The spectre of ‘fan capture’ stalks our politics

Do you care how Darth Vader’s appearance in the new Star Wars television series can be reconciled with his confrontation with Obi-Wan Kenobi in the 1977 film A New Hope or are you normal? I am a proud member of the abnormal. While I have watched Disney Plus’s gripping dramatisation of the Theranos scandal and the engagingly witty mystery series Only Murders in the Building, I have to be honest: the main reason I signed up for Disney Plus is because of Star Wars.

People like me aren’t the only reason why Disney’s $4bn capture of the Star Wars franchise has more than paid for itself, but we are the most reliable. In good years and bad, whether there is a film in cinemas or a new show streaming or not, we fans can be relied upon to shell out for a comic book, a new novel or some other bit of branded merchandise. I might consider myself to be more well-adjusted than the audience at the recent Star Wars Celebration, some of whom paid as much as $900 for a ticket, but then I remember that I paid £17.99 to be able to put Star Wars branded furniture in the simulation game The Sims 4 and my sense of superiority vanishes.

The latest Star Wars product is currently under fire for, depending on whose account you believe, featuring a black actress in a prominent role or an appearance by the franchise’s iconic villain, Darth Vader, that cannot easily be reconciled with what we saw on screen in A New Hope. Now, while racism is a much bigger social problem than excessive concern for continuity in what, I am forced to concede, is ultimately a children’s film series, neither argument is particularly sympathetic.

While Disney doesn’t want to pander to all Star Wars fans, they do want to keep on side the continuity-obsessed, while also appealing to people who just want to see the guy in a black cloak wave around his laser sword for a bit.

The challenge for successful franchises is how to best balance pleasing the devoted fan base with remaining accessible to new entrants: how to keep getting people like me to pay for niche products without starving the main attraction of creativity, direction or mass appeal. Adding to the difficulty, almost all of the creative types working on Star Wars — and Star Trek and the various fungible superhero films — are diehard fans.

Although the problem is neatly illustrated by reference to science fiction, it extends well beyond entertainment. Political parties, too, are prone to what you might call “fan capture”. It really matters more to some Conservative MPs, and to various party members, that their leader made the “right” call over Brexit than that he or she be able to run a government, appear on television without sounding like a robot, or give them a fighting chance of winning the next election. They are highly concerned with “beating” the Labour party, and less motivated by whether or not they will have anything to show for the victory at the end of it.

This problem isn’t confined to the right of politics or indeed to any one country: in 2016, it really mattered to some US Democrats that their candidate had been loyal to the departing president Barack Obama and to make history by selecting a woman, Hillary Clinton, as the next nominee.

And just as Star Wars fans can often appear to be speaking in code, many charities end up speaking in the language of professionals, rather than would-be donors or the politicians they might hope to influence. It’s not just the ever-changing ways to refer to poorer nations: talk privately to fundraising departments at international development organisations and they will frequently complain that sensitivities among big-name donors or staff about how to depict the countries they work in mean they have ineffective adverts and campaigns.

Talk to others, however, and you’ll hear the reverse: that tugging on the heartstrings of committed donors with images of starving children makes it seem like international development is just good money after bad. These are organisations that we might call “mission-aligned”. Their staff and most reliable funders are committed fans, too. That’s one reason why they are able to be less competitive on salary.

What helps Disney and other entertainment companies partially avoid the pressures of fan capture is that of another interest: their shareholders. They have much more limited patience for a model that puts a concern about Vader’s personal history over another blockbuster appearance. But for charities and political parties, it’s much harder to escape fan capture — other, that is, than through bankruptcy or electoral defeat, which is no escape at all.

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