Thursday, January 25, 2007

The Archive Factor: Can It Raise The Dead?

(First, a brief hello to anyone who's coming to this from 'Comics Should Be Good'--if you're wondering about the update schedule, new "Storytelling Engines" are on Mondays, and Thursdays are my normal entries, which are not guaranteed to be comics-related, geek-related, or even necessarily worth reading. I've had a tradition of self-deprecation since the first post, and I'm not about to stop now.)

Today's post, though, is geek-related. Specifically, it relates to a post I made a couple of weeks ago, in which I talked about all the ways this is a wonderful time to be alive. (And every fan of 'Yamara' always finishes that with, "Archers, commence firing!") I discussed, in specific, something I called "The Archive Factor", the recent commercial trend of putting out collections of sci-fi/fantasy/action/adventure/...let's just call it, for lack of a better blanket term, "cult fiction" out for release. When I was five, if you wanted to read the complete Lee/Kirby run of Fantastic Four, you had to have more money than God. Nowadays, it'll cost you less than a hundred bucks. The ephemera of pop culture has become an accumulation, almost a museum of cool. (With new exhibits added daily, natch...Penny Arcade Book Three just came out yesterday!)

This has a lot of upsides; for one thing, it means that you can start telling more complex stories because you can work on the assumption that future audiences will be able to look up your backstory. This is a double-edged sword, as I've commented on in the past, but you can see the benefits of being able to do less recapping of previous stories and more storytelling. (Even so, writers shouldn't overlook the need for good exposition.)

The second factor, which edges closer to the heart of this column, is the idea that cult fiction generates cult fiction; people who are into science fiction tend to be predisposed to like new science fiction series, people who are familiar with the basic tenets of a fantasy universe won't feel so put off or confused when they see a new fantasy story, et cetera et cetera. And since all this stuff is available now in archived form, it's easier to get the necessary cultural priming to enjoy cult fiction. (In fact, I think we might have achieved some sort of critical mass in the last two decades, where cult fiction is now the dominant paradigm for fiction. Being a geek is now not just socially acceptable, it's downright cool. You can even chart this on a year-by-year basis by watching "The Simpsons", and keeping track of how casually surreal the series has gotten over the last fifteen years as audiences have become more accepting of it. The societal tipping point, obviously, is when "Lost" became the hot water-cooler show.)

But the third, and most important to my mind, is the way that archiving of cult fiction has changed the commercial strategies of production companies. Because this stuff is no longer ephemeral, it can take all the time it needs to build an audience, and then return as a commercial success once it's got a broader fanbase.

This isn't an entirely new concept, of course; "Star Trek" and "The Twilight Zone" were both series that got cancelled after relatively short initial runs, but which built a strong, broad fanbase through syndication and eventually returned. But the time was, these were exceptions to the rule. That's because other series that might have been able to build similar fanbases weren't able to do so; syndication of a series like 'Firefly', for example, just wasn't an option, because it only had thirteen episodes.

The Archive Factor has changed all that. You can make a movie like 'Slither', and be confident that you'll make your money back even without a big initial return, because it's such a good movie that people will still be watching it two decades from now. (You do own a copy, right?) 'Firefly', 'Family Guy', and 'Futurama' all got (or are getting) new stories after their supposed demise, because studio execs all noticed that these were strong sellers on DVD. Since nothing's ephemeral anymore, good ideas might get buried in the archives, but they won't be thrown in the garbage anymore. Sooner or later, when the time is right, they'll return. No good idea ever dies anymore.

Which means that all I have to do is wait, and I'm getting another 'Hawk and Dove' series.

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