Fans don't have nearly as big of an impact on the box office as they think they do. Several months after the release of Star Wars: The Last Jedi, bad fan behavior and hostile attitudes from the franchise’s supposedly most devoted followers has garnered regular headlines. Kelly Marie Tran, the actress behind Rose Tico, was driven to delete all images from her Instagram page following sustained harassment on the site, while director Rian Johnson faces a daily barrage of fury from fans who claim he has ruined the Star Wars legacy. Certain subsets of this anti-Last Jedi group have even taken credit for the box office disappointment of Solo: A Star Wars Story, claiming their boycott in protest of The Last Jedi had an indelible impact on the franchise’s future. While that film’s financial performance was certainly lacking by Disney and Lucasfilm’s standards, there doesn’t seem to be much proof that this so-called fandom boycott was the cause of it. Indeed, as modern blockbuster cinema has proven, fandom may not have the box office power it was once deemed to possess.
There’s a crucial difference between a typical fan and someone who is in a fandom. Everyone is a fan of something but not everyone is part of a fandom. Most people go to the movies but only a percentage of those people will devote themselves to the story beyond its running time. The organized subculture of fandom has been around for decades, with usage of the term dating back as far as the 1900s. Yet, what we know as fandom today is a more recent concept. Fandoms are defined by their investment in a common interest, be it film, TV, games, and so on. Someone in a fandom may participate in fan activities like cosplay, fanfiction, trivia, collecting merchandise, and so on. Fandom and the fans who fall under that banner are generally defined in terms of their emotional grasp on the product. Everyone loves at least one movie or TV show or book but they don’t necessarily dedicate themselves to it, nor do they place such an empathetic importance on it.
It's important to draw this distinction because fandom can often be difficult to define in practice. Many people may not ever interact with a fandom or even know that they’re doing so. Not every fan does typically fannish things, like attend conventions or write fanfiction. Some people may fit the tropes of a fandom devotee but not define themselves as such due to the negative stereotypes surrounding it. Fandom is an oddly liminal space – not exactly real-life but still impactful on the cultural sphere. Being in a fandom is also a different experience to what it was only a decade ago. It’s more built on online communities and social media these days, a practice that’s become increasingly tangled due to sites like Twitter’s ability to allow fans to engage with actors and creators. Everyone has that image in their head of what a Star Wars or Harry Potter fan looks like, but the reality often contradicts that, and therein lies the big question of fandom’s true impact: How do we judge its strength when we’ve no idea how big or varied it really is?
- This Page: How Big is Fandom Actually?
- Page 2: General Audiences Drive Box Office
- Page 3: Fans Don't Actually Have a Big Financial Impact
How Big is Fandom?
It’s almost impossible to answer the question “How many people are in a fandom?” Finding data on this is highly difficult and even harder to confirm. There's still something of a gap between the most powerful fandoms and the most popular properties. For example, the CW show Supernatural remains one of the most popular fandoms, with vast amounts of fanfiction, fanart and online notoriety, but the show itself seldom gets more than 2.5m viewers. If you were to judge that show by online fandom alone, you’d think it was comparable to Game of Thrones, which regularly draws over 10 million viewers. But even in those cases, not every viewer would be considered a "fan" that follows all the theories and off-screen news.
We can look at the difference in numbers between certain sites to gauge fandom clout. Star Wars, for example, has 19.6 million likes on Facebook, but that's a drop in the ocean given that the site has had around 2.1 billion active users in 2018 so far, and the threshold to "like" a page is considerably low, so while there are 19.6 million people that "like" the stories set in a galaxy far, far away, many of those "likes" are of a far more casual nature. Reddit, a site fandom activity naturally gravitates towards, has over 894,000 subscribers in its main Star Wars subreddit. That's obviously quite a bit smaller than 19m but it gives us a decent explanation for the difference between general fans and a more engaged fandom.
One possible measuring stick is in non-movie participation. It's one thing to like a Facebook page or buy a movie ticket opening week. It's another to own the movies at home or read books about non-movie canon. According to THR, 1.45 million six Star Wars movie discs were sold in 2015, and 2 million Star Wars books were purchased. According to Comichron, a few hundred thousand Star Wars comics (across all books) are sold each month. Obviously, each of those purchases doesn't represent a single fan, since there are numerous movies, books, and comics, and many fans purchase multiple of each, but for the sake of simplicity, let's oversample and assume there was zero crossover and every single book, movie, and comic was purchased by a different fan. The total comes to 3.75 million. Then there's conventions. Sticking with Star Wars, Celebration Orlando in 2017 set an attendance record with 70,000 fans. Again, assuming there's no crossover with those other numbers (there obviously is, but let's assume there isn't), we can add that to the 3.75 million to get 3.82 million. Then, just to make sure we're being generous, we can round up to 4 million. 4 million people consuming Star Wars outside the movie theater. That's a very respectable (oversampled) number, but we'll see how it compares to overall box office momentarily.