then that have elements in common with Pioneer One. I’m thinking of shows like THE AMERICANS, an early 80s Cold War thriller, which has certain themes and plot points that would have come up in our second season. The novel THE MARTIAN, about an astronaut stranded on Mars, set to become a movie directed by Ridley Scott and starring Matt Damon. Syfy’s ASCENSION, which deals with a secret space mission launched in the 1960s during the height of the Cold War (I mean, come on). A recently announced pilot about a new space race between two private corporations and their billionaire founders written by Eli Attie (THE WEST WING) and produced by Peter Berg (FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS). And they just announced that J. Michael Straczynski (BABYLON 5) will be adapting the RED MARS trilogy by Kim Stanley Robinson for SpikeTV. (I find it hilarious that in this new phase of jms’s career, there’s nary a mention of B5 in any industry publication regarding him. He’s an A-lister now!)

Does that make more Pioneer One moot? I don’t think so. There’s room for our show in today’s (albeit more crowded) landscape, perhaps with a little emphasis tweaking. But whether or not that happens isn’t up to me at the moment.

For now, my immediate and more achievable goal for Pioneer One is to get Phil Sandifer to do a psychochronographic review of our little show on his TARDIS Eruditorum blog.

And my own immediate goal is to write some new shows.

Here’s the trailer for Pioneer One:

 

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