I once went to a fast food burger joint and ordered a root beer float with my meal, but instead of getting a root beer float, the staff served me a lime rickey blended float, something I had never had and would have never ordered. In that moment, though, it was exactly what I wanted. That was the only time the staff knew better than me. Every other time I have gotten something I didn’t order, it was frustrating and disappointing. Movie studios historically ONLY offer you things you don’t order. Studios pay attention to the properties that make money, but they don’t necessarily understand WHY those properties make money. So, how much should studios listen to fans when crafting their movies or television shows?
On May 2, 2019, Jeff Fowler, director of the Sonic the Hedgehog movie, tweeted: “The message is loud and clear…you aren’t happy with the design & you want changes. It’s going to happen.” Most fans of this site are familiar with the reason behind the tweet, but as a reminder, the Sonic design was ill-conceived, so it was redone in more classic Sonic fashion. The results? With a budget of under $91M, the movie grossed $306.8M. It performed well financially, and was enjoyed by fans. A sequel has been greenlit.
Contrast that with Star Wars, a franchise that never listens to its fans. The backlash started in 1983 when Return of the Jedi was released. Fans were disappointed by the turn from the darker Empire Strikes Back to the fluffy and family-friendly Return. And the disappointment did not end there. The prequel trilogy saw the menacing and dark Darth Vader turned into a whiny and creepy teenager. The sequel trilogy struggled to find a consistent narrative and enraged fans by ignoring the deeper lore that had been developed in its extended universe. Despite all of that anger, Star Wars continues to rake it in, with a series haul of over $10B in box office, $3B in toys, and $6.8B in related media. It’s hard to say how much more the series could have made if the studios had listened to the fans, but some estimates put the number between $3B and $5B. And who knows where toy sales would be?
Do fans know what they want? Maybe, maybe not. But they do know what they don’t want. They don’t want the stories and characters of their childhood churned and burned for the sake of studio dollars. But, if the studio puts the story and character first, like the good folks behind Sonic the Hedgehog, the money generally follows.