Putting The Fans To Work

The media are trying to cash in on viewers' obsessions

What would happen to pop culture if there were no rabid fans? What if no one indulged in the borderline behaviors of the adult Trekkies who assemble massive action-figure collections or sports fans who paint their bodies in team colors?

For one thing, there would be no fan fiction -- fan-written works starring characters from beloved series, movies, books, or even video games. Examples by the thousands are on sites such as fanfiction.net. I won't try to convince you that most fan fiction is comprehensible or even bearable to outsiders, which is why godawful.net ("the foulest fan fiction available") has thrived for years. But there is something affecting and heartfelt about the phenomenon. Given fans' intensity and devotion and the myriad ways media profit from preoccupations with stardom, it was inevitable that some outfit would smell a business in all this.

Which brings us to FanLib. If all goes according to plan, FanLib will bring fan fiction from obscure corners of the Web into the light -- a very postmodern form of mainstream entertainment in which a show's content, its fans, and its marketing intertwine. FanLib, based in West Hollywood, Calif., is running a complex online script-writing contest for fans of Showtime's soapy and sapphic The L Word -- its first effort for a TV series. To cite a sitcom cliché, it's a crazy idea, but it just might work.

THE L WORD CONTEST, WHICH assembles a full script scene by scene, began in late January and lasts through March. The show's real (paid) writers outline a scene and give guidance. Fans have about a week per scene to submit offerings, peruse others', and vote. One grand prize winner gets a script-writing session with L Word creator Ilene Chaiken and a $2,000 credit at Saks Fifth Avenue (SKS ), which, along with LendingTree and W Las Vegas, sponsors the competition.

The marketers, in turn, get an exclusive shot at The L Word fans, since Showtime is ad-free. They also bring in some revenue for FanLib and the cable network, although Showtime Chief Executive Matt Blank concedes that the dollars aren't significant. But, coincidentally or not, the network says viewership this season is up around 50% (Nielsen does not release Showtime ratings) and that The L Word site has become Showtime's most trafficked. In a recent round, 177 scenes were submitted, and more than 17,000 votes were cast. "I'm not sure why we wouldn't want to keep going on" with such promotions, says Blank.

FanLib is the most current example of marketers harnessing their fans' do-it-yourself efforts to build buzz and cut marketing costs. In late 2004, sneaker titan Converse solicited its customers to make ads and ultimately ran 30 of them on TV. This move made much noise and saved on production fees, since there were none.

Judging from one contestant, The L Word promotion exerts a strong pull. "We were checking [the site] all the time," says Jasmine Beach-Ferrara, a 30-year-old resident of Asheville, N.C. If the hope is that FanLib entrants become avid word-of-mouth promoters, Beach-Ferrara delivered: "We launched a get-out-the-vote campaign" involving "shamelessly self-promoting e-mails." (Alas, her scene did not win.)

The genius of FanLib is realizing that fans can be happy just being recognized. The prizes don't have to rival those of Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? And Showtime is quick to note that, unlike with Converse, there's no guarantee that the winning scenes will ever be produced. FanLib will only work for some fare, because, for reasons buried deep within pop culture's DNA, fan fiction explodes only with certain shows. (Star Trek is the granddaddy of the form; another biggie is Buffy the Vampire Slayer.) Still, Pepsi will sponsor an unspecified FanLib project, and FanLib is developing a horror film written by genre geeks.

It's easy to sneer at all this screenwriting by committee, until you realize that's basically how Hollywood works. And what comes out of that ultra-pricey process are messes like Fantastic Four and The Dukes of Hazzard. Fans, on the other hand, will write for next to nothing. The result might even be filmable.

For Jon Fine's blog on media and advertising, go to www.businessweek.com/innovate/FineOnMedia

By Jon Fine

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