In April 2019, Paramount Pictures released the first trailer for the long-awaited cinematic adaptation of Sega’s iconic video game franchise, Sonic the Hedgehog. Video game movies don’t exactly have the best track record but Sonic is a true stalwart of gaming history, one who has never been on the big screen before, so surely not even Hollywood could screw up this simplest of IPs? The trailer quickly disproved that admittedly naïve notion, and for a few days in April, the internet descended into madness and hilarity, fuelled by the most horrifying CGI redesign of a cute teenage blue hedgehog one could imagine.
The memes were plentiful, as was the genuine disappointment and anger from Sonic fans who just wanted a movie that didn’t feature a mutated abomination with uncanny valley features and a mouthful of seemingly dozens of human teeth. It’s rare that the internet manages to wholly unite around a common cause, but the freakish Sonic redesign pulled it off. It seemed that the film was primed to tank at the box office months before it would even screen in a theater. But something unexpected happened: Paramount listened to the online outcry and decided to do something about it.
A couple of days after the trailer drop, the studio and director Jeff Fowler announced that they planned to delay the film’s release by several months so that they could fix the egregious errors of their Sonic redesign. They committed to entirely reinventing the lead character of their movie, a task that was undoubtedly costly, time-consuming, and utterly exhausting for the overworked VFX team at the helm (one of the studios behind the effects work ended up closing down recently, a dishearteningly common occurrence in the entertainment business these days.) Paramount made a risky decision but it paid off, as Sonic the Hedgehog stormed to the top of the North American box office with a $57 million opening weekend. It’s already made back its reported $85 million budget thanks to international numbers. Listening to internet outrage apparently paid off for once. Isn’t that a terrifying concept? You can’t always get what you want, but nowadays, it feels like near-instant gratification is a daily occurrence.
Decisions like the one made by Paramount aren’t done out of a place of respect for a fandom or dedication to artistic integrity. This was, of course, purely a financial issue. They wanted their big intellectual property to make money and the best way to do so was to appease the very people who are going to turn up on opening weekend and pay the $15 ticket fee. Sonic the Hedgehog wasn’t exactly the kind of movie that people were ever going to take seriously. It’s a kids’ film based on a video game, after all. The end result feels like a film made by committee and it’s so full of clumsy product placement that you wonder if the actors are being forced to say those lines under duress. In the grand scheme of things, Sonic the Hedgehog won’t and was never intended to leave a major cultural footprint, so watching its hurried backtracking unfold over its weird CGI didn’t seem particularly impactful. In hindsight, however, I can’t help but wonder if the long-term ramifications of this will be on the whole negative for entertainment and audiences alike.
It seems silly to say this but it remains an eternal truth: You can’t please everybody. Hollywood, however, is built on the premise that it can and must please as many people as possible, and in the current age of cinema, where blockbuster franchises reign supreme and media monopolies rule the roost, it’s become the default mode of business. When your average big-budget extravaganza is considered on the low end of the economic scale because it ‘only’ cost $100 million, it’s a clear sign of how vast the market has grown based on the shakiest of factors. A film with a $200 million budget needs to gross at least half a billion dollars just to break even — although that assumes that Hollywood’s notoriously creative accounting skills haven’t played their part here — and the only way to get that kind of cash in the bank is to make sure every possible demographic is interested in your product. Some titles have become iron-clad in their ability to succeed but their basic creative and economic decisions are still made based on this ethos. It’s not enough to make some of the money — they have to make all of the money. That leaves some studio heads on tenterhooks when previously minor details like Twitter responses suddenly don’t go their way.
We’ll never truly know the reasoning behind the major changes and clumsy U-turns made between Star Wars: The Last Jedi and The Rise of Skywalker. Entire dissertations could be written on the long and bumpy road taken by the Disney era of Lucasfilm. What is clear is that J.J. Abrams’s vision for the franchise wildly differed from that of Rian Johnson, and the end result felt like pained nostalgia bait and pandering that ultimately satisfied very few fans. This, of course, led to conspiracies that Lucasfilm got cold feet over some of the noisier and more abusive responses to The Last Jedi and ‘corrected course’ as a result.
Let’s assume, for a moment, that this is what actually happened. The message sent by that decision is a truly painful one. The Last Jedi was a critical and commercial hit, one that most viewers seemed to enjoy. Those viewers who spent months online yelling, harassing, and hectoring others in the name of opposing the movie were and always have been a tiny minority. Their voices, however, were amplified countless times over. They drove Kelly Marie Tran offline with their misogyny and racism. They continue to attack Rian Johnson on Twitter. Far too many right-wing YouTubers made a lot of money from exploiting the site’s algorithm to further push hate in a way that made their side of the argument seem disproportionately larger than it truly was. I called out the issues of the fandom’s white male privilege and got an entire Reddit thread dedicated to mocking and harassing me. To this day, I still get nasty messages sent to me on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram over something I wrote months ago.
Who benefits when this part of the internet gets what it wants? Who wins when corporate powers decide that the loudest and nastiest voices are the ones worth not only listening to but adhering to their questionable demands? The answers are obvious but no less unnerving.
Making decisions like the Sonic redesign isn’t based on ‘giving the fans what they want’ so much as it is a panicky response to anger, a rush to respond to demands that may or may not be reasonable. We’re less inclined to interrogate the consequences of the Sonic changes because that was one where we all more or less agreed on the issue at hand. The tone of these matters changes drastically when the issues are more divisive or part of drummed up controversies designed to garner clicks and attack specific marginalized communities. Empower the wrong people and see where that takes us.
We’ve already seen how right-wing hate groups used pop culture as a means to recruit followers and ignite anger at their preferred targets who are typically women, people of color, and the LGBTQ+ community: From GamerGate to the Hugo Awards Sad Puppies to the anti-Ghostbusters reboot groups to the total exclusion of Colin Kaepernick from the NFL. A lot of these issues were dismissed as frivolities that had no impact on the ‘real world’ and the corporate entities in those respective industries either turned the other way or subtly pandered to the nastiness. These are fields that continue to be dominated by straight white male power from the highest levels of command, be they football commissioners or heads of publishing houses or studio executives. They are already preordained to stick to their default mode of representation, and they do so by claiming that it’s simply what audiences, what the fans, want. Even as demographics shift dramatically, ‘the fans’ are still coded as 25-year-old white guys. When you empower the loudest voices, regardless of whether or not they are right, you encourage them to keep screaming. At what point does ‘doing good business’ become a folly of politically messy proportions?
It’s exhausting having to succumb to online screaming matches with bullies who think that the mere existence of women with personalities in a geek-oriented project is tantamount to an ultra-left-wing take-over. We shouldn’t have to defend something so mundane, but when the loudest people get all the attention, it’s hard not to get dragged into the dirt alongside the screeching. This is my biggest fear with this growing age of answering fandom demands in such a manner: What if the only way we can maintain the slivers of the progress we’ve gained is to scream even louder? At what point does the screaming stop?
Header Image Source: YouTube // Paramount Pictures